Experimenting with Cannabis: Science and Reefer Madness

Recent work on commodities, particularly Paul Gootenberg’s recent work on cocaine has highlighted the roll of knowledge formation in understanding the dynamics of commodity relationships. In his book, Gootenberg traced the commodity chain of cocaine as it was shaped through political, economic, and intellectual filters in Bolivia, Peru, Germany, the United States and elsewhere. Gootenberg’s work has broadened our understanding of this global commodity over a long period of time, and suggests that the nature of these knowledge filters shift as commodities cross temporal and geographical boundaries.

Historians who study commodities within more limited spacial and temporal boundaries can still find Gootenberg’s work useful. As Michael Pollan suggests in his recent work, The Botany of Desire, the meaning of cannabis was contested at the foundational level – of biology itself – as the plant was molded and shaped for a multiplicity of human uses. Taken together, the historical and intellectual approaches of these and similar studies can help us better understand how, during the first four decades of the twentieth century, cannabis was not merely transformed from an important industrial input to a dangerous recreational drug, but often held both distinctions simultaneously.

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