Traversing the long annals of history from antiquity to about its publication date in 2012, Smoke Signals details history through the lens of everyone's favorite plant. This panoramic take on medicine and culture as it relates to marijuana dramatically throws into light a panacea that has for centuries been attendant to the needs of man. It is clear that author Martin A. Lee did his research for this mammoth 528-page onslaught of reasons why our government's misguided war on this plant—whose utility extends far beyond its mood-, mind- and health-altering powers—is utterly laughable. In some 70 chapters that move chronologically from yesteryear to yesterday, Lee places marijuana at the nexus of a history both endearing and strange.
Though I doubt that antagonists to the use of cannabis would seek out this title, relatively early-on all pretenses of unbiased journalism are done away with, and Lee begins to write quite earnestly in very opinionated and slanted language. (I'm not going to lie—I got a laugh out of Ronald Reagan being referred to as a “narc,” but just so we are all on the same page, so to speak, about the kind of book in question—a balanced account of history, this is not.)
Lee's sometimes off-base use of language doesn't stop with his way of presenting the facts, but extends to a sort of deeply uncool use of colloquialisms. (Full disclosure: I listened to this book on Audible, so the reader's voice and inflection could have had something to do with the way these words rung in my ears.) Time and again Lee refers to marijuana as “the good shizit” or in other sort of similarly cringe-worthy ways that made me sad smile and shake my head as I listened. While in these instances I wasn't particularly impressed with the writing of Smoke Signals, I did appreciate the irreverence with which most topics were approached and the coinciding spirit of distrust of things that stand in alignment with government, big pharmaceutical companies and, more-or-less, the status quo.
While Smoke Signal's initial focus is global, it is the history of cannabis use in the United States where he really begins to dig in, and as this history unfolds we revisit everything you would expect—there's its initial journey to North America and talk of the Founding Fathers’ cultivation of hemp, there's the jazz greats and Reefer Madness and much more. There's a long series of asides when we get to the chapters that cover the '60s, which is perhaps a pleasant diversion for those who maintain a certain counter-culture nostalgia for bygone days. Lee does aim for expansiveness in this chronicle, but for as long as it reads, there's precious little of the other side's opinions. There are many studies, anecdotes and interviews that serve as testament to the safety and efficacy of this plant, but precious little—by which I mean zero —explanations of why those in power have for so long sought to suppress the use of marijuana. This would be a stronger history overall if Lee was able to consider and refute the arguments of those who stand on the other side of the debate.
Lee is really just singing to the choir in these hundreds of pages, but it must be said that he does so pretty entertainingly. He is able to relatively easily explain litigation, legalities and court cases without losing any of the momentum he has as he writes more glamorous chapters. For those who are already on-board with the whole of the movement, but simply wanting confirmation of the beliefs they already hold, Smoke Signals may provide a worthwhile read. For your conservative uncle whom you'd like to win over to the cause, it probably won't. Lee certainly does optimistically point to a greener future for our country, though that may be in part because he has failed to consider any other possibility.