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Full Review
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Cannabis: A History
by Martin Booth
Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press 
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Justin Case, 6/1/2007

Cannabis: A History is an excellent book—informative, well researched and well presented. Neither a coffee table book nor light reading, Booth’s work is an in-depth look at the cultural history of the cannabis plant that manages to be both readable and educating.

Booth begins with a brief but detailed botanical description of the plant and of the pharmacology of its active constituents before exploring the history of the relationship between cannabis and humankind from ancient times to modernity. Historically, Booth covers the sociology of cannabis as an intoxicant, the role of hemp in industry and agriculture, the politics of cannabis prohibition and the legal history thereof, the legalization movements, and the role of cannabis in various cultures.

I have read a few books that discuss the semi-legendary Hassan I Sabbah and his fanatic hashish-eating mystics and assassins (or hashishans). These accounts possess widely varying degrees of sober historical evidence and far-fetched speculation. Booth’s treatment of this subject is by far the best I have read so far. Rather than repeating or embellishing legends, he lays out the evidence from the various sources from which the legends have been manufactured, and then he makes some reasonable criticisms of those sources. We cannot take it for granted that these assassins smoked hashish and suddenly became fanatic murderers.

There is also a good amount of information on Le Club des Hachichins, a groundbreaking group of French writers and artists who met in the late nineteenth century to eat hashish for inspiration and exploration. Booth devotes an entire chapter to this era and a subsequent chapter on America’s Fitz Hugh Ludlow, another groundbreaking writer on cannabis. I learned more about the literature of cannabis from these two chapters than I did from Sadie Plants entire book Writing on Drugs.

Cannabis: A History also touches upon the integral role cannabis played in the early jazz scene, in the lives of the Beats, the hippies, the anti-war movement, the Rastafarian religion and the reggae scene, the Ethiopian Coptic Church, the home-grow proliferation movement and so on. The book does not go into the hip hop culture or cannabis on the Internet.

I usually cannot stay interested in the complicated legal and political discussions that surround drugs but somehow Booth presents this topic in an easy-to-read fashion. Without going into tedious detail, Booth shows us how the social and political attitudes towards cannabis have varied greatly in both Europe and the United States and how the policies concerning cannabis are based on social bias rather than on medical findings. Booth also clearly demonstrates that governments have repeatedly ignored scientific studies that suggest that cannabis is relatively harmless. This trend continues today.

Another topic that I usually find a bit boring is the changing trends and sources in the black market. But once again Booth held my interest. We learn who grew it, who sold it, how it was transported, how much was moved, how much of it is simply homegrown and how all of this traffic has changed over the years. Despite what recent anti-marijuana commercials claim, Booth clearly shows that there is very little chance that the cannabis you might buy supports terrorism.

It’s refreshing how well-balanced Booth is in both his research and presentation. He does not seem to be a histrionic pot-head defending cannabis nor does he seem to have an agenda against it. Rather, he is fair and balanced in his presentation and arguments. Overall, the book seems to make a good case that people should be allowed to grow hemp for various industries, and that people should be allowed to use cannabis medicinally and recreationally. However, this argument is presented through already existing studies and information, not through Booth himself. He asserts and claims very little directly and lets the evidence speaks for itself.

I would have enjoyed reading more on the role of cannabis in ancient civilizations (especially in myth and religion) but perhaps there is not that much source material to draw on. I also think that at least a few pictures would have improved the book. Oddly, there is almost nothing on the actual experience of cannabis intoxication. However, to be fair, this is a book of history, not phenomenology. Overall, I recommend this book to anyone interested in an in-depth look at the role of cannabis in civilization.

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