Why is geography so important?
Geography is central to understanding cannabis growing and hashish making, regardless of how the discipline is defined: Cannabis Sativa is one of the most sensitive of agricultural products to variations in the physical environment; landscapes of cannabis in traditional growing regions reflect deep cultural resonances about the relationships between humans and the places in which they live; and the spatial distribution of Cannabis production and the styles or methods used for the production of refined goods such as Charas or Hashish vary significantly across the globe.
Wine is very similar to Cannabis in many ways and when it comes to wine; almost every descriptive account of a wine region refers to its geography, usually focusing on its physical environment, and the influence that this has on the character of the wines. Moreover, important publications by archaeologists, historians, and economists, alongside many others, frequently refer to aspects of geography in their understandings of wine, often in terms of its role in international trade, its spatial variability, or the significance of the environment in shaping the distribution of grape growing and wine production.
However when it comes to Cannabis, there is no such approach. Cannabis writers barely cover the subject of traditional growing regions and very few serious scientists of any discipline have approached subject with this sort of rigour.
As a result, we have 18,000 strains registered on seedfinder.eu, the overwhelming majority of them anonymous hybrids with unlear origins. The only way to to begin approaching the subject of Cannabis cultivars in a sensible manner, particularly the hybrids of the last 60 years - is to completely ignore them. For the time being that is.
First, the strains of the last 500 years would need to be properly understood. Haze is supposedly a mixture of three columbians. What is the genetic backround of Punta Rojo or the so called 'Highland Columbian'?
What makes those strains different from any other?
Geography. It is the foundation upon which we need to build on.
As noted above, there are few agricultural crops whose products are as subtly diverse as those of Cannabis Sativa. Moreover, this diversity is reflected at a range of scales, from the global variations between Cannabis found in different continents, to the local differences between adjacent plots.
This diversity is not only the outcome of differences in geology and climate, but it is also the result of the labour of countless generations of growers, each set in their own distinctive human context. It is this historical interaction between people and the environment, creating a specific cultural identity, that lies at the heart of any understanding of the emergence and spread of Cannabis production and consumption.
However, there is much more to an understanding of the emergence and spread of Cannabis than merely its expression as a product of the interaction of people in a particular environment. Cannabis and Hashish have played important economic, social, political and ideological roles in different parts of the world throughout history.
In economic terms, it is well attested that a considerable economy based on the trade of hashish existed in the Indian subcontinent since at least 1893. Before this, evidence is scarce and after this, prohibition confuses the picture. Only now is the role of trans-national capital in the development of the illicit Cannabis industry during the twentieth century beginning to attract attention. Continued illegality in many countries compounded with the secretive nature of the cold war make studying certain aspects the Cannabis economy completely impossible.
The social significance of Cannabis consumption has also varied considerably in the past. Cannabis is heavily associated with the Nizari Ismaili sect of Islam since ancient times, leading rise to theories as to the origin of the word Assassin. In the Indian subcontinent, Cannabis and Charas have had important ideological significance and symbolism, from their efflorescence in Shaivite rituals to their use by Sadhus on a daily basis.
To these factors must also be added the political importance of Cannabis and the Cannabis trade, expressed not only in the famous words of John Erlichman, Coconspirator in the Watergate scandal and advisor to US president Nixon:
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
but also in the effects of the ensuing prohibition in the decades following.
A second, and related, aspect of the production process of Cannabis that warrants attention is the labour system involved in both the cultivation of Cannabis and in the making of Hashish or cured Ganja. Very little information concerning these matters survives from throughout history that we are aware of. Nevertheless, certain extrapolations can be made when the extant historical context and literature is addressed. Certainly, the colonial period offers some insights, however our concerns are mainly with the traditional, precolonial or simply, non-colonial methods of cultivation seeing as the colonising nations possess no indigenous drug type Cannabis Sativa themselves.
More recently, within the capitalist mode of production, as the price of labour has increased, there has been a shift towards mechanisation in all aspects of Cannabis production. This is also related to the need to create new products, better suited to a new legal market, but also the efforts of large commercial growers and smaller hobbyists growing illicitly in the west seeking to improve labour productivity, as permitted by the rise of indoor growing with hydroponic systems, automated grows and mechanical trimmers, all need to be interpreted against the wider development of advanced capitalism. As Mandel (1976:35) has argued, ‘Machines are capital’s main weapon for subordinating labour to capital in the course of production’.
Cannabis, more specifically Charas or Hashish has significant importance as an item of trade, particularly during the Colonial period, making it of especial interest for an understanding of the emergence of wider exchange mechanisms under different social and economic structures. Key issues which need to be addressed in this context include the effects of political alliances on patterns of economic interaction, the development of credit systems and other financial institutions, and the transformation of certain commodities into capital investments in their own right.
The Methuen Treaty, an outcome of war on the European stage, provides an excellent example of the methods whereby English merchants established factories overseas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and which, in this instance, led to the development of the considerable trade in port wine between England and Portugal. Later and very similarly in Asia, we see the emergence of Charas and much more importantly the Opium trade as a crucial point of contention between the Great Powers, leading to war and considerable political intrigue due to the weaponisation of the intoxicating drug trade by the leading colonial powers of the UK, Netherlands and USA in order to achieve largely economic goals held by the emerging merchant class in these countries.
These developments are closely related to the emergence of what Wallerstein (1974; 1980) has called the modern world system, and to the establishment by European powers of colonial interests in Africa, America and Asia. Critical to any understanding of the development of modern capitalism is an analysis of the development of new credit and banking systems in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Braudel, 1982). Among other things these enabled trade to take place much more easily over longer distances, and thus facilitated the wider expansion of colonial interests. In examining the development of Cannabis in areas far from its Central Asian core, it is therefore important to address the complex set of issues concerning the nature of colonialism and imperialism. Although the immediate factors giving rise to the development of Cannabis Sativa of the narrow leaf drug type in North America, Southern Africa and Australia were set against the overall context of the increasing global integration of capital, the actual processes involved were in fact quite similar, in that the need for vast amounts of slave labour necessitated the relocation of large populations of South, Southeast and East Asian peoples to the colonies and Imperial core.
The history of aged hashish in British India reflects a third element of exchange, that involving the circulation of capital. There is good evidence that the indigenous people, had considered Charas from certain years to be of particularly good quality and worthy of being kept. The lack of such vintage products in the world today is the result of the inability to store Hashish for any length of time following the prohibition and the risks that production and storage suddenly encompassed, but also because producers themselves became more concerned with safety and efficacy (speed) in order to meet the demands of capital. The critical features of vintage hash for the present discussion, though, are that they require greater capital investment, and that this is undertaken in the expectation of increased profits. This was as true of Antiquity as it has been of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For Cannabis that are not destined to be sold within a year of it's production, not only will the return on capital investment take more than a year to be realised, but it is also necessary to have enough space for storage to keep more than a year’s production at a time. This requires yet further capital investment. Aged hashish can therefore only be produced by those who have sufficient capital reserves and who have little need for immediate access to money. Such investment of capital is made in the expectation of the realisation of profits over and above those obtainable from the sale of the product within a year of its production.
One of the most immediate expressions of these structural tensions, of traditions of cultural production, and of ‘irrepressible human experiences cutting across history and geography’ (Cosgrove, 1984:65) lies in the landscape itself.
Let's proceed to describe it.
The Cultural Landscapes of Cannabis
Malana Village, Himachal Pradesh - India
Yammouneh, Bekaa Valley - Lebanon
Phumi Chreav, Koh Kong - Cambodia
Chilibuno, Nkhotakota - Malawi
Humboldt Valley, California - USA
Physical Factors in Cannabis agriculture
These examples, taken from widely contrasting parts of the Cannabis growing spectrum, have illustrated not only the varied range of economic, social, political and ideological factors that have influenced the emergence of Cannabis production in the past, but also the great importance of physical factors in determining the nature of the Cannabis industry at any given time and place. The influence of different Cannabis varieties, the emergence of new methods of cultivation or refining, the importance of geology and soil type, and the dominant weather systems can all be seen to have played a significant role in creating the Cannabis landscapes of northern India, Lebanon, Cambodia and California. Any understanding of the historical geography of Cannabis must therefore begin with a basic comprehension of the physical processes involved in cultivating Cannabis and in making hashish. The climatic constraints on the cultivation of Cannabis, and the precise nature of the chemical processes involved in refining and storing the finished product, are critical to any appreciation of the emergence and development of Cannabis and the industry around it. It is therefore to these physical processes that we must now focus on.