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

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