Chronicle Book Review: Cannabis Nation and Marijuanamerica

Cannabis Nation: Control and Consumption in Britain, 1928-2008, by James Mills (2013, Oxford University Press, 292 pp., $65.00 HB)

Marijuanamerica: One Man's Quest to Understand America's Dysfunctional Love Affair with Weed, by Alfred Ryan Nerz (2013, Abrams Image, 271 pp., $19.95 HB)

The United States and the United Kingdom seem to be in two quite different places when it comes to marijuana and marijuana policy. On this side of the Atlantic, two states have legalized the weed, and in all likelihood, more will follow in 2014 and more yet in 2016. Meanwhile, medical marijuana continues to expand, and states that aren't quite ready for legalization are moving toward decriminalization.

National polls here are consistently showing that support for marijuana legalization has crossed the threshold into majority territory, weed-smoking is now the stuff of casual comment instead of horrified gasps, and, in what could the clearest sign of marijuana's growing acceptance, profit-minded entrepreneurs are beginning to line up for a chance to grab the grass ring. It's almost, but not quite, as if we have already won, and all that's left is clearing the last holdouts of pot prohibition.

On the other side of the Atlantic, things seem to be heading in the opposite direction. Heeding the advice of its drug experts (an increasingly rare thing there), Britain in effect decriminalized marijuana in 2004, but backtracked four years later, pushing it a notch back up its dangerous drug schedules. The British press is full of reports of raids on "cannabis factories," or what we would call indoor gardens, and replete with the sort of Reefer Madness nonsense that would make Harry Anslinger blush.

Fertilizer becomes "poison cannabis chemicals," the deadly "skunk" turns kids into homicidal "feral youths," and anti-cannabis crusade victims regularly appear before the courts to go through the self-abasing ritual of explaining that they should have mercy because their cannabis addiction ruined their lives. They know what they're supposed to say. When it comes to marijuana, in feels like 1963 in Britain instead of 2013.

Cannabis Nation and Marijuanamerica certainly reflect those differences in style as well as substance, even if they don't explain them. (And why should they? Neither makes a pretense at being a comparative study.) The former is a stately academic review of British pot policy in the last century, relying heavily on governmental files, diplomatic archives, commission reports, and police arrest records, while the latter is an impressionistic journey through American weed's Wild West, relying heavily on interviews, first-person reporting, some participatory journalism, and copious amounts of the chronic itself.

Despite their differences in tone and subject matter, both are worthwhile contributions to the rapidly increasing literature around marijuana and marijuana law reform. Cannabis Nation is authored by respected British drug historian James Mills and is the sequel to his 2003 Cannabis Britannica, which traced Britain's involvement with the herb from 1800 into the beginning of the 20th Century. In this second volume, Mills not only tracks the emergence of marijuana consumption in the metropole, but also the impact of Britain's legacy as a colonial power on its encounter with the weed.

There are parallels with the American experience, but also differences. In both countries, marijuana was the province of outsiders. Here, it was Mexicans and black jazz musicians who were the original consumers; in Britain, as Mills shows, it was South Asian, Caribbean, and Arab colonial subjects who brought pot-smoking to Albion. And before the aftermath of World War II, when Commonwealth citizens flooded into Britain, marijuana use was rare indeed. Mills shows the pre-war pot arrests were almost nonexistent, counted in the dozens annually, and almost entirely of merchant seamen of Arab or Indian descent enjoying their shore leave.

It was only in the post-war era that British marijuana consumption began to spread rapidly, first among the Commonwealth emigrants, for whom its use was long-engrained in their home cultures, and then among working- and middle-class Anglo-Saxon youth. By the 1960s, the issue of marijuana exploded with the arrest and jailing of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richard and subsequent campaigns for liberalization led by the Beatles and other counter-cultural figures. But Mills downplays the importance of the counter-culture rebellion, arguing that for many young British consumers, marijuana was no more (and no less) than something to get intoxicated with, not a token of cultural revolt.

