BOOKS AUGUST 20, 2012
by Martin A. Lee
Scribner, 519 pp., $35
SMOKE SIGNALS IS not the authoritative weed history you have been looking for, unless you need a mélange of anecdotes, statistics, marijuana slang, and bad puns for the shelf of your stoner lair. This is not to say that author Martin A. Lee doesn’t take his subject seriously. He has done his homework, collecting studies, interviews, and the “lost history of hemp” into a comprehensive tome that sadly fails to take this material in a coherent direction. For anyone who favors marijuana legalization, it is dispiriting to see compelling information presented so hazily.
Smoke Signals is correctly described as a “cautionary tale about U.S. government corruption and constitutional rights under attack,” but Lee’s agenda in these pages is more than the dismissal of absurd misinformation and the endorsement of the medical use of marijuana. He makes marijuana out to be a cure-all, a wonder product that can solve the energy crisis while being consumed recreationally-thereaputically (he makes no distinction between the two) with no side effects.
But even if marijuana’s potential has been wasted thanks to a century of misunderstanding and propaganda, surely the solution is not to replace those myths with a new one. Marijuana may be unfairly demonized, but it is isn’t exactly a blessing either. To achieve Lee’s apparent goal—the normalization of marijuana use in society—means that we should treat marijuana like any other plant we cultivate to heal the sick, manufacture products, and yes, take the edge off.
While Lee’s range is global, his primary interest is in the American weed experience. He begins in 1906, when cannabis was first regulated by Congress as a potentially troublesome ingredient that had to appear on product labels. Before the turn of the century, in the golden age of patent medicines, cannabis treatments (alongside a menu of opiates and narcotics) were available for easy self-medication. After the Civil War, “Gunjah Wallah Hasheesh Candy” was available from Sears by mail.
By 1937, a government bureaucrat named Harry Anslinger, a sort of J. Edgar Hoover in miniature, succeeded in convincing Congress to effectively outlaw marijuana—largely, Lee surmises, because he needed a new target that would guarantee funding for his agency, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN). The FBN’s thirty-year fight against pot began despite testimony from the American Medical Association that restricting access to the substance would damage medical research.
At this point a historical pattern begins to emerge: wherever the counter-culture is found, marijuana will be found as well—and its presence used as an excuse to repress that counterculture. The term marijuana itself, of Spanish origin, was largely popularized by Americans using an anti-drug campaign as a pretext for anti-Mexican discrimination. Border states like California and Texas were the first to outlaw the substance in the early twentieth century. “All Mexicans are crazy, and this stuff makes them crazy,” one Texas State Senator opined.
The pattern would continue: when Anslinger sought to outlaw the substance in the ’30s, he argued it was prevalent in immigrant communities and promoted miscegenation. Jazz musicians smoked weed—Louis Armstrong was major advocate—and Anslinger kept a file tracking these subversive cultural actors. By the ’50s, marijuana was associated with the Red Menace of communist China, and the idea of weed as a gateway drug soon appeared. The idea, Lee writes, “meshed well with the politically fashionable domino imagery of International Communism toppling one country after another.” Even Nixon, who truly kicked off the “drug war,” blamed his least favorite minority. “You know it’s a funny thing, every one of those bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish,” he said in a taped Oval Office conversation. “What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob?”
His history is lively enough, but the case Lee makes would be more convincing if his book was written with some hint of objectivity. It’s obviously a polemic, and he is singing to a smokers’ choir. Advocates for freer use of marijuana are variously described as “a handsome, Christ-like figure,” a “highflier with an astronomical IQ,” “charismatic,” “a latter-day Jeremiah,” “a big, raw-boned, Bunyanesque character,” “refreshingly irreverent,” “high profile, telegenic,” and an “alpha male impresario.” Enemies of marijuana are “bull-necked” and sport “glowering eyes,” one is a “closet queer,” another a “boorish, overweight nicotine addict.” Law enforcement officials are invariably referred to as “the narcs,” or identified as “an undercover dick.” Describing a campaign of drug raids, Lee writes that all the officers were “convinced of the righteousness of their cause.” It is hard to believe he confirmed this with those officers; certainly, the number of former law enforcement officials advocating for more liberal drug laws suggests that some of them might have had doubts. But if you take Lee seriously, you have to believe that every advocate for marijuana is a saint, and anyone opposed is a devil.
