The best books about the history of cannabis

Chris S. Duvall Author Of The African Roots of Marijuana
By Chris S. Duvall

Who am I?

I study people-plant relationships from perspectives including ecology, history, cultural studies, and biogeography. Cannabis is certainly the most famous plant I’ve studied. A decade ago I was researching how Africans used an obscure tree in historical Central America, and came across accounts of cannabis use that surprised me. As I dug into cannabis history, I was continually amazed at how little the topic has been researched. It’s a great time to start learning about the plant’s past, because it’s a fresh, new field for professional academics. Cannabis has been portrayed so simplistically for decades, but in reality it’s a complex plant with a complicated history.

I wrote...

The African Roots of Marijuana

By Chris S. Duvall,

Book cover of The African Roots of Marijuana

What is my book about?

After arriving from South Asia approximately a thousand years ago, cannabis quickly spread throughout the African continent. European accounts of cannabis in Africa—often fictionalized and reliant upon racial stereotypes—shaped widespread myths about the plant and were used to depict the continent as a cultural backwater and Africans as predisposed to drug use.

These myths continue to influence contemporary thinking about cannabis. In The African Roots of Marijuana, Chris S. Duvall corrects common misconceptions while providing an authoritative history of cannabis as it flowed into, throughout, and out of Africa. Duvall shows how preexisting smoking cultures in Africa transformed the plant into a fast-acting and easily dosed drug and how it later became linked with global capitalism and the slave trade.

The books I picked & why

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Cannabis: Global Histories

By Lucas Richert (editor), Jim Mills (editor),

Book cover of Cannabis: Global Histories

Why this book?

Although this book is written by and for professional historians, it’s really accessible and provides a great geographic range of chapter-length cases of the plant’s past. This book is where to go for a sound knowledge of the plant’s worldwide past. The chapters cover places and times ranging from 19th-century France to apartheid-era South Africa and post-revolutionary Iran—and many of the studies aren’t published elsewhere.

Marijuana Boom: The Rise and Fall of Colombia's First Drug Paradise

By Lina Britto,

Book cover of Marijuana Boom: The Rise and Fall of Colombia's First Drug Paradise

Why this book?

The association between Colombia and cocaine is strong in popular culture, but the cocaine economy rose upon the country’s experience with marijuana production and trafficking starting in the 1970s. Britto completed remarkable research, on the ground with people who were involved in marijuana trading. This is one of a few books that offer such a window into the illegal world of cannabis.


By Robert Connell Clarke,

Book cover of Hashish

Why this book?

This is a fascinating book, for two reasons. First, Clarke is a founder of modern cannabis studies. His knowledge of the plant’s history, botany, horticulture, and processing is vast, and arose through hard work starting in the 1970s, when “cannabis research” was a joke. Academics can find much to quibble about this book, but it gives an enjoyable and pretty sound history of hashish, which is a high-potency form of psychoactive cannabis. Second, for those who have no knowledge of drug production, the photos and descriptions of cannabis processing are a remarkable window into a hidden world.

Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West

By Nick Johnson,

Book cover of Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West

Why this book?

Two books entitled Grass Roots were published in 2017. I recommend the other one too (by Emily Dufton), but for this list I chose Nick Johnson’s book because it’s less well known. Dufton provides an excellent social history of cannabis in the U.S. Johnson gives us an environmental history of the western U.S. that is remarkable because of its many facets, including migrant labor in the 1920s, indoor horticulture starting in the 1970s, and pollution in national forests in the present. Today’s marijuana is hugely damaging to the environment, and Johnson argues that federal legalization, and the regulation that would accompany it, are necessary to make marijuana sustainable.

Report of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission 1893-94 Volume 1 Report

By W. Mackworth Young,

Book cover of Report of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission 1893-94 Volume 1 Report

Why this book?

If you’re interested in cannabis history, you should read original accounts of people in the past who used the plant. There is a huge source of literature, but this book is the most thorough study of cannabis in past society. When it was written by a colonial government commission in the 1890s, India had a centuries-old cannabis economy that supplied the world. Indian farmers, processors, and consumers had incredible expertise, and the British authorities couldn’t decide if this was a good thing or a bad thing. Read this and decide for yourself. And don’t try to buy this book—you’ll find a full copy on Google Books (using the direct link below).

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in cannabis, the American West, and the war on drugs?

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Emperor Wears No Clothes: Hemp and the Marijuana Conspiracy, Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana - Medical, Recreational and Scientific, and Marijuana Grower's Handbook: Your Complete Guide for Medical and Personal Marijuana Cultivation if you like this list.