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Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana - Medical, Recreational, and Scientific
by Martin A. Lee
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Jonathan Taylor, 7/31/2013

In 1985 Grove Press published Martin Lee and Bruce Shlain’s book Acid Dreams: The CIA, LSD and the Sixties Rebellion, which has remained the classic work on these topics since that time. Dealing with the CIA and the military’s unethical human testing of psychedelics on willing and unwilling subjects in the search for a truth serum or brainwashing tool; the psychedelic evangelists and the counterculture they helped spawn; and the relationship between acid, radical culture, and radical politics from that era, the book remains a riveting and compelling read.

Now, Lee has set out to do the same thing for marijuana in his recently published Smoke Signals, an exhaustive history of marijuana’s use, medical potential, and persecution. The topic is less innately mind-blowing than the history of acid, which is appropriate considering the difference between the two substances. Nevertheless, Smoke Signals is a fascinating, engrossing, enraging read, and a worthy successor to its psychedelic predecessor.

The publication of Smoke Signals could not be more timely. A number of important changes have occurred very recently in public perception and public policy around marijuana. By a small margin, the majority of Americans now favor legalization of marijuana—an incredibly hopeful development toward possible amelioration of at least one major component of the failed war on drugs. Two states have legalized it, and corporate interests are eyeing the markets. Meanwhile, the Federal government—led by the DEA, and often working with local police—continues to aggressively prosecute, shut down, and imprison people involved in the business side of marijuana, including obviously legitimate medical suppliers or distributors who function in accordance with their state’s laws. With their characteristically rabid and asinine zeal, local, state, and federal law enforcement agents also continue to bust hapless users, often extremely sick people in chronic pain or even near death, and treat them as if they were some sort of threat to…. anybody or anything.

It is impossible to write an objective book about marijuana without pointing out, ad nauseam, the idiocy and spitefulness of marijuana prohibition and the enormously detrimental effects these truly insane policies have historically had on various groups: racial minorities who have been scapegoated since the beginning; various countercultural movements; and most tragically, the desperately ill who use the herb for its palliative or medicinal effects. Lee does not shy away from this task, but his measured tone never becomes strident. It doesn’t need to, as the facts speak for themselves all too well. The criminalization of cannabis is more than a farce. It is institutionalized cruelty.

One fact from Smoke Signals that will stick in my mind forever is Lee’s revelation of the cover-up of knowledge about marijuana’s beneficial effects on health and its efficacy for the treatment of a broad spectrum of diseases and medical conditions. Yes, not only did the Federal government conclusively know that marijuana was relatively harmless for decades, but they actively and deliberately suppressed important medical research showing the utility of marijuana as a treatment modality for serious illness. Reading about this, I had a hard time not tossing my book across the room in disgust.

Let me put it simply. The US government, through its own studies, long ago concluded internally that marijuana could be extremely beneficial for the treatment of some diseases. Then they suppressed all of this research and invented a series of absurdist propaganda memes, which they disseminated through various means. It is hard to understand all of the reasons for this mendacity, but clearly much of their motivation was political. Anslinger created the entire marijuana persecution complex out of a need for institutional power and funding. Nixon stands out as a president obsessed with punishing marijuana users, whom he cleverly identified as being particularly likely to hate him. The vested interests of law enforcement agencies and ancillary industries like prisons remain paramount during the Obama administration, plainly, given his shameful retreat from his campaign promises to leave medical marijuana alone to the hypocritical turnaround and ramped-up prosecution of medical marijuana facilities since 2008.

Lee covers all of this and much more, particularly the recent medical literature on the plant and some of its components, such as the tremendously important cannabidiol (CBD). The import of his analysis of hundreds of scientific studies is nothing short of astounding. He also covers the social history: the jazz days, the ‘60s, the ‘80s “Just Say No” era, the emergence of the medical marijuana movement, and everything in between. This breadth makes Smoke Signals the definitive history of marijuana in the twentieth century and also the definitive book on cannabis science for the general reader. But more than that, Smoke Signals is a brilliant chronicle of the insanity of US drug policy, later foisted on the rest of the world, through the example of the healing green bud. A cover blurb from Douglas Brinkely suggests, “Every American should read this landmark book!”, and he is right.

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