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“Global Histories of Drugs: Why and What’s Next?”—Reflections on Cannabis: Global Histories Workshop

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

Ackerman Title Card

Editor’s Notes: Today’s post by Eron Ackerman reflects on his participation in the “Global Drug Histories: Why and What’s Next?” workshop held jointly this past October at the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Pharmacy and the British Library. Dr. Ackerman recently completed his dissertation, “Cannabis and Colonialism in the British Caribbean, 1838–1938,” at Stony Brook University and is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at Albion College.

When Lucas Richert invited me to attend the joint US-UK meeting, “Global Histories of Drugs: Why and What’s Next?” at the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Pharmacy on October 6, I jumped at the chance—even if it meant having to cancel some mid-week classes. The meeting was inspired by the release of the new collection of essays Cannabis: Global Histories (MIT Press, 2021), which intersects so closely with my own work about the history of Caribbean ganja that I couldn’t miss it. The organizers used Zoom to link our group in Madison to a larger group of book contributors and guest panelists “across the pond” at the British Library.

Participants were asked to reflect upon the book in connection to four questions:

  1. Why think about the histories of intoxicants and psychoactive substances on a global scale?

  2. In what ways does research into such substances provide novel perspectives on globalization and related processes?

  3. How do national, transnational, international, and global histories of these substances relate to one another?

  4. What’s next for global histories of intoxicants and psychoactive substances?

The meeting was too short to dig deeply into the third and fourth questions (which could be explored in more depth at the June 15-17 Alcohol and Drugs History Society conference in Mexico City), but participants offered plentiful thoughts on the first two questions—Why think about drug history globally? And how can a focus on psychoactive substances offer fresh perspectives on global history?

Paul Gootenberg, who Zoomed in from Stony Brook University, opened the conversation by reflecting on how Cannabis: Global Histories signaled new developments in the field of drug history over the past two decades. He was flattered that editors Lucas Richert and James H. Mills titled the book in homage to his 1999 edited volume, Cocaine: Global Histories. As Richert and Mills point out in their introduction, this kind of global collection of cannabis histories would not have been possible when the cocaine volume was published, because serious historical research about cannabis in regions beyond the United States has only recently taken off.

The intervening period, Gootenberg noted, also saw the growth of transnational history. So, while his 1999 volume covered global cocaine history from various national centers, several chapters in Cannabis: Global Histories reflect a more transnational approach concerned with mapping the flows of cannabis and documenting its entangled medical, orientalist, and countercultural discourses across borders and empires. On the question of why research about cannabis history has lagged behind scholarship on cocaine, he suggested that perhaps contemporary notions of marijuana as a “soft drug” made it seem like a less-serious topic in the 1980s and 1990s—a time when cocaine (in its powder and smokeable forms) was a matter of great national and geopolitical concern.

Cocaine Global Histories

Cocaine: Global Histories (Routledge, 1999), the spiritual predecessor of Cannabis: Global Histories.

Cannabis did not fully become a topic of serious historical inquiry until the turn of the millennium, amid a resurgence of reform advocacy. In contrast to cocaine or heroin (or even marijuana in past decades), the contemporary cannabis controversy has been framed not as a problem of addiction and abuse but as a problem of prohibition. A critical mass of advocates, researchers, and policymakers set about to expose the pathologies of prohibition and to redefine marijuana’s maligned medical and legal status, and historians began to look more closely—and more globally—at cannabis. History could offer deeper insights, it seemed, into how marijuana became the most widely consumed illicit intoxicant, and how this medically useful and ostensibly benign drug became prohibited in the first place.

Cannabis: Global Histories co-editor James Mills—whose research about cannabis in the British Empire blazed a trail for this new wave of research—discussed how the field of drug history has developed over the past twenty years. The transnational turn has fertilized the field, he noted, and has stimulated an efflorescence of historical analysis on both a global scale as well as on a more granular scale with studies of drugs within previously neglected national and colonial contexts.

