The African Roots of Marijuana

The African Roots of Marijuana

by Chris S. Duvall

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After arriving from South Asia approximately a thousand years ago, cannabis quickly spread throughout the African continent. European accounts of cannabis in Africa—often fictionalized and reliant upon racial stereotypes—shaped widespread myths about the plant and were used to depict the continent as a cultural backwater and Africans as predisposed to drug use. These myths continue to influence contemporary thinking about cannabis. In The African Roots of Marijuana, Chris S. Duvall corrects common misconceptions while providing an authoritative history of cannabis as it flowed into, throughout, and out of Africa. Duvall shows how preexisting smoking cultures in Africa transformed the plant into a fast-acting and easily dosed drug and how it later became linked with global capitalism and the slave trade. People often used cannabis to cope with oppressive working conditions under colonialism, as a recreational drug, and in religious and political movements. This expansive look at Africa's importance to the development of human knowledge about marijuana will challenge everything readers thought they knew about one of the world's most ubiquitous plants.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781478004530
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 05/09/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 360
Sales rank: 1,134,286
File size: 31 MB
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About the Author

Chris S. Duvall is Associate Professor of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of New Mexico and author of Cannabis.

Read an Excerpt


Cannabis and Africa

Marijuana does not cause trypanosomiasis. This is one fact I will offer.

I will not offer much information on other topics some readers might expect in a book about marijuana and Africa. I offer very little about Rastafarianism, for instance, and mention Bob Marley just once more. These examples are crucial in a history of cannabis broader than this one. My research period ends in approximately 1925, a few years before Rastafarianism arose in Jamaica. I have chosen 1925 because this was when cannabis was first listed in an international drug-control agreement, which initiated the now familiar condition of global cannabis prohibition. This book is about what preceded the familiar.

For the period before 1925, I touch on some characters that frequently appear in cannabis histories, including Scythians, Queen Victoria, and the Bena Riamba. Perhaps these characters are unfamiliar to you; their parts will unfold. Whatever your awareness of cannabis in the global past, I will touch on the unfamiliar, because I focus on Africa.

I make a simple argument: Africa has been neglected in popular and scholarly histories of cannabis, and this neglect undermines the capacity of global societies to manage the plant drug. There are no histories of psychoactive cannabis in any continental region, not just Africa. However, Africa is especially important. African knowledge is foundational to the now dominant global use of cannabis as a smoked drug. If you know nothing about cannabis except that it can be a smoked drug, your knowledge traces to Africa.

There is an enormous literature on cannabis. I do not cover it all. At points, I am quite critical of recent portrayals of the plant's history. I mention publications ranging in substance from The Lancet to Playboy magazine. My view is that histories of cannabis — whether book-length scholarly studies, vignettes in medical literature, or tidbits in popular media — are poorly researched and unjustifiably neglect Africa. My critiques may seem frivolous — it should be obvious that ads in Playboy may be misleading — only if you overlook the closeness of pop culture and academic discourse about cannabis. The same factual errors appear in high and low places, because the same conceptual errors are shared across society. The conditions of cannabis prohibition have warped ideas about the plant. The collective historical narrative about cannabis is built predominantly from pretentious, politically motivated factoids rather than documented evidence about the plant's past.

Africa is ignored in the collective historical narrative. The widely shared nonportrayal overlooks the fundamental importance of African knowledge to the global practice of cannabis smoking. More important, the nonportrayal of Africa intellectually justifies notions that drug use is a racially determined behavior. The collective narrative, being unconstrained by evidence of the plant's African past, enables anti-Black, racial stereotypes about cannabis drug use. In the United States, one outcome of these stereotypes is biased drug-law enforcement.

Again, however, my focus is on Africa and the period before 1925. I do not offer much on current drug-law enforcement, primarily comments about its intellectual basis. My focus is on what preceded the familiar. To understand why cannabis appears in international drug laws at all, for instance, the intellectual pathway leads to colonial Africa.

