The Pot Book: A Complete Guide to Cannabis by Julie Holland (Ed.)
Originally published in 2010 ‘The Pot Book: A complete guide to cannabis, its role in medicine, politics, science, and culture’ is a collection of articles, essays and interviews edited by Julie Holland. A psychiatrist specialising in psychopharmacology, Holland has previously edited ‘Ecstasy: The Complete Guide’ and written the bestseller ‘Weekends at Bellevue’. ‘The Pot Book’ is refreshingly comprehensive and takes into account many varied perspectives on this anciently used plant.
The Pot Book is divided into five parts that gives the reader a rough outline of approaches: An overview of cannabis; Risks of use and harm reduction; The clinical use of cannabis; Cannabis culture; and Steps in the right direction. In amongst these sections are notable contributors including the likes of Andrew Weil, Lester Grinspoon, Allen St. Pierre, Rick Doblin and Julie Holland, among many other lesser known but equally interesting people. This rich diversity sets the ground for a well-rounded and multidisciplined approach and although this method of arranging a text doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a smooth front-to-back narrative this is not essential and would, in many respects, detract from the modern complexity of the issue, which these shorter essays amply tackle.
Cannabis in a religious, ritualistic or medicinal context can be traced back thousands of years. It was employed by the Proto-Indo-Europeans, the Kurgans, five thousand years ago; by the Chinese at a similar time; and evidence exists for its use in the Middle East up to 3000 years ago. In fact, humanity’s relationship with cannabis is not only long but also diverse; being used as a fibre and food source as well. Historical articles by Chris Bennet and David Malmo-Levine put this ancient relationship in context and, although the book mainly deals with a North American perspective, it provides the reader with the knowledge that cannabis is perhaps one of the most universally employed substances on Earth. It is interesting to note though that recent times have ushered in the political reading of cannabis and that current scheduling of the plant runs counter to the accumulated wisdom of millennia.
Botanical and chemical information about cannabis is thoroughly reviewed by a number of contributors, I won’t go into detail about these points but, suffice to say, it is astounding that with so much good, reliable and usually positive information, that cannabis remains an outcast from the point-of-view of state schema. Pot has become a social spectacle within certain plasticised cultural-political categories that turn this essentially useful, interesting and largely harmless plant into some warped version of itself, which bares a close relationship to the creative non-fiction of the mainstream media. Julie Holland interviewed comedian and past purveyor of cannabis paraphernalia Tommy Chong about his arrest in 2003, and he had the following to say:
“Well, I was looking for some kind of gimmick to jump-start my career when the feds raided my house on February 23rd, at 5:00 a.m. They showed up at my doorstep with a twelve- to fifteen-member armed SWAT team, DEA agents, FBI—the Postal Service was even represented. There was a helicopter and Fox News out on the street” (Holland 207)
Holland’s reply to this remark has an element of surprise: “Fox News knew in advance?” Yet the surprise comes with a tinge of irony because what was once the spectacle ‘reefer madness’ is now no less spectacular that it ever was; even in the face of new, weighty evidence to the contrary. Cannabis is a storyline with a closed media narrative. However, whilst The Pot Book deals with a political macro-standpoint on the one hand, wherein an artificial cannabis perspective is manufactured through the media, the book also delves into the micro as well; into the very nuance of the cannabis experience itself.
The essay I enjoyed reading the most is written by Doug Rushkoff and is called Cannabis: Stealth Goddess: “Yes, pot will give you the greatest gifts she has to offer—but she wants something in return. She wants your soul” (Holland 368). He beautifully and insightfully describes the relationship between cannabis and its user. Unlike the seemingly will-bending intent of the more powerful hallucinogenic drugs, Rushkoff writes about there being a dialogue between cannabis and its user, a dialogue peppered with user-regret and paranoia if the relationship is ill-tended. He explores its power as a ‘little death’, subtle conversations yet with immense bearing, stopping time in the light of all one’s personal goals. Cannabis being a tool of personal reflection and a reminder to the individual of their own temporal mortality.
This nuanced middle ground of cannabis, somewhere between the circus-theatre of hallucinogens and the consciousness-hidden action of an aspirin is reflected in the increasingly complex political-legal outlook. For example, N. Rielle Capler, in Canadian Compassion Clubs, writes about the state of cannabis legality in Canada which has resulted in “a mix of three medical cannabis distribution systems: a nationally regulated legal program, self-regulated quasi-legal compassion clubs, and the unregulated illegal black market” (Holland 432). The nuance of the human-cannabis relationship, so subtle, is reflected in the political landscape; full of contradictions, half-laws and half-truths. These overtly complex legal systems are ill-equipped to deal with cannabis and instead have turned it into a taciturn entity, laden instead with the unnecessary hyperbole of a political exteriority. As I said at the beginning, The Pot Book is an exposition of this complexity and as a collection it manages to shine through the mess and give cannabis a voice once more.