HIGH POINTS: AN HISTORICAL GEOGRAPHY OF
ABSTRACT.Cannabis, including hemp and its psychoactive counterpart, has a long but
largely overlooked historical geography. Situating the topic within varied perspectives
such as world-systems theory, Foucauldian biopolitics, and the moral economy of drugs,
this paper charts its diffusion over several millennia, noting the contingent and uneven
ways in which it was enveloped within varying social and political circumstances. Fol-
lowing a brief theorization, it explores the plant’s early uses in East and South Asia, its
shift to the Middle East, and resultant popularity in the Arab world and Africa. Next, it
turns to its expansion under colonialism, including deliberate cultivation by Portuguese
and British authorities in the New World as part of the construction of a paciﬁed labor
force. The ﬁfth section offers an overview of cannabis’s contested history in the United
States, in which a series of early 20
-century moral panics led to its demonization; later,
the drug enjoyed gradual liberalization. Keywords: cannabis, marijuana, hemp, drugs,
Drugs have long played an important role in global trade and politics.
Tobacco, introduced to the British by North American Indians, was simulta-
neously denounced as a “demonic vegetable” and enthusiastically embraced in
the new custom of smoking. By the 17
century, write Kenneth Pomeranz and
Steven Topik, it was “as if all the tobacco in the world was roaring in a great,
brown tsunami up the Thames toward London” (1999,99). Opium was as cen-
tral to the foreign policy and foreign exchange of the British Empire in the 19
century as frigates, and British conﬂicts with Chinese attempts to limit imports
of this drug from India led to the Opium Wars of the 1840s. The dramatic
reductions in transport costs that occurred in the wake of industrial capitalism
gave Europeans access to numerous exotic plants from around the world. In
the process, drugs that had been primarily used in indigenous religious occa-
sions, such as by Incan temple coca users, Suﬁ holy men, or Buddhist priests,
became increasingly marketable and secularized, and diffused to become bour-
geois pleasures, then mass delights. David Courtwright (2002) charts a 500-
year-long “psychoactive revolution,” in which drugs have steadily increased in
availability, potency, and popularity. Such observations point to the socially
and spatially uneven nature of drug use, how it is invariably deeply tied to cul-
tural perceptions and misperceptions, and the politics of moral regulation. A
critically important drug in this regard is psychoactive cannabis.
Over the last three decades, a voluminous literature on cannabis has
emerged. Its evolution, ecology, and genetics have been subject to extensive
*The author thanks several reviewers for their helpful suggestions as well as Darin Grauberger for assistance
with the map.
kDR.WARF is a professor of geography at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas 66045;
Geographical Review 104 (4): 414–438, October 2014
Copyright ©2014 by the American Geographical Society of New York
botanical analysis (for example Hillig and Mahlberg 2004; Hillig 2005). Another
subset has been concerned primarily with the physiological and psychological
impacts of its use (Kaplan and others 1986; Bachman and others 1988; Grin-
spoon and Bakalar 1993; Zablocki and others 1991; Zimmer and Morgan 1997;
Iverson 2000). Issues of spatiality are often marginalized in this body of work.
There is, of course, a vibrant extant literature on the geography of drugs
(Rengert 1996; Steinberg, Hobbs and Mathewson 2004; Rengert, Ratcliffe and
Chakravorty 2005; Taylor and others 2013), but it tends to focus on topics such
as opium (Hobbs 1998) or geographies of addiction (Thomas and others 2008).
While there are several competent and detailed histories of cannabis (Merlin
1972; Sloman 1999; Green 2002; Booth 2003; Lee 2013), which tend to concen-
trate on its illegalization in the U.S. (Weisheit 1992), geographic studies of the
spatiality of one of the world’s most popular drugs are surprisingly sparse. A
series of case studies in the important volume Cannabis and Culture (1975)
included historical accounts of cannabis use in Brazil (De Pinho 1975; Hutchin-
son 1975), Jamaica (Comitas 1975), India (Hasan 1975), South Africa (du Tout
1975), Colombia (Elejalde 1975), and Ethiopia (Van der Merwe 1975). Other
local accounts include Costa Rica (Carter 1980), Belize (Steinberg 2004), and
Amsterdam (Jansen 1990,1991). Despite this multitude of rich case studies, sur-
prisingly there is as yet no attempt to trace the plant’s global diffusion from a
geographic perspective, weaving its origins, diffusion, cultural and legal specif-
ics, and envelopment within the world system into a single narrative. Of
course, since Carl Sauer the domestication and diffusion of crops has been a
signiﬁcant topic of geographic inquiry (Harris 1967), a tradition to which this
paper seeks to contribute.
From prehistoric Xinjiang to the slums of Kingston, Jamaica, from hashish
smokers in medieval Cairo to casual pot users on American university cam-
puses, psychoactive cannabis has a long and fascinating historical geography.
Cannabis has long been entwined with the world economy and local social and
cultural practices in a variety of ways; its historical geography, therefore, points
to the intersections between broad social relations that give the plant’s use
some degree of consistency (especially religious and shamanistic applications)
and the contingent speciﬁcs of individual societies and places. As such, the
temporal and spatial diffusion of the plant lies at the intersections of Foucaul-
dian biopolitics, ethnobotony and political ecology, the moral politics of desire
and its control, and world-systems theory, a nexus of relations that plays out at
multiple spatial scales ranging from international geopolitics to the rhythms of
everyday life. The use of cannabis, and repeated attempts to regulate and curtail
it, reﬂect changing and spatially uneven sets of social norms and practices that
reﬂect the outlooks and strategies both of users and various state and religious
bodies that have sought to marginalize it.
Inspired by similar treatments of salt (Kurlansky 2003) and sugar (Mintz
1986), this paper explores the global and historical diffusion of cannabis in four
HISTORICAL GEOGRAPHY OF CANNABIS 415
sections. It opens with a brief statement about the varieties of cannabis, notably
hemp and its psychoactive relative. Second, it embeds the topic within a theo-
retical perspective informed by biopolitics, world-systems theory, and cultural
political economy. Third, it turns to the domestication and diffusion of canna-
bis in the premodern world, demonstrating that despite the manifold differ-
ences among cultures, it was viewed positively more often than not, frequently
intertwined with religious purposes, and cultivated for both pragmatic and rec-
reational reasons. The fourth part summarizes the role of the plant in the colo-
nial world economy, particularly the New World, when it was both closely
intertwined with the slave trade and subject to increasing state scrutiny and
regulation. The ﬁfth section dwells on the American context in the 20
tury, in which cannabis became wrapped up in the uniquely conservative politi-
cal climate of the U.S. The conclusion situates contemporary debates about
cannabis within the broader historical context of its use.
WHAT IS CANNABIS?
The genus cannabis includes several closely related species. The most common
are two subspecies named by Carl Linnaeus in 1753,Cannabis sativa L. (the L is
in honor of Linnaeus), widely known as hemp, which is not psychoactive, and
Cannabis sativa, which is. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck identiﬁed a second species,
Cannabis indica, and third, Cannabis ruderalis, was named in 1924 by a Russian
botanist, D.E. Janischevisky; the latter is uncommon. (It should be noted that
controversy at times attends to these taxonomic classiﬁcations). Each species
has several variants and subspecies. The history and geographies of Cannabis
sativa L. (hemp) and Cannabis sativa (marijuana) are very closely intertwined,
but are not identical; the two tended to spread together over space and time.
