Review of Martin A. Lee, Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana—Medical, Recreational, and Scientific (Scribner, 2012), vii + 519 pgs., hardcover.
Although I don’t use marijuana for medical, recreational, or scientific purposes, I highly recommend this book to every reader no matter how he wants to use or not use marijuana or what he thinks about the ethics and morality of marijuana use and the medical effectiveness and therapeutic benefits of marijuana.
I know that I am putting things backward. A reviewer’s endorsement of a book is usually implied during the course of a review and certainly stated in no uncertain terms at the end of the review. But this book is so good, so important, and so necessary that I am stating right up front that if you never read anything ever again about the war on drugs, including my book, The War on Drugs Is a War on Freedom, or anything I have written about the federal war on marijuana or hemp, and even including the rest of this review, this is the one book that you must read. It is the most important book ever written about marijuana.
Although it is a well-written and engaging book, Smoke Signals is not an easy read. First of all, it is over 500 pages. Even not counting the index, acknowledgments, notes, bibliography, and appendices, it is still over 400 pages. You will not read this book in an afternoon. Because of so many other reading and writing commitments, I actually read the book over the course of many months. But I assure you that it will be worth the time you put into reading it. The second reason it is not an easy read is because, for all but the most intransigent liberal or conservative statist, the reader will early on find the federal war on drugs, and especially marijuana, to be so bizarre, unnecessary, so perplexing, so asinine, and so evil that it is sometimes hard to keep reading without slamming the book shut and pulling out your hair.
I can hardly do justice to the book in the following brief distillation, but will make an attempt.
No one—even diehard libertarians like me that favor absolute drug freedom—can read this book and not come away with an entirely new perspective of, and even an appreciation for, the cannabis plant and those who—for whatever reason—have agitated and do agitate for its legal and unregulated, recreational, euphoric, therapeutic, industrial, scientific use and/or its curative and preventive medical use. But the reader will also come away with something else—a disgust, a loathing, and an abhorrence of not only the federal, state, and local war on drugs, but the FBI, state and federal DEA (and their precursors), state police, and local cops who enforce the nation’s ridiculous drug laws.
The cannabis plant was introduced to the western hemisphere in the 16th century through the slave trade. In the form of hemp, it was one of the first crops cultivated by the Puritans. Strange that ardent support of the drug war is one of the marks of a contemporary Puritan. Hemp farming had an important role in American history. The Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper. Hemp served as legal tender. It supplied fiber to make uniforms for George Washington’s soldiers. Washington was himself a hemp farmer. “Sow it everywhere,” he implored.
But it is not the just industrial use of the cannabis plant that was well known. It served as a multi-purpose medicine. It was used to treat ailments for which there were no known cures. It was an analgesic that also inhibited nausea and vomiting. The first official U.S. government study of cannabis was conducted by the Ohio State Medical Society in 1860. It cataloged an array of medical conditions that doctors had successfully treated with psychoactive hemp.
Before the twentieth century, there were no laws restricting the cultivation, sale, or use of any form of the cannabis plant. I emphasize that we are talking about a plant. A plant that putting in your living room merely because you like the way it looks or smells can land you in jail. Before the twentieth century, there was no stigma attached to having or using cannabis. Anyone could walk into a pharmacy in America and purchase a range of cannabis tinctures and pastes. Now you can’t even buy Sudafed without being accused of being a meth dealer. Before the twentieth century, cannabis was no cause for alarm. It was not viewed as habit forming, inducing violence mind destroying, addictive, or a gateway to other drugs (which were all also perfectly legal).
Things soon began to change, however, with the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which required that the inclusion of cannabis (along with other intoxicating ingredients) in any substance had to be identified on the product label. But as Lee points out: “While well intended, the law gave unprecedented power to federal bureaucrats to decide which drugs a person would be allowed to consume.” Under the Act, “U.S. officials would prohibit the importation of cannabis for anything other than strictly medical purposes.” In 1914 El Paso, Texas, became the first city to ban the sale and possession of cannabis. California followed in 1915, joined by the whole state of Texas in 1919. But as Lee explains: “The first laws against marijuana in the United States were primarily a racist reaction against Mexican migrants.”
Meanwhile, the Harrison Act of 1914 further expanded federal control over narcotics like opiates or cocaine. There was now a legal distinction between medical and recreational drug use. Then the Narcotic Farms Act of 1929 classified “Indian hemp” as “habit-forming narcotic.” In 1930 the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) was formed. Its first director was the ardent drug warrior, Harry Anslinger. Although marijuana had already been banned in twenty-four U.S. states, he sought further action on the federal level. He called marijuana “the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.” But he also crusaded against marijuana to increase the funding and relevance of the FBN. He had help from newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst, who was also obsessed with marijuana. The ideas of Anslinger and Hearst paralleled those of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, regimes that waged war on drug use. Because the word cannabis was familiar to Americans as a medicinal substance, the name marijuana (or marihuana) was popularized during the Depression. Anslinger exaggerated the incidence of marijuana use and depicted the evil weed as making Black and Mexican men lust after White women. Low-budget exploitation flicks were financed by marijuana’s competitors—major distilling companies. Although the medical use of cannabis had been supplanted by newer medicines, the Marihuana Tax Act was passed by voice vote in 1937. It effectively banned all forms of cannabis through prohibitive taxation.
