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

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
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.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions