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Writing Global Histories of Cannabis: Conference Report from Glasgow, 19-20 April 2018

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s Note: Over the next several weeks, Points will feature blog posts, videos, and recaps from the Cannabis: Global Histories conference, which was held in Glasgow, Scotland, from April 19-20, 2018. Today, Dr. David A. Guba, Jr., professor at Bard Early College in Baltimore, Md., offers a recap of the event. Enjoy!

On April 19th and 20th, the Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare (CSHHH) at the University of Strathclyde gathered scholars from around the world in unseasonably sunny Glasgow to attend the Cannabis: Global Histories conference and work toward the publication of an anthology on the “global histories of cannabis.” Masterfully organized by Dr. Lucas Richert, Dr. Jim Mills, and Ms. Caroline Marley, the conference provided one of the first opportunities for historians and scholars of cannabis to come together and discuss research that often flows into isolated disciplinary and regional channels. In addition to providing a more global view on cannabis’s modern history, the organizers also conceived of the conference as a means of facilitating conversation between scholars of cannabis and the general public. To help further this important outreach mission, the organizers have produced a series of blogs and vlogs from the conference, which will be featured over the next few weeks on Points.

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The conference organizers aimed for global and interdisciplinary dimensions in both participants and in paper topics. The 23 speakers hailed from 11 countries and presented historical, sociological, and anthropological research on cannabis within local, national, and international contexts stretching from South Africa to Canada and Argentina to Afghanistan. In line with current trends in “global history,” the papers highlighted the transnational and border-crossing dynamism of cannabis’s journey through the past two centuries. The speakers focused on a range of overlapping and transnational themes, including the production and circulation of knowledge about cannabis, grassroots activism both for and against cannabis, the evolution of governmental cannabis controls, and cannabis supply networks.

The creation and circulation of knowledge about cannabis formed a central locus of the papers and panel discussions. Whether embedded in orientalist fantasies or authorized by scientific and political experts (or sometimes both), conceptions of cannabis have evolved historically within an epistemological field that often transcends traditional territorial boundaries. David Guba (Bard Early College) showed how French scholars and physicians working in the 1840s and 1850s authorized the idea that hashish use caused insanity and violence. This notion, concretized around the orientalized myth of the Hachichin, then spread across Europe and the United States via medical journals and conferences, newspaper coverage, and popular literature, embedding a similarly racialized conception of cannabis-based intoxicants in the minds of medical experts and policy makers far beyond the boundaries of France.

Haggai Ram (Ben Gurion University of the Negev) charted the evolution of this perception of hashish as a “distinctly racialized, despicable Oriental drug” in Israeli political and popular discourse during the decades before and after the creation of Israel in 1948. Ram showed how fluctuations in the international hashish trade caused Zionist authors, physicians, and politicians to fight hash trafficking in interwar Palestine by demonizing the drug as an “Arab problem,” despite the reality that Palestinian Arabs did not practice a “cannabis oriented culture.” But after the creation of Israel in 1948, he argued, this “Arab problem” became a “Jewish problem,” as Palestinians fled and Arab Jews arrived with a vibrant culture of hashish consumption. In both cases, the association of hashish with Oriental barbarism served as a key justification for the nation’s drug and settlement policies. Similar instances of the political instrumentalization of racialized cannabis myths also appeared in Thembisa Waetjen‘s (University of Johannesburg) paper on the criminalization of dagga in early 20th century South Africa, Michael Couchman‘s (Ph.D. Candidate, Queen’s University) discussion of xenophobia within Canadian drug policies during the 1920s and 1930s, and Neil Carrier‘s (University of Bristol) talk on the evolution of drug policies in Africa, and particularly in Kenya where the government associated drug use with migrant Somali.

Isaac Campos (University of Cincinnati) convincingly argued that myth making, whether used to support or oppose cannabis, is a common feature of scientific engagement with the drug, both past and present. In his paper on Dr. Leopoldo Salazar Viniegra, an influential psychiatrist in 1930s Mexico City, Campos showed how pro-cannabis experts like Salazar ironically and sometimes dangerously fought fable with fable. In an effort to disprove the link between marijuana and madness, an idea firmly entrenched in Mexican medicine and society at that time, Salazar conducted dangerous and unethical experiments, such as giving people (some with mental illness) cigarettes secretly laced with cannabis, to gauge their reactions and mold the results toward his hypothesis. Campos emphatically cautioned those gathered in Glasgow not to fall victim to a similar underestimation of the psychoactive properties of cannabis. To do so, he argued, not only distorts the complex history of cannabis but also ignores the drug’s very real potential hazards.   

