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Stoner MacGyver book review: Smoke Signals

Now and then, companies send us medical marijuana-related products ranging from vaporizers to board games to books. We showcase them in our quasi-regular product review section, Stoner MacGyver.

The latest? Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana -Medical, Recreational and Scientific

What is it, dude? A book about cannabis history, use and culture in the West, man.

How much coin will it run me? $30

Where can I get one? Amazon.com is your best bet.

Stoner MacGyver book review: Smoke Signals

If the last book we reviewed felt like a primer course in marijuana, this one would be for upper-level college credit. Journalist and cannabis activist Martin A. Lee takes on the daunting task of chronicling the last 500 years of cannabis in Western history in a book that's a blend of short stories, medical encyclopedias, history books and sociology texts all centering around our favorite plant.

Lee starts out with a jangled mix of various cannabis-related folklore he dubs "herblore". It's a quick jump from learning about Louis Armstrong's preference for "gage" over whiskey and marijuana's connection with music to information about cannabis and the 16th Century African slave trade, the sexing of plants and more. But it's interesting and reads at a quick pace.

Other highlights of the work include an entire chapter on the prohibition of cannabis in the United State and around the world, with a special focus on the plant's ties to Mexico. Lee not only discusses how cannabis came its way to that country in the first place, but he theorizes that it became so prevalent due to Spain ordering hemp to be planted from California to Chile in the mid-1500s. After hemp crops were left unattended and nature took it's course, plants began to adapt, and over hundreds of years, they evolved into the same "mota" enjoyed in the late 1800s by Mexicans and Mexican immigrants to the United States.

If that's all too lofty for you, Lee also throws in boatloads of trivia that would win you big money on a Ganja Jeopardy episode. Examples: The term "roach" stems all the way back to the song "La Cucaracha", and the government studied turning marijuana into a chemical weapon that would stone opposition into a hazy submission.

Continue to read more about Smoke Signals.  

More detailed are the accounts of cannabis through the last fifty years or so of reform and political relevance. Lee goes into great detail about cannabis fighters in the 1960s, including the importance of icons like beat poet Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan, as well as obscure but important figures like Raphael Mechoulam.

Mechoulam isn't the most familiar name to marijuana users, but he should be: With his team, he was the first scientist to identify and synthesize THC in the mid-'60s. More interesting, his research was funded by the U.S. National Institute of Health. And despite the agency's likely intention of damning the plant, the findings were quite the opposite. Mechoulam discovered it had potential for treating things ranging from Tourette's and hypertension to chronic hiccups.

Lee also gives credit to lost legalization pioneers like Lowell Eggemeier, who walked into a police station in San Francisco in 1964, lit up a joint and taunted police to arrest him. They did, of course, and Lee credits his act as marking "the beginning of the marijuana legalization movement in the United States."

Lee also touches on other cannabis milestone(rs) ranging from the Florida smugglers of the 1970s to High Times magazine to the Rastafarian movement high up in the hills of Jamaica and its rising prevalence in Western culture. There are bits about Amsterdam and the development of hybrid strains in the '80s and '90s, too. In addition, he talks about Bush (one and two) and their wars on cannabis, cannabis users and even pipe makers with the Operation Pipe Dreams raids and seizures.

There are even a few sections devoted to little old Colorado. Lee talks about the alcohol deaths at Colorado universities in 2004 setting the stage for the SAFER campaign and the legalization of adult cannabis use in Denver circa 2005. We're famous, Mile High puffers!

Lee goes into the medical cannabis movement starting in its early days, when people were risking everything by opening up dispensaries in the Bay Area to help sick and dying AIDS patients find some comfort in dying. And finally, he touches on where we are today and where we have been since November 4, 2008, when Obama was elected into office and medical marijuana seemed to blossom like, well, a weed.

But as I noted above, Smoke Signals isn't really about any one topic. At times, it feels more like a collection of academic essays as opposed to developing a single idea or theme. The results can come across a bit scattered, with Lee jumping from one story to the next -- moving forward centuries in cannabis time within a few paragraphs. Frankly, it's not unlike how a lot of passionate, pot-smoking activists speak. But more often than not, Lee has a rhythm and a way with stories that keeps the book moving quickly despite its 400 pages (not including the 66 pages of notes and 100 pages-plus of bibliography and various indexes).

So while Smoke Signals isn't going to win over those of you who can barely make it through an issue of High Times, let's be real: Those people probably didn't make it this far in a book review anyway. So if you want to fill your head with something marijuana-related other than OG Kush, Smoke Signals was hands-down one of the most informative books on marijuana I've ever read.

We can't guarantee all products sent in will be reviewed here at Stoner MacGyver, but if you've got something you think is the greatest invention since sliced pot-bread, send us an e-mail at marijuana@westword.com


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