Cannabis Manual: History, Repeated

An Interview With Chris S. Duvall

Joshua Lee
11 min read
Chris S Duvall
Share ::
As UNM Professor Chris S. Duvall points out, humanity’s sense of the history is spotty at best and guided by political and social goals at worst. Duvall’s book The African Roots of Marijuana ($27.95, Duke University Press) dives into some of the least understood, most uncomfortable aspects of the plant’s history. We spoke with Duvall about the gaps in our understanding of cannabis history and the ways that well-meaning idealism can lead to misrepresentation of reality.

Weekly Alibi: I have to tell you that I really get turned on when someone tells me that everything I know about something is wrong. In that respect, I’m really excited about your book.

Chris S. Duvall: I didn’t set out to write a corrective—“everybody’s wrong”—book. My background is in African studies, and I came across the topic while doing research on a totally different topic. There’s historical accounts of cannabis being called “African tobacco” or “Angolan tobacco,” and plant names—I mostly study plants—plant names can tell us a lot about history. Sometimes it’s right. Sometimes it’s wrong. There just hasn’t been that much good historical research done on cannabis. So I found that there’s a huge hole. And that’s Africa. So just writing about that—to say some basic history—it has to come out as: “Well, pretty much everything that’s written about it is bad.” That’s kind of a byproduct of the research process. It’s not really that I set out to say, “You’re all wrong,” but, well—“You’re all wrong.”

So why is Africa’s historical role ignored?

I think there are a couple of things, and again, I’m coming from African studies, and the big problem is that African contributions to world culture have really just been overlooked and ignored for a whole variety of reasons. So just saying the basic thing—that a lot of the knowledge and technologies that we have in the world trace to Africa—has really only been done in the last 20 years or so in academic African studies. That’s the bigger problem. The narrower problem—in regard to cannabis—is prohibition. Prohibition has made it so people just haven’t done research on the plant and there’s tons of books written about it, of course, and a lot of those deal with the history, but most of the histories have been written in order to advance one political agenda or another. And the one that’s been dominant since the 1960s, in terms of popular knowledge of cannabis history, is very much a pro-marijuana perspective. And maybe that’s the best perspective—it’s certainly the prominent perspective—but there’s a lot of falsities that are written about the history of the plant because people have been trying to advance an agenda about it in current society. The African history of it touches on a lot of uncomfortable things. And, again, cannabis legalization is probably the way forward, because prohibition hasn’t worked, but promoting it through untrue narratives about history is not valuable. So addressing the African past means addressing the role that drugs in general and cannabis in particular have had in human exploitation and slavery and unfair labor practices and things like that. It really means addressing something that’s uncomfortable, which is hard sometimes, but that needs to be done, I think.

I was really struck by your characterization of Harry Anslinger [cannabis bogeyman and the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics]. Is he not the horrible monster we’ve all heard about?

Well the reality is—yeah. He
was US drug policy. He was the guy who really ramped up US enforcement efforts in general against drugs and in particular against cannabis. He was the one that was testifying in front of the UN in the early 1960s to basically get the current global drug prohibition regime in place. If you’re pro-cannabis, he was a bad guy. He wrecked a lot of people’s lives through his enforcement practices. There’s no doubt about it. Not at all. But the problem is if you look at a lot of the cannabis literature, he’s just made into this irrational, horrible bad guy, when you really don’t need to make him any worse than he was in cannabis history.

What’s missing is that the reason he had a place to even consider controlling cannabis from is because of attitudes that developed in colonial Africa which led to the first global controls against cannabis in the 1920s. That was before Anslinger was even in charge of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics [which now is essentially the DEA]. So, yeah, Anslinger was a bad guy. But at the same time, portraying him as this evil overlord that wrecked everything is just too simplistic. There’s a lot more to it than just creating these characterizations of how bad and wrongheaded drug law enforcement has been. It has been, in many cases, but there’s other reasons for it—not just these characterizations that are shallow.

So it wasn’t so much that he particularly had a thorn in his side for black people, as much as this was an idea that was a product of his culture?

Yeah. Drug law enforcement has been racially biased since the beginning here in the United States. And law enforcement has been racially biased since the beginning here in the United States. So Anslinger was a part of his time. But there are so many quotes—when you look at the internet, if you look at published books about drug law enforcement—that are attributed to Anslinger, that you can trace some of them to pro-marijuana activists who came up with these mean-sounding quotes in order to characterize US drug enforcement in a particular way, and some of them are just completely untraceable. They were just made up to make this caricature of people who were out there—of Anslinger in particular.

