Review: “Commodifying Cannabis: A Cultural History of a Complex Plant in the Atlantic World”

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach. Beach is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY. 

Borougerdi book Commodifying Cannabis
Cover of Commodifying Cannabis

I’ve been reading about pot since before my formal history training. I’ve always been fascinated by the inclusion of the standard story about the “long history” of cannabis that seemed to appear in the introduction to just about every book or article on the subject. As a teenager/young adult first experimenting with cannabis after a childhood of “Just Say No” sobriety, I was somehow comforted to know that I could tap into the wonders of a cannabis high in the same way that many ancient societies had in India, China, or the Middle East.

I have since learned a lot more about the plant, and it is clear that my assumptions had been based on problematic conceptions of “other” cultures. The growing historical literature about intoxicants has further challenged my formerly overly simplistic understandings about how societies manage drug use and about how drug policies and public opinion interact to shape beliefs about drugs. I’ve been struck, though, that the connection between ancient uses of cannabis and our more recent social and cultural contexts have often been missing from these analyses. Such a long-term historical perspective could help us better understand the dynamic flows of drug knowledge across time and place.

Bradley J. Borougerdi’s 2018 book Commodifying Cannabis seeks to make these types of connections. Borougerdi focuses on the Anglo-American Atlantic World and describes the plant as a “triple-purpose” cultural commodity. He builds on previous work by scholars like Isaac Campos who has previously investigated how re-interpretations of Spanish and indigenous knowledge influenced the circulation of information about cannabis in Mexico. Borougerdi, here, examines how orientalist assumptions shaped knowledge about the plant as it moved through the Anglo-American world. He argues that the different meanings of cannabis—attached to its different modes of use—dictated the trajectory of cannabis commodification in the early modern period, the prohibition of cannabis in the nineteenth century, and the recent re-commodification of cannabis.

Bradley Borougerdi
Dr. Bradley J. Borougerdi

The book starts by looking back at the plant’s long history and lays out the discursive elements of the ways that British and other colonial European Powers confronted, examined, and wrote about it. In Europe during the early modern period, cannabis was an important strategic crop for naval stores and helped propel the continent into its imperial phase. To sustain the colonial mission, European nations relied on cannabis and tried to cultivate it domestically and, then, increasingly grew it throughout their budding empires, especially in North American colonies and eventually in India.

Initially, most of the high-quality hemp necessary for ocean-worthy transportation came from Russia where hemp was produced using an expensive but effective processing method. As European nations developed naval power and colonial networks in the Atlantic World, they sought alternatives to Russian hemp to be more self-sufficient. The race to commodify cannabis was on.

Western Europe ultimately failed to find a reliable domestic source for hemp fiber, but colonial officials quickly discovered that—unlike “productive” uses of the plant fiber—some people in India found “non-productive” uses for the plant. Briefly, British administrators and imperial scientists like William Brooke O’Shaughnessy then unsuccessfully sought to re-position this “new” Indian Hemp—used by natives for “unproductive,” or “degenerative” purposes—into a “productive” medical commodity.

Adam Rathge’s recent dissertation examined the intellectual roots of the eventual medical rejection of cannabis cures in the nineteenth century, and Borougerdi adds an element of transatlantic orientalist discourse. He suggests that Europeans’ ostensibly experiential analyses were deeply infused with orientalist assumptions thus limiting the capacity of western scientists to conceptualize the “set and setting” of cannabis use in anything other than a deviant mindset.

The climax of this discursive process was the creation of the Indian Hemp Drug Commission (IHDC) in the 1890s. The Commission’s report opposed the outright prohibition of the drug in India and has become somewhat of a touchstone for pro-legalization advocates due its seemingly liberal conclusions. Borougerdi, however, contextualizes the IHDC as an imperial project that was not intended to absolve (or even indict) cannabis but rather to justify increasing medical and legal surveillance over Indian society.

The report served to solidify the association of non-Europeans with degenerative uses of hemp drugs. When read in this way, we can understand how English and American observers ignored the Commission’s conclusions against cannabis prohibition and focused instead on the report’s decontextualized and sensational details about the “culturally degenerative” religious and ceremonial uses of cannabis.

As Mexican intellectuals framed their own negative cultural views about cannabis during the 19th century (as discussed in Campos’s book), American observers easily overlaid those concerns with the same orientalist interpretations circulating in the Atlantic world about cannabis-using societies. The United States’ prohibition and criminalization of cannabis soon followed in the middle of the twentieth century.

Hydroponic growing operation
Hydroponics—the new frontier of cannabis re-commodification..

Commodifying Cannabis concludes by arguing that these prohibitionist pressures have contributed to the recent re-commodification of cannabis. America’s global surveillance and anti-drug control measures since World War II have incentivized the emergence of alternative cultivation techniques. Hydroponics, specifically, have fostered the emergence of a massive indoor growth revolution.

In turn, these new growing techniques are designed to maximize the drug’s potency, which has contributed significantly to the re-emergence of cannabis medicines and, in recent years, legalized recreational cannabis. The new industrial hemp industry in the US, authorized by the 2018 Farm Bill, has also benefited from these improved cultivation techniques. Borougerdi reminds us that, although many of the negative connotations associated with cannabis have fallen away during this recommodification phase, the continued reliance on orientalist discourse even in this context shows the importance of long-term global knowledge flows to our understanding of cultural commodities.

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