Hemp has a long history of applications: its ﬁbers have been used for millennia
to make rope, canvas (from Greek kannabis), clothing, paper, shoes, and sails.
In contrast, Cannabis sativa, the focus of this paper,has long been cultivated
for its psychoactive effects, which are attributable to a sticky resin that the
female plant produces that is rich with cannabinoids. The most important of
these, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), was discovered by two Israeli bio-
chemists in 1964. THC induces a variety of sensory and psychological effects,
including mild reverie and euphoria; heightened sensory awareness, creativity,
and empathy; impaired short-term memory; altered sense of time and space;
enhanced appetite and sexual desire; occasional drowsiness; and a tendency to
enhance introspection, although these effects vary among individuals depending
on their age, dosage, strain consumed, and frequency of use (Zablocki and oth-
ers 1991). Hemp contains less than 1percent THC, whereas levels in psychoac-
tive cannabis range from four to as high as 20 percent in newer varieties.
Hashish (Arabic for “dry herb”) consists of the puriﬁed cannabis resin, and is
considerably more potent. For cannabis to release THC into the bloodstream it
must be heated above 100°C, i.e., it must be cooked or smoked. Historically,
416 GEOGRAPHICAL REVIEW
cannabis consumed for its psychoactive purposes involved eating it, rubbing its
heated oil on the skin, or inhaling the smoke that resulted after being thrown
on ﬁres; smoking in pipes was relatively uncommon until the custom was
introduced from the New World in the 16
century. Cannabis is prepared and
consumed in a variety of forms, and has been long known by a variety of mon-
ikers, including ma in China; Arabic kif;bhang, charas, and ganja in India; and
dagga in Southern Africa. Likewise, the Sanskrit word khanap gave rise to the
kanab in Farsi, kannabis in Greek, konopyla in Russia, cainb in Gaelic, German
henf, Dutch hennep, Swedish hampa, and English hemp, although in contempo-
rary usage it has been called pot, grass, and weed.
Three conceptual tools can be utilized in understanding the geographies of can-
nabis use: biopower and biopolitics, world-systems theory, and cultural political
economy. All three attempt to suture the broader dynamics of social relations
with the contingent rhythms of everyday life, bringing these two scales into a
The Foucauldian sense of biopower centered on the power/knowledge rela-
tions that produce human subjects, control bodies, and subject populations,
typically within the context of the nation-state (Sawicki 1991; Elden and
Crampton 2007). In managing a population with a diverse set of tools, the state
politicized the biological dimensions of human existence, rendering docile large
bodies of people so that their governance could be effected unproblematically.
Michel Foucault’s works, of course, famously focused on prisons, schools, hos-
pitals, mental illness, sexuality, surveillance, and governmentality, but more
recently biopower has been extended to other domains as well. For example, it
has become widespread in critical analyses of drugs (for example, Bergschmidt
2004; Marez 2004; Keane 2009) as well as related topics such as policing (Corva
2009), the media, and education.
Second, cannabis may be understood within the context of world-systems
theory (Wallerstein 1979). For example, ﬂows of illegal drugs are often seen as
evidence that national borders have declined in their regulatory power and thus
pose a challenge to sovereignty (Gootenberg 2009; Neilson and Bamyeh 2009).
Beyond the conﬁnes of the nation-state, cannabis has played out within the
dynamics of the global economy. For example, assertive efforts by the British
and Portuguese colonial governments from the 16
to the 19
centuries to pro-
mote cannabis use were linked to the worldwide commodiﬁcation of labor
power and the production of a quiescent labor force (Angrosino 2003). Colo-
nial biopolitics, a ﬁeld that has come into its own (see Nally 2008), offers use-
ful insights into the manner in which colonial subjects were selectively
produced and managed through discourses that acquire the ofﬁcial backing of
HISTORICAL GEOGRAPHY OF CANNABIS 417
Finally, cannabis may also be embedded within the domain of cultural
political economy, an approach that seeks to bridge the divide between tradi-
tional Marxist perspectives and poststructuralist concerns with identity politics,
discourse, and political performance (Jessop and Sum 2001; Jessop and
Oosterlynck 2008). One variant concerns human-plant interactions, typically
theorized within the context of cultural ecology (Head and Atchison 2008; Hall
2009). Cannabis use has been alternately promoted and demonized, forming
shifting, contingent, and contested islands of morality situated between com-
peting discourses of legitimacy and illegitimacy (Thompson, Pearce, and
Barnett 2007; Wilton and Moreno 2012). Cannabis consumption thus straddles
the boundaries of moral geographies of inclusion and exclusion, including the
regulation of the politics of desire alaDeleuze and Guattari (Goodchild 1996),
a domain that clearly extends into other topics such as sex and alcohol. In this
sense, its regulation—or lack thereof—reﬂects historically speciﬁc norms and
legal codes, attempts by governments to produce morally proper subjects, and
resistance to such limitations on the part of growers and users. For example,
attempts to demonize marijuana and hashish frequently center on their alleged
links to cultural subversion and disrespect for authority. As Michael Pollan
(2001,175) puts it, the drug “short-circuits the metaphysics of desire on which
Christianity and capitalism (and so much else in our civilization) depend.” For
those opposed to its use, cannabis represents a destabilizing threat to the estab-
lished order (for example, in Confucian China), and hence a moral affront typ-
ically grounded in religious objections; nonetheless, hegemonic groups have at
times actively encouraged cannabis smoking in the interest of promoting docil-
ity (for example, in British and Portuguese slave colonies).
In short, theorizations of cannabis cultivation and use are inextricably
bound up with broader understandings of power, knowledge, class, ethnicity,
and the state. Such conﬁgurations inevitably play out differentially over time
and space. For this reason, illuminating the historical geography of the drug
offers a window into the changing networks of power that have unevenly
encouraged and discouraged its use in varying historical and geographical
PREMODERN OF CANNABIS CULTIVATION AND USE
The origins and earliest uses of cannabis are often shrouded by obfuscating
veils of rhetoric promoted by the plant’s advocates and detractors alike. A sun-
loving plant, cannabis evolved on the steppes of Central Asia, speciﬁcally Mon-
golia and southern Siberia (Figure 1), although others have variously suggested
the Huang He River valley, the Hindu Kush mountains, South Asia, or Afghan-
istan as possible source areas. Its biogeography ﬂuctuated over time, largely in
response to the waxing and waning of Pleistocene glaciers from which it took
refuge (Clarke and Merlin 2013). In the upper-Paleolithic period, its spatial dis-
tribution was markedly reshaped by human beings, who domesticated it. Ernest
418 GEOGRAPHICAL REVIEW
Abel (1980) suggests that its use goes back as far as 12,000 years, and that it is
among humanity’s oldest cultivated crops. It likely ﬂourished in the nutrient-
rich dump sites of prehistoric hunters and gatherers. Archaeobotanical evidence
for its spread centers on pollen and seed analysis, although many cultures have
written records of its cultivation and use. Aside from hemp ﬁbers, cannabis
seeds are nutritious, and its psychoactive properties may have been important
for shamans or to break the monotony of everyday life (Clarke and Merlin
2013). Burned cannabis seeds have been found in kurgan burial mounds of the
Pazaryk tribes in Siberia dating back to 3,000 BC (Godwin 1967), which also
included censors to burn them. Tombs of Caucasoid nobles buried in Xinjiang
and Siberia around 2500 BC, such as the Yanghai Tombs in the Turpan Basin
of Xinjiang, occasionally include large quantities of mummiﬁed psychoactive
cannabis sativa but not hemp (Rudenko 1970; Jiang and others 2006; Mukher-
jee and others 2008; Russo and others 2008).
