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Commentary: Cannabis & Culture


In The Botany of Desire Michael Pollan wrote, "With the solitary exception of the Eskimos, there isn't a people on Earth who doesn't use psychoactive plants to effect a change in consciousness, and there probably never has been."  Science has proven this true, in that everywhere plants grow, people have ingested them. 

We humans have a long and complex history with this plant.  Indigenous to Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, many scholars postulate that cannabis is perhaps one of the earliest plants to be cultivated.  As trade routes linked Asia to other parts of the world, cannabis spread to the Middle East, Africa, and eventually to Europe and the New World.  As with any other plant, people and their cultures shaped the way in which they used and viewed this herb. 

In our own short history as a nation, the United States has had a schizophrenic relationship with cannabis.  In 1619 the settlers of Jamestown, under the governance of the Virginia Company grew hemp to export to England to support King James.  George Washington, our nation’s first president, cultivated hemp on his plantation at Mount Vernon. 

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad

Yet by the mid-1930s cannabis was regulated as a drug in every state.   The tide changed again in 1942 when hemp was deemed vital to the war effort.  The United States Department of Agriculture even made and released a short film called “Hemp for Victory,” (which they publicly denied making until 1989) which encouraged farmers to grow as much hemp as possible because of its utility for ropes, cloth, and cordage needed by the US military.  The US Dept. of Agriculture set a lofty production goal to have 300,000 acres in cultivation by 1943.  Not long after WWII ended, cannabis was again criminalized and by 1970 the cultivation and use of cannabis was outlawed for any use as part of the Controlled Substances Act.   

This brings us to the present day, where on January 1, 2020, Illinois became the 11th state to legalize recreational cannabis consumption, adding to those who have been able to legally use medical cannabis since 2013. 

To help our students understand the complex history of cannabis and to prepare for what is forecast to be a lucrative job market, WIU and the College of Arts & Sciences announced a new minor called Cannabis & Culture.

Unlike the minor in cannabis production, this minor offers students a foundation for understanding the socio-cultural, historical, economic, and politics of cannabis use in the United States and around the globe. If Illinois follows the trend of other states that have legalized cannabis, our students will find a multitude of job opportunities available to them in the cannabis industry.  

Cannabis, as a form of cultural change, is not unlike other changes in our culture over time. The abolition of slavery, women winning the right to vote, the civil rights movement all have changed the world around us.  Analyzing cannabis as a variable is yet another way in which we can encourage our students to use their critical thinking and innovative problem-solving skills to understand the cultural changes happening around us. 

Upon completing this minor our students will be able to enter the working world with an academic background not available anywhere else in Illinois, since no other public or private institution in the state offers a minor of this type that addresses issues specifically related to the cultural use of cannabis and the culture of the cannabis industry. Drawing on the strengths and various modes of understanding represented by the disciplines of anthropology, political science, religious studies, history, and botany our students will possess an understanding of how societal structures have affected drug legislation, business ownerships, and the current and future challenges anyone entering this industry is likely to face.

Formal education is especially important as more states legalize medical marijuana: we need professionals who are equipped with the knowledge and who are effective and knowledgeable in their field. Courses in the minor will be available on the WIU Macomb campus and online for the fall 2020 semester. 

As the world changes around us, the words of Malcom X seem especially relevant today, “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.”  

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.