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.

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The books I picked & why

Cannabis: Global Histories

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

Book cover of Cannabis: Global Histories

Why did I love 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.

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

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Cannabis as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Cannabis consumption, commerce, and control in global history, from the nineteenth century to the present day.

This book gathers together authors from the new wave of cannabis histories that has emerged in recent decades. It offers case studies from Africa, Asia, the Americas, Europe, and the Middle East. It does so to trace a global history of the plant and its preparations, arguing that Western colonialism shaped and disseminated ideas in the nineteenth century that came to drive the international control regimes of the twentieth.

More recently, the emergence of commercial interests in cannabis has been central to the challenges…

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

Why did I love 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 Lina Britto,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Marijuana Boom as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Before Colombia became one of the world's largest producers of cocaine in the 1980s, traffickers from the Caribbean coast partnered with American buyers in the 1970s to make the South American country the main supplier of marijuana for a booming US drug market, fueled by the US hippie counterculture. How did Colombia become central to the creation of an international drug trafficking circuit? Marijuana Boom is the story of this forgotten history. Combining deep archival research with unprecedented oral history, Lina Britto deciphers a puzzle: Why did the Colombian coffee republic, a model of Latin American representative democracy and economic…


By Robert Connell Clarke,

Book cover of Hashish

Why did I love 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.

By Robert Connell Clarke,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Hashish as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This lavishly illustrated compendium of all things hashish appeals to illicit substance consumers, medical users, and history buffs alike.Clarke traces hashish origins, history, consumption, production and chemistry, from earliest times to the present. Traditional methods of collecting cannabis resin and processing it into hashish are described in detail. Includes bibliographical references and index.

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

Why did I love 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.

By Nick Johnson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Grass Roots as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Marijuana legalization is unfolding across the American West, but cultivation of the cannabis plant is anything but green. Unregulated outdoor grows are polluting ecosystems, high-powered indoor grows are churning out an excessive carbon footprint, and the controversial crop is becoming an agricultural boon just as the region faces an unprecedented water crisis.

To understand how we got here and how the legal cannabis industry might become more environmentally sustainable, Grass Roots looks at the history of marijuana growing in the American West, from early Mexican American growers on sugar beet farms to today's sophisticated greenhouse gardens. Over the past eighty…

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

Why did I love 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).

By W. Mackworth Young,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Report of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission 1893-94 Volume 1 Report as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

At the end of the 19th century, and in spite of the British authorities working to regulate practice, laws and controls relating to the use of hemp drugs in India continued to be the responsibility of provincial governments. In response to questions in the British Parliament, a Commission was set up in 1893 to examine the situation in Bengal, and on the initiative of the Governor General the scope of the inquiry was broadened to include the whole of British India.

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