Cannabis: A History

Martin Booth

A Review of “Cannabis: A History”, by Martin Booth

REVIEWER: Andrew Donaldson
SOURCE: Sunday Times (South Africa)
DATE: 3 August 2003

Cannabis: A History by Martin Booth (Random House)

When Pope Gregory IX initiated the Holy Inquisition in 1231, one of the substances that came under scrutiny was hemp - used apparently not only by herbalists and physicians but sorcerers as well.

Their persecution began in earnest in 1484, when Pope Innocent VIII, specifically targeting women, banned the use of hemp in rituals to prevent the celebration of the Black or Satanic Mass.

Hemp aided in driving Satanists and witches into ecstatic frenzies, making them hungry and acting as an aphrodisiac for orgies. Hemp seed oil was also an ingredient in "flying ointment", which witches used to "ride their broomsticks". This was according to Malleus Maleficarum, a handbook on sorcery, first published in 1482.

God alone knows how the Inquisition would have gone had they discovered hemp's psychoactive qualities. But, more than 500 years later, it would appear that the hysteria is still with us. Despite its use by cancer patients, Aids victims and many other sufferers from painful diseases the world over, the US Supreme Court struck down the medical uses of marijuana in May 2001.

According to a fascinating and authoritative new book on the subject, Cannabis: A History by Martin Booth, much of the Western world's negative perceptions and proscription of marijuana were shaped by one American - Harry J Anslinger, a staunch Republican who persuaded many of his fellow Congressmen to support his plan to set up a new US anti--drugs body in 1930.

A forerunner of the present Drug Enforcement Agency, Anslinger's Federal Bureau of Narcotics was briefed to supervise, regulate and enforce the law concerning both licit and illicit habit-forming drugs within the US.

The FBN's biggest problem, however, was that, briefly, there wasn't a drug problem. Anslinger had to create one. And he did. In a profoundly racist manner, he targeted Hispanics.

Marijuana mainly arrived in the US in the 1900s with Mexican migrant labour. With time and growing prejudice, the drug would be linked, without proof or pretext, to crimes committed by Mexicans.

But white America did not care about Mexicans. So Anslinger circulated lurid stories about how the drug induced rapes and murders where the perpetrators were always black or Mexican and their victims always white. Medical journals were also fed this nonsense, with one reporting, in 1937, how high school girls who smoked the drug began to dance sensuously, pulling off their clothes. "Men weaved naked over them; soon the entire room was one of the wildest sexuality. Ordinary intercourse and several forms of perversion were going on at once, girl to girl, man to man, woman to woman."

Lurid films were rolled out in the cause of alerting America to the menace. Marihuana, released in 1935, had the tagline, "Weird orgies! Wild parties! Unleashed passions!" The most widely distributed was Tell Your Children - which was also released as Reefer Madness, The Burning Question, The Dope Addict, Doped Youth and Love Madness.

There was an economic agenda in all this. Many believe that hemp products posed a threat to established financial and business interests, arguing that the petrochemical and pulp paper industries stood to lose billions of dollars if hemp's commercial potential was fully exploited. Hemp also threatened cotton industries.

By refusing to supply marijuana to respected research institutions, Anslinger also discouraged any unbiased or scientific evaluation of the drug. With few experts able to counter his ludicrous claims, he could preach what he liked, in a biased and prejudiced campaign that lasted until his forced retirement in 1962.

For all his work though, marijuana became the number one drug of choice in the US and the world.

Anslinger's cause was taken up by others. Penalties became so severe under President Ronald Reagan, that first time marijuana offenders could receive a life sentence and the sequestration of their entire property. Nancy Reagan launched her bland "Just Say No" campaign and went on to praise a 13-year-old girl who turned her marijuana-using parents over to the police. Little was said however when the child's parents were jailed for three years and she was placed in foster care.

In 1996, the actor Woody Harrelson planted four hemp seeds on his land in Kentucky to test state law. He was arrested on charges of possession of marijuana and set off on a four-year legal battle to force the state legislature's hand. He argued that hemp prohibition was unconstitutional because it did not distinguish between hemp grown for fibre, necessary for ecological and economic reasons, or grown for marijuana. The jury took 25 minutes to acquit him.

Equally hypocritical was the raid by French police on a branch of The Body Shop in Aix-en-Provence in August 1998 to confiscate a new hemp-based range of beauty products. Although THC-free, the authorities claimed that the products' promotional material featured a cannabis leaf image and encouraged drug use. This was despite the fact that France has one of the world's largest hemp industries with vast tracts of land under hemp. Weirder still, The Body Shop had even sourced some of their hemp ingredients from French producers.

In his book, Booth states that we are attracted to substances which induce in us feelings of ease, comfort and contentment. "Some do irreparable physical or mental damage," he writes. "Some do not. Yet, as a society, we seem unable to accept that one drug and plant beyond all the others is essentially benign and offers so much." It's time, he argues, the bigotry stopped and we learnt to accept it.