Both hemp and psychoactive cannabis were widely used in ancient China.
The Chinese used hemp widely, including rope, clothing, sails, and bowstrings.
Paintings of the plant were found on Yangshao-era pottery dating to 6,200 BC
(Li 1974,1975), and it was widely cultivated on the loess plains of the Hwang
He. The plant’s written character, “ma,” is derived from sketches of hanging
hemp stalks drying. While its primary use was for its ﬁbers, the ﬁrst docu-
mented evidence of medicinal cannabis sativa, based on carbon-14 dating tech-
niques, dates back to 4000 BC (Russo 2004). It was utilized as an anesthetic
during surgery, including for the emperor Shen Nung in 2737 BC (Merlin 1972;
Schlosser 2003). Cannabis elixirs were incorporated into certain Daoist religious
ceremonies, often associated with the Hemp Maid, or Ma Gu, as described in
the religious text Secrets of the Golden Flower (Abel 1980). Hui-Lin Li (1975)
FIG.1—Historical diffusion of Cannabis Sativa.
HISTORICAL GEOGRAPHY OF CANNABIS 419
notes that the ﬁrst documented medical use is found in an herbal text of the
century AD, the Pen Ts’ao Ching (Book of Odes), which chronicles oral tra-
ditions passed down from prehistoric times. The book notes that if taken in
excess, cannabis “will produce hallucinations. If taken over a long term, it
makes one communicate with spirits and lightens one’s body” (Li 1975,56).
From Neolithic China, cannabis found its way to Korea and Japan around
approximately 2000 BC, if not earlier. Sarah Nelson (1993) argues that hemp
was cultivated by Chulmun coastal farmers in Korea. In Japan, it was used by
the Jomon culture, and hemp patterns have been implicated in their famous
rope-imprinted pottery. Later, hemp ﬁbers were burned ceremonially by Shinto
priests, who associated it with purity (Clarke and Merlin 2013). By the 6
tury AD, however, with the ascendancy of Confucianism as state ideology
under the Han empire, psychoactive cannabis use in China, Korea, and Japan
began to decline steadily (Li 1974,1975). In part due to its association with
Central Asian nomads, and because Confucian moral values frowned on its
potentially socially disruptive consequences, cannabis use waned, in contrast to
opium. Robert Clarke and Mark Merlin (2013,98) “suggest that after the rise of
Confucianism, which spread from China through East Asia to Japan, the inges-
tion of Cannabis resin for psychoactive, ritualistic puriﬁcation was eventually
suppressed in Japan, as it was in China.”
Meanwhile, use of the plant was widespread among the Aryan nomadic
herding tribes of the central Asian steppes, who carried it along the various
paths that constituted the Silk Road over a vast swath of land stretching from
Mongolia and Tuva to the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Burial tombs of
the Phyrgians and Scythians frequently contained cannabis sativa seeds (Sherr-
att 1995). Greatly enabled in their mobility by the horse and the wheel
(Anthony 2007), Bronze Age tribes, particularly the Scythians, served as crucial
vehicles for the plant’s diffusion into South Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern
Cannabis was carried into the South Asian subcontinent between 2000 and
1000 BC, most likely as part of the series of Aryan invasions (Zuardi 2006).
Some speculate that cannabis may be the famous drug soma, widely used in
the Aryan world and amply described in the Rig Veda (Bennett 2010; Clarke
and Merlin 2013). In stark contrast to China, India developed a long and
continuing tradition of psychoactive cannabis cultivation, often with medicinal
and religious overtones. Goode (1969,6) maintains that “marijuana-growing
and its consumption probably reached its greatest efﬂorescence” in India. Local
farmers often consulted with specialist poddar or parakdar, known as “ganja
doctors.” Cannabis sativa was depicted extensively in the ancient Sanskrit Vedic
poems, particularly the Atharvaveda, or “Science of Charms” (Bennett and oth-
ers 1995), in which it is celebrated as one of “ﬁve kingdoms of herbs...which
release us from anxiety” (Abel 1980,19). It is mentioned in the Bhagavad-Gita
as sharpening the memory and alleviating fatigue, and continues to have spiri-
420 GEOGRAPHICAL REVIEW
tual connotations with the god Ganga (cognate with Ganges), from which the
widespread term ganja is derived (Bennett and others 1995). Often it was con-
sumed in weddings or festivals honoring the god Shiva, a.k.a. the Lord of
Bhang, who is held to have brought it down from the Himalayas; cannabis is
still offered to Shiva in temples on Shivaratri day (Hasan 1975). Devotional
meetings called bhajans, not necessarily associated with Shiva, used the drug
liberally. Gradually, the drug moved from religious to more secular and recrea-
tional purposes. Ayurvedic medicinal traditions used the drug extensively, typi-
cally mixed with other herbs. Its use was often associated with the Brahmin
caste, which studiously avoided alcohol (Carstairs 1966), although it was wide-
spread in many ceremonial occasions in ashrams and temples. Translucent
resin from the female ﬂower has long been smoked as charas, although the
most common form of consumption is in the form of bhang, cannabis con-
sumed as a mild paste or tea mixed with milk. Yogis or sadhus (ascetic holy
men) and faquirs, or mystics, have long smoked cannabis sativa mixed with
tobacco to enhance meditation, particularly during Diwali, the Festival of
Lights, and during the Kumbha Mela festival every twelve years. Use and
approval of cannabis were not uniformly distributed across India. In Madras,
only the elite consumed it; in Delhi, it was used by rich and poor alike; in Hy-
derabad, only among the laboring poor; in Bombay, it was primarily conﬁned
to faquirs: while in Bengal it was considered an act of charity to supply reli-
gious wanderers with ganja (Mills 2005). Sikhs too used bhang as a beverage
during religious rites.
Waves of migration from India carried the plant to Tibet and Nepal in the
century, where its use became entwined with Tantric traditions. Cannabis
was introduced into Southeast Asia during the 6
century AD, where it was
known both by the Sanskrit ganja and local terms such as Thai kancha, Cam-
anhch, Lao kan xa, and Vietnamese gai ^
ando (Martin 1975). How far
into the Malay islands it travelled, if at all, is not known.
Cannabis arrived in the Middle East between 2000 and 1400 BC (Forbes
1956; Bennett and others 1995; Aldrich 1997), perhaps as part of the broader
Aryan inﬁltration of the region. The primary vehicle for its early diffusion
seems to have been the Scythians, a nomadic Indo-European group who partic-
ipated in trade and warfare with Semitic peoples for a millennium. The
Scythians also cultivated cannabis to smoke, which they used for rituals and
put in their burial tombs (Artamanov 1965), and brought it to Iran and Anatolia.
