Martin A. Lee is an author and investigative journalist who has written three previous books: Acid Dreams: the CIA, LSD and the Sixties Rebellions (co-authored by Bruce Shlain)(1986); Unreliable Sources: A Guide to Detecting Bias in News Media (co-authored with Norman Solomon) (1990); and The Beast Reawakens (2000). In 1994 he was the recipient of the Pope Foundation Award for Investigative Journalism. Lee was a co-founder of the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a group formed in 1986 to combat corporate and establishment media bias.
His latest book, Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana – Medical Recreational and Scientific reflects his skills as a researcher, especially in the historical sections and his analysis of scientific and medical research. The copy is dense and packed with detail, frequently footnoted for those readers who may be skeptical of his scientific claims. If most Americans would take the time to read this book – which is a bit of a challenge to plow through — it would certainly put the topic of legalizing marijuana in some helpful historical context, and it might help convince those who oppose marijuana legalization that they should reconsider their opposition.
Lee comes down clearly on the side of legalization, making a thoughtful case for ending marijuana prohibition. There are no new arguments here (over the last 75 years all of the arguments to be made have been made), but the details about how prohibition came to be are eye-opening to those who may not have studied the subject, and he leaves the reader persuaded that prohibition was the result of ignorance, racial prejudice, outrageous government propaganda, and fear of the unknown. Following so closely on the heels of the repeal of alcohol prohibition, when the public determined prohibition was more harmful than alcohol itself, it seems amazing that no one of significant stature spoke up to challenge the pre-World War II campaign led by Bureau of Narcotics head Harry Anslinger. Marijuana was a drug used by “other people,” not mainstream Americans, so there was no one to stop what started out as, and to a large degree continues today, a jobs program for law enforcement.
Lee appropriately spends a lot of attention on Prop. 215, the voter initiative that legalized medical use in California in 1996, a true turning point in the broader legalization movement. The adoption of medical use laws around the country has established a political climate that permits a far more rational discussion about marijuana policy overall, including full legalization.
I wish he had spent more time talking about the full legalization of marijuana. While he does cover Prop. 19, the losing campaign (46.7% of the vote) to legalize marijuana in CA in 2010, generally the change of focus from medical use to full legalization is given little attention. This is a missed opportunity, since the vast majority of marijuana smokers are recreational users, not patients, and until the responsible use of marijuana is legalized for all adults, we will continue to arrest more than 800,000 Americans each year on mostly minor marijuana offenses.
I especially enjoyed Lee’s version of the history of marijuana use around the world, and his description of the spread of marijuana smoking from Mexico into the United States, from the New Orleans jazz culture to the Beat Generation, and then to the rebellious middle class youth in the 1960s, when marijuana smoking became synonymous with opposition to the Vietnam war.
Lee also captures accurately the flavor of the Nixon years and the original “war on drugs”, and the Reagan years with the “Just Say No” campaign led by Nancy Reagan, when marijuana arrests skyrocketed in this country. He also nicely covers the growth of the “grow-America” movement at the end of the Vietnam war, largely spurred by returning vets who brought with them the habit they had picked-up in Vietnam, along with some high-quality marijuana seeds, when they returned to the US.
His discussion of the importance of the discovery of the endocannabinoid system and the presence of cannabinoid receptors throughout the human body is very well done, which is crucial to understanding how marijuana works: both how it gets you high, and why it is so effective for a wide-range of serious medical conditions. And perhaps most importantly, why it may well provide a key to finding a cure for cancer, Alzheimers, Multiple Sclerosis, Crohn’s, and a number of other serious diseases. Marijuana is proving to be more than something to effectively deal with symptoms; it now appears to help cure many underlying diseases.
The weakness in this book is when the author covers modern domestic politics, where his perspective is clearly San Francisco-centric, which exaggerates some of the narrative and sometimes misses more important national trends. His primary focus is on those grass-roots activists who initially drafted the medical marijuana initiative in CA, and he largely ignores the the more mainstream individuals and organizations whose support was crucial to the effort, and without whose support the initiative would have never passed. Similarly, when the author covers politics on the east coast, he does so primarily by focusing on the activities of a few Yippies who were living in the District of Columbia, (some of whom would later turn up running medical use dispensaries in CA), but who were at the time largely irrelevant to the legalization movement, other than as an entertaining and colorful group of stoners.
Additionally, he attributes far more influence to Jack Herer, a fascinating activist who authored the cult-favorite, The Emperor Wears No Clothes, but who had little influence on actual marijuana policy. Jack was a cultural phenomenon, but his work was simply not taken seriously by elected officials.
Even with those limitations, the book is an interesting read and a valuable resource for students of legalization. Overall I enjoyed the book, and would recommend it to anyone for the historical sections, and for the medical and scientific sections spread throughout the book.
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