Chronicle Review Essay: More on Marijuana

Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana -- Medical, Recreational, and Scientific, by Martin Lee (2012, Scribners, 519 pp., $30.00 HB)

Super-Charged: How Outlaws, Hippies, and Scientists Reinvented Marijuana, by Tim Rendon (2012, Timber Press, 256 pp., $24.95 HB)

When it comes to the status of marijuana, we are in a rapidly changing landscape. Less than two decades ago, there was no legal medical marijuana anywhere, the federally-backed Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP) was buzzing Northern California backyards in search of the insidious weed, and pot legalization looked like little more than a pipe dream. Now, medical marijuana is legal in 18 states -- and a dispensary will soon open up within eyeshot of the US Capitol -- CAMP is no more, voters in Colorado and Washington have become the first out of the gate in the legalization sweepstakes, and the Washington Post is publishing columns on marijuana etiquette.

There's more: Marijuana arrests are starting to decline after decades of increases, we're likely to see two or three or four more medical marijuana states in the next couple of years, state legislatures are starting to take up legalization bills (although I'm not holding my breath on those), and the initiative process is going to be used in 2014 and, to a much greater extent, in 2016 to try to achieve more legalization victories. We are, one hopes, on the verge of a sea change.

So, what happened? Well, in a largely futile effort to interest them in history, I used to tell fresh-faced college students that they couldn't understand where we were, much less where we were likely headed, if we didn't know whence we came. Martin Lee, who blew minds in the 1980s with Acid Dreams, his account of the rise and role of LSD, is back again with Smoke Signals, and he explains with verve and passion what went down, and why.

In Smoke Signals, Lee takes the varied strands -- legal, cultural, social, medical -- that constitute the history of marijuana (mainly in the US) and weaves them into a rich, multi-textured fabric of reefer knowledge. In so doing, he has, in my opinion, created the best, most comprehensive account of the American marijuana movement(s) to date.

He traces the early 20th Century spread of marijuana, high-lighting figures like jazz musicians Louis Armstrong, who was talking about smoking "the good shuzzit" back in the 1920s (take that, Snoop Dogg!) and the original wigger, Mezz Mezzrow, better known for supplying reefer than his musical abilities, as well as re-telling the tale of arch-bad guy Harry Anslinger, the original Reefer madman, and his all-too-successful quest to demonize the weed.

Lee draws a line from the jazz hipsters through the 1950s Beats to the 1960s counterculture and beyond, demonstrating along the way how marijuana became increasingly wrapped up with dissent and deviance and earned its place as a key marker in what we now call the culture wars. He devotes well-deserved attention to poet and activist Allen Ginsberg, who perhaps more than any other single individual, made pot smoking a political act, an sign of cultural rebellion.

But where he really shines is in explaining how we got from the 1960s to today. In Lee's narrative, we go to San Francisco, its gay community, and its response to the AIDS crisis that emerged out of nowhere in the early 1980s. There emerged the contemporary medical marijuana movement, thanks in large part to envelope-pushing players like Dennis Peron (who still enchants and bedevils the movement today) and Dr. Tod Mikuriya. At roughly the same time, Jack Herer was arising from his dogmatic slumber and preparing to unleash hemp upon the world, and within a few years, campus activists like Debbie Goldsberry had formed the Cannabis Action Network and taken their medicine show on the road. Between the sick and dying, the happening hempsters, and the youthful pot-lovers, a steam-roller of a politico-cultural movement was formed.

The rest is, as they say, history. And we're still living it. Part of what makes Smoke Signals so enthralling to me personally is that its history is my history. This is my movement. Marijuana (and broader drug policy) reform is what I have been living and breathing since the late 1960s (albeit out in the sticks and far from the main action for many years) and covering for the Chronicle for the past dozen years. Many of the people whom Lee is writing about are my friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. Lee does an excellent job of making sense of all the disparate strands that make up our story. Smoke Signals is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the contemporary marijuana movement.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention's Lee's excellent and sometimes mind-boggling review of the state of the science around marijuana as a medicine. Science is busily unlocking the secrets of the cannabinoids and the body's endocannabinoid system, and if Lee is correct, the curative powers of the pot plant have barely begun to be uncovered.

If Smoke Signals provides the big picture on pot and pot politics in the US, journalist Jim Rendon's Super- Charged has a much narrower focus. As he notes, most agricultural products are seeing the number of their varieties shrink, due primarily to the prerogatives of industrial food production. Marijuana is different; this mainly illicit crop has some 2,000 identified strains now, and, as Michael Pollan has noted, has become one of the most successful plants on the planet.

Jim Rendon tells us how this happened. He goes behind the scenes to visit with Northern California outdoor growers, breeders in Southern California and Amsterdam, and grow experts, such as "Jorge Cervantes," the long-time expat who just recently repatriated to Northern California's Sonoma County. He also visits with GW Pharma, the manufacturers of Sativex, the tincture made from whole marijuana plants (remember that the next time someone says pot is just "crude plant material" not suitable for use as a medicine), who relied on those outlaw breeders to get the strains they wanted.

It's a fascinating tale of botanical science down by an army of impassioned amateurs, as well as look at the history, culture, and conflicts around the science of pot breeding. Super-Charged is well-researched and fast-paced, full of interesting characters and insights. It's a fun and worthwhile read.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
Looking for the easiest way to join the anti-drug war movement? You've found it!