Neglect of Africa in cannabis history has real-world consequences in and beyond the continent. African knowledge lies at the foundation of the dominant global culture of psychoactive cannabis use, even as Pan-African experiences are ignored in developing approaches to managing the plant as an economic, pharmacological, ecological, and political resource. To understand cannabis in the modern world, the pathway leads to Africa.

CANNABIS IS AMONG the most widely recognized plants. Its leaf is globally iconic. This book is written for people who know that cannabis can supply psychoactive drugs, as well as industrial products such as fiber for rope or cloth. Many people know little else about the plant. Some people know brief anecdotes about its history; George Washington and Queen Victoria are sometimes mentioned. A few people with especial interests in the plant have published world histories of it.

World histories of cannabis comprise a distinct literary genre. Among the canon, Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany (2013) is a new classic; Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana (2012) and Cannabis: A History (2005) have both sold many copies for mass-market publishers; Marihuana: The First Twelve Thousand Years (1980) is foundational to many newer works. The most influential of all is The Emperor Wears No Clothes, an anti-prohibition tale first published 1985 and now in its twelfth American English edition, with editions in other languages and countries. The Emperor is as poorly researched as widely read. Many works offer shorter histories, ranging from the obscure to the current mainstream (such as in 2014's authoritative Handbook of Cannabis). Many physicians have offered historical vignettes about cannabis to justify their scientific interest in medical marijuana (see chapter 10). George Washington somehow used cannabis, so why shouldn't we? The vignettes of scholars blend with the sound bites of popular media to become common knowledge about the plant's history, a knowledge poorly rooted in facts. It is not true, for instance, that "Cannabis has been used throughout the world for thousands of years and by all types of social classes, including Queen Victoria in the 1800s."

Cannabis histories reflect the political-economic conditions of their authorship. Most have been written by authors interested in advancing political arguments for or against the drug plant's prohibition. Cannabis histories display political advocacy more than desire to build knowledge and test assumptions about the past. The first serious history of marihuana in Mexico, of all places, was published in 2012, Isaac Campos's Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico's War on Drugs. Other serious historians have investigated cannabis elsewhere. Some who have looked at the plant drug in African societies include Emmanuel Akyeampong, Johannes Fabian, Gernot Klantschnig, Liat Kozma, James Mills, David Gordon, and Wolfgang Cremer. Academic histories are much less well circulated, though, than popular books like The Emperor.

Political debates about cannabis in current societies have shaped knowledge about the plant in past societies. Real historical events have been overlooked, or, if noticed, spun beyond recognition and never studied for insight on the people-plant relationship. An important example is the origins of global cannabis prohibition. Campos shows that a War-on-Drugs mentality originated within Mexico, well before the rise of harsh anti-marijuana rhetoric in the twentieth-century United States. Political-advocate histories have ignored the plant drug's past outside the United States, simplistically portraying global prohibition as a blight spread by U.S. political-economic dominance and tinged by racist attitudes within the United States. Cannabis histories often target Harry Anslinger as the driving force behind global prohibition. Anslinger was the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a precursor to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). He strictly enforced drug laws through his thirty-two-year commissionership (1930–62). His influential public discourse vilified marijuana and its growers, peddlers, and users. Anslinger's classic paper, "Marijuana, Assassin of Youth" (1937), adapted a centuries-old Orientalist stereotype about drug-fueled violence to serve his purposes in twentieth-century America.

Despite his real role in cannabis history, Anslinger has been made into a semifictional straw man, easy to topple as a stand-in for the idea of prohibition. The Emperor Wears No Clothes ostensibly paraphrased U.S. prohibitionists in Louisiana in the 1910s as saying marijuana "mak[es] the 'darkies' think they [are] as good as 'white men.'" These unsavory words were written in 1985 by a pro-marijuana activist but now circulate without restraint as a direct quote from Anslinger in outlets that include Rolling Stone magazine (2016), the scholarly book Race and the Black Male Subculture (2016), and the academic periodical Kansas Journal of Law and Public Policy (2017).

