Thursday, December 12, 2013

On Cannabis, Drug Plants, and World Societies

Moments of radical drug-policy change, like the one in Colorado in 2012, inspire scholars to think differently about "controversial" topics like drug plants. (Image:
Like so many projects, this one was inspired by a question raised in the context of what I once understood to be an unlikely and wholly surprising event: the voter-approved legalization of recreational cannabis in the state of Colorado on November 6, 2012. That night I sat with a group of friends under the heated lamps of a rooftop bar in Fort Collins, watching the election returns, when a big-bodied young man who had been staring at his cell phone leapt from his barstool: “It passed! Amendment 64 passed!” As I watched the man’s back-length dreadlocks writhe in elation, my emotions ranged from happiness—what I had long considered to be an overdue change to draconian drug policy had finally been put into the law books somewhere—to complete astonishment that the change even happened at all. Somewhere between those emotions and the dread-headed man’s announcement that he was now going to smoke a celebratory blunt in his car, a question blared into my head: “Of all places, why is cannabis now legal in Colorado, and of all times, why now?”

It is a question that sparked a year and a half of research, and probably many more, on the cannabis plant and its human history. At this point, I can only hypothesize an answer. But that is no longer my main concern, as in the course of my research the entire story of drug plants, with its remarkable evolutionary twists, poetic dichotomies of tragedy and ecstasy, and penultimate truths, bared itself before me as one of the most fascinating stories in the history of evolutionary life. In plants, humans have found nearly everything they need: food, fuel, shelter, fiber, medicine. With plants that provide these in a reasonably efficient manner, humans have formed ancient, reciprocal relationships, in which immobile plants defy the worst of their evolutionary handicaps. They increase and spread their populations rapidly via means of human waste, locomotion, cultivation, and most recently, transportation. This gives them the edge over plants that either produce nothing of benefit to humans—the rare plant indeed—or whose useful qualities have yet to be discovered. Drug plants derive all of these same benefits from humans, yet they provide us not with sustenance but with another extraordinary, if controversial benefit: The coveted shift in consciousness.