Cannabis and Sugar: A Bittersweet History Makes Reparative Legalization a Must

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Nick Johnson. Johnson is a historian based in Fort Collins, Colorado. He is the author of Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West (Oregon State University Press, 2017) and associate editor of the Colorado Encyclopedia. He blogs about all things cannabis at

Whether it’s gummies, cookies, brownies, or even soda, it is hard to imagine today’s cannabis culture without edibles. Many of these stony treats offer the delectable pairing of cannabis and sugar, two of the world’s most popular indulgences. Yet most people do not know that the two commodities share a historical relationship as well as a culinary one—and that historical relationship is rooted in oppressive labor regimes.

Over the last two decades, changing cannabis laws around the world have brought renewed scholarly attention to the plant. Together with older work, recent books have helped us piece together the bigger picture of cannabis history, giving us a better idea of how the plant traveled the world, for instance, or how large-scale cannabis cultivation affects the environment. Research on the plant’s history in previously overlooked areas, such as Mexico and Africa, help us see the true depth and extent of trends that earlier scholarship only partly exposed.

One of the most significant of these trends is that cannabis traveled across the Americas within oppressive systems of agricultural labor—in particular, the sugar industries that developed across the Atlantic World after 1492.

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A Consuming Desire

Valentine’s Day is among the sweetest holidays celebrated in the United States, both figuratively and literally. On February 14, 2015, according to diet data supplied by MyFitnessPal, Americans were 37 percent more likely to indulge in chocolates than on any other day of the year. (Chocolate-covered items, however, were up 323 percent and “conversation heart” candies increased a staggering but hardly surprising 3,777 percent.)

Sweet nothings. (Image: Wikipedia)

On the first weekday after an indulgent occasion like Valentine’s Day, you might notice colleagues pouring packets of Sweet’n Low in their coffee or sipping a Diet Coke instead of the regular, sugared variety. You might even do it yourself. Personally, I became doubly interested in the history of artificial sweeteners as a user of sugar-free products but also from my academic preoccupation with consumption. I’ll return to this point soon, but first I’d like to share some fascinating parallels between the substances some of us study and artificial sweeteners I found in historian Carolyn De La Peña’s Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda.

Carolyn De La Peña (Image:

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