The American discourse on narcotics has always been more complex than “Just say no,” but in recent years it has reached new depths of murkiness. Support for medical marijuana (which is legally grown and sold in many states, depending on what day of the week it is) runs headlong into old fears about addiction, violence and social unrest. Into these muddy waters plunge three new books.
Three books on illegal, or not, drugs
Pot, Inc. (Sterling, $22.95), by Greg Campbell, author of “Blood Diamonds,” is a brisk, clear-headed survey of a complicated topic. That the author managed to write this evenhanded book while running a small (and arguably legal) grow operation in his Colorado home is a testament to his skill as a reporter. Campbell begins with the so-called “Obama Memo,” released by the Justice Department in late 2009. The memo signaled to many users and ganjapreneurs that marijuana would be tolerated by the federal government and therefore was on its way to some form of legalization. The confusion that followed paved the way for an expansion of medical marijuana use and raucous political debate from the city-council level on up. Campbell weaves in a fascinating history of the drug in the United States, including the legal and political story of how marijuana came to be classified as a Schedule I narcotic — more dangerous and less useful than Schedule II drugs such as cocaine and opium. Campbell is a friendly skeptic, largely convinced of pot’s benign nature, but he’s willing to subject the culture of idealists, dropouts, mercenaries and outright criminals that surround it to a healthy dose of sunshine.
Not so much Mark Haskell Smith, author of Heart of Dankness (Broadway; paperback, $14). He’s a fiending, feverish, globe-trotting knight questing in search of the Holy Grail of highs, a “diggity dank” bud that produces a super-charged form of cannabis-driven higher consciousness. Smith’s book runs parallel to Campbell’s in a number of places: Both authors, for example, recount the somewhat strained and exaggerated doctor consultations they needed to get medical marijuana licenses. But “Heart of Dankness” will speak more to the hard core of THC culture. Coverage of the Cannabis Cup competition, for example, is anthropology with limited appeal outside the circles that already follow the annual event in Amsterdam.
Opium: Reality’s Dark Dream (Yale, $40) is a horse of another color, and not simply because it deals with a different sort of intoxicant. Thomas Dormandy plumbs the depths of history as he wrestles with the question of whether opium is a blessing from the gods or yet another curse. The Chinese Opium Wars are the backdrop to some of the book’s most absorbing passages, as Dormandy recounts diplomacy, cultural conflict and military action. One dramatic climax of the campaign against opium’s influence in China was the 1860 looting and burning of the summer palace, with its botanical garden, stores of imperial treasure and incomparable library. The event vividly illustrates the destructive potential of drug wars, and it resonates with some of the modern chaos wrought in the United States, South America and beyond. “Opium” isn’t a short book, but it’s surprisingly light on its feet. Rich and engaging, it manages to present many perspectives, examining opium throughout history as the food of philosophers and artists, a gift to the suffering, a tool of doctors, a curse on the biologically vulnerable and an igniter of world conflict. While telling his story, Dormandy, a retired pathologist in London, weaves in Maimonides, Graham Greene, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William S. Burroughs and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, putting the current scrabble over the potential medical use of addictive drugs into a grand context. That makes “Opium” a rare triumph: a book about narcotics that keeps taking steps back from its subject until it becomes a meditation on the nature of suffering, without ever losing sight of the story.
Norton is a video blogger for chow.com and editor of the Heavy Table, a Minneapolis-based journal of food and drink.