Reviewed by MATT MARTEL
Martin Booth started with opium, but moved on to softer drugs. The new book from the author of the Booker Prize-shortlisted Opium: A History tells the tale of the narcotic weed Cannabis sativa - nom de guerre: hemp, marijuana, gunja, hashish, dope, weed, grass.
Cannabis: A History is divided roughly into two sections.
The first looks at the rise of dope from goat fodder to international behemoth, cultivated for strong fibre, used as medicine and eaten for its narcotic properties.
Booth charts the weed's history, chemical components and smuggling methods (in dates, stuffed into dead animals, cut into camel fur) from around 2000BC.
This is worthy stuff, but hardly as exciting as the drug's more recent past. The second part deals with the past 150 years - much more entertaining.
One of the startling aspects of the recent history of cannabis is society's love-hate relationship with it.
Worldwide, cyclical demonisation and adoration can be charted to look like the tides rolling in and away from shore - popular in the Victorian age, vilified in the early 19th century, loved again by the hippies, abhorred in the late 70s and 80s and now increasingly accepted as mostly harmless.
Booth explains how in the latter half of the 18th century, England and the United States were awash with the stuff. As a medical tincture it was sold to alleviate neuralgia, tetanus, typhus, cholera, rabies, dysentery, alcoholism, opiate addiction, anthrax, leprosy, incontinence, snake bite, gout, insanity and more.
Queen Victoria was rumoured to have been prescribed it to alleviate menstrual cramps; her physician declared marijuana "one of the most valuable medicines we possess".
Its popularity receded and it was used mainly as an intoxicant by underclasses - the impoverished, blacks and jazz musicians. Then along came Henry J. Anslinger, first head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. From 1930 to 1962 he went on a hellbent crusade to turn the weed into the scourge of America, with the help of Hollywood and newspaper barons such as William Randolph Hearst.
Headlines like "Murders due to killer drug marihuana sweeping the United States" and the 1935 movie classic Marijuana: Weird Orgies! Wild parties! Unleashed passions! and the following year's Reefer Madness fed the national hysteria.
A bureau expert witness at a murder trial revealed - under oath - his own experimentation: "After two puffs on a marijuana cigarette, I was turned into a bat."
The killer's sentence was reduced from death to life imprisonment.
By World War II, America's hemp-growing industry was wiped out, but the plant was desperately needed for its fibre. A quick morality check reversal led to the Grow Hemp For Victory campaign and any farmer (and his sons) who grew it was exempted from military service. As the war turned, imports resumed from Europe and the campaign was terminated, leaving thousands of hectares unharvested.
Anslinger's campaign continued. His agency focused on blacks, immigrants and musicians. In 1948, he turned to the stars: his agents charged actor Robert Mitchum with possession and conspiracy to possess. Perversely, the arrest helped Mitchum's career. The tide was turning.
When the hippy mantra of free love, universal peace and pot took hold, Anslinger's propagandising and lies fell by the way.
As New Zealand and other countries adopt a more accepting regime, America is caught again in a dope-smoker's horror. In 2000, 734,498 people were arrested for marijuana offences; 88 per cent for possession.
Booth takes little more than an academic interest in the subject. But in the end, he concludes that the benefits to be derived from it far outweigh its perceived risks.
He argues we must learn to live with it in our society "to stop blinding ourselves with our narrow-minded bigotry and start, as the hippy jargon of the swinging sixties would have put it, to 'get real'."
* Random House, $49.95
Reviewed by MATT MARTEL