A key insight gleaned from the conference was that lay knowledge produced by cannabis users, counter-cultural figures, and advocacy groups significantly influence the production of official ideas and policies both for and against the drug. Sue Taylor (London School of Hygiene) revealed how MS patients and advocacy groups helped push the re-medicalization of cannabis in the UK from the 1970s through the 1990s, a time when cannabis-based medications were officially kept from the pharmaceutical market. By the 1990s MS patients and advocacy groups became so influential, Taylor showed, that their ideas about cannabis directly influenced the course of clinical trials, the development of new cannabis-based treatments, and the liberalization of cannabis laws into the early 2000s. Lucía Romero (Instituto de Estudios sobre la Ciencia y la Tchnología) highlighted a similar influence of cannabis users and growers on the rise of therapeutic cannabis in Argentina and the passing of law 27350 in 2017, permitting research into and use of medical marijuana. Using a combination of documentary evidence and interviews, Romero traced the “hybrid network” of knowledge production formed through the dialogue between cannabis consumers and a range of medical and political experts in Argentina over the past decade.

Several of the papers revealed a comparable bottom-up dynamic within recent movements against prohibitionist cannabis policies in the Americas, and particularly in Brazil and the U.S. Júlio Delmanto (Coletivo Dar) drew attention to the important role of counter-cultural and anti-prohibitionist protest movements in formulating the logic and institutional foundations of harm reduction efforts in contemporary Brazil. Chris Elcock (Université Jean Moulin Lyon 3) likewise focused his paper on the ways in which counter-cultural icons, such as Ken Kesey and Allen Ginsberg, contributed to the growth of pro-cannabis sentiment in the U.S. during the 1960s and 1970s. Their papers demonstrate that, much like patients and advocacy groups in the UK and Argentina, activists and counter-culturalists in Brazil and the U.S. provided lay knowledge and grassroots support for their nation’s efforts to medicalize and decriminalize cannabis in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Emily Dufton (George Washington University) further confirmed the steady influence of grassroots activism on the global history of cannabis in her paper on the international anti-cannabis parent group, the Parents’ Resource Institute for Drug Education (PRIDE). Building on research from her insightful work Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America (Basic Books, 2017), Dufton charted PRIDE’s counter-revolution against marijuana in the U.S. and abroad and highlighted Nancy Reagan’s politicization and internationalization of the organization’s anti-pot campaign during the 1980s. Whether for or against cannabis, then, grassroots activists and producers of “lay knowledge” played a major role in the drug’s historical and global “rise and fall and rise again” during the past century.

Another major point of convergence among the papers presented in Glasgow formed around the issues of cannabis regulation, deregulation, and taxation. An important aim of writing global history is to provide a means of comparative analysis, and the conference accomplished this well by facilitating the comparison of the historical development of cannabis controls in Africa, Mexico, the U.S., and Canada. The aforementioned scholars Neil Carrier and Thembisa Waetjen as well as Gernot Klantschnig (University of York) presented a fascinating look into the history of drug prohibition in 20th century Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa. Wartjen discussed how the governments of both the British Empire and independent South Africa post-1910 criminalized dagga as a way to defend white racial rule and justify legal measures to ensure white privileges in labor politics. And Klantschnig’s research showed that while race did not factor into the formation of anti-cannabis policies in Nigeria between 1930 and 1970, the nation’s officials and medical experts similarly demonized and politicized cannabis use in the country as a symbol of post-colonial state crisis.

Carlos Peréz Ricart (University of Oxford) and José Domingo Schievenini (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) noted a similar connection between drug policies and state building in 20th century Mexican history. Ricart convincingly argued that Mexico’s efforts to eradicate drug use and trafficking between 1940 and 1980 must be understood, not as a product of America’s “war on drugs,” but within the context of the Mexican government’s internal pursuit of state centralization.  And Schievenini contended that throughout the 20th century various medical and legal experts in Mexico supported the state’s efforts to centralize through punitive anti-cannabis campaigns. Both papers thus speak to the historical reality that international drug controls often unfold within and take on the character of national and local political cultures.

