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Old 01-31-2017, 08:53 AM #1

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Marijuana Through the Ages

Marijuana Through the Ages

By Laurence M. Vance
January 31, 2017

Cannabis drugs have never been for everybody. Instead, they have consistently been used by people seeking meditative insights, a stimulus to creativity, direct access to the spirit world, or the experience of transcending earthly cares to enter a mystical union with God and the cosmos.

Review of John Charles Chasteen, Getting High: Marijuana through the Ages (Rowman & Litlefield, 2016), viii + 157 pgs., hardcover.
This is a fascinating and important book. Fascinating because of all the interesting historical details about marijuana it provides; important because it has the potential to educate and change the hearts and minds of those who support the government’s war on marijuana.
The author, John Charles Chasteen, is actually a Latin American scholar and professor of history at UNC-Chapel Hill. He has written a number of books on Latin American history, and is an award-winning editor and translator of Latin American fiction and nonfiction, from both Spanish and Portuguese.
“This book,” as explained by the author, “looks at marijuana in the long view of world history. It asks who used it, how, and why. Unlike most published versions of the drug’s history, it places marijuana within larger historical patters, such as migration, colonialism, and religion.”
There is a lot of information about the nature of marijuana and its global history packed into the book’s 157 pages. The book has a number of other good features as well. Each chapter is divided into sections. The sections are listed in the table of contents. The book ends with a glossary, an annotated list of sources for each chapter, and an index. There are some helpful illustrations in the book as well.
Chapter 1, which shares its name with the book’s title, can be viewed as an introduction to the book. Chasteen relates how the effects of marijuana are variable and subjective. The same dose can even affect “the same person differently at different moments.” Cannabis has historically always had a medical role in Europe and China. We now know that marijuana’s active ingredients—cannabinoids—“have molecular shapes that fit receptors in our body’s hormonal communication systems, regulating mood and appetite, among other things.” Different strains of cannabis, and even individual plants, “have differing endowments of cannabinoids.” Cannabinoids “have few deleterious side effects,” unlike the drugs that Americans consume in massive proportions. The prohibition of marijuana “has become a bonanza for organized crime.” Yet, “federal prohibition of marijuana lacks any logical basis.” Chasteen has a great discussion in this chapter on the characteristics of marijuana and hemp and explains how they are grown and cultivated. He also here compares and contrasts marijuana and alcohol.
In chapter 2, “American Century,” Chasteen surveys the rise of marijuana use in the United States. Marijuana smoking began in the United States on the eve of World War I. Migrant workers from Mexico brought marijuana to Texas, California, the mining camps of the Rocky Mountain states, and eventually “into the industrializing cities of the upper Midwest.” Marijuana “appeared by 1920 among the black working class in New Orleans, a city in close merchant shipping contact with Mexico.” Chasteen highlights the connection between marijuana and jazz music, the Beat generation writers, the counterculture movement, and rock musicians. By 1930, marijuana had been prohibited by law in many states “with significant populations of Mexican descent.” On the federal level, it was a veteran Prohibition-enforcement agent, Harry Anslinger, who is almost single-handedly responsible for the demonization of marijuana in America. This in spite of a 1925 U.S. Army study that “found marijuana use to be relatively harmless.”
Chapter 3, Atlantic World,” is the history of cannabis in Latin America, from where it entered the United States. Cannabis is “not native to the Americas.” No form of it even existed “in the Western Hemisphere before European colonization created an interconnected ‘Atlantic World’ around 1500.” Hemp “played a crucial supporting role in one of global history’s defining events: European seaborne exploration and colonization of America, Africa, and parts of Asia.” When the slave trade began, “Africa south of the Congo River was the only part of the Atlantic World where people used cannabis psychoactively.”
Chapter 4 tells the story of medieval hashish, which is not to be identified with the pungent resin concentrated today from female cannabis flowers. Medieval hashish, which was described as “leafy,” was simply fully mature buds, “without seeds.” Before it was smoked (after c.1500), it was eaten. I did not realize that “marijuana must be cooked to activate its cannabinoids before eating.” A hashish-infused drink was the intoxicating beverage of choice for observant Muslims who shunned alcohol.
In chapter 5, “Asian Origins,” Chasteen traces the origins of cannabis back to prehistoric Central Asia. Psychoactive use of cannabis on and around the Eurasian steppes “is the oldest of which we have direct evidence.”
Chapter 6, “Epiphanies,” serves as the book’s conclusion. I note the following:
Psychoactive cannabis figures in global history mostly as an entheogen, employed for its euphoriant properties than for its visionary epiphanies.
The widespreac use of marijuana as a recreational drug is rare and recent in world history.
Recreational use, which draws on marijuana’s euphoriant qualities rather than its hallucinogenic qualities, has been strikingly less important in global history.
Where cannabis has been used recreationally, it has been as a poor man’s drug, a more affordable substitute for ethanol, often adopted by people who are socially and ethnically marginalized.
The United States (with an annual prevalence around 13 percent) is not the world capital of marijuana cultivation and use.
Cannabis drugs have never been for everybody. Instead, they have consistently been used by people seeking meditative insights, a stimulus to creativity, direct access to the spirit world, or the experience of transcending earthly cares to enter a mystical union with God and the cosmos.
I highly recommend Getting High: Marijuana through the Ages to anyone who wants to know more about just what marijuana is and where it came from and to everyone who thinks the government should continue its war on this unusual and versatile plant.
The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good things is my religion. Thomas Paine ( Godfather of the American Revolution)
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