Transnational approaches have shown how drugs and their consumer populations broke out of regionally limited zones of consumption and spread across the globe, making a wide range of psychoactive substances available to consumers as never before—a process David Courtwright has dubbed the “Psychoactive Revolution.” Even as transnational approaches took center stage across the discipline, fresh scholarship on the neglected history of international drug control also emerged alongside rich national and comparative case studies of consumption and prohibition. The cultural turn, I would add, along with a resurgence of interest in an older strain of constructionist drug research, offered historians a deeper understanding of the protean symbolic and psychoactive dimensions of cannabis. This influence is evident, for example, in Isaac Campos’ deft analysis of marijuana in Mexico at the turn of the twentieth century.

As a budding historian, I was curious to learn more about some of the editorial decisions behind the making of Cannabis: Global Histories, and the meeting did offer glimpses of “how the majun was made.” Planning for the volume, according to Mills, began without a clear theme beyond scholars comparing notes about their forays into the history of cannabis as a drug. Sprouting from a 2018 conference at the University of Strathclyde, the book’s “global histories” theme grew organically—or hydroponically, as it were—from the broad regional variations and transnational analytics covered in the research of the contributing scholars. (Watch video interviews with participants in the 2018 Strathclyde conference on the Points Vimeo page).

The book’s organization was also a matter of some debate. The editors originally considered a thematic structure, as I understand it, before settling on a chronological organization. I think this was the right decision. Some thematic clusters are evident—including chapters about prohibition, smuggling, and medical knowledge—while geographic concentrations in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas offered an alternative potential organizational scheme.

But the chronological framework gives the volume a more globally interconnected feel and guides readers more effectively through the historical arc of drug cannabis. Besides, the periodization of cannabis has a rough order unto itself, from colonial-era medical and regulatory experimentation to the era of national prohibition and international drug diplomacy to the countercultural marijuana boom of the Sixties and the subsequent era of grass-roots advocacy and reform.

The globalization of drug cannabis was preceded, and to some extent initiated, by an earlier wave of transoceanic trade in stimulants and intoxicants carried out by Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and English merchants in the “Age of Intoxication”—to use Ben Breen’s twist on the established “Age of Reason” formulation. Taking up the question of why drugs should be studied on a global scale and what this research can contribute to global history, Phil Withington, a panelist presenting from the British Library, emphasized the centrality of stimulants and intoxicants to early modern trade and empire building.

Between the late-fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, imperial networks fanned out across the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, inaugurating the incipient phase of truly global connectivity driven by the pursuit of profit and pleasure. The expansion of these global networks, Withington argued, hinged on the production of drug foods like tobacco, cacao, coffee, tea, and sugar. These psychoactive commodities stimulated commerce, financed empires, and expanded consumer palates in tandem with the growth of the transatlantic slave trade and other forms of labor exploitation. That is to say, stimulants and intoxicants were instrumental in the making of the modern world, which makes them indispensable objects of historical inquiry.

The most challenging and thought-provoking comments at the meeting came from Gagan Sood, a historian of the early-modern Islamic world and co-editor of the Journal of Global History. Reflecting on what Cannabis: Global Histories contributed to the field of global history, Sood offered some constructive criticism from the perspective of a drug-history outsider. In the book’s introduction, he observed, the editors focus on how cannabis fits into such globalizing processes as the history of empires and migrations, international drug diplomacy, and transnational cultural flows. While acknowledging the generative potential of much of the research included in the volume, Sood wondered whether the parameters outlined in the introduction might impose artificial constraints that force intoxicants into conventional containers of periodization and historical change rather than opening up new interpretive frameworks.

For Sood, global history is not so much a matter of scale or global connectivity (a position that he acknowledged was “sacrilegious”); rather, it is about “recapturing developments of world historical significance that have been obscured or neglected undeservedly.” This formulation would seem to include developments like the global dissemination of the world’s most widely consumed illicit drug, the rise and fall and eventual resurgence of medical marijuana research, the diffusion of a transnational cannabis counterculture, or the formation and dissolution of the international anti-marijuana consensus.