The Scythians likely carried it into southeast Russia and Ukraine, which
they occupied for centuries. Aryan merchants, warriors, and traders introduced
cannabis into Eastern Europe perhaps as early as 3000 BC (Clarke and Merlin
2013). Neolithic sites with burned cannabis seeds have been discovered in places
ranging from Finland to Bulgaria. To this day, a traditional dish made in rural
Poland and Lithuania is semieniatka, a soup made of hemp seeds (Benet 1975).
In the 5
century BC, in the ﬁrst Western mention of the plant, Herodotus
HISTORICAL GEOGRAPHY OF CANNABIS 421
famously noted in The Histories that in Macedonia “The Scythians howl with
joy for the vapour bath” (quoted in Benet 1975,40), referring to the practice of
shamanic chanting following the heating of cannabis seeds on stones and inhal-
ing the fumes under small tents as part of puriﬁcation ceremonies. He also
noted the Thracians, closely related to the Scythians, introduced the plant into
Dacia, where it was popular among a shamanic cult, the Kapnobatai (“Those
Who Walk in the Clouds”). William Emboden (1990,84) notes that “Their sha-
mans, known as Kapnobatai, used hemp smoke to induce visions and oracular
trances.” Nonetheless, until the 20
century there is a paucity of European
written references to cannabis’s psychoactive properties, perhaps due to the
popularity of beer and wine (Mikuriya 1969).
From the Slavic world, it diffused into Germany via migrating Teutonic
tribes, notably the Allamanic peoples of the Rhein and Main rivers. It was
introduced into Britain on the heels of the Anglo-Saxon invasions of the 5
century AD; hemp was grown widely during the late Saxon and Norman peri-
ods, and cannabis seeds have been found in medieval York, Norwich, Glouces-
ter, Norfolk, and Scotland (Edwards and Whittington 1990). Cannabis seeds
have also been found in the remains of Viking ships dating to the mid-9
century (Godwin 1967), and the famed German nun and musician Hildegard
von Bingen (1098–1179) wrote of it that “Whoever has an empty brain and head
pains, the head pains will be reduced” (quoted in Green 2002,78). In northern
France, hemp was cultivated as an alternative to ﬂax; the Merovingian queen
Arnegunde was buried with it around 570 AD. By the late-medieval era, hemp
guilds were established in many cities, particularly early centers of mercantilism
in northern Italy. Psychotropic cannabis, however, came under religious prohi-
bitions: in 1484 Pope Innocent VIII issued a papal ﬁat linking it to witchcraft
(Booth 2003). Nonetheless, some physicians, such as the Portuguese Garcia da
Orta (1501–1568), continued to recommend it for a variety of ills.
Semitic peoples in the Middle East who acquired cannabis from Aryan cul-
tures include the Assyrians, Egyptians, and Hebrews, who burned it as incense
as early as 1000 BC. Hemp was used for robes of priests in Solomon’s temple
and as a material for the construction of thrones. Psychoactive cannabis is
mentioned in the Talmud, and the ancient Jews may have used hashish (Clarke
and Merlin 2013). In Egypt, the origins of cannabis use are unclear; cannabis
pollen was recovered from the tomb of Ramses II, who governed for sixty-
seven years during the 19
dynasty, and several mummies contain trace canna-
binoids. Cannabis oil was likely used throughout the Middle East for centuries
before and after the birth of Christ (Benet 1975; Bennett and others 1995). In
Zoroastrian Persia, widespread ritual use was made of a plant called haoma,
which may or may not have been cannabis (Mechoulam 1986). Mircea Eliade
(1951/2004), the prominent historian of religion, suggests that Zoroaster advo-
cated hemp oil as a bridge between the physical and metaphysical worlds. One
of the few surviving Zoroastrian texts, the Vendidad, tells of “mortals trans-
422 GEOGRAPHICAL REVIEW
ported in soul to the heavens, where, upon drinking from a cup of bhanga,
they had the highest mysteries revealed to them.”
Cannabis diffused into the Greco-Roman world either from the Middle East
or from Eastern Europe, or both (Abel 1980). In classical Greece, cannabis was
used both as a source of ﬁber and for its psychoactive properties (Butrica 2006;
Hillman 2008). The physician Dioscorides prescribed it for toothaches and ear-
aches, remedies that persisted through the medieval era. Athenaeus (170–230
AD) notes that the tyrant of Syracuse obtained hemp from the Rhone River
valley in order to manufacture rope (Stefanis and others 1975). The Roman wri-
ter Lucilius mentions it in 100 BC as a major source of sails and canvas, and
cannabis seeds have been found in the ruins of Pompeii. The primary source
region of Roman hemp was Babylon. The Romans also appear to have appreci-
ated the psychological effects of hemp oil: women of the Roman elite used it to
alleviate labor pains. Pliny (23–79 AD) notes that it grew in Syria, Babylon, and
Persia. The Roman emperor Aurelian imposed a tax on the plant in the 2
century AD (Abel 1980). The famous Greek doctor Claudius Galen (131–201
AD) noted that cannabis was widely consumed throughout the empire (Clarke
and Merlin 2013) and argued that overuse caused sterility.
The cultivation and use of cannabis in the classical Arab world has been the
topic of some speculation. Suﬁ mystics are known to have used hashish regu-
larly, and played a key role in spreading it throughout the Middle East. Medie-
val Arab doctors considered it a sacred medicine (Rosenthal 1971). The 13
-century physician Ibn al-Baitar described the plant’s intoxicating effects, which
was grown in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. In many Arab communities, hashish—
originally the Arabic word for cannabis, but today meaning only its puriﬁed
resin—was the favored form of use, perhaps due to Koranic prohibitions
against alcohol. Religious prohibitions were generally less strict concerning
drugs that relieved pain. The discovery of hashish was allegedly attributable to
Haydar, founder of a Suﬁ order in the mid-12
century, who used it to
enhance ecstatic religious states (Abel 1980). The primary form of consumption
was eating; smoking hashish only became popular later, with the introduction
Hashish, circulated widely throughout the Arabic empire from the 7
centuries. Some speculate that the hajj to Mecca may have provided a
mechanism for its diffusion during the Umayyad caliphate. Patrick Matthews
asserts that “The recreational use of hashish spread west throughout the whole
Muslim world at about the time of the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth cen-
tury” (1999,81). According to the medieval Muslim botanist Ibn al-Baytar, a
second wave of cannabis introduction into Egypt occurred in the mid-12
tury as the result of the emigration of mystic devotees from Syria (Khalifa
1975). Despite disapproval by the elites of the Arab-Berber kingdoms, its use
was tolerated among low-income strata. By the mid-13
century, however, the
HISTORICAL GEOGRAPHY OF CANNABIS 423
governor of Cairo initiated a major crackdown on the local cultivation and use
of the plant.
The term hashish became famously associated with the ashishin, or the
Assassins (Abel 1980). According to the legend of the Old Man of the Moun-
tains, the 11
-century ruler Hasan-i Sabah, who commanded widespread fear
and loyalty among his followers from his eyrie at Alamut. Selected warriors
were ostensibly given hashish to give them a taste of heaven prior to undertak-
ing suicidal missions. Although the story was transmitted to Europe by the
Crusaders, perhaps as a means of downplaying Muslim bravery (Green 2002),
its veracity has never been authenticated. Nonetheless, hashish and assassins
remained ﬁrmly sutured in the popular imagination for the next millennium.