These false attributions serve to make cannabis control an outcome of "abhorrent hatred toward immigrants and racial minorities" in the United States. This is not an accurate portrayal of prohibition. Initial U.S. cannabis-control laws were about controlling pharmacy practice and preventing use of a drug thought to produce individual and public-health problems. Local anti-cannabis laws preceded federal prohibition, but these were widely preemptive bureaucratic initiatives passed before psychoactive cannabis gained any other local attention. Anslinger was initially hesitant to bring marijuana under federal control but did so to favor domestic politicians; he always remained more concerned about morphine and heroin. Racial bias in all aspects of U.S. law enforcement was entrenched long before Anslinger, whose ideas about human difference surely reflected his time. However, none of his published writings display the racial virulence that pro-marijuana activists have placed in his mouth.

Legal controls on cannabis did not originate in the United States. Controls were in place globally before the U.S. federal government began worrying about marijuana in the 1930s. The roots of global prohibition lay in early twentieth-century Africa, not in American bureaucrats. Cannabis first appeared in an international drug-control agreement, the International Opium Convention signed in Geneva in 1925, because South Africa and Egypt asked for it to be included, and the world went along. Both countries had had cannabis controls in place since 1870. Decades before Anslinger, most African colonies had banned cannabis, often in explicitly racist terms and principally to control the hard laborers who were the plant drug's principal users (see chapters 8 and 9). The world came into compliance with colonial African ideas about cannabis.

Cannabis is a global crop. Over the past five centuries, the plant genus has colonized the world, expanding its outdoor range to encompass effectively all ecologically suitable territory between about 60 degrees north and south latitudes. Humans have been the primary dispersal vector for the plant. People have carried cannabis seeds into many landscapes, including colonists hoping to make rope in new lands, slaves saving seeds to plant somewhere someday, and marijuana growers trying to breed new varieties. The plant's biological dispersal was inevitably a political-economic process, because it was a human endeavor.

It's challenging to understand the plant's history because of its challenging nomenclature and its dichotomous material values. I discuss cannabis taxonomy in chapter 2. At this point I will simply adopt the view that there are two major genetic groups within the Cannabis genus: indica, which exhibits psychoactive chemistry, and sativa, which does not. When italicized, indica and sativa refer to these groups, which are not the same as the groups of plants that marijuana aficionados call indica and sativa. Nonitalicized indica and sativa designate folk species — plant types that are recognized informally within a social group — and are unreliable indicators of genetic relationships between plants.

The genetic lineages have their own histories of biological dispersal. The center of evolutionary origin for Cannabis indica was around the Hindu Kush mountains in highland South Asia, while Cannabis sativa originated in temperate Central Asia. The midlatitude population traveled westward to colonize Europe, where people valued it for fiber and hempseed. The psychoactive population colonized southern and eastern Asia and about a third of Africa, the northeastern portion, by 1500. Three major subgroups exist within the psychoactive population. In eastern Asia, these plants were bred for fiber and hempseed production, not psychoactive products, although they retained psychoactive chemistry. In South Asia, people developed two major subgroups, one associated with the production of charas (cannabis resin), and one associated with ganja (female flowers or, more precisely, pistillate inflorescences).

Historical accounts of cannabis come principally from European observers, many of whom had strong opinions about how others interacted with the plant. During the Age of Sail, hemp fiber was crucial to European political-economic power. Each large ship required dozens of tons of maritime-quality rope and canvas that needed to be regularly replaced. Political-economic authorities sought continually to increase plant-fiber production, but farmers often did not want to grow the crop because of its heavy labor demands. An early impetus for economic botanical exploration of the world was to find fiber plants that were easier to process into high-quality rope and cloth. Yet despite the problems of producing cannabis fiber, throughout the period before 1925, hemp represented agricultural bounty, industrial success, and maritime strength in European media. Psychoactive cannabis drug use was contrarily framed as a waste of a plant resource presumed to be more valuable if made into rope.

For European documentarians in colonial Africa, perceptions of cannabis drug use were entangled in ideas about class and race. Racial ideas coevolved with the historical epidemiology of drug use. The drug-use practices of people in social underclasses were stereotyped as deleterious to individual and public health. The social-ecological processes that produced marginality elevated theimportance of subsistence therapeutic resources to these people, including cannabis. Racial categories commonly served to mark class differences so that the social-ecological conditions of wealth and poverty were considered the natural states of different racial groups. Notably, the racial category "Black" (and historical synonyms) arose as an intellectual justification for chattel slavery. In colonial societies around the Atlantic, the conditions of Blackness, marginality, and psychoactive cannabis drug use became associated and were assigned negative meanings in European thought.

