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  • The African Roots of Marijuana by Chris S. Duvall
  • Charles Ambler
Chris S. Duvall. The African Roots of Marijuana. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2019. 360 pp. Ill. $27.95 (978-1-4780-0394-6).

The African Roots of Marijuana is a path-breaking work of scholarship. Not only is it the first continental study of the history of cannabis in Africa, it is the first full-length work that deals systematically with the history of cannabis anywhere on the continent. The author, an Africanist geographer, not only details the widespread presence of cannabis in African societies, but makes a compelling case for the pivotal role that African communities played in the global history of cannabis. Duvall is plainly on a mission to strip away the mythologies surrounding the historical development of cannabis, so many of which reflect contemporary debates around drug regulation and racialized pseudo-scientific knowledge about the history of cannabis.

The author lays out his argument in three successive sections. The first examines the deep history of the development of strains of cannabis in South Asia. The second looks at the spread of cannabis. Relying on linguistic evidence, Duvall follows the drug across the continent and into the Atlantic World where cannabis history intersected with the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The third section focuses [End Page 303] on the nineteenth-century emergence of cannabis in central Africa. Duvall ends his study roughly in 1925, the year in which, at the instigation of Egypt and South Africa, cannabis was first added to the international list of dangerous drugs.

Cannabis had an ancient history in South Asia, where it originated and developed. The psychoactive strain reached North Africa and East Africa about a thousand years ago. It spread gradually and unevenly across Africa through commercial networks. In Asia cannabis-users ate the drug, but with an array of pipes, Africans cannabis smokers established the modern method of cannabis use—a form that delivered a substantially greater effect far more quickly. Cannabis was most commonly smoked by ordinary laborers, particularly the carriers that transported goods across long and arduous trade routes. Smoking often functioned in a variety of ways. It eased the burden of work and relieved its boredom. It could heighten experience and equally make smokers mellow. Before the twentieth century cannabis use did not generally become widespread, but Duvall does document the case of Bena Riamba in present-day Congo, where in the late nineteenth century cannabis smoking became a critical element in a movement that rejected established beliefs and practices in an effort to establish security in a region violently disrupted by the effects of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Duval embeds cannabis history in an analysis of the political economies of African societies and the larger forces that increasingly gripped the continent. The book reflects a remarkable mastery of the scientific literatures on cannabis that permits him to analyze the evidence for the presence of cannabis in Africa against current understandings of the drug's chemical composition and taxonomic history. Duvall has relied almost exclusively on published sources. Using digital searching techniques, he has consulted an enormous number of works to unearth information about cannabis that had been effectively buried inside these often esoteric publications. The scattered nature of the evidence testifies in itself to the fact that although the drug was widely distributed before the twentieth century, it very rarely was sufficiently important to attract much documentation, in contrast, for example, to alcohol consumption. Thus, detailed eye-witness accounts of cannabis production, distribution, and usage are rare. As Duvall notes, even in the southern Congo basin, the region in Africa where cannabis was most commonly used, it is estimated that no more than one in thirty or forty adults smoked the drug. And that drug was, of course, much weaker in strength than the strains that have been developed in recent decades.

The main challenge for readers of this book will be that Duvall writes against a body of "cannabis histories" that few of those readers (including this reviewer) will be familiar with. Repetitious critiques of that literature have the effect of obscuring the main story that Duvall has documented so well...


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pp. 303-304
Launched on MUSE
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