In the mountains of Morocco, cannabis in the form of kif had a long history
(Mikuriya 1967; McNeill 1992). It likely diffused to the Maghreb along the
North African littoral. Cannabis reached Spain in the 8
century, following the
Moorish invasion. Spanish colonial policy in Morocco toward the plant was
very relaxed, particularly regarding its use by soldiers. Indeed, when Francisco
Franco enlisted Berber mercenaries during the Spanish Civil War, he paid them
in part with kif. Today, Morocco stands as one of the world’s largest producers
of hashish (Green 2002). Hashish smoking was also widespread in the Ottoman
Empire, although less so among Turks as among Arabs (Stefanis and others
1975). For example, an epic 16
-century poem, Benk u Bộde, mentions the rival
temptations of wine and hashish. Istanbul at the height of the empire in the
century had sixty tek
es, or hashish smoking shops. The Suﬁ Dervish reli-
gious sect apparently came to know the drug intimately.
Cannabis entered Eastern Africa via Egypt and Ethiopia, most likely carried
by Arab merchants. It was certainly used in Ethiopia by the 13
der Merwe 1975), where it likely entered via trade routes across the Red Sea.
Brian Du Toit (1975) holds that cannabis was carried by Arab traders down the
coast of Eastern Africa as part of a well-developed network that Janet Abu Lug-
hod (1989) described as one segment of the late-medieval world system. Its dif-
fusion throughout the African continent included the central role played by
Zanzibar and Arab settlements on the east African coast; indeed, for most of its
African history cannabis was closely associated with migrant Muslim popula-
tions. From there, it gradually spread to Bantu speakers in the interior, and
was in use in the Zambezi River valley by the time the Portuguese arrived in
1531. It likely spread to the west by Swahili-speaking traders. Known as dagga,
psychoactive cannabis has been consumed in southern Africa for at least ﬁve
centuries. The Dutch wrote of it in 1658, which they described as “a dry powder
which the Hottentots eat and which makes them drunk” (du Toit 1975,88). It
formed an important trade item in exchanges between Dutch and the Khoisan
and Bantu speakers in the region, and became commonly used among the
Tswana, Zulu, Sotho, and Swazis, including contemporary attempts to diversify
crops in Malawi (Bloomer 2009). Under British rule, indentured Indian
424 GEOGRAPHICAL REVIEW
laborers used it widely in South Africa. David Livingstone observed cannabis
smoking in the Congo in 1865, and anthropologists in the 1920s reported its
use by the Efe and Twa (“pygmies”) in the Ituri rain forest. By the 1880s, the
use of cannabis was so widespread in what is now Tanzania that the word for
it became synonymous with “senseless person.” Cannabis was not present in
West Africa prior to WW II, when it was introduced by soldiers serving in the
British and French armies, and its use there was long conﬁned to males.
With the rise of the capitalist world system, cannabis circulated worldwide. It
was an adept traveler. The imposition of capitalist social relations, particularly
the commodiﬁcation of labor power, was frequently intertwined with the drug’s
long-standing use in some regions and its introduction to others.
Cannabis was introduced to Latin America not once but several times in
century (Partridge 1975), thus forming an integral part of the famous
Columbian Exchange (Crosby 1973). European contact with the New World
introduced the practice of smoking cannabis from a pipe, which greatly ele-
vated its popularity. As Clarke and Merlin note, “Once people began to smoke
rather than eat resinous Cannabis or concentrated hashish, many more began
to consume it for its mind-altering effects” (2013,240).
The Portuguese seem to have learned about it via Dominican missionary
ao dos Santos, who noted it was cultivated widely around the Cape of Good
Hope (Green 2002; Booth 2003). From Angola, slaves brought cannabis to Bra-
zil in the 16
century as an intoxicant (although Portuguese sailors may have
provided another transmission mechanism), where it was known by a variety
of local names, particularly maconha (a word of Angolan origin) and diamba.
Cannabis was grown in Bahia by 1549, and spread into the state of Amazonas.
Used ﬁrst by sugarcane workers and grown amid the sugarcane ﬁelds in the
northeast, it spread to ﬁshing villages and longshore workers, and became
known as the “opium of the poor” (de Pinho 1975). The drug was more rapidly
adopted by mestizos than indigenous peoples, who possessed a formidable
array of hallucinogens of their own (Hutchinson 1975). In many communities,
religious syncretism included African spirits and plants; cannabis became
important in subcultures such as candombl
e. When the Portuguese Royal Court
moved to Rio de Janeiro in 1808 to escape the Napoleonic invasion of Iberia,
cannabis became a favorite pastime of Queen Carlotta Joaquina, wife of
Emperor Don Jo~
ao IV. However, by 1830, under pressure from religious
authorities, the municipal council of Rio had prohibited use of the plant.
To break the Russian monopoly on hemp, the Spanish repeatedly intro-
duced the crop in Colombia in 1607,1610,1632, and 1789 to provide rigging for
the imperial ﬂeet, but it never succeeded in competing with the native plant
cabuya. Chile, however, did develop the capacity to export hemp to Spain
starting in 1545. Colombian villages often grow cannabis as a cash crop in small
HISTORICAL GEOGRAPHY OF CANNABIS 425
quantities, and it is exported to cities and abroad (Elejalde 1975). Formerly, its
use was limited to low-socioeconomic males, but in the 1960s it gradually
began to spread to other social circles; less commonly, upper-class users are
labeled marijuaneros, a term that carries connotations of laziness (Partridge
1975). Recreational cannabis appeared in the 19
century in the Magdalena
River valley, various coastal ports, and in Panama during the construction of
the canal in the early 20
century. Workers for the United Fruit Company
apparently used the herb in several Central American countries. Hemp produc-
tion began in Cuba in 1793 but gave way to expanding sugar plantations. In
Mexico, cannabis was introduced by the conquistador Pedro Cuadrado, who
served in Cortes’s army (Abel 1980). To this day, Mexican Indian communities
occasionally use la santa rosa, i.e., cannabis, in religious ceremonies, leaving
perfumed bundles on alters to be consumed by church attendees (Williams-
Cannabis played an important, if largely unacknowledged, role in the British
Empire (Mills 2005). The British learned about smoking cannabis from their
Indian subjects, notably Irish physician William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, who
conducted a series of experiments with cannabis in the 1830s, and concluded it
had no negative medicinal effects (McKenna 1992). He went on to write the
-century account of the drug, the Bengal Dispensatory and Com-
panion to the Pharmacopoeia in 1842, dispelling many earlier misgivings and
having wide inﬂuence for the next half-century.