Drug use by White, social-ecological elites, by contrast, was sanctified as open-minded experimentation, free-thinking expression, or intrepid worldliness. The documents of cannabis history come almost entirely from Western travelers, few of whom claimed direct experience with the plant drug. Those who did could boast of cannabis consumption even while condemning it among others, because their status allowed them to dabble with low-class drugs without fear of social repercussions. Elite privilege has shaped the telling of cannabis history, too. Consider the twentieth-century American writer Paul Bowles, whose writings helped form current popular understanding of cannabis in Morocco. Public representations of Bowles's drug knowledge exuded worldly coolness, as when he told eager but naive Rolling Stone readers in 1974, "There's no good Moroccan hashish. It's not a product [Moroccans] ever used. The first ones who made it were mostly American blacks who brought presses and showed the Moroccans how to do it." His worldliness alone backed up his anecdote: trust the expert, the bad drugs trace to Blacks. Yet Bowles's knowledge of Moroccan language and culture was superficial, despite his long residence in the country. Narratives of cannabis history reflect the partial perspectives of privileged observers; race and class shaped both patterns and portrayals of drug use in past societies.

It's crucial to think about race and class in understanding cannabis history. For the world population of Cannabis indica, the main pathway to global dispersal passed from southern Asia across the Indian Ocean to sub-Saharan Africa and from there across the Atlantic. The political economy of its trans-African and transatlantic dispersal was the global expansion of capitalism after 1500. Cannabis was integral to exploitative labor relationships upon which capitalist endeavors and colonial expansion depended, including plantation economies in the New World connected to slave economies in the Old World. The psychoactive cannabis seeds that crossed the Atlantic accompanied disease, trauma, violence, and poverty. Cannabis histories have overlooked this people-plant relationship, mostly because Pan-African experiences have been ignored.


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Table of Contents

Part I. Introduction: Pay Attention to African Cannabis
1. Cannabis and Africa  3
2. Race and Plant Evolution  33
Part II. Evidence: How Cannabis Came to Africa, What Happened to it There, and How It Crossed the Atlantic
3. Roots of African Cannabis Cultures  53
4. Cannabis Colonizes the Continent  72
5. A Convenient Crop  95
6. Society Overturned: The Bena Riamba  112
7. Cannabis Crosses the Atlantic  125
Part III. Discussion and Conclusions: What Carried Cannabis?
8. Working under the Influence  159
9. Buying and Banning  184
10. Rethinking Marijuana  216
Acknowledgments  231
Notes  233
Index  341

What People are Saying About This

In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa's Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World - Judith Carney

“This timely and compelling book profoundly engages with the contemporary interest in medical marijuana and the revision underway in the racial stereotyping of drug users. As the only work that situates Africa and its peoples at the center of a human and environmental narrative that unfolds across the Atlantic world, The African Roots of Marijuana offers a history of cannabis unlike any other.”

In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World - Judith A. Carney

“This timely and compelling book profoundly engages with the contemporary interest in medical marijuana and the revision underway in the racial stereotyping of drug users. As the only work that situates Africa and its peoples at the center of a human and environmental narrative that unfolds across the Atlantic world, The African Roots of Marijuana offers a history of cannabis unlike any other.”

The Ethnobotany of Eden: Rethinking the Jungle Medicine Narrative - Robert A. Voeks

"The history and geography of psychoactive cannabis has been written many times, but no other work prior to Chris S. Duvall's The African Roots of Marijuana has explored the crucial importance of Africa and Africans in the story. Indeed, as in so many others areas of biocultural world history, Africans have been written continuously as recipients of knowledge and invention rather than innovators. With a focus on nineteenth-century published works, Duvall exposes forcefully and with felicitous prose the roots underlying the cannabis cultures that exist today."

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