BOOK REVIEW: Martin A. Lee, "Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana–Medical, Recreational and Scientific" (2012)

If you have even a shred of doubt about the legitimacy of cannabis in any society, Martin A. Lee would like a word with you.

Actually, he\’d like a couple hundred thousand. In Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana–Medical, Recreational, and Scientific, the award-winning investigative journalist lays out possibly the thickest, most comprehensive and well-researched history of pot to date. His main argument is about as straightforward as it gets: He looked, and there is not one good reason for marijuana prohibition. Lee relentlessly hammers away at this point for more than 350 pages, filled with some of the most eloquent, diligent, and decidedly unobjective history currently available. Like most ambitious scholarly works, Smoke Signals is not without its faults – the two most prominent being Lee\’s failure to address possible negative effects of marijuana and his general neglect of weed\’s environmental history.

On the surface, Smoke Signals is an exhaustively detailed version of the common pro-pot argument, which goes something like \”Marijuana prohibition is stupid because A, B, and C, and weed should be legal because X, Y, and Z.\”  Lee examines much of the same evidence, albeit to a greater extent, that other activists and scholars have used in their political campaigns and books to assault cannabis prohibition. For instance, he chronicles the hypocrisy and hefty fascist streak in the U.S. government\’s Drug War, the experiences of individuals and groups that make cannabis decriminalization a civil and human rights campaign, and the mountain of evidence that assures cannabis is one of the most medically valuable plants on the planet.

Yet it is the exhaustive detail – the seemingly endless run of stories, each one interesting, disturbing, or enlightening in its own way – and the passion with which he writes that makes Lee\’s argument so much more compelling and convincing than others.
In much the same way that high-quality bud gives users a better kick than the standard strains, high-quality research gives Lee\’s rather standard argument renewed potency. It is the depth of his research, for example, that allows him to indict operations like D.A.R.E. and the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, both commonly considered to be well-meaning, as dishonest pushers of corporate agendas (163). It also allows him to argue that \”[t]he [1980s and current] fight over marijuana was in many ways a fight over the memory of the Sixties,\” an important but oft-overlooked reason for the U.S. government\’s hard-headed resistance to any changes in national drug laws (158).

It may be a bit ironic that Lee, the founder of the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), is the author of such a glaringly one-sided book. But it is no accident. Clearly, Lee\’s staggeringly deep probe of newspapers, magazines, scientific and government studies, popular culture, court cases, statistics, history books, and other sources has convinced him that marijuana prohibition is totally unjust. And if Smoke Signals is unfair to the anti-drug crowd, it\’s because Lee has found that segment to be particularly unfair to minorities, poor people (especially poor minorities), veterans, certain religious sects, casual drug users, and anyone else whose quality of life improved with use of marijuana. But, as a reviewer for Kirkus suggested, Lee\’s long-running stampede of evidence may trample some readers: \”Readers will understand very quickly that pot should be legal and that it\’s not the scourge that square politicos have made it out to be\” (Kirkus Reviews, 8/1/2012, p360).

Though it is inescapably clear that Lee\’s research has tilted him toward an open endorsement of marijuana, he generally neglects to discuss even possible negative effects of the drug. Lee discusses the less well-known sensory improvement that comes with marijuana use, but he does not address the well-known sensory impairment that also comes with it. He cites many studies confirming that there are practically no negative long-term effects of marijuana use, but what about momentary impairment? How does it effect short-term memory? Does any negative effect of cannabis outweigh its bounty of helpful ones? These are questions Lee should have tackled more explicitly. Moreover, a 25-year study cited in a 2013 Scientific American article found that \”heavy use among adolescents can do permanent cognitive damage.\” Smoke Signals includes no such studies, however pertinent they may be. Addressing, or at least admitting to, possible negative effects of the drug wouldn\’t have weakened Lee\’s overall argument – there are few, as he has proved – and would have reflected a more objective synthesis of the evidence.

Smoke Signals is a book about a plant and humans\’ relationship with it. It is therefore surprising that it barely contains anything that could be considered environmental history. Arguably, the closest Lee comes to environmental history is in his prologue, when he explains its spread from its native Central Asia thousands of years ago: \”[M]arijuana\’s historical diffusion proceeded along two divergent paths, reflecting its dual role as a fiber crop and a psychoactive flower\” (4). In Europe, Lee writes that \”cooler climates favored rope over dope,\” while other strains developed psychoactive adaptations for warmer climes in southern Asia and Africa. This seems like a lead-in to an environmental point, but from there Lee goes right to people: \”Something about the herb resonated with humankind\” (4). In Smoke Signals, people definitely take precedence over the landscapes they create and modify. This amounts to an unintentional continuation of a popular – and wrong – assumption in scholarly writing: People are separate from their environments. Although especially untrue in the case of pot, Lee misses chance after chance to connect the two using environmental history.

Another one of those chances was in his chapter about the draconian drug policies of the Reagan administration, and how marijuana growers in the Emerald Triangle, a tri-county region in Northern California notorious for pot cultivation, openly defied them. He frames the conflict in social and economic terms: Zealous DEA agents on an absolutist crusade collide with a coalition of war vets, sixties culture war refugees, and libertarians trying to jumpstart the regional economy. But Lee does not provide enough environmental context to explain why, in a decade where aggressive federal enforcement started to push more pot growers indoors, residents of the Emerald Triangle still found it worthwhile to grow their marijuana outdoors. The soil and climate in the region were obviously good enough to be worth the risk. But instead of the environment, Lee claims that economic need and a long history of \”don\’t-tread-on-me individualism\” in the region fueled its defiant group of outdoor pot growers (178). In this same chapter Lee misses yet another chance to link marijuana and the environment: Since the 1980s, harsh penalties for growing and possessing pot have pushed people – in some places even the Mexican cartels – to grow it on public lands, thereby causing a wealth of environmental problems. Though the book is sub-titled A Social History of Marijuana, the environment is not only where the social history takes place; it also has a hand in shaping that social history. It should be included in a more relevant way.

Despite its shortcomings, Lee\’s work is much more than another convincing argument for the end of cannabis prohibition. The scope and quality of his research, arguably the first of its kind in a book about marijuana, demands respect and consideration by all of academia, especially historians. It is worrisome indeed that professional historians continue to eschew cannabis as a legitimate research topic, because as Lee shows in Smoke Signals, the history of the plant is directly tied to the histories of race, culture, religion, economics, agriculture, medicine, and politics in world societies.

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