The British, however, were far less interested in the intoxicating properties
of cannabis than hemp ﬁbers, which were widely deployed in sails, paper, rope,
sacks, clothing, and nets. The European demand for hemp was voracious, and
the major supplier was Russia (Abel 1980); to reduce their reliance upon
Russian supplies, Britain sought out other sources. As early as 1563, Queen Eliz-
abeth decreed that landowners throughout the empire with sixty or more acres
must growth hemp or face a ﬁne. In 1606 in Nova Scotia (then Nova Francia),
experimental cultivation was started by Louis Hebert, apothecary to Samuel de
Champlain (Green and Miller 1975). Farmers in the Jamestown colony in
Virginia were required to grow hemp; George Washington and Thomas
Jefferson grew hemp on their estates, and the Constitution was written on
hemp. As Congress levied steep tariffs on imported hemp after the American
Revolution, the domestic supply expanded, with the major center of
production located in Kentucky. Domestically produced hemp began to
contract after the Civil War, when imports from Russia eroded its market share
and the cotton gin lowered the price of hemp’s major substitute.
The popularity of hashish in Europe arose in the aftermath of the Napole-
onic invasion of Egypt in 1798, when returning soldiers brought hashish with
them to France. In Paris, the Club des Hachichins included Charles Baudelaire,
Gustav Flaubert, Alexandre Dumas, and Honor
e de Balzac. Once the province
of the well-to-do, hashish became increasingly popular among the working
426 GEOGRAPHICAL REVIEW
class, students, and immigrants. In Greece, immigrants and sailors brought the
drug back from the Middle East, and the country became a major producer
well into the 1920s (Abel 1980).
James Mills’s (2005)Cannabis Britannica explores the historical origins of
the U.K.’s legislation and regulations on cannabis preparations before 1928,
revealing how the production, use, and regulation of cannabis before the
century were intimately bound up with imperialism. Mills argues that the
drive towards prohibition grew out of the politics of empire rather than scien-
tiﬁc or rational assessment of the drug’s use and effects. Cannabis was also a
source of imperial income. Mindful of the vast proﬁts yielded from the opium
trade, the British, ﬁnding themselves astride the world’s largest market for
drugs, taxed Indian cannabis heavily. From 1793 to the 1850s, the British East
India Company happily derived a steady stream of revenues from taxing canna-
bis, granting licenses to retailers and wholesalers and caring little about how
much was consumed. Bengal became a major exporter throughout India and
other parts of the Empire. In some provinces, distributors were required to
store their crop in government-owned warehouses. When local supplies ran
low, the Company imported charas from Turkestan. Networks of supervisors
were deployed to minimize peasant attempts to avoid taxation; many farmers
grew small, dispersed plots to avoid accurate counting of their output. Colonial
taxation of cannabis was increasingly associated with its criminalization. Mills
In India, colonial ofﬁcials began to associate cannabis with criminality at about
the same time that they began to tax the trade in Indian hemp products more
efﬁciently. Once a product becomes the subject of a state levy, and once the
traditional producers and suppliers of that article act to protect their proﬁts by
evading that levy, that product and those traders become suspicious to admin-
istrators seeking to maximize the state’s revenues. Cannabis assumed an air of
illegality because the colonial state in India imposed duties on it and branded
as criminal all who sought to preserve their income from trade in the substance
by trying to dodge payment of those duties (2005,218).
By the late 19
century, in the wake of the 1867 Sepoy Rebellion, the British
sought explanations for disorder in the greater India colony, and increasingly
came to settle on cannabis, which gradually acquired an aura of criminality,
beginning with the requirement of licenses to grow the crop. This was no
smooth process, however, and unfolded evenly over time and space, often
meeting with resistance from peasant farmers and smugglers (Mills 2004). The
colonial government’s inquiry in 1870 concluded that sustained cannabis usage
led to insanity, although the analysis was soon discredited for its improper use
of statistics, largely reﬂecting British doctors’ profound ignorance of Indian
mores and behavior. In 1893, the famed Indian Hemp Drugs Commission con-
cluded in a well-known, eight-volume work that bhang was a harmless drink
with no ill biological or social effects, and the British colonial administration
HISTORICAL GEOGRAPHY OF CANNABIS 427
decriminalized the drug. In the wake of the 1911 Revolution in China, which
severely curtailed opium exports to that country, the rising price of opium led
large numbers of users to switch to ganja; accordingly, consumption of
imported Indian cannabis soared in the early 20
Drugs were important in several colonizers’ attempts to compel local popu-
lations to produce export goods vital to the world economy. Alcohol was com-
mon labor paciﬁer in tropical plantations. In the 19
century, British authorities
brought 1.5million “surplus” laborers from India to labor-short islands in the
Caribbean. Indentured Indian workers brought ganja with them to Barbados
and Jamaica after the abolition of slavery there in 1834, and it was tolerated so
long as sugar production did not suffer (Angrosino 2003). Ganja’s use was clo-
sely wrapped up with that of rum, so that the two drugs became intertwined in
the cycle of work, debt, and poverty that characterized latifundial life on the
sugar plantation, an excellent demonstration of colonial biopolitics. “The grow-
ing and trading of ganja seem to have been a thriving cottage industry on the
margins of the estates, where the Indians came to be more explicit about the vir-
tues of ganja in enhancing their ability to function as plantation laborers” (An-
grosino 2003,105). Indeed, a fully articulated “ganja complex” emerged that
included local growers, paraphernalia, and a justiﬁcatory ideology that spread
the crop from Indians to the islands’ black residents; it was later vigorously
adopted by the Rastafarians, for whom it continues to serve as a metaphor for
the Burning Bush of the Bible (Rubin and Comitas 1976; Eyre 1985; Mahabir
1994). As late as 1907, company stores in Jamaica and Trinidad sold marijuana.
Ultimately, however, three factors led to a sustained decline in ganja use and its
replacement by rum: explosive rum production drove its price down to a level
competitive with that of ganja; missionaries decried the “vile weed”; and mount-
ing ofﬁcial disapproval led to antimarijuana crusades, ostensibly on the grounds
that its use increased crime rates. By 1913 it was declared illegal, although Lamb-
ros Comitas notes that “The Jamaican ganja laws which date back to 1913
appear, in historical retrospect, to have been based on class and racial factors
rather than on objective medical and social evidence” (1975,131).
By the early 20
century, British diplomats sought to protect the plant from
the determined efforts of countries that wanted to limit the world’s drug sup-
plies. However, under relentless pressure from the U.S. and League of Nations
to curtail the drug, which had become embroiled in the international politics
of opium, the British government gradually restricted production and sale of
the plant. Political pressure from the temperance movement, which conﬂated
drugs and alcohol, added fuel to the ﬁre, although cannabis use in Britain
remained rare. In 1916, it forbid the sale to members of the military; in 1925,it
classiﬁed cannabis as a poison, and labels on vials carried the word in red let-
ters; in 1928 it passed the Coca Leaves and Indian Hemp Regulations.
428 GEOGRAPHICAL REVIEW
REEFER MADNESS:AN AMERICAN STORY
Americans have had a long and colorful romance with illegal drugs, which typi-
cally migrated from marginalized bohemian cultures (for example, opium dens
of the late 19
century) to the middle class (Morgan 1981; Jonnes 1996). In the
century, American cannabis use was concentrated among Mexican-
Americans in the southwestern part of the country (Bonnie and Whitebread
1970). The Mexican Revolution of 1910–1911 introduced a new chapter in the
historical geography of American cannabis. Waves of immigrants ﬂeeing the
violence washed across the southwestern U.S., bringing the herb with them.