Due to some ill-timed technological issues, I missed some of the specific kinds of developments Sood had in mind. But his critique seemed to center on a concern about teleology. If we hope to recapture undeservedly obscured developments of world-historical significance, he asserted, we must “find ways of overcoming unwarranted anachronisms, essentialisms, path dependencies, and ethnocentrisms.”

Perhaps an intoxicant like cannabis could yield fresh perspectives about global history, he seemed to be saying, if it were stripped of its reifying historiographical parameters and approached through a more open-ended heuristic. He proposed, for example, that cannabis might be examined as a malleable resource mobilized by various parties to satisfy universal needs and desires, which could perhaps cast the play of psychoactive pleasure, politics, sociability, and strife in a new light.

One side effect of the meeting’s focus on questions about global history was that the peculiar qualities of drugs—and of cannabis in particular—threatened to get lost in the mix. Perhaps this was what prompted Anna Greenwood, who hosted the meeting from the British Library, to ask the semi-rhetorical question: Is Cannabis: Global Histories a book about cannabis, or is it a book about global history? My own take is that it’s more the former than the latter—although the essays do also illuminate obscure facets of global history.

Chapters by Thembisa Waetjen, Gernot Klantschnig, and Neil Carrier, for example, reveal how distinct colonial and postcolonial dynamics shaped cannabis prohibition and its enforcement in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. A few chapters contribute to scholarship about the Global Sixties, while Ned Richardson-Little’s essay about cannabis in East Germany holds a red mirror up to Western Cold-War drug propaganda from the other side of the Iron Curtain.

Other essays investigates colorful contests over the meaning of marijuana in Mexico and the United States or circuits of cannabis consumption in parts of South Asia (India) and Southwest Asia (Afghanistan, Iran) where opium has traditionally overshadowed cannabis as the subject of international drug talk. Finally, contributions from David Guba, Jamie Banks, Isaac Campos, Emily Dufton, and Suzanne Taylor offer sobering perspectives about international moral and medical marijuana discourse that are of special interest amid the present wave of cannabis reform and medical research.

James Bradford Afghanistan cannabis cartoon

In his essay, “Smuggler’s Paradise: The Hash Trade and Drug Control in the Building of the Afghan State, ca. 1923–1974, ” James Bradford writes about Western drug tourists in Afghanistan who “created tensions” with local residents. This cartoon from “Karavan, a Dari-language magazine,” Bradford explains, “represented the hippies as a nuisance with a strident sense of entitlement” (191).

At the end of the day, whether the contribution of cannabis to global history should be sought in its activation of globalizing processes, as the editors suggest, or by heuristically analyzing its strategic deployment to resist teleological containerization, as Sood proposes, cannabis is still the object of the story. Marijuana is the most widely used illicit intoxicant today despite a century of prohibition, and, for that reason alone I would argue, cannabis is a drug of world historical significance—and one that has often been undeservedly overlooked by scholars.

This may seem like a rather teleological, present-minded basis for a claim to historical significance, but marijuana’s ambiguous and rapidly changing legal status carries the sticky resin of its globally entangled social and political history. Its prohibition was, in many respects, a consequence of the menacing mythologies that emerged from colonial contact zones and border frontiers.

Its path to legalization today owes much to the sticky countercultural connotations it acquired in the 1960s and to the legacy of grass-roots activism that followed in its wake. The narrative arc of marijuana is perplexing and, one could say, heroic. This invasive Asiatic weed that once drove men mad and opened a gateway to addiction and despair has blossomed into a promising therapeutic drug, a booming business enterprise, and a respectable source of bourgeois recreation. The history of this protean psychoactive plant has been obscured and misunderstood for far too long, and Cannabis: Global Histories draws together a wide range of studies that bring its global roots into closer view.


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