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.

Debating the Drug War: Race, Politics, and the Media | Review

Michael L. Rosino is the Assistant Professor of Sociology at Molloy College in New York State. In his book, Debating the Drug War: Race, Politics, and the Media, he explores the following areas of debate on the War on Drugs: ‘the history of the relationship between racism and drug policies, the role of the media as a place where people debate these policies, how the debate reflects popular ideas about race, crime, and politics and even commonly held ideals like justice, equality, and freedom, and how people construct and reinforce identities through their participation in these debates and what that means for society’.

In order to get a clear breakdown of the views held by people in this debate across the media, he ‘conducted a content analysis of over 30 years of US newspaper content that focuses on the War on Drugs, including 394 op-eds, letters to the editor, and news articles.’ He also examined ‘3,145 comments on the internet’, gathering them from the comments sections of relevant online news articles, published from 2009 to 2014. Including the Introduction and Conclusion, there are six chapters, which include questions for academics to discuss, as well as additional notes. To emphasise the ongoing legacy of systemic racism in the United States, Rosino begins the Introduction by detailing the fatal police shooting of unarmed eighteen-year-old African-American, Ramarley Graham, in 2012. He mentions that this was only one of three killings of black men that week by the New York Police Department.

A plain clothes NYPD Officer shot Graham in the bathroom of his home, which he shared with his grandmother and six-year-old brother, after the cops involved broke down both the back door and the bathroom door. Graham was trying to flush a small amount of newly-bought cannabis down the toilet. The officers involved had seen his purchase through street cameras and had decided to follow him home, entering without a warrant. Before the young man’s home was breached, Officer Richard Haste announced that Graham had a firearm, ‘perhaps misrecognising the young man adjusting the waistband of his pants’. A gun was never found at the site. This gives readers a sample of the racist police violence that is so prevalent across the US. Rosino covers the racist origins of American drug prohibition, which relied on the creation of moral panics, exaggeratedly defining activities, events or people as ‘a threat to societal values and interests’.

The powerful would manufacture such hysteria, linking minority ethnic groups to the supply of drugs and the corruption of the innocence of white moral values. The author begins by outlining the suppression of Chinese opium dens in the 1870s, eventually leading to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first law excluding an entire ethnic group from entering the United States. Anti-Catholic sentiment and growing antisemitism against Jewish immigrants in the alcohol trade, by groups like the Ku Klux Klan, led to a demand for alcohol prohibition in the 1920s. Popular and influential media depicted European migrants who identified with these religions as threatening to the dominance of white Protestants in America. Mexicans, blacks and Native Americans were all presented by the Temperance movements as engaging in criminal and immoral activities, particularly when using alcohol. Rosino provides examples of how historical prohibition has had a lasting effect on racial discrimination in policing and the legal and criminal justice systems.

One study from 2006 stated that, ‘although a majority of drug transactions involving the five serious drugs under consideration here involve a white drug dealer, 64 percent of those arrested for drug delivery in Seattle from January 1999 to April 2001 were black.’ A 2016 study said: ‘Overall, in comparison to blacks, whites receive shorter prison sentences for the same drug crimes in the United States.’ A 2007 study into the effects of felony convictions on employment, found that white applicants who had felony convictions received more callbacks than blacks who had no criminal record at all. A groundbreaking sociological study of crime carried out by W.E.B Du Bois in 1889 gets a mention too, where he showed that ‘racial differences in crime rates were a product of residential segregation, disproportionate policing and surveillance, the impact of slavery, racial discrimination, lack of economic opportunities, and lack of government investment in black communities.’

Rosino mentions two response tiers which began to emerge for problem opiate drug use in America during the 2010s. One of harm reduction, treatment and empathy, and one of surveillance, punishment and incarceration. Statistically, the former tends to be the approach for white people with drug issues, while the latter is how black people with the same issues are dealt with. Although the Obama government began moving away from severely punitive drug laws, former Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III of the Trump administration re-introduced regressive drug laws and narratives, positing that cannabis use is linked to violence and that it is addictive and dangerous. Rosino discusses media agenda-setting, via frames, which present coherent narratives of a complicated War on Drugs. By examining digital copies of local, regional, and national newspapers containing the term ‘War on Drugs’, from the ’80s onwards, the author was able to break down exactly how arguments have been framed in the media over the years.

He presented four primary frames: Fiscal, Freedom and Justice, Functionalism and Racial Unfairness, each of which was further broken down into sub-frames. They were given percentages based on the frequency they appeared. The frame of Racial Unfairness was the least common to appear, at almost 9%. Additional frames were included in the author’s breakdown of internet comments, such as Racialized Victim Blaming, which had sub-frames like Denial of racism. Racial Unfairness was acknowledged nearly 12% of the time by commenters. According to Psychologist and Sociologist, William J. Ryan, victim blaming involves ‘justifying inequality by finding defects in the victims of inequality.’ Racialized Victim Blaming took place when commenters ‘interpreted racial disparities in arrest or mass incarceration as a natural or legitimate outcome of inherent differences in traits between whites and blacks.’ Such comment authors ‘saw clear evidence of systemic oppression as instead serving as evidence of moral inferiority or social deviance.’

For me, chapters four and five were the most eye-opening sections of the book, as they covered important terms like racial silence, coded language and identity construction. Racial silence involves the implicit silence of whites (including white-dominated media) regarding the ongoing legacy of systemic racism, which is a central issue of the discriminatory War on Drugs. Because whites are dominant in positions of power and influence, their perceptions of themselves, other ethnic groups, and so-called cultural norms in behaviour and thought are imposed on society, promoting their interests as being legitimate, natural, or common sense. Coded language is explained by the author as ‘enabling claim makers to construct racialized subject-positions while maintaining surface-level racial silence.’ Code words for ethnic minorities range from crack babies and welfare recipients to terrorists, cartels and thugs. Words such as these are used to ‘conjure racial imagery, yet avoid the direct evocation of racial categories.’

In this way, age-old myths about an intrinsic superiority of whites compared to other ethnic groups who are threatening, dysfunctional, and morally-inferior are reinforced to some degree in the public psyche. Rosino states that identity construction and reinforcement are an integral part of responding to, understanding and debating a given issue, such as the War on Drugs. People are inclined to identify themselves as being part of a particular group, while excluding others via symbolic boundaries. The categorising of racial groups, dominant traits associated with them, and differences between them, are just some symbolic boundaries. Such notions are highly influenced by those with the most power and influence in society. Michael L. Rosino’sDebating the Drug War..‘ is more informative and enlightening than this review can truly communicate. It’s packed with sociological and racial concepts and data which underline the urgency for drastic racial justice and drug reform in America (and by extension, the Western world and beyond).

Many uncomfortable truths of systemic racism are laid bare in this book. Often, those truths are ignored, undermined or denied in the media and in public discourse. It seems that a significant amount of white Americans prefer to imagine that their society is fundamentally fair and equal and that those complaining about social inequities have simply failed in life through poor personal choices, or were born into an inherently inferior culture with lesser moral values. The reality is that this is nonsense. No ethnic groups are less morally sound or more naturally prone to dysfunction, violence and crime.

* The Green Lens would like to thank Michael L. Rosino for providing us with a review copy of this book.