This is not a book that will change minds—particularly its less-than-compelling rereview of the 1950s and ’60s, where it becomes clear that Lee doesn’t want to end the old culture wars, he wants to win them. It would of course be historical malpractice to ignore the era, but we already know that everyone from the Beats through Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, and the Beatles smoked pot and liked it. Skipping over that well-worn material—as well as the repeated descriptions of what it felt like to get high—would have been a wise choice. (For example: Marijuana “eased [the Beatles] into a soft yet lively space, a cushioned reprieve.”) As Lee frequently points out, half of Americans have tried marijuana.
Lee’s appreciation of marijuana also leads him to miss potentially mind-changing stories. He details the career of Ed Holloway, an aeronautical engineer at General Dynamics who left the “military-industrial complex” to become a renowned weed agronomist after smoking with his son, a GI just returned from Vietnam. Rather than exploring that generation-bridging moment, Lee shares this bit of bland wisdom from Holloway: “Marijuana is our medicine. It makes us feel good. What else do we need to know?”
Lee devotes a significant amount of time to the history and science of medical marijuana, but his analysis demands greater sophistication. It is easy to understand the bipartisan contempt Lee reserves for drug czars such as William Bennett and General Barry McCaffrey when they falsely state that pot has no medical value or assert that it is a grave danger. In addition to the truism that pot has never been the cause of a fatal overdose, Lee cites over one hundred years of comprehensive studies revealing its largely benign nature. (Here’s one: given the opportunity to self-administer THC, lab rats lose interest—this is unlike the effect of heroin, cocaine, nicotine, and alcohol. I’m not sure if this says more about the rats or us.) But the findings that most excite Lee come from contemporary medical researchers who study the endocannabinoid system. Just as opium’s popularity led to the discovery of endorphins, so marijuana can illuminate the biological processes it affects. The more common medical uses for marijuana are well known (to prevent glaucoma and offer pain relief and appetite stimulation), but new uses for cannabinoid compounds are emerging, treatments for conditions like ADHD, epilepsy, and Alzheimer’s disease.
This research is Lee’s battle flag, and he waves it proudly—pointing out more than once that even the most churlish opponent of medical marijuana has a hard time rejecting the pleas of the terminally ill and suffering who find relief in the drug. But Lee wants us to regard medical marijuana use and recreational use as practically the same. Marijuana advocates who don’t conflate recreational and therapeutic consumption are “squeamish”; “the boundary between recreational and medical use is often tenuous at best.”
He goes on to note (without a citation) that “self-medication for mild to moderate depression underlies a great deal of recreational marijuana use.” This seems counter-productive. I don’t think many people would look favorably at the argument that self-medication for mild depression is behind a great deal of recreational drinking and that alcohol must therefor do a great job of wiping away ennui. If you are using marijuana because you are depressed, you should be seeing a mental health care provider—no substance is a substitute for holistic care. On the other hand, if you are smoking a joint on a Sunday afternoon before a movie, you should not have to pretend that you are treating an illness.
The answer to this problem is more research and openness. We don’t ban alcohol because some people have a tendency toward alcoholism, but we do look for the signs and encourage healthy use—something that hasn’t been publicly done with marijuana, a far safer substance. There is a reason that alcohol distributors have funneled money into anti-pot political campaigns, and there is a reason that pharmaceutical companies push against drug legalization—they see a competitor. George W. Bush’s Solicitor General, Paul Clement, even argued that California’s drug law should be struck down because it would hurt the Big Pharma’s sales.
It turns out we need to know a lot more, particularly about the place of marijuana in medicine. Yet Smoke Signals is finally a book about denial: the denial by the government that marijuana offers any benefits or is even basically benign, and the denial by some pot advocates that anything about this simple plant could be problematic. But at the point when marijuana prohibition is medically unsupported, practically unenforceable, and—in the many places where liberal local regulations conflict with federal law—anti-democratic, its continued existence puts the lie to the idea of a liberal society. Even Lee can make that out through all the smoke.
Tim Fernholz is a journalist who lives in Los Angeles.