One of the most humanizing elements about the recent revelations regarding President Barack Obama's youthful marijuana use (in David Maraniss' book "Barack Obama: The Story") isn't that he was an enthusiastic pot smoker, but that he and his pals called themselves "the Choom Gang." Cannabis goes by many names -- one of the reasons it has had such a checkered legal history -- but "choom" has a quaint veneer of nostalgia about it for those old enough to have developed an extensive vocabulary for this simple weed.
Mr. Maraniss' disclosure comes at a time when this Schedule I drug has found renewed vigor as a hot topic. In this election year, many voters who were encouraged by Mr. Obama's seemingly tolerant stance four years ago are bubbling with frustration about how his policies have played out. Meanwhile, the list of states which have adopted medical marijuana legislation increases, and pro-legalization candidates are usurping staunch hard-liners in local elections.
What all of this has caused, Greg Campbell argues in his new book "Pot, Inc.," is a deeply fractured nation whereby neighboring states hold wildly differing stands on persecuting those involved in growing, dispensing or using cannabis, while the federal government threatens to override them all, despite Mr. Obama's landmark "Memo" which suggested (but only suggested) leniency on the matter. In short: it's a mess.
Mr. Campbell is the award-winning journalist whose 2002 "Blood Diamonds" exposed the links between West African war funding and diamond smuggling, so he's no stranger to controversial topics. He was prompted to explore the complicated and legal morass surrounding the way cannabis is treated in this country in order to understand it from the inside-out, and to shed light on it for the rest of us, a task he does with considerable craft.
Like many people, Mr. Campbell experimented with pot during his college years, but concluded that it wasn't for him. When he found himself living in what became Ground Zero for the recent establishment of a medical marijuana industry (Fort Collins, Colo.), he decided to join the fray to experience the other side of the coin, as it were, firsthand. He duly got himself a license to grow a small, state-sanctioned number of cannabis plants so that he could view the process from the cultivator's point of view.
His experience as a legitimate (though still secretive) grower carries us through this highly informative and heartfelt book, from uneasy paranoia as he embarks on interviewing top law-enforcement figures deeply opposed to any kind of legalization, to a sense of confidence and even pride, when his horticultural efforts, modest though they are, produce results.
But Mr. Campbell is no midnight toker. Though he convincingly concedes that the plant does indeed have legitimate medicinal merit (a point he carefully and thoroughly guides the reader through via historical studies, government-sponsored research and personal testimony), he does not imbibe, but turns over his crop to another licensed user for medicinal use, his experiment and research done.
It is certainly fascinating to read such a well-documented and extensive case history: Mr. Campbell always supports his findings with astonishing facts about the plant's botanical and legal place in our biology and economy. But what this book does really well is make a tricky subject seem very simple indeed.
Mr. Campbell concludes that the removal of cannabis from the list of Schedule I drugs (the most dangerous, those with no known medicinal value) is not only long overdue but also morally and ethically necessary to alleviate the suffering of those for whom it has been irrefutably proven to help. He makes the argument effectively and eloquently. The testimony of individuals for whom the relief from unbearable symptoms caused by cancer, chemo, and a host of other conditions, has only come from the natural cannabinoids found in cannabis (and nowhere else, including synthetic THC), is both moving and heartbreaking.
Uncovering the dark political forces that put it there among the opiates in the first place is only the first step in showing how politics -- rather than science or economics -- is responsible for its continued demonization. (The connection between noted xenophobe William Randolph Hearst, the Mexican Revolution, and hemp vs. timber papermaking is just one of the intricate political webs Mr. Campbell unravels; the insider electoral politics of Richard Nixon, which put the nail in the medical marijuana coffin, another.)
It's essential reading for anyone wanting to know a little more about why a teenager in Hawaii gleefully intercepting a joint many years ago could be such a big deal (as president, Mr. Obama has the power to demand cannabis's reclassification as a drug with known medicinal benefit), whether you're a member of the choir Greg Campbell's preaching to or not.bookreviews
Micki Myers (mickimyers.com) is a writer and poet living in Squirrel Hill. She writes about terrible cookbooks at "Yuckylicious" (yuckylicious.blogspot.com).