Anyone who has read the prevailing headlines of today knows what a corrupt and racist farce the War on Drugs has become: with vastly disparate treatment of minorities and blatantly cronyistic policies favoring the alcohol and pharmaceutical industries, modern U.S. cannabis policy may be the most unjust set of laws on record. Yet few have gone to the trouble of asking how such a travesty came to be instituted in the first place.
Weed the People: From Founding Fiber to Forbidden Fruit has done the world a great service by filling this conspicuous gap in America’s cultural knowledge. Author Jeremy Daw, a graduate of Harvard Law School, uses his keen eye for the evolution of laws to trace the origins of cannabis policy in the early English colonies of North America (when it was illegal not to grow hemp) to the early twentieth century, when a small cadre of greedy industrialists exploited widespread ignorance to turn American public opinion against the plant. While other histories have been stuffed with dry facts or inundated with polemical diatribes, Weed the People maintains an authoritative and suspenseful narrative which keeps the pages turning until its tragic yet forgone conclusion.
Daw accomplishes this impressive feat by keeping his focus on the very human characters who made history in their own ways: like George Washington, who may have bred the first sativa/indica hybrids so popular for medicine today; Fitz Hugh Ludlow, the trailblazing psychonaut who introduced the country to the concept of recreational hashish use; and William Randolph Hearst, who was born into incalculable wealth and developed a vendetta against the weed both financial and personal. Daw imbues his tale with urgency, revealing the critical role hemp fibers played both in the founding of the English colonies and in their eventual independence – until politically connected business interests realized they could profit handsomely from the plant’s prohibition.
The book is not without its flaws. While Daw remains at his best when juggling the human threads of an outrageous true story, his legalistic analyses occasionally threaten to bog the narrative down in details: his lengthy discussions of Federalist principles and a limited federal Constitution bend sometimes into the realm of the arcane. Even so, the payoff is immense when he finally reveals how federal drug laws – and federal cannabis laws in particular – provided the excuse for unprecedented expansion of government intrusion into the private lives of citizens (a topic all too timely in today’s world of Guantanamo Bay and drones). At such junctures, he burns with righteous indignation – just as he does when describing the blatantly racist and sexist origins of the drug laws themselves.
All told, Weed the People is a must read for any cannabis activist who wants to better understand the roots of a noxious contemporary policy. While early entries like Jack Herer’s The Emperor Wears No Clothes pointed the way, author Jeremy Daw has delivered the definitive history of cannabis in the U.S.: a thoughtful and riveting narrative which dares to take the gloves off.
First appeared in Issue 5 of Cannabis Now Magazine.
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