Comment: A connoisseur of cannabis

Thursday Book; CANNABIS CULTURE BY PATRICK MATTHEWS, BLOOMSBURY, pounds 12.99

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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman as Doctor Who and Clara behind the scenes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cheery but half-baked canine caper: 'Pudsey the dog: The movie'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce leads the MTV VMA Awards 2014 nominations with eight

music
Arts and Entertainment
Live from your living room: Go People perform at a private home in Covent Garden

theatre
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
    Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

    Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

    They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
    The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

    20 best days out for the summer holidays

    From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
    Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

    All the wood’s a stage

    Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
    Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

    Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

    Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
    Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

    Self-preservation society

    Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
    Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

    Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

    We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor