Marijuana and Migration: Troubling Transplants in the Atlantic World, 1500–1940

AHA Session 67
Friday, January 8, 2016: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Room 303 (Hilton Atlanta, Third Floor)
Isaac Campos, University of Cincinnati
Isaac Campos, University of Cincinnati

Session Abstract

This panel explores the relationship between marijuana and migration in the Atlantic World across different regions, time periods, and labor regimes. The papers offer fresh interpretations of cannabis in different migratory contexts, which expand upon and challenge historical understandings of global drug flows; the relationship between drugs, labor, and empire; and the impact of labor migration and xenophobia on local drug laws. Historically, the globalization of drug plants -- whether licit or illicit -- has been closely tied to international commerce and labor migrations. Like most products of this “psychoactive revolution,” cannabis moved through both channels. The strategic demand for industrial hemp and naval stores linked India, England, Russia, and the Americas. In similar fashion, intoxicating cannabis crops spread through transnational medical channels as well as the movement of laboring populations. Cultural enclaves of cannabis, including Central African diamba, South Asian ganja, and Mexican marijuana, thus extended into new regions in connection with Atlantic slavery and other forms of labor migration.

Migration can be a productive lens for examining any number of different drugs, but cannabis is especially well-suited to this sort of analysis. The potency of cannabis varies among plant strains and preparations of the drug -- exacerbated by seed strains, soil conditions, cultivation techniques, and unique botanical properties. The cannabis plant also has the ability to flourish in a wide range of climates making it far more transportable and transplantable than many other drug plants. Moreover, its myriad psychopharmacological properties afforded a wide array of potential uses and symptoms; while its historically Eastern and Oriental cultural connections gave it an exotic, mysterious, and sometimes threatening aura for many Western observers.

In addition to tracking the migratory pathways of global cannabis diffusion, the panelists examine how host societies in parts of Africa, Brazil, the Caribbean, and the United States responded to its spread. Just as smokable opium acquired associations with Chinese migrant laborers, intoxicating cannabis uses inevitably became associated with subaltern groups and their exotic cultural practices. The consequences of this pattern may appear evident in the international criminalization of cannabis over the past century. However, as this panel demonstrates, a closer look at three specific contexts of cannabis diffusion, consumption, and criminalization reveals a great deal of variety and complexity in both the ethnobotanical and the geopolitical history of cannabis drugs.

Many of today’s global drugs, for better or worse, owe their extensive geographic circulation to the transnational diaspora of migrant communities. Although drug history and migration studies share many points of intersection, they are rarely analyzed together in a sustained conjunctural or comparative fashion. By drawing on both of these fields this panel offers insights into how migrant populations and their alleged social pathologies have figured into the stigmatization, prohibition, and criminalization of cannabis drugs. In combination, these papers address one of the central mysteries of psychoactive commerce, offering historically grounded answers to why certain drugs were traded and cultivated for popular consumption while others were targeted and suppressed by states and empires.

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