Pollan, Michael. 2001. Chapter 3: Desire: Intoxication; Plant: Marijuana (CANNABIS SATIVA x INDICA). pg. 111-179 in The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World. Random House, New York.

Beautiful, isn’t it?

My elderly and traditional German grandparents thought so at least.

When my sister graduated from high school in the summer of 2006, she and her friend took a 4 month Eurotrip, and one of their early stops was to visit our grandparents in Germany.  Our grandparents love excessive decoration; big flashy items of gold and silver, wall hangings, rugs, and fake plants….  Much to my sister’s delight, and my grandparents horror, they soon discovered that their beautiful plastic plant was in fact a marijuana plant.  The plant was quickly and quietly disposed of.  Why though?  Its appearance had not changed.  It wasn’t wilting (and probably never would).  But it had suddenly acquired a sour note.  This leafy-green plant, which was no different from any other in basic form, suddenly had to disappear from their household.

This effectively illustrates how we construct our own meaning and project it onto the plant world.  Various plants cause us all sorts of terror and delight, in this case giving both of these feelings depending on who you are.

Pot.  Weed.  Grass.  Dope.  Ganja.  Cannabis.  Reefer.  Herb.  Bud.  Perhaps it is due to the taboo nature of the plant that we keep inventing more names for it, hoping to stay ahead of the authorities.  The lengths that we have gone to in order to grow in secret are astounding.  The results are perhaps yet more astounding.  The high tech indoor growing lab that Pollan described conjured up images of factory farms for me.  Trying to maximize the product in every conceivable manner, producing larger and more potent buds in a precisely controlled environment.  It is vastly efficient and and carries a certain ordered beauty, but also is more than a little appalling.  Pollan captures this image quite well when he describes growers “utterly failing to notice as their world shrank to the dimensions of a fevered dream”.

This discussion on the desire of (seemingly) all humans to alter their consciousness gives way to a deeper discussion on why we forbid certain ways of doing this and encourage others.  The coffee that I drank this morning had quite a strong effect on me.  As did the beer I had on the weekend.  Yet these activities are sanctioned, and arguably even encouraged, for if I didn’t participate people would think strangely of me.  Other drugs, such as marijuana, have quite another context.  So why is this?  It seems that legality often has much to do with power and economics, and far less with reason.  For example the outlawing of chewing Coca leaves by Andean peoples was attempted for a time in history.  Was this due to the damaging and dangerous health effects of the Coca plant?  No.  The Catholic church had an interest in converting the people and the Coca leaf ritual was a barrier to this.

So why is Cannabis illegal?  Pollan offers two explanations.  The first is that it became associated with madness and acts of violence through twisted tales of hashish being used in the middle east.  The second that he offers is of its association with witchcraft being carried down through time by the catholic church and subsequently being a symbol of satanic worship.  I have heard a third explanation, one that fits more readily in my opinion.  During the turn of the 19th century, cotton growing in America was big business.  There were large amounts of money and interest invested in it.  But soon the Hemp/Marijuana plant was discovered to be very good for fibers and could actually compete with cotton growth.  Besides this practical use, it was soon discovered that if one smoked the plant it would have a minor effect on ones consciousness.  With effective government lobbying and large amounts of propaganda (Reefer Madness), the ‘horrors’ of the pot plant were discovered and it was soon made illegal, much to the pleasure of cotton growers.

Is altering our consciousness innately wrong?  This depends on where we derive our values from.  Alcohol was illegal for a brief blip in American history, but is now encouraged.  Do we throw in with the governing body and disregard this plant?  Millions of Canadians would disagree (perhaps not publicly though).  Do we trust to our own instincts and endorse this wonder of nature?

Time will tell, it always does.