Weed of Wonder | Review

Weed of Wonder is a stylish coffee table book released earlier this year by The Hash, Marijuana & Hemp Museum of Amsterdam and Barcelona. It was mostly written by Jules Marshall (Ken Tarant wrote chapter 13), with photography by Floris Leeuwenberg and input from Ben Dronkers, the museum founder, and Gerbrand Korevaar, the museum curator, who served as the book’s Editor-in-Chief.

‘Why use up the forests, which were centuries in the making, and the mines, which required ages to lay down, if we can get the equivalent of forest and mineral products in the annual growth of the hemp fields?’Henry Ford

The book kicks off with a foreword from Ben Dronkers, where he states that the role of his museum (which houses over 9,000 artifacts) is to safeguard the history of cannabis, and to be ‘a source of information, inspiration and wonder for generations to come.’ He summarises some of the changes that have come about since he opened the Amsterdam site in 1987, and how attitudes and knowledge about the plant have changed with the ebb and flow of time. One fascinating and likely surprising example of this is credited as being renowned activist Jack Herer‘s archival discovery; a 1938 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine, in which industrial hemp is touted to be the next big thing in America, beneath the headline: ‘New Billion Dollar Crop’. The second opening passage in Weed of Wonder comes courtesy of former Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Dries Van Agt, who says: ‘The demonstrable danger [of cannabis] to society is much smaller than those of alcohol and tobacco, which cause much more human suffering.‘ He proudly recalls the 1976 amendment to The Netherlands’ Opium Act, causing their revised approach to cannabis sales to become internationally known as ‘the Dutch toleration policy’.

The book’s introduction laments the beginning of the twentieth century, when ‘just as it seemed cannabis would be an equally useful crop in the era of internal combustion and petrochemicals, it was plunged quite deliberately into a veritable dark age.’ One remarkable discovery (among others) by Professor Raphael Michoulam and his team in Israel is highlighted by the book. Naturally occurring cannabinoids, and receptors for them, are produced inside the brains and bodies of all multicellular animals. Such receptors ‘boost or dampen processes that operate in nearly every part of the body’, regulating pain relief among other crucial functions. This is truly remarkable when you consider that cannabis itself is the only plant which produces cannabinoids. Because of this, cannabis is thought to be at least as old as the last common ancestor of all vertebrates and invertebrates, dating back over 500 million years ago. Aside from helping our bodies maintain homeostasis, the plant has countless industrial uses. Towards the end of the book, author Jules Marshall reminds us that hemp is ‘capable of producing paper, textiles, building materials, food, medicine, paint, detergent, varnish, oil, ink, plastics, and fuel‘.

Formal discoveries and classifications of the Indica, Sativa, and Ruderalis plant species are covered, alongside some general history and information in chapter one. The next chapter covers the early history of cannabis around the world, starting around 12,000 years ago with the first traces of domestication in what is now Mongolia and southern Siberia. This fascinating historical tour takes in Japan, Central Asia, India, Egypt, China, Greece and the Roman Empire. The Indian Sanskrit poem, Atharva Veda, lists cannabis as one of five sacred plants. A Hindu work called the Raja Valabba claims that the gods provided cannabis for the human race to ‘attain delight, lose all fear and have their sexual desires excited‘. China’s name for itself was once ‘the land of mulberry and hemp’. Cannabis and silk (produced in part by feeding silkworms mulberries) were both commonly traded on the famous Silk Road routes, stretching from China to the Mediterranean.

Exodus 30 of The Bible describes an anointing or sanctifying oil for people such as kings and priests, which includes the ingredient q’neh bosm. It’s believed this is probably derived from the word ‘cannabis’. The oil Jesus used to heal sick people is thought to have been based on the same mixture. Hashish was popular in the medieval Arab world, where the prophet Mohammed did not ban its use, despite alcohol being strictly forbidden. Arab Doctors of the time used cannabis (or kannab) as a medicine. Hemp fibre was vital for ship construction during The Age of Sail. Johannes Gutenberg‘s revolutionary printing press used hemp-based paper and ink. [If I keep listing early historical tidbits, you’ll start wondering whether this is a proper book review or an endless list of facts, so I’ll move on!]

