“Global Histories of Drugs: Why and What’s Next?”—Reflections on the Cannabis: Global Histories Workshop

Editor’s Notes: Today’s post by Eron Ackerman reflects on his participation in the “Global Drug Histories: Why and What’s Next?” workshop held jointly this past October at the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Pharmacy and the British Library. Dr. Ackerman recently completed his dissertation, “Cannabis and Colonialism in the British Caribbean, 1838–1938,” at Stony Brook University and is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at Albion College.

When Lucas Richert invited me to attend the joint US-UK meeting, “Global Histories of Drugs: Why and What’s Next?” at the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Pharmacy on October 6, I jumped at the chance—even if it meant having to cancel some mid-week classes. The meeting was inspired by the release of the new collection of essays Cannabis: Global Histories (MIT Press, 2021), which intersects so closely with my own work about the history of Caribbean ganja that I couldn’t miss it. The organizers used Zoom to link our group in Madison to a larger group of book contributors and guest panelists “across the pond” at the British Library.

Participants were asked to reflect upon the book in connection to four questions:

  1. Why think about the histories of intoxicants and psychoactive substances on a global scale?
  2. In what ways does research into such substances provide novel perspectives on globalization and related processes?
  3. How do national, transnational, international, and global histories of these substances relate to one another?
  4. What’s next for global histories of intoxicants and psychoactive substances?
Ackerman Title Card

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“Contested Cannabis: A History of Marijuana in Wisconsin and the Wider World”—Digital Exhibit and Online Roundtable Discussion

The American Institute of the History of Pharmacy (AIHP) is pleased to announce the completion of its digital exhibit, “Contested Cannabis: A History of Marijuana in Wisconsin and the Wider World,” funded in part by a generous grant from Wisconsin Humanities.

Contested Cannabis Social Card

Drawing upon AIHP historical collections as well collections at the Wisconsin Historical Society, the exhibit uses objects and items—including children’s anti-drug coloring books, pro-marijuana festival posters, archived World War One-era medicinal cannabis correspondence, and other artifacts and texts—to investigate and analyze the history of cannabis, marijuana, and hemp in the state of Wisconsin and in the United States.

“Contested Cannabis” is designed to advance public debate by examining the legal, regulatory, and cultural history of cannabis—particularly in the Badger State. The exhibit explores and explains the history of cannabis, hemp, and marijuana through five themes: Taxonomy; Hemp Agriculture; Pharmacy & Medicine; Propaganda & Education; and De/Criminalization. “Contested cannabis” is hosted by the AIHP Digital Library, which features digitized versions of items, artifacts, and objects from AIHP historical collections.

In conjunction with the digital exhibit, AIHP will be hosting an online Zoom roundtable on the topic of “Contested Cannabis: A History of Marijuana in Wisconsin and the Wider World” on December 8, 2021 from 1:00–2:30 PM Central Time (2:00–3:00 Eastern Time). Free registration is available on the project home page.

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On the Clock: Minding the Equity Gap in New York’s Legal Weed Era

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.  

In March, the former Governor of New York signed legislation legalizing adult-use cannabis in New York. In a previous post, I introduced the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA), and I discussed some of the important points in the legislation regarding the issues of equity and reinvestment in those communities overpoliced in the war on drugs (full details can be found on the state’s website).

Indeed, if the provisions of the MRTA are fully implemented as written, half of available retail licenses will be granted to specific targeted communities, including over-policed neighborhoods, women-led businesses, and disabled veterans. The dynamics discussed in this short post, however, demonstrate that many of these targeted groups will face an uphill battle to compete with other, more established license holders.

Cannabis Dispensary in Washington
Legal cannabis coming soon to New York? But will the industry live up to the state’s equitable promises? Image of legal cannabis products from a dispensary in Washington state courtesy of Beverly Yuen Thompson on Flickr.

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Dropping the Facade

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.  

When I went to college (the first time), I left my home in Central New York to attend a Franciscan College near Albany, the state capital. With a scholarship in hand—and a career in the medical field on my horizon—I was confident in my ability to succeed in the classroom. Being away from home for the first time, however, forced me to confront a much bigger fear: negotiating a safe, healthy, and productive college social life. My biggest worries were alcohol and drugs.

