As with everything else, the parlance of pot has evolved over the decades. In fact, some synonyms for cannabis are so closely tied to a given era that one need only say “reefer,” “doobie,” or “chronic” to potentially connote a certain decade. However, in author Alex Halperin’s excellent new book, The Cannabis Dictionary, the words we use as synonyms for weed are but a fraction of the contents.
Presented in alphabetical order, this new text from the founder of the popular WeedWeek newsletter reads more like an engaging survey of pot’s past and present, touching on everything from ancient uses of hemp to modern-day innovations in extraction techniques. While readers are encouraged to research specific terms or jump around the text as they desire, one can easily devour the text from cover-to-cover as well.
Far from the latest iteration from the titular likes of Merriam-Webster, Halperin’s work is further bolstered by an objective but undeniably active voice that serves both as outster of past pot stigmas while simultaneously proceeding with caution when it comes to today’s regulated industry.
Speaking by phone from his home in Los Angeles, Halperin — who has covered cannabis professionally for the past five years — discussed how he tackled the project, the role of voice in cannabis journalism, and more.
You do a great job of surveying everything from ancient history to contemporary growing terminology in your book. How did you decide what entries to include?
I’ve said for a long time that the least interesting thing about marijuana is what happens after you smoke it. That really guides my thinking as far as what I write for my WeedWeek newsletter, which I’ve been doing for a while. We used to dive the newsletter into sections: politics, business, health and science, criminal justice, and culture. I tried to apply the same logic to this book. I suppose I could’ve made different decisions. I could have written more about different strains and stuff like that, but I’m not really convinced that strains are a real thing. I tend to think of it like astrology.
In that case, what was your approach then?
In a sense, with The Cannabis Dictionary, it was about taking my approach to the newsletter and applying that to a book where I could look at thousands of years of history as well as aspects of the modern industry. I wanted to highlight people who I find interesting, and, in terms of the health aspect, it’s about trying to cut through the nonsense and trying to give an accurate assessment of the plant’s medical uses as well as how it has influenced action and human activity. That’s the sort of stuff that interests me. There are plenty of choices in this book that somebody might second guess, but overall, I try to give a rounded portrait of this interesting plant and its interesting history.
In this book, you debunk a lot of stigmas but you’re definitely not proselytizing on behalf of cannabis, either. What role did voice play for you in writing this?
It’s not a scientific dictionary, so I think there was a lot of room for voice. With my newsletter and the newsletters being produced by my colleagues, I think a lot of our voice is in the things we choose to write about it. If you’re writing about something like equity — which is the concept that black and brown communities who suffered most during the war on drugs should be able to benefit and profit from the legal industry — to even just bring that up is to say, ‘this is relevant and this is something that I think needs attention.’ I think that’s more powerful from a voice perspective than outright cheering for it, where you’ve then perhaps sacrificed some of your credibility.
Look, I know this word has lost all meaning now, but you’ve covered cannabis during a truly unprecedented moment in the plant’s history. What drew you to this beat?
The first pot story I wrote was for Fast Company in 2014. They sent me to an industry convention that November in Las Vegas. I was pretty interested in the story but I wasn’t a pot smoker at the time. That convention is what really convinced me that I should cover this full-time. I think one of the most interesting things about weed is that you had an illegal market, which was a supply-driven market. The people who had the supply made the rules and set the pricing and stuff like that. Then as soon as it became legal, it became a demand-driven market. There are now all of these companies that are basically selling the same thing. Overwhelmingly, especially in a place like California, companies selling quality products are basically at the mercy of consumers, so their work is now as much about creating a brand. That’s a very different mission and a very different business compared with growing plants, processing plants. and transporting them. It requires an entirely different set of skills.
Presented as part of publisher Mitchell Beazley’s ongoing series of unconventional dictionaries, The Cannabis Dictionary also sets itself apart by eschewing a “stoner” aesthetic in favor of an elegant design that includes endpapers, original illustrations, and an embossed cover. While informational blurbs devoted to subjects like expungement, the jazz clarinettist Mezz Mezzrow, and the consumption technique known as “hot knives,” Halperin says his favorite entry is the one on antiquity.
Citing the work of the Greek writer Herodotus, Halperin notes in the book how ancient Eurasian nomads used to take vapour baths composed of hemp seeds thrown on hot stones. As the status of legal cannabis in cities, states, and countries around the world continues to seemingly change by the second, Halperin notes that there’s some solace to be found in the fact that humans and cannabis go way back.
“It’s a reminder that this is something that has been around for a while,” Halperin says. “It’s been stigmatized for a long time but people have marveled at this plant’s properties for an even longer time. Cannabis is memorable and that’s pretty cool.”