Suffice it to say, the Western world took much longer to really begin understanding and embracing cannabis, which gained popularity thanks to the likes of visionary Limerick man, Doctor William Brooke O’Shaughnessy. By the late 1800s, Western cities such as New York, Paris and London, began to see the plant as exotic, stylish, intellectual and enlightening. The book goes on to detail connections being formed in the imaginations of influential racist Americans in the early 1900s, who started to associate weed with brown and black people from various ethnic groups. It was therefore to be feared and shunned, according to authority figures of that period. The strong link between cannabis and cultural movements like jazz music, beatnik ‘brotherhoods’ and ‘flower children’ hippies is described in fascinating detail. Sadly, by chapter seven of the book, we’re moving on to growing global prohibition efforts. ‘The Forbidden Plant’ mentions the horrendous injustice of sentencing African-American Roger Davis to 40 years in prison for the possession and sale of eight ounces of cannabis, in 1974. It’s accompanied by a haunting High Times magazine cover of Davis peering at the camera through prison bars.

‘I have been involved with cannabis all my life, and the plant keeps surprising me. People deserve to be educated. There are so many misconceptions, misleading and inaccurate stories, as well as blatant lies, spread by the media. Terrible propaganda against a plant.’ – Ben Dronkers

Perhaps most importantly for modern historians and drug reform activists, this chapter covers all of the key conventions, treaties and laws which made a life with cannabis, including medicinal use and the growing of hemp, increasingly stigmatised and forbidden. The medicinal value cannabis was understood to have was suddenly struck off the international record by a UN ruling in 1951. Generally, such monumental decisions made by politicians of the era were made out of an irrational sense of racist paranoia and fear, based upon no real evidence. It is also thought that they were made with the vested interests of certain industries that competed with cannabis in mind. Figures like Harry J. Anslinger are highlighted as key prohibitionist influencers. Some of their attitudes appear to have remained ingrained in the minds of certain people to this day, including Irish Minister and human barricade to progressive drug reform, Frank Feighan. The book guides us through different areas of pop culture that cannabis left its mark on over the years, before examining Dutch tolerance and its policy changes over the decades in finer detail.

We’re presented with some of Rotterdam and Amsterdam’s finest coffeeshops. Prominent coffeeshop pioneers are profiled; Henk de Vries, the late Kees Hoekert, and ‘The Hash Queen‘, Mila Jansen. Following this, we delve more into cannabis as a part of modern Western healthcare, where at its peak it had ‘at least 2,000 products from over 280 manufacturers’. This would decline immensely in the twentieth century, with the rise of synthetic drug production and less corporate interest in variable plant-derived medications. Chapter 13, by Ken Tarant, is a biography of Ben Dronkers and his life’s work, as seen through three branches; the museum, Sensi Seed Bank, and hemp cultivation and processing company, Hempflax. It also profiles Ben’s family and his most notable museum collaborators who contributed over the years, and in many cases, still do.

‘The Sensi Seed Bank is the most comprehensive cannabis genetics bank in the world… It is a little like preserving the rainforest because we know there are potential medicines there which must not be destroyed.’

– the late Dr. Lester Grinspoon, of Harvard Medical School

Overall, including introductions and credits, Weed of Wonder amounts to 288 pages. It’s packed with information across areas too numerous to cover in this review. It is a high-quality labour of love, formatted in an approachable way that invites readers to dip in and out of reading. It’s full of gorgeous, eye-catching photography and illustrations, and can be bought in either a green or purple hardback cover, with metallic silver or gold title lettering, respectively. It’s unlikely to alienate those with a more casual interest in things, as it avoids overly lengthy or complicated passages. Although ordering the book to Ireland raises its price from €34.50 to a steep €48.75 with mandatory tracked shipping, it is a pleasure from cover to cover and can be thought of as an eye-catching high end investment. Personally, I consider this book a treasure, as well as a testament to the continued passions of Ben Dronkers, his friends and family, and cannabis advocates everywhere by extension.

* The Green Lens would like to thank Gerbrand Korevaar for providing us with a review copy of this book.

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