Comment: A connoisseur of cannabis


CANNABIS WAS first described in Sanskrit 3,000 years ago, when it was used in India to attain religious ecstasy. It was burned in bedside braziers during childbirth for pain relief by the Romans, 1,500 years ago. It is a highly practical plant. In 1622, the first legal regulation of cannabis in the American colonies made its cultivation compulsory, in the form of the fibre crop hemp, as material for naval sails and ropes. The word "canvas" derives from cannabis.

The American Declaration of Independence in 1776 may well have been written on hemp paper. (Oh, and Rizla papers are made from hemp, too.) This book is full of delicious factoids for stoned conversation. An old hippy I knew in the anarchist movement in Hull, whose opening line was always a depressingly nasal "Did you know..." (you didn't want to), would love it.

Patrick Matthews is a wine writer, and he approaches dope-hash-weed-herb- blow-grass-ganja in a connoisseurial manner, transforming it into a similar "aspirational lifestyle subject". Comparing the herb and the vine works best when he considers current legislation in the context of alcohol prohibition in the US or, less obviously, details the various bannings of wine and hashish in Muslim countries. He notes that "hashish and intricate geometric designs both became current in the Islamic world at about the same time. Could any self-respecting pot-head regard this as a coincidence?"

Issues of race are sketched: whether shock reports from the 1950s about white girls corrupted in London be-bop clubs where black musicians smoked dope, or the problematic glamorizing of the counter-culture a decade later (when Richard Neville of Oz claimed that "dope blackens the white man"). And arguments about the medical benefits of cannabis feature strongly.

These are distrusted by anti-drugs campaigners as an easy way for the legalisation lobby to gain credibility. Yet claims have frequently been made for the drug's success in alleviating conditions such as "migraine, glaucoma, nausea induced by chemotherapy, depression, anorexia" as well as its role in relieving chronic pain and the symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

Because the law can apparently cope more easily with people in pain than with those seeking pleasure, it is not inconceivable that there will be some further softening of attitudes towards medical users. In 1996, voters in California declared "medical marijuana" lawful and in 1998 a House of Lords committee recommended that patients be allowed to possess herbal cannabis with a prescription. Tony Blair and Jack Straw immediately ruled this out. Come on, guys!

It is difficult to tell if the paranoia sometimes associated with cannabis use is the result of smoking too much, or a response to the drug's illegality. Matthews discusses many other health issues as well. Much Moroccan resin in Britain is adulterated after import with bitumen; horse tranquillisers are another rumoured additive.

The European boom in "grow your own" cannabis was inspired by the development in California of very hardy and powerful strains such as "skunk". Some smokers, though, are wary of this. To the Rasta-tinged DIY activists of the Exodus Collective in Luton, skunk is either the equivalent of super- strength lager or, worse, a manipulation of plants that "starts straying into Monsanto territory".

The claim in the book's title, that there exists a culture around cannabis, is not really justified. American films of the 1940s like Reefer Madness, or praise songs to the herb by reggae singers of the 1970s, are not discussed in any depth. And ignoring the counter-culture of the Sixties - surely a high point (ouch) in whatever culture cannabis has managed to cultivate - seems perverse. Even the basic social, and sociable, event of smoking- chuffing-drawing a few joints-spliffs-cones is largely taken for granted, while those mass gatherings for the express purpose of smoking dope - rock festivals - are almost entirely absent.

Matthews does cover the 1998 Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam: a competition for growers where middle-aged Americans mingle with young Europeans, and personalities from Rita Marley to Howard Marks perform. The "fossilised" culture he finds there - cover versions of the Grateful Dead, old dub reggae - is worrying. Does "pot stop people being interested in new things", he wonders.

On the next page, he answers himself. "However you dress cannabis up, in religious, medical or counter-cultural clothes, it keeps outgrowing them." Weed is a weed; it will thrive anywhere. Matthews approvingly quotes from a recent gallery catalogue: "The great quality of hemp is its ability to grow anywhere, very fast. Even if it were used only as a replacement for fibreglass it would totally justify its existence. As an entertainment it is not as bad as alcohol. As a medicine it has great potential. What more do we want?" Answers to Charles Kennedy at Westminster, please.

George McKay

The reviewer's cultural history of Glastonbury and festival culture will be published by Gollancz next year

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
    The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

    The ZX Spectrum is back

    The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
    Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

    Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

    The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

    If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
    The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

    The quirks of work perks

    From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
    Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

    Is bridge becoming hip?

    The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
    Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

    The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

    Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
    The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

    The rise of Lego Clubs

    How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
    5 best running glasses

    On your marks: 5 best running glasses

    Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
    Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada