2 out of 4 stars
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“Good people don’t smoke marijuana.” Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke these words during a 2016 Senate drug hearing. The statement embodies one position in a century-long battle about the dangers and the benefits of the magic plant. Marijuana Unleashed, author Breneman McCaslin’s 2018 book, outlines how a small but influential group of politicians and entrepreneurs waged an organized campaign to destroy marijuana production and the people who grow it, sell it, or use it.
McCaslin reminds us that United States citizens had been using marijuana since the 1840s with no evidence at all of it being habit-forming or being linked to violent behavior. It was widely used for many practical and medicinal purposes. At some point in the 1930s, however, the thinking about marijuana changed drastically. McCaslin writes “This leads us to an important question: If it was not fear of health or social consequences that led to the eventual ban of Marijuana use in America…what did?”
Marijuana Unleashed outlines an orchestrated effort by United States drug officials and key entrepreneurs to discredit marijuana’s benefits, fabricate lies about its dangers, and halt its production. The author demonstrates how racism and other intentionally manipulated social norms drove the unjust demonization of marijuana in the last fifty years. The producers of fossil fuels, paper products, textiles, and pharmaceutical drugs were all poised to suffer from the production of hemp and marijuana. If marijuana had not been banned, ”80% of DuPont’s business would never have materialized and the great majority of the pollution which has poisoned our Northwestern and Southeastern rivers would not have occurred.” Competing against new marijuana technologies, according to McCaslin, “would have jeopardized the lucrative financial schemes of William Randolph Hearst, the DuPont family, and DuPont’s chief financial backer, Andrew Mellon of the Mellon Bank of Pittsburgh.”
In 1931, Harry J. Anslinger was appointed the first commissioner of the United States Federal Bureau of Narcotics (now the Drug Enforcement Agency). In 1937, while testifying before Congress, Anslinger claimed, “Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.” While Anslinger was pushing his racist, anti-marijuana agenda, individual states were creating their own initiatives against jazz, rock-and-roll, and marijuana, “to stop ‘evil’ music and keep white women from falling prey to blacks through jazz and Marijuana.” The author includes graphics of various anti-marijuana propaganda posters, including one with a “before” picture of a white businessman. The poster reads, “good job, nice house, loving wife and kids.” The “after” photo of a black man lying in the gutter says “he caught AIDS by sharing used marijuana….” The author effectively uses visual images of this anti-marijuana campaign to illustrate the potency of the movement.
McCaslin refers several times to a book by his colleague, Jack Herer. In The Emperor Wears No Clothes, Herer claims that if all fossil fuels, as well as trees for paper and construction, were banned in order to save the planet and stop deforestation, marijuana is the one substance that would be capable of providing the world’s paper, textile, and energy needs. Moreover, Herer claims the use of marijuana in place of these other products and practices would reduce pollution, rebuild the soil, and clean the atmosphere. Breneman McCaslin frequently praises Jack Herer’s book and even pictures its cover again and again, randomly but often, on the pages of his own book. This odd practice and other anomalies in this publication muddled McCaslin’s message and rendered it awkward.
The tone of McCaslin’s writing is hyperbolic, and the presentation is disjointed and jarring. There are no transitions between very divergent topics, and it is difficult to follow a cohesive thread in this author’s writing. The organization style is unsuccessful in inviting the reader into the content, and the presentation of the book distracts from the message. Many of the paragraphs are very short and begin with indentation rather than having spaces between them. The result is a mass of short, indented paragraphs, at times causing a visual wreckage of random sentences. There are very few introductory or conclusive statements in this stream-of-consciousness style of writing. It would have helped immensely to have actual chapters and an organization to the book’s message arc.
The text of Marijuana Unleashed is interspersed with illustrations and photos. The figures are intriguing, and they add to the interest of the story. Much of the text is underlined, bolded, colored, boxed, or highlighted with bright yellow. If the purpose was to indicate emphasis, it was very ineffective because nearly everything would be emphasized. I didn’t understand the overuse of these tools. Almost every page has numerous topic headings, and these are listed in the table of contents as separate sections or chapters. So, the table of contents is several pages long. Again, this was ineffective and served to distract from the message. I did enjoy the images of historical posters and advertisements, touting the dangers of the “killer drug.” But, the practice of constant highlighting, bolding, boxing, and underlining was tedious. The book’s length is only about eighty-three pages, including an extensive bibliography. However, the dense content, the small type, and the chaotic organization make it seem much longer.
For all of its wackiness, this book is edited reasonably well for punctuation and grammar. It lacks structural and content editing. The writing is not elegant, but it is passable for non-fiction. I rate Marijuana Unleashed 2 out of 4 stars. I think those who are interested in the history of marijuana legislation might enjoy this book and appreciate the graphics and informal style. It does not, however, have the organization and cohesive messaging deserving of a 3- or 4-star rating.
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