Nancy Reagan
Nancy Reagan revealing. the inevitable consequences….

Fearful of parental reprisals, school sanctions, and, of course, a life of crime and addiction—all lessons that had been reiterated ad nauseum during the “Just Say No!” era, I had sworn off all substances during high school. But, facing college and the culture of college drinking made me rethink that approach. I decided that I was going to have to try alcohol at some point, and I didn’t want it to be my first week on campus. So, a week before my arrival, I had my first alcohol experience with a friend at a different college.

I really enjoyed myself.

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Double-Edged Leaf:
Cannabis and Climate Change

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Nick Johnson, a historian and editor based in Fort Collins, Colorado. His book Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West (2017) is a history of cannabis agriculture that explores the environmental and social dynamics of the nation’s most controversial crop. He also blogs (and occasionally podcasts!) about all things cannabis on his website, Hempirical Evidence.

Plants have long held sway over the future of human societies. They are our symbiotic partners on the planet, absorbing the carbon dioxide we breathe out and emitting the oxygen we breathe in. Plants supply us with food, shelter, and medicine—we return the favor with reproduction, granting them abundant progeny.

It is ironic, then, that the industrial revolution, an event that precipitated massive cuttings and die-offs of all kinds of plants across the globe, was in large part fueled by plants. Millions of years of the sun’s energy lay in the dead, compressed bodies of ancient ferns, reeds, and seaweed, crushed or sludged with other organic matter into underground deposits of coal and oil. Humans tapped and burned these masses of photosynthetic energy, harnessing their awesome power for wealth and comfort.

Now, we have reached the age where the promise of fossil fuels has yielded to peril. Hundreds of years of burning fuels is changing almost everything about our world and ushering in an era of accelerating climate change. Heat or rising seas may render large swathes of land uninhabitable. Mega-droughts, mega-storms, and mega-fires rage across entire continents, destroying homes and communities, killing people, sowing political unrest, and polluting air and water. Ready or not, we are being forced to confront the disastrous legacy of our own uncritical faith in the technology and “progress” of the industrial age.

It might seem strange to bring cannabis into this conversation. But, as is typical with cannabis, we find the plant on both sides of this major societal issue. On the one hand, hemp farming can be a powerful weapon to help ameliorate the effects of carbon emissions. On the other hand, industrial cannabis production has a formidable and growing carbon footprint. With the ongoing legalization of the plant and the expansion of its impact on the American economy, it is worth exploring how cannabis might be both a potential cure for and a contributor to climate change—and considering whether the plant can be more beneficial than harmful in this regard.

Cannabis Indoor Grow Operation
Medical Cannabis Growing Operation in Oakland, California, in 2012. Image Courtesy of Rusty Blazenhoff on Flickr.

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Inspector Boden Burns It All: The Story of a Pioneering California Drug Warrrior, 1907–1927

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Sarah Brady Siff, a visiting assistant professor at the Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University, in affiliation with the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC).

What a time to be a historian. An embarrassment of digitized newsprint has made it possible to pursue all sorts of angles and stories, to chase all kinds of people not just down a rabbit hole but all around a rabbits’ warren.  Fred C. Boden is one such person who has always caught my eye. A corpulent and bombastic city cop, Boden became one of California’s, and thus one of the nation’s, first state drug enforcement officers. From the passage of California’s state Poison Act around 1907 until his death 20 years later, Pharmacy Board Inspector Boden traveled the state to enforce the prohibition on selling and possessing opium and morphine without a doctor’s prescription.  

Boden’s arrestees were overwhelmingly Chinese immigrants—a community that had long been targeted by the state and by California cities with various licensing and regulatory laws that brought fines and other criminal penalties. White doctors and pharmacists, presumably those who refused to be licensed according to the new law or who persisted in writing opiate prescriptions, were arrested in lower numbers.

Surprise mass raids, often involving posses of local police and deputized citizens, were common. In 1910, Boden led a raid that ended in the arrest of twenty-four Chinese immigrants in Bakersfield where he had been made a sheriff’s deputy. The following year Boden was in San Diego where a newspaper reported that under his direction “the police drag-net has captured seventeen Chinese and two prominent physicians” with more arrests of both “expected daily.”

