The history of marijuana in America has long been a history of competing narratives, dueling interpretations. Some believe the official line that cannabis (the preferred name for marijuana in medical and scientific circles) is a major drug of abuse and a gateway to the harder stuff. They see marijuana first and foremost as a dangerous mind-altering substance, a harbinger of social decay. Others are just as adamant that cannabis is a safe and effective medicine for many ailments. Millions use it for pleasure and relaxation. And so it continues.
At the center of this controversy is a hardy, adaptable botanical that feasts on sunlight and grows like a weed in almost any environment. The gooey resin on the serrated leaves and matted flower tops of marijuana contains dozens of unique oily compounds, some of which, when ingested, trigger neurochemical changes in the brain.
Cannabis has a rich cultural history. A plant native to Central Asia, it figured prominently in the shamanistic traditions of many peoples. Handed down from prehistoric times, knowledge of marijuana's therapeutic qualities and the utility of its tough fiber slowly spread throughout the world. As it traveled from region to region the aromatic herb never failed to ingratiate itself among the locals. Once marijuana arrived in a new place, it never left. Never. Yet it always moved on, perpetually leaping from one culture to another.
Smoke Signals is a panoramic, character-driven social history of marijuana and its shifting role in the American narrative. The book tells how cannabis first came to the Americas -- with Africans who brought seeds aboard slave ships -- and how the plant was vilified and banned in the United States during the reefer madness era.
Smoke Signals chronicles the development of a grassroots movement that began in the 1960s, when cannabis first emerged as a defining force in a culture war that has never ceased. Opposition to draconian marijuana laws would grow into a widespread populist revolt against conventional medicine and extraconstitutional authority.
The great leap forward came in 1996, when California voters shocked the political and medical establishments by passing Proposition 215, which authorized doctors to approve marijuana use by patients. Similar laws have since been enacted in 16 other states and the District of Columbia. Initiatives to legalize adult marijuana use are on the ballot in several states in November.
What follows are 13 slides of key moments in the history of marijuana in America.