In fact, the British marijuana reform movement gets relatively short shrift, as Mills concentrates on the doings of the politicians, ministries and constabularies. It is worth noting that, thanks to the drug diplomacy in the era of the League of Nations, Britain not only got a broad understanding of the plant's widespread use (British India lobbied hard for a relaxed approach, while British Egypt lobbied equally hard for a tough prohibition), but British police were mobilized to police marijuana early -- before there was any consumption to speak of.

One of Mills' key points is that nearly a century later, the police continue to play the key role in British pot policy. In the wake of the 1960s' pot controversies, politicians adopted the "British compromise," maintaining existing marijuana prohibition, but leaving the level and intensity of enforcement up to the police. As he shows, with politicians treating marijuana as a political football, that's still the case. Such a stratagem may work for the police, less so for marijuana growers and consumers, but it raises the question of whether law enforcers should be de facto policy-makers.

Overall, Cannabis Nation is a key contribution to the history of British pot politics, an academic treatise that is also quite readable and provocative, and one that disentangles the political and social forces behind marijuana use and reform in Britain. Given its $65 cover price, though, you're probably going to want to read it at your university library, or else hope that an affordable paperback edition appears.

Alfred Nerz inhabits a different world from James Mills. His Marijuanamerica is only among the most recent of dozens of popular accounts of the reefer revolution sweeping the US, and he traverses lots of familiar territory: He attends Oaksterdam University, interviews Richard Lee and Harborside Health Center's Steve DeAngelo, then heads for Humboldt County to smell the revolution for himself.

Amidst his travels, Nerz takes detours to address the issues around marijuana use -- is it helpful or harmful? What are its physical effects? Is it addictive? And should I quit smoking so much? -- and does so with verve, wit, and an engaging way with the science.

But what makes Marijuanamerica stand out in an increasingly crowded field is Nerz's own story of getting involved with California marijuana "outlaws." The book opens with him cruising eastbound down Interstate 80 just outside of Omaha with 100 pounds of weed in the trunk and a Nebraska State Patrol trooper on his tail. For someone carrying a personal pot stash down the nation's interstates, such an encounter is frightening; for someone carrying several felonies worth, it is absolutely terrifying.  You'll have to buy the book to discover how that experience turned out.

In Northern California, a mightily stoned Nerz managed to hook up with a marijuana grower and distributor nicknamed Buddha Cheese, spend time at some of his grow sites scattered throughout the Emerald Triangle and the Sierra, and get a very close-up look at outlaw marijuana production without even the pretense of it being destined for the medical marijuana market. It's a sketchy, criminal scene, with lots of riff-raff and shady characters, just as one would expect in an underground criminal economy. It's a load of Buddha Cheese's product Nerz is driving to the East Coast, hoping to pocket $200 a pound for his troubles, a nifty $20,000 for toting his hundred-pound load. (Given the pot glut and dropping prices on the West Coast, getting the weed to the other coast can be the difference between $2,000 a pound at home and $6,000 a pound in New York or Philadelphia.)

Nerz's sojourn with the outlaws is eye-opening and somewhat disturbing, but also refreshing. There have been an awful lot of words written about medical marijuana, with its noble purveyors working to alleviate human suffering. And most of them are true. But California also produces one hell of a lot more pot than even its wide-open medical marijuana market can absorb, and so do growers in Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and other medical marijuana states. It's the All-American combination of enthusiasm for a wonderful plant that gets you nicely high, the desire to stick it to "the man," and the impulse to get rich quick. That's been part of America's pot culture for the past half-century at least, and it's nice to get past the sanctimony of medical marijuana and back to the outlaws.

You will want to read Cannabis Nation if you have a serious interest in the history, politics, and diplomacy of marijuana in England, and you'll have fun doing so. You don't need to be nearly as serious with Marijuanamerica, and you'll most likely have more fun, especially hanging out with those shady pot outlaws and Nerz himself. But both would make nice additions to your drug literature bookshelf.

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!

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

CAPTCHA
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