And I’m not defending Anslinger. He wrecked a lot of people’s lives. But let’s get a more complicated and nuanced understanding of what drug law enforcement has been here in the US—but really globally is my concern.

Where did it start globally?

To go backwards: 1925 was when the first global law controlling cannabis was implemented. And that was during an opium convention signed in Geneva. And the reason that cannabis appeared there is that South Africa and Egypt—which were both technically independent at that point in time, but were newly independent and the structure in those societies was still very colonial—in Egypt, the rulers were very concerned about how laborers were acting, and they wanted to control laborers for various reasons. In South Africa, it was similar in that they wanted to control laborers, but there, it was a starkly racist framework. The white men were running the government and the majority of workers were of African or South Asian ancestry.

They wanted to control cannabis globally for those reasons, but they also wanted to get back at Britain, which was their colonial ruler. At that point in time, Britain was making money off of cannabis in India. People have heard about how Britain made money off of opium. Well they also controlled the global cannabis pharmaceutical trade. So Egypt and South Africa were trying to get back at Britain to an extent there.

On top of that, you had conditions elsewhere in the continent, particularly in Central Africa, there was growing concern that cannabis use was damaging labor quality. And colonialism, of course, depended on African workers. So starting in the 1870s, African colonies started banning cannabis, in most cases specifically to control laborers, and, in many cases, in explicitly racist terms.

To draw the comparison with the United States, that’s not how cannabis prohibition happened here. Anslinger showed up in the 1930s, and that was really 60 years after people started trying to control cannabis in Africa. And the framework that he worked in—the international framework—was determined by the efforts of these colonial African states, South Africa and Egypt. Again, technically independent but acting in a colonial context.

I was shocked to read that The Emperor Wears No Clothes is [inaccurate]. I read it in high school, and I’m sure some of those factoids have stuck in my brain.

The reality is—when I came across mentions of cannabis—that was probably one of the first books I looked at. It’s easily available. It’s billed as a history.
The Emperor Wears No Clothes is, I’d guess, more heavily read than any book about cannabis history anywhere. It’s very effective in terms of what it set out to do. It was a political manifesto. It was a piece of political advocacy. It was written by a guy named Jack Herer who was, I think, jailed during part of the time that he spent writing it. It was very effective, and it’s still very effective. If you read it, you’ll say, “Wow, hemp will change the world.” And that’s the point of it.

But if you actually look at the research in it—it’s really poorly researched. He was doing this through newspaper clippings and whatnot. The problem is that people have read it as an actual history and not as a piece of political advocacy. So you can find it cited in really high-end medical journals—
The Lancet and Mayo Clinic Proceedings—and by reproducing these political works, they’re kind of stamping them as authentic and true and real. Which they’re not.

Just the idea that the medical literature is partly based on entirely political viewpoints—that’s problematic. Even if the viewpoints are supportable; even if they’re well-received; even if they’re good—they shouldn’t be shaping what our basic knowledge is of this plant and its medical applications.

What parts of that missing history do you think could best inform current policy?

Again, you can go to high-end medical journals and read just nonsense about the history. In the medical literature, these little historical snippets are basically used to justify current interest in the plant drug. [They will say] Queen Victoria used cannabis. George Washington used cannabis. Simply by mentioning those, people will challenge me and say, “No, no, no. Those are absolutely true.” But they’re not. I can deconstruct them in detail, and yet you can go to these medical journals and find these stories. At the same time, there’s absolutely nothing about the African past—whether it’s in Africa, whether it’s historic Africans in the Americas, whether it’s Afro-Brazilians or Afro-Carribean people or African-Americans—there’s nothing about them and their experience in the medical literature and the historical aspects of it.

Looking at the published record—there really is a rich record in terms of how Africans and their descendants in the [African] diaspora used cannabis medicinally. It’s very well documented, and we can understand a lot from how they used it that is much more informative than coming up with these legends about Queen Victoria.

Africans and their descendants in the diaspora used it in context of slavery and labor exploitation. People used it to treat what we would call PTSD. They used it to palliate very severe illnesses. They used it to manage appetite. These things that people see value in nowadays. History is valuable in that respect—to justify current interest in medical marijuana. And having an African presence in those historical snippets in the medical literature would give us strong justifications to look at these applications that people are talking about now.
1 2 3 41