Just finished...

I just finished the book, and while it was often slightly confusing in the fact that it wasn't always chronological, it was certainly worth a read.

I read "Smoke Signals" by

I read "Smoke Signals" by Martin Lee recently. It is a good book about cannabis and if you care about this issue is worth the read. 

Lee is definitely a pot populist. Why does he have to put down opiates to glorify weed and LSD? He calls the makers of oxycontin "pushers," a prohibitionist ploy to explain why people take drugs. Because you know, drugs are so bad nobody takes them of their own volition, dealer's "push" them on unsuspecting youth. Usually in school zone on the playground. Seriously though he goes on to calls enjoying prescription opioids "abuse." So if I smoke some dank bud that's okay, but if I snort some heroin or chug a bottle of vicodin that's "abuse."  Lee also lavishes praise on the pot smoking musicians, implying marijuana was instrumental in the Jazz scene while completely ignoring the importance of heroin. Even the epic dope banger William Burroughs only got a few lines, mostly in reference to "Naked Lunch."

"Smoke signals" is not a bad book by any means, its just that Lee's pot populism gets annoying at times. He seems like the type who things that the war on drugs means the war on marijuana, and as soon as weed is legal will go on ignoring the users of the other drugs. Perhaps that is unfair, I do not know him personally, but that's how it read to me. . 

O lover

people arent robbing pot from you because they need a fix. 2nd big pharma are pushing what makes them money and government doesnt seem to care about that so why have people been getting arrested for so many years for having a joint. Just my take o

The reason people are

The reason people are stealing because the black market costs are so high. A dollar a milligram, WTF!? Opiate users need their medicine too. If we made tobacco illegal people would be stealing for their next nicotine fix. You think pot is the only drug people have been getting busted for? Heroin has been illegal even longer than weed. 

By the way "Big Pharma" was fined 600 million and copped a plea for giving people drugs they want. What does big Pharma "push" these pills are people? People want to take them. Legalize oxy, heroin and everything else and let people have freedom of medicine and diet. Self medication is a fundamental human right. 

Prohibition's Sponsors

The reason I think AJ Holder is going to prevent Colorado from selling and taxing marijuana has less to do with Big Pharma and more to do with the "drug war's" function in maintaining a US military presence in Latin America.

Prohibition's Sponsors

The reason I think AJ Holder is going to prevent Colorado from selling and taxing marijuana has less to do with Big Pharma and more to do with the "drug war's" function in maintaining a US military presence in Latin America.

Interesting and informative

Interesting and informative reviews.  One minor note: do you really want to use the word "wigger" (5th para.)?

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <i> <blockquote> <p> <address> <pre> <h1> <h2> <h3> <h4> <h5> <h6> <br> <b>

More information about formatting options

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Drug War Issues

Criminal JusticeAsset Forfeiture, Collateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Court Rulings, Drug Courts, Due Process, Felony Disenfranchisement, Incarceration, Policing (2011 Drug War Killings, 2012 Drug War Killings, 2013 Drug War Killings, 2014 Drug War Killings, 2015 Drug War Killings, 2016 Drug War Killings, 2017 Drug War Killings, Arrests, Eradication, Informants, Interdiction, Lowest Priority Policies, Police Corruption, Police Raids, Profiling, Search and Seizure, SWAT/Paramilitarization, Task Forces, Undercover Work), Probation or Parole, Prosecution, Reentry/Rehabilitation, Sentencing (Alternatives to Incarceration, Clemency and Pardon, Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity, Death Penalty, Decriminalization, Defelonization, Drug Free Zones, Mandatory Minimums, Rockefeller Drug Laws, Sentencing Guidelines)CultureArt, Celebrities, Counter-Culture, Music, Poetry/Literature, Television, TheaterDrug UseParaphernalia, ViolenceIntersecting IssuesCollateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Violence, Border, Budgets/Taxes/Economics, Business, Civil Rights, Driving, Economics, Education (College Aid), Employment, Environment, Families, Free Speech, Gun Policy, Human Rights, Immigration, Militarization, Money Laundering, Pregnancy, Privacy (Search and Seizure, Drug Testing), Race, Religion, Science, Sports, Women's IssuesMarijuana PolicyGateway Theory, Hemp, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Marijuana Industry, Medical MarijuanaMedicineMedical Marijuana, Science of Drugs, Under-treatment of PainPublic HealthAddiction, Addiction Treatment (Science of Drugs), Drug Education, Drug Prevention, Drug-Related AIDS/HIV or Hepatitis C, Harm Reduction (Methadone & Other Opiate Maintenance, Needle Exchange, Overdose Prevention, Pill Testing, Safer Injection Sites)Source and Transit CountriesAndean Drug War, Coca, Hashish, Mexican Drug War, Opium ProductionSpecific DrugsAlcohol, Ayahuasca, Cocaine (Crack Cocaine), Ecstasy, Heroin, Ibogaine, ketamine, Khat, Kratom, Marijuana (Gateway Theory, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Medical Marijuana, Hashish), Methamphetamine, New Synthetic Drugs (Synthetic Cannabinoids, Synthetic Stimulants), Nicotine, Prescription Opiates (Fentanyl, Oxycontin), Psilocybin / Magic Mushrooms, Psychedelics (LSD, Mescaline, Peyote, Salvia Divinorum)YouthGrade School, Post-Secondary School, Raves, Secondary School