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Book Review


Booth, Martin. Cannabis: A History (New York: Picador, 2003). 429 pp., $15.00..

     Works on commodities have become commonplace: one thinks immediately of Sidney Mintz's Sweetness and Power and Mark Kurlansky's Salt and Cod. These works are particularly relevant for studies of world history as goods cross boundaries and affect all societies. Drugs offer particularly valuable studies, however, as societies accept and react to them differently, with some viewing them as social ills and others as medicinally or socially beneficial.

       Martin Booth was a prolific writer of fiction and poetry, a biographer and a filmmaker. In addition to all that he wrote two erudite historical works on drugs. The first was a 1996 work Opium: A History that traced how opium affected the cultures and economies of the world and how governments chose to deal with it. He noted the positive aspects of opium, but also the lives destroyed by it. The second work, published the year before his death, was a similar treatment of marijuana, titled Cannabis: A History. It is clear from the preface to the end of the work that Booth was far more an advocate of the benefits of cannabis than he was of opium. In Booth's view cannabis lacks the deleterious effects of opium and the policies of individual governments, and thus he believes efforts to eradicate the trade and consumption of the drug are backward and hypocritical.

       The work begins by explaining the nature of cannabis and where it grows. The psychoactive elements of cannabis are due to the chemical Tetrahydrocannibivarin (THC), though other chemical agents like Cannibinol play a part. Booth traces the spread of cannabis from Asia to Europe and into the Americas. The plant was used widely to make paper and rope, but Booth notes ancient medical practitioners and shamans were aware of the plant's psychoactive properties. He examines the use of cannabis in Sufi Islam, though he disregards the myth that associated the rise of assassins with the drug, first introduced by Marco Polo's account of the old man of the mountain. Though the word assassin derived from the word hashish, it was a Sunni slur toward a rival sect, not an actual practice. Booth examines the use of cannabis among early English, French and American literary circles and its widening use among society at large in patent medicines. As the field of medicine became professionalized, however, the use of cannabis as a cure-all became increasingly unpopular.

       Booth traces the efforts of western governments to criminalize the use of cannabis after World War I via international law through the League of Nations. The identification of cannabis with a racial underclass in the U.S. and in Britain grew in the public mind through yellow journalism. Though prevalent in the culture of Jazz and other circles, cannabis remained rare among most workers. Booth covers the career of Harry J. Anslinger, the principal villain of the work, who headed the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1932 to 1962. Anslinger utilized propaganda and bogus research to portray marijuana as a dangerous substance leading to criminal behavior, and promoted the illegalization of cannabis on the state and federal levels. Others advocated a more objective scientific approach toward the study of cannabis. Among these was the Republican mayor of New York Fiorello LaGuardia, who commissioned his own study of the drug that failed to find the effects propagated by Anslinger. In the 1950's the Beat generation began to use drugs as part of a greater repudiation of bourgeois society that would continue into the 1960's with luminaries such as Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg, and Timothy Leary advocating drug use.

The Vietnam War popularized the drug like never before, as GI's returned from service with the habit. Booth explains how demand in western societies created a niche for smugglers. Criminal gangs recognized the profits to be made and the lighter sentences compared to robbery, and gradually took over the trade. He also examines the profits to be made by peasants growing cannabis in third world nations and the hypocrisy of fighting the war on drugs in poor nations while western demand remains high. Booth also deals with the connection made after the events of September 11 within the United States government between drug profits and the funding of international terrorism and the dangers of taking a simplistic approach to this problem.

The book is a survey, and as such is of most use as an introduction to the topic. Booth draws on the relevant primary and secondary sources from ancient medical texts to current websites as well as his own personal knowledge and experience. Such works are not footnoted, but the bibliography and index are useful. Booth was a world traveler who came of age at the end of the British Empire; his childhood was spent in Hong Kong. This gave him a global view, but one influenced by a British imperial perspective. This sort of cosmopolitan tone is evidenced throughout the book, even though Booth gives the most attention to Europe--particularly his native Britain--and the United States. Nonetheless, this is a world history in a true sense that charts the spread, use, and legal acceptance of cannabis across the globe. Booth's knowledge of China, India and the Islamic world and how those societies affected and were affected by cannabis is impressive. What is most relevant is the manner in which he illustrates how marijuana became associated with far more harmful drugs and criminality in the public mind through yellow journalism.

The book is of immense use for world history in that it allows for a series of comparisons in terms of how economies and societies are affected by cannabis and the various approaches world governments have taken toward the commodity. The work illustrates the interdependence of all these societies increasingly over the course of the twentieth century in the international trade of the drug and in how governments pressure one another to conform to certain drug policies. The work would be of use for undergraduate as well as popular audiences. Booth's style is intricate and layered with series of complex sentences, but they achieve an illuminating effect on the subject.


Michael Beauchamp
Texas A&M University


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