Project Outline

Historical Importance of Cannabis

To date, few professional historians have told the history of Cannabis indica, the plant commonly known as the drug marijuana. Journalists, legal scholars, and amateur historians have written plenty of decent Cannabis histories, but professional historians seem unwilling to acknowledge it as a legitimate research topic. This is mostly because prohibition has built up a powerful stigma that continues to silence the history of Cannabis, a history that includes racial and cultural crossover and conflict; class warfare; sexism; environmental manipulation; economic opportunity and expansion; mass consumption of water, energy, and other resources; and loads of brutal violence and oppression – in other words, the kinds of stories historians drool over. Thus, one goal of this project is to establish Cannabis as a legitimate research topic for historians.

An Environmental Focus

Bringing Cannabis into the discourse of professional history, and teasing out meaning from its many stories, is the larger purpose of this project. But which group of historians should study it?

The social, legal, and economic histories of marijuana have been well-documented in the current array of non-professional histories; thus, it would seem sensible that a combination of historians in those fields would be the best fit. However, a critical historical context – the environment – remains neglected by the existing scholarship. This is odd, considering that Cannabis is first and foremost a plant, like wheat or rice, that people have cultivated for millennia. Its industrial and medicinal value notwithstanding, Cannabis is also one of the very few plants that, in its natural state, is able to alter human consciousness without producing many harmful side effects. For nearly as long as they have been walking on two legs, people have turned to their environment for an altered state of mind; add in the Cannabis plant\’s superior adaptability under myriad natural and human-governed conditions, and you have an epic environmental story aching to be told. While it is easy to see why Cannabis has infiltrated the landscapes and culture of nearly all world societies, it is less clear how it has done so, and what the environmental effects have been.

With that in mind, I approach every aspect of the research for this project from a distinctly environmental perspective. This means asking a host of questions that have been only partly addressed by existing Cannabis literature, including:

How and why did humans influence Cannabis\’ spread and evolution?
Where did it grow, and where was it grown, and why there? 
What are its common and unique needs as a plant, and how have humans met those needs over time?
How and why has the plant\’s environment changed over time, and what have been the environmental consequences of that change?
What can a history of Cannabis the plant teach us that a history of Cannabis the drug cannot?

And many others. Because social struggles and conditions are often inexorably linked to environmental conditions, answering such questions will cut across multiple fields, including social and political history, as well as the history of technology, en route to telling a more complete history of Cannabis.

Case Studies

Home to seven of the first eight states to legalize medical marijuana, as well as the first two states to legalize it outright, the American West provides an interesting (and, in my case, logistically convenient) case study for the environmental history of marijuana. While nearly every U.S. state has its own history with Cannabis, over the past fifty years the West has become the center of marijuana culture, politics, and cultivation. California is the birthplace of the medical movement; medical and recreational weed is now legal in Colorado and Washington; even traditionally conservative states such as Arizona and Montana have adopted medical marijuana laws. Is this concentration of pot politics in the American West simply a coincidence, or is there something about westerners and their environment that has contributed to it?

The West also happens to be the most heavily irrigated part of the country; this helped its spread upon arrival from Mexico and the Port of New Orleans in the early twentieth century. I have found evidence for this connection in contemporary newspaper reports from several Western states, and I am looking for more. I\’m also looking for any trends in the history of the American West that may help explain the region\’s emergence as a hub of cannabis culture, politics and cultivation in the late twentieth and twenty-first century.

Bibliography for this page:

Ferrailo, Kathleen. \”From Killer Weed to Popular Medicine: The Evolution of American Drug Control Policy, 1937-2000.\” Journal of Policy History 19 (2007).

Lee, Martin A. Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana – Medical, Recreational, Scientific. New York: Scribner, 2012.

Pollan, Michael. The Botany of Desire. New York: Random House, 2001.

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