Left: Clipping of Inspector Boden burning drug contraband from LA Times January 5, 1912.

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Delta-8 THC: The Latest Cannabis Conundrum

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Nick Johnson, a historian and editor based in Fort Collins, Colorado. His book Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West (2017) is a history of cannabis agriculture that explores the environmental and social dynamics of the nation’s most controversial crop. He also blogs (and occasionally podcasts!) about all things cannabis on his website, Hempirical Evidence.

Traditionally, cannabis has been understood as a plant of dualities and contradictions. It comes in varieties that produce either fiber or drugs, for example. It grows tall and straight or short and bushy, with broader leaves or narrower ones. At various points in its history, it has been held up as a medicine and demonized as a menace. For centuries, cannabis has had its fun confounding humanity with its ambivalent identity.

Lately, however, modern technology and new laws are helping to blur the plant’s historic binaries and show us that—for all we have learned about cannabis over the millennia—we may not know as much as we think we do. Hemp, for instance, was rarely considered a medicinal plant in Western or American cultures until the advent of the CBD craze in the 2010s. Cannabidiol (CBD), a substance that “healed without the high,” broke the cannabis plant’s industrial-medicinal binary—turns out hemp could be both, after all. But we still knew one thing for certain, and this fact provided one of the most convincing arguments for the 2018 re-legalization of hemp in the US: hemp plants cannot get you high.

Delta New Hand

Well, we were pretty sure of it, anyway. Then the CBD boom went bust, and American farmers were left with fields full of CBD-rich hemp plants they could not sell. As it often does, need begot innovation. Starting in 2019, some CBD producers leveraged modern extraction technology to pull a psychotropic rabbit out of the hemp hat. Delta-8 Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is a molecular cousin of Delta-9 THC, the main psychoactive compound in traditional marijuana. Delta-8 THC produces essentially the same effects as Delta-9 THC, except far more subdued—and, through chemical reactions, it can be created from hemp-derived CBD.

Delta 8 Joints
Delta 8-THC Joints. Image courtesy of Elsa Olofsson at CBD Oracle.

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Drawing the Peddler: “Reefer Madness” in Four Editorial Cartoons

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. 

Everyone loves a good editorial cartoon. They dramatize contemporary issues in newspapers, in magazines, and, increasingly, in online publications. They routinely engage in a visual form of incisive social critique. And they can be funny—although over the years some of the “humor” has come from degrading caricatures of racial and gendered stereotypes.

For all of these reasons, editorial cartoons are useful teaching tools for historians, and they routinely appear in history textbooks, historical websites, and even on history exams. Currently, some of my students in a semester-long guided research project are using political cartoons to explain aspects of US drug history. (Others in the class are analyzing advertisements or newspaper reporting, and I will share more about the course in a future post).

Given the press bonanza around cannabis during the “reefer madness” era of the 1930s, I have been surprised during my research and teaching to have found only four cartoons from the period that specifically mentioned marijuana. To be sure, there were plenty of cartoons that focused on related issues like “narcotics” control—which often included cannabis—and the Uniform State Narcotic Act. Such cartoons, however, tended to focus on heroin (usually represented by snake imagery) and have not been useful for my marijuana research. There was also another interesting 1940 cartoon that mentioned marijuana in a very different context. This image depicted South American countries being stupefied—like a “Mexican” marijuana user—by “Nazi Propaganda” [1]

Despite spilling less editorial cartoon ink than might be expected given the sheer volume of press generated on the subject during the 1930s, these four identified cartoons present a specific and surprisingly nuanced take on Reefer Madness. They illustrate that the marijuana peddler was often the central focus of the evolving American war on cannabis. Drawn by four different cartoonists in four different cities, the four peddler characters were remarkably similar. In each image, the peddler was not only the source of the drug, but also seemed to be the source (perhaps more than the drug, itself) of all the problems associated with the drug trade.

Left: “Idol of Both,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, June 5, 1930; Right: “One Place to Get Tough,” Cleveland Press, November 13, 1936. Click on image above for to see larger version.

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