This complex interaction between local, national, and global forces also characterizes the modern history of cannabis control in the United States of America. Sarah Brady Siff (Miami University) detailed the fascinating story of cannabis eradication efforts in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Hawaii during the 1960s and 1970s. Her research showed how marijuana prohibition during the early decades of the nation’s “war on drugs” also unfolded within the overlapping context of long-standing state efforts to eradicate noxious weeds deemed detrimental to agriculture. Ivana Obradovich (Observatoire français des drogues et des toxicomanies) convincingly demonstrated how a comparable dialectic between state, federal and global forces currently is driving the regulation and taxation of legal cannabis in the U.S. states of Washington and Colorado as well as in the nation of Uruguay. Drawing from her work on the “Cannalex” project, a 2-year comparative study of cannabis regulation models in the U.S. and Uruguay co-sponsored by the OFDT (French Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction) and the INHESJ (French National Institute for Advanced Studies in Security and Justice), Obradovich explained how local political cultures often determine the central character of newly created controls within globalizing legal cannabis markets. Peter Hynd’s (McGill University) paper on the British Empire’s regulation and taxation of cannabis production in India during the 1880s and 1890s highlighted a similar influence of local factors, namely the illicit smuggling of ganja by Indians, on the character of regulation regimes.

Rounding out the coverage of the Americas were three papers on past and present cannabis controls in Canada by Dan Malleck (Brock University), Matthew Decloedt (Central European University, Budapest) and the aforementioned Michael Couchman (Queen’s University). All three papers underscored the multi-territorial dynamism of Canadian cannabis regulations. Malleck’s paper called attention to the history of liquor control in Canada and how the legacy of provincially fragmented liquor regulations has largely predetermined current policy debates concerning the legalization of cannabis. Couchman’s paper on the international context of Canadian cannabis prohibition illuminated a similar trans-territorial dynamic connecting Canada’s drug policies to an array of global diplomatic forces stretching from the interwar period through the Cold War to today. And DeCloedt showed how recent efforts to legalize cannabis in Canada’s federal courts were largely successful because of legal arguments couched in the language and logic of international human rights. Much as in Mexico and the U.S., then, the history of cannabis controls in Canada often unfolded at the intersections of local, national, and global forces.

Several presenters noted similar transnational dynamics at work in the histories of cannabis supply and trade networks in the Netherlands, Afghanistan, and east Germany during the 1960s and 1970s. Stephen Snelders (Universiteit Utrecht) discussed how the Dutch government’s revisions of their 1976 Opium Law, sparking the growth of the nation’s internationally infamous “coffee shops”, unintentionally led to the growth of an international illicit cannabis trade controlled by counter-cultural and crime figures and centered in the Netherlands during the 1980s and 1990s. And Arjan Nuitjen (Universiteit van Amsterdam) detailed how local huisdealers at youth centers across the Netherlands operated alongside the coffeeshops as an informal, local node within the growing illicit and international cannabis  market centered in Dutch cities during the last two decades of the 20th century. In his paper on Afghanistan’s role in the international hashish trade, James Bradford (Berklee College of Music) argued that European and American drug tourists stoked demand for hash in Afghanistan during the 1960s and 1970s and that Western traffickers thus helped engender Afghanistan’s first foray into the global drug market. And as Ned Richardson-Little (University of Exeter) showed, this Afghani hashish was smuggled across the Iron curtain, through the GDR and into West Berlin during the height of the Cold War.

In addition to these insightful papers on the global histories of cannabis, the conference provided presenters and attendees an excellent opportunity to network and exchange information about their current and future research projects. Organizer Lucas Richert (University of Strathclyde), for example, shared the exciting news of his participation in an RSE-funded interdisciplinary research project entitled “Don’t Make a Wave: The Dynamics of Debate.” With computer scientist Alice Toniolo (St. Andrews University) and civil engineer Yong Sung Park (University of Dundee), Richert hopes to combine wave dynamics, mathematical algorithms, and historical sources to produce a model for better understanding debates over cannabis legalization. This and other examples of the interdisciplinary and international exchange of ideas characterized the entire conference. And I believe I speak for all participants when I express a hearty thank you for the event, the comfortable and convenient accommodations, and the anticipation of continued work together on the global histories of cannabis.



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