The title of Martin A. Lee’s Smoke Signals: A Social History Of Marijuana—Medical, Recreational, And Scientific is misleading. While not exactly a laugh riot, Smoke Signals promises a modicum of playfulness in a book with practically none. Lee isn’t here to play around. He sees himself as a man on a mission, fighting an uphill battle to change the official attitude about marijuana, a relatively harmless (especially compared to alcohol) recreational drug that has significant medicinal benefits, but has been demonized through a long-running, government-sponsored propaganda campaign waged in the courts, popular culture, and the schools. To make the case for a better understanding of the drug, Lee has written what amounts to a textbook, and the kind of textbook that makes smart kids hate school. When he plants his feet firmly and reels off a list of italicized “slang words for marijuana in English”—“grass, reefer, tea, pot, dope, weed, bud, skunk, butt, blunt, Mary Jane”—he sounds just like Jack Webb on Dragnet, fresh from boning up on back issues of Downbeat so he’ll be able to show the stoner punks that he, too, can speak their language.
Most of the first 150 pages or so of Smoke Signals is devoted to the history of marijuana and how it has affected and inspired popular culture, in mostly wonderful ways. Lee contrasts huffy statements from anti-pot politicians and law-enforcement figures with glimpses of Paul McCartney blowing an interviewer’s mind by acknowledging, “Sgt. Pepper was a drug album,” Mezz Mezzrow turning on the whole jazz world, and the Beat subculture producing Allen Ginsburg “Howl,” “arguably the most important American poem of the twentieth century.” (Randall Jarrell would like to see Mr. Lee after class.) In spite of some entertaining factoids buried in the arid flatlands of Lee’s prose, this section will be of no interest to anyone who already knows something about the people and events described, and do little to persuade anyone who doesn’t to learn more. But a clear arc develops: There was a point in the ’70s when it looked as if an enlightened populace might shuck off the self-destructive pleasures of easy judgment and hypocrisy and legalize marijuana. But then Ronald Reagan was elected president, ushering in an era that Lee sums up with the chapter title “Reefer Sadness.”
Smoke Signals offers brief glimpses of such supervillains as William Randolph Hearst, who “cheered the rise of fascist forces in Europe” with such headlines as “Mussolini Leads War In Crushing Dope Evil,” and Harry Jacob Anslinger, who in 1930 became the first director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics—in Lee’s words, “the Godfather of America’s war on drugs.” Anslinger “cut his teeth battling John Barleycorn,” then switched to denouncing marijuana when the end of Prohibition threatened to leave him in charge of a department without a reason for being. Lee’s portrait of Anslinger, who at the very least sounds like an intriguingly malignant character, is so slapdash that it would be tempting to assume Lee can’t work up any interest in people he clearly despises, except that the heroic scientists and crusaders for medical marijuana and good sense in drug laws who take up a lot of space in the second half of the book are treated the same way. Lee has a lot of information in his notebook—figures, quotes, scientific data, horror stories about overzealous drug prosecutions and the martyrdom of Tommy Chong—and his first priority is to jam it in all in proper chronological order. Giving it shape and the breath of life is outside his jurisdiction.
Lee describes John Walters, the “Anslinger throwback” who was drug czar under George W. Bush, fighting the war of drugs as part of what he called “a conservative cultural revolution.” What’s frustrating about so much of what passes for drug policy in the United States is that it doesn’t seem to be based on anything real, but on the notion that some things are on one side of the great cultural divide or the other, and that to give an inch on medical marijuana would amount to saying the hippies won and John Wayne lost. What’s frustrating is that Lee seems to be just as kneejerk in his sympathies, but seems to feel he can best prove his case that marijuana is a serious topic by producing a book that’s as boring as a month of William Bennett lectures. Those looking for enlightenment would be better off lighting up some Mary Jane and watching Hemp For Victory.