Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Getting Burned

On marijuana and opium; high times and picture books.

By Mary Molinary

SEPTEMBER 27, 1999: 

Offbeat Marijuana: The Life and Times of the World's Grooviest Plant by Saul Rubin, photos by Bill Bridges (Santa Monica Press), 238 pp., $19.95 (paper)

Americans have always valued ecstasy: from the hemp-pouched survey teams of Washington and Jefferson to the tobacco-pipe cultures of the Virginia and Carolina plantations and on to jazz cultures of the more recent past. So despite a history of puritanism ranging from New England proclamations to recent Drug War legislation, our very American idiom seems directly related to our love of a good buzz. Unfortunately, one recent contribution to this history leaves the reader feeling that any significant exploration has been reduced to a giggle, a wink, an anecdote. What a drag.

Even more unfortunate is that Saul Rubin's Offbeat Marijuana is rife with good intentions: a desire to exonerate this drug and its history of malign and misrepresentation, and to legitimize the endeavor by framing his "exploration" in the rhetoric of its very stereotypes. Rubin's subtitle, "The Life and Times of the World's Grooviest Plant," sounds like a Disney title from the Kurt Russell years. Grooviest? Wow! Saul's on our side! Cool.

Yet, it's not so cool once the reader realizes that beyond the funky fonts, beneath the vast factoid lists of often too-quirky historical tidbits, and behind the reeking sincerity of the author, there's a lack of substance. To be fair, Rubin's book is true to its title -- a quick, fun MTV-look at marijuana. But in his constant quipping of the light fantastic, he tends to gloss over some very important information and implication. For example, "Historians suggest that hidden racism was really behind political and legal efforts to wipe out marijuana use in America in the 1920s and 1930s. Conspiracy theorists have other ideas. Some suggest that the liquor industry mounted the campaign, since marijuana was a cheaper thrill than another vice -- alcohol, which was once again socially acceptable following the repeal of Prohibition. Others suggest that the government was moving to protect the interests of a few large companies who made wood, paper, and plastic products that competed with hemp."

Couple this quote with the horror story of paraplegic Jim Montgomery, sentenced in Oklahoma to an absurd life sentence plus 16 years for medical marijuana possession (one of the thousands and thousands of folks in prison for pot), and throw in Rubin's nearly dangerous stereotyping about marijuana smokers (under the guise of humor) as "dazed or confused."

Given the "Kafkaesque premise," as Allen F. St. Pierre refers to it in his forthright foreword, of the current Drug War, one certainly wants to be able to laugh at the absurdity. But you can't help but feel that Rubin has ripped you off. As Jim Croce once aptly put it: "I spent all that night/just tryin' to get right/on an ounce of oregano."

There's an important, critically aware book to be written about marijuana, one that, unlike Offbeat Marijuana, avoids tendencies to popularize in the most superficial sense the issues, histories, and economies at hand and doesn't reduce the image of these ecstatic experiences to simple Dead Head silliness. In any case, Offbeat Marijuana makes wonderful reading for those seeking coffee-table trivia. Plus, in a pinch, you can always roll up with the pages.

Opium: A Portrait of the Heavenly Demon by Barbara Hodgson (Chronicle Books), 145 pp., $22.95

What a beautiful book, this Opium -- from its seductive, silky purple cover to the painstakingly picked photos and illustrations. Like Offbeat Marijuana, Opium, too, is a story of representation and makes for a great bedside brief. It claims no political or ideological stance, save for its subtitle, "Portrait of the Heavenly Demon," and its jacket promises that "Barbara Hodgson has created an exotic, lush book that stands as the first illustrated history of opium culture." Hodgson keeps a tighter rein on her subject and provides a more thorough history than Rubin does for marijuana. More important, though, is that opium's history is utterly morphed with its exotic image.

However, Hodgson, like Rubin, so busily gives us the images that she forgets to slow down and stay awhile with some of the more important implications of opium's role in the imperializing of China and the demonizing of the Chinese people. The East here is (at best) "alternately rhapsodized, demonized, and anointed" right along with the precocious poppy. Read Opium and view it, then, but with an open and keen mind.

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