Anslinger had opposition from some unlikely sources. The U.S. government promoted “Hemp for Victory” during World War II. Farmers were urged to grow hemp to support the war effort—hemp cloth for parachutes and hemp rope for battleships. The 1948 report of the LaGuardia committee examined and debunked virtually every anti-marijuana claim of Anslinger. It concluded that it was incorrect to call marijuana a narcotic and that “prolonged use of the drug does not lead to physical, mental or moral degeneration.” Marijuana use was not addictive, and did not cause insanity, sexual deviance, violence, or criminal misconduct.
Nevertheless, the American Medical Association (AMA) joined the crusade against marijuana in the mid 1940s. And because the FBN controlled licenses for opiate importation, the American Pharmaceutical Association capitulated as well. In 1951, the Boggs Amendment increased penalties for narcotics offenses and made no distinction between drug users and traffickers. The war on drugs did not begin with President Nixon. In the 1950s, President Eisenhower called for “a new war on narcotics addiction at the local, national and international level.” The Narcotics Control Act in 1954 further increased the penalties for marijuana possession. J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI attacked marijuana as well. A user “becomes a fiend with savage ‘cave man’ tendencies. His sex desires are aroused and some of the most horrible crimes result.” The U.S. government formally ratified the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1968. It required all signatories to adopt and maintain domestic legislation and penal measures against cannabis and other drugs.
Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. Marijuana was classified as a Schedule I narcotic—just like heroin and LSD. Lee points out that “1,899 Americans died from illegal drugs in 1970” and that “far more Americans died that year from food poisoning and falling down stairs.” Nixon rejected without reading the Shafer Commission report titled “Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding.” It was the most comprehensive review of cannabis ever conducted by the federal government. The report found no evidence that marijuana caused physical or psychological harm. “Neither the marijuana user nor the drug itself can be said to constitute a danger to public safety,” the report concluded. The war on marijuana thoroughly corrupted the police. Marijuana laws “provided police with all the leverage they needed to harass young people, racial minorities, and anyone else with nonregulation haircuts.”
There was a little reprieve under President Carter, who told Congress in 1978: “Penalties against drug use should not be more damaging to the individual than the use of the drug itself. Nowhere is this more clear that in the laws against possession of marijuana in private for personal use.” And then came President Reagan, who asserted that marijuana was “the most dangerous drug in America.” He called for a “full scale anti-drug mobilization” and a “nationwide crusade” to rid America of the scourge of drug use. He boasted that we were going to win the war on drugs. Like Nixon before him, he ignored a 1982 study from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) that found “no convincing evidence” that marijuana damages the brain or nervous system or decreases fertility.” The report called for the decriminalization of marijuana. Thanks to the war on drugs, the police state escalated under Reagan. In 1984, Congress again raised federal penalties for marijuana under the Comprehensive Crime Control Act. It also made it easier for the police to seize the property of suspected pot dealers. The drug war was now self-perpetuating. Prescription tranquilizer addict Nancy Reagan urged children to “Just Say No.” Also in the 1980s, Daryl Gates, the L.A. police chief who maintained that casual drug users were guilty of “treason” and should be “taken out and shot,” founded the D.A.R.E. program—a complete fraud according to Salt Lake City mayor Ross Anderson.
President Bush the elder appointed nicotine addict and modern Puritan William Bennett to be America’s first “drug czar.” Bush announced a major escalation of the war on drugs in a televised speech from the Oval Office in 1989. Like Nixon and Reagan, he too ignored the results of government investigations into the benefits of cannabis.
I could go on and on, but I think you get the point: the war on drugs, and especially marijuana, is a great evil from start to finish.
Smoke Signals is full of medical and scientific information. Lee tells of Israeli scientist Raphael Mechoulam, who, in 1964, first synthesized THC, marijuana’s principal psychoactive ingredient. He recounts numerous medical and government studies that show the benefits of cannabis. Dr. Tod Mikuriya found that increased marijuana use correlated with a reduction in a far deadly activity—alcohol consumption. He also concluded that marijuana was an exit drug, not a gateway drug. The publication of Mikuriya’s compendium of research on marijuana in 1973 marks the beginning of the modern medical marijuana movement. Lee talks about cannabinoids, terpenoids, flavonoids, and other things that I had never heard of. He tells of studies that showed that marijuana worked as an appetite stimulant, dampened nausea, quelled seizures, stopped asthma attacks, and relived pain. This book truly has a wide range of information about marijuana and its history that readers with diverse interests will profit from.
Are there any negative things about this book? Yes, just two, but they concern matters of style, not substance. It is impossible to tell which chapter you are in. Instead of the usual format of the book title in the left-hand page headers and the chapter title in the right-hand ones, the author’s name appears on the left and the book’s title on the right. The other issue I have is that, although the book has sixty-seven pages of notes, there are no numbers in the text to indicate that something appears in the notes. When you turn to the notes and look up a page number, you are presented with partial quotes from the text in bold print followed by a source. But as I said, these are matters of style, not substance.
According to the DEA’s chief administrative law judge in 1988: “Marijuana in its natural form is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man.” So why is it illegal? Read Smoke Signals to find out. But don’t just read it; digest it, and inhale it as Obama said he inhaled when he was in college.