Many early prejudices against marijuana were thinly veiled racist fears of its
smokers, often promulgated by reactionary newspapers such as those owned by
the Hearst chain. Mexicans were frequently blamed for smoking marijuana,
property crimes, seducing children, and engaging in murderous sprees.
The history of legal prohibitions against marijuana in the U.S. has been
abundantly documented (Himmelstein 1983; Sloman 1999). The historical geog-
raphy of marijuana use and its control reﬂecting a shifting series of localities
enveloped in the growing popularization of the plant and evermore adamant
attempts to control it. In 1914, El Paso initiated the ﬁrst local ordinance ban-
ning the sale or possession of marijuana. The 1920s brought new rounds of
users, including African-Americans and the Greenwich Village bohemian com-
munity (Polsky 1967). Sailors and Caribbean immigrants brought marijuana to
coastal cities, above all New Orleans, where it became a mainstay of jazz musi-
cians. Circuits of jazz musicians carried the drug to St. Louis, Kansas City, Chi-
cago, and Harlem, as noted by 1930s songs such as Cab Calloway’s “That
Funny Reefer Man,” Fats Waller’s “Viper’s Drag,” and Benny Goodman’s
“Sweet Marihuana Brown.” American jazz, increasingly popular in Britain, also
facilitated the trans-Atlantic diffusion of the drug.
Simultaneously, the 1920s saw not only a prohibition against alcohol, but
against most other drugs as well (for example, cocaine imports were prohibited
in 1922). Unlike Prohibition, which restricted only the manufacture and distri-
bution of alcohol, not its possession, marijuana laws have consistently outlawed
the production, sale, possession, and consumption of the drug. American laws
never effectively recognized a difference between hemp and marijuana, that is
cannabis sativa L. and cannabis sativa. Indeed, one of the major forces behind
making cannabis illegal was cotton-growers, who feared competition from
hemp (Bonnie and Whitehead 1970; Galliher and Walker 1977; Baum 1996). In
many respects, the hidden war on hemp served to legitimate the overt war on
marijuana. No doubt the moral panic was conveniently fed by the potential
competition that hemp offered to producers of paper, textiles, and synthetic
ﬁber. Starting with Utah in 1915, twenty-nine states outlawed the plant by 1931.
The central ﬁgure in the war against marijuana was Harry Anslinger, ﬁrst
commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) and its head for the
next three decades. Anslinger repeatedly rejected clinical analyses that
HISTORICAL GEOGRAPHY OF CANNABIS 429
concluded marijuana did not induce violent behavior or lead to the use of
more addictive drugs. With a willing echo chamber of yellow journalism feed-
ing the public one horror story after another, Anslinger successively tied mari-
juana use to jazz, which he despised due to the prevalence of African-American
musicians, WW II (arguing that the Japanese used the plant to sap the will of
American prisoners), and, later, the Cold War (where Communists took the
role previously occupied by the Japanese). As Abel notes, “The more often the
story of the Assassins was told, the more ludicrous it became. The image of the
demented, knife-wielding, half-crazed hashish user running senseless through
the streets, slashing at anyone unfortunate to cross his path, became part of the
American nightmare of lawlessness” (1980,224). The discourses surrounding
the war against marijuana reveal how particular gender and ethnic categories
are selectively deployed in deliberately inaccurate ways, often invoking racist
imagery. The infamous movie Reefer Madness (1936), now a cult classic,
depicted marijuana destroying the lives of adolescents, leading to murder, rape,
and criminal insanity, and concluded it was more dangerous than heroin or
opium. Marijuana posters typically portrayed a helpless, white female being
seduced or overpowered by a Satan-like ﬁgure, often dark skinned. In 1937,
Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act, which put cannabis under the regula-
tion of the Drug Enforcement Agency, effectively criminalizing possession
throughout the country (Canada followed in 1938). Several observers conclude
that the “marijuana crisis” was essentially manufactured by the FBN (Galliher
and Walker 1977), an example of what Goode and Ben-Yehuda (1994) label an
“elite-engineered” moral panic.
During WW II, with Paciﬁc supplies of jute, hemp, and sisal reduced, the
federal government relegalized hemp, and initiated a Hemp for Victory cam-
paign to encourage production, conveniently distinguishing it from marijuana,
including ﬁlms and a 4-H program to educate children. One consequence of
this campaign was the inadvertent spread of “ditchweed” across much of the
Midwest. Cannabis use in the Army was almost entirely conﬁned to African-
Americans; one survey indicated that 90 percent of smokers were black (Charen
and Perelman 1946). Following the war, however, antihemp programs initiated
by the DEA required permits to grow the plant, and in 1948 it was criminalized
again. Users in the 1950s, other than traditional Latino or African-American
minorities, include artists and writers of the “Beat Generation,” who often
experimented with peyote, mescaline, or LSD as well. In 1951, Congress passed
the Boggs Act, which speciﬁed the same penalties for marijuana possession as
for heroin (Schlosser 2003).
The 1960s mark a signiﬁcant moment in the contentious history of mari-
juana use, including widespread growth in usage as the drug spread from low-
income minority populations to include signiﬁcant numbers of white, middle
class, college-educated youth (Abelson and others 1977). Accounts of the drug’s
growth in popularity typically point to the radicalization of baby boom hippies,
430 GEOGRAPHICAL REVIEW
the generally liberalized political climate wrought by the civil rights, women’s
rights, anti-Vietnam War, and environmental movements, and the inspirational
role played by countercultural icons such as Timothy Leary. For many users, the
drug represented a safe, largely symbolic means to reject middle class alienation.
A growing middle-class constituency, as opposed to the earlier generations
of politically marginalized minorities, worked to reduce legal penalties for drug
use, what Jerome Himmelstein (1983) calls the “embourgeoisement hypothesis.”
Joseph Gusﬁeld pointed out that debates over marijuana laws symbolized the
struggles over “the authority of adult culture and its power over youth” during
an historical period “when adult public values were under attack in wide areas,
including sex, work, goals, public decorum, and dress” (1981,184). The 1970s
represent a unique, if brief and tenuous, window of time in the historical evo-
lution of American marijuana policy (DiChiara and Galliher 1994). In 1972,
President Nixon appointed the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug
Abuse, which soon concluded that the drug should be decriminalized; evidence
notwithstanding, he immediately rejected their ﬁndings. Nixon’s departure
from ofﬁce, however, was followed by a steady movement toward legalization.
Albert DiChiara and John Galliher note that “Selective enforcement of mari-
huana laws, nominal sentences for large-scale dealers, the arrest of afﬂuent
users, and the fears of parents of youthful marihuana users all served to focus
attention for a time on the legal controls rather than the drug itself” (1994,72).
Eleven states essentially decriminalized small amounts of the drug (Oregon in
1973; Alaska, Maine, California, Colorado, and Ohio in 1975; Minnesota in 1976;
Mississippi, New York and North Carolina in 1977; and Nebraska in 1978).
Legalization was supported by the American Bar Association, the American
Medical Association, the National Council of Churches, and President Jimmy
Carter (Schlosser 2003).
During this period, most marijuana smoked in the U.S. was imported, pri-
marily from Mexico and Colombia, and to a lesser extent, Canada and Jamaica
(Schlosser 2003,35). In 1969, the federal government launched Operation Inter-
cept along the border with Mexico, ostensibly to reduce the inﬂow of drugs
but in practice as part of a broader publicity effort to ensure the public that it
was active, if not efﬁcient (Craig 1980). In 1975, the U.S. began large-scale
spraying of the herbicide paraquat over Mexican marijuana ﬁelds, a tactic that
encouraged smugglers to switch to lower-bulk, higher-value commodities such
as cocaine. Ironically, as the drug’s supply declined and prices rose, a domestic
industry arose in response, including climate-controlled interior “gardens” hid-
den in basements and safe houses, which recoup their ﬁxed costs by producing
plants with much higher THC content than that grown in other countries.
Thus, one unintended consequence of the war against marijuana was to drive
growers indoors. To avoid arrest at home, many growers turn to rented storage
units or apartments equipped with timing devices and automatic controls.
HISTORICAL GEOGRAPHY OF CANNABIS 431
In the 1980s, the decriminalization movement abruptly ended in the face of
a stridently moralistic conservative onslaught fueled by the New Right (Him-
melstein 1983; Bachman and others 1988; Baum 1996; Marez 2004). As Dominic
Corva (2008) notes, the war on drugs amounted to an attempt to govern
unruly populations in new ways, militarizing efforts to control illicit substances.
In 1979, the Drug Enforcement Agency initiated the Cannabis Eradication/Sup-
pression Program, focusing on California and Hawaii. In 1982, President Rea-
gan launched a war on drugs, including the White House Drug Abuse Policy
Ofﬁce, with its “drug czar.” Courts were encouraged to adopt mechanistic sen-
tencing formulas, simplistic “zero tolerance” legislation that led to swollen jails.
Politically conservative states enforced stiff marijuana laws to promote a public
image of respectability as part of “get tough on crime” campaigns (Galliher
and Cross 1982).
Today, the federal government still classiﬁes marijuana as a Schedule I con-
trolled substance, along with heroin and LSD, indicating it has high potential for
abuse and addiction, no accepted medical uses, and no safe level of use. Twenty
states have mandatory “smoke a joint, lose your license” statutes. The vast
majority of large corporations have mandatory drug tests as a condition of
employment. Drug offenses differ from most crimes in that they are simulta-
neously subject to federal, state, and local controls, and the accused may be tried
twice for the same crime (Schlosser 2003,54). Despite these attempts to restrict
its use, marijuana is by far the most widely used illegal drug in the United States,
consumed regularly by 14.8million people or roughly 6percent of the popula-
tion (Department of Health and Human Services 2008). The number of Ameri-
cans who grow marijuana has been estimated to lie between one and three
million, of whom 100,000 to 200,000 are commercial growers (Schlosser 2003,
38). More than 700,000 people are arrested annually for marijuana possession
(Schlosser 2003). Penalties vary widely among states, ranging from small ﬁnes to
years in jail. Those convicted of a marijuana felony can be prohibited from
receiving welfare payments or food stamps, penalties that do not apply to con-
victed murderers or rapists. In a country with one of the highest incarceration
rates in the world, violent criminals are sometimes released to make room for
nonviolent marijuana offenders. Not surprisingly, those arrested tend dispropor-
tionately to be poor or working class and people of color. Cannabis is a remark-
ably benign drug: there has never been a documented case of anyone ever dying
from a marijuana overdose (Iverson 2000; Green 2002). In contrast, tobacco and
alcohol kill 435,000 and 200,000 Americans annually, respectively. The question
as to why this plant remains criminalized despite substantial scientiﬁc evidence
that it is no more harmful than alcohol or tobacco remains highly pertinent. As
Eric Schlosser points out, “A society that can punish a marijuana offender more
severely than a murderer is caught in the grip of a deep psychosis” (2003,74).
In the 21
century, public opinion and policy toward marijuana in the U.S.
have changed yet again. A sea change of opinion among the young, similar to
432 GEOGRAPHICAL REVIEW
the growth of atheists and widespread support for gay marriage, has led the
majority of Americans to support legalization, according to the Pew Charitable
Trust (2013). Twenty-four states have decriminalized possession of one ounce
or less, and in 2012 Colorado and Washington State legalized the drug for rec-
reational use. The “medical marijuana” movement, often cloaking prescriptions
in thinly disguised excuses, has played a key role in legalizing it in 23 states and
the District of Columbia. Marijuana has found utility in the treatment of glau-
coma and in relieving the nausea resulting from chemotherapy in cancer
patients. Ironically, it is often conservative Republicans with libertarian lean-
ings, such as former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, who have called for
marijuana liberalization. As the historical record of this drug makes clear, the
open, legal use of marijuana is less a matter of moral equivalency than a return
to the historical norm.
What can be gleaned from this historical overview? Cannabis use, including
hemp and its psychoactive cousin, has a long and often colorful history that
reﬂects the contingent conjunction of numerous forces, including religion,
migration, colonialism, and shifting moral environments. From China to India,
the Middle East to Africa, Latin America to North America, various strains of
cannabis have been widely intertwined with constellations of power, at times
held to be sacred and at others denounced as immoral. While it has been
accepted and tolerated more often than not, cannabis has also been repeatedly
demonized in different historical contexts; attempts to restrict its usage have
invariably reﬂected political and moral agendas rather than established science.
For the last four decades, the antidrug crusade has been a central feature of
American political and social life, leading to criminal penalties for countless
users. The “war on cannabis” reveals the arbitrary nature of cultural and politi-
cal taboos and the cultural construction of a drug war that disproportionately
penalizes ethnic minorities. Nonetheless, the recent movement to relegitimize
its use has steadily gained ground.
Outside of the U.S., the legalization of cannabis has made signiﬁcant pro-
gress. Spain, Italy, Portugal, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Belgium have
all decriminalized marijuana possession. In 1976, the Dutch government initi-
ated a gradual liberalization of “soft” drugs, which resulted in catapulting
Amsterdam to the epicenter of the global cannabis culture, as manifested in its
famous coffee shops and the annual Cannabis Cup world championship for
highest-quality marijuana. Given the Dutch government’s liberal, paternalistic
attitude, in which marijuana sale and usage are technically punishable but no
longer criminal offenses, rates of drug-related arrests and imprisonment in the
Netherlands are among the world’s lowest. A.C.M. Jansen (1991), who spent
more than 400 hours exploring the world of Dutch coffee houses that sell soft
drugs such as marijuana and hashish, notes that the Dutch strategy successfully
HISTORICAL GEOGRAPHY OF CANNABIS 433
segregated marijuana consumption from that of hard drugs like cocaine and
heroin. In 2001, Canada legalized the use, but not the sale, of marijuana for
medicinal purposes. In 2002, Britain downgraded cannabis to a Class III drug,
eliminating imprisonment as a penalty for possession. In 2007, the United
Nations Ofﬁce on Drugs and Crime (2007) estimated that 160 million people,
or one out of every forty-three persons on earth, smoke cannabis for psycho-
Viewed in the long-term context of the last millennium, debates over can-
nabis use today all too often ignore how it has been enveloped in multiple cul-
tural political economies that have shaped its diffusion for centuries. From this
vantage point, there is not one, single meaning to cannabis, but a multiplicity
of meanings that arise from, and contribute to, local relations of power and
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