What connects marijuana, diamonds and baby hair?
For most of human history, the annual, dioecious (non-hermaphrodite) flowering herb of the genus Cannabis was grown and consumed quite liberally and had none of the stigma that is attached to it in today’s world. In fact, even in the US, where the debate about the legalisation of marijuana rages on in multiple states, the plant has had quite a rich history of legal use till very recently. The founding fathers of America from George Washington to Thomas Jefferson were all known to have farmed (and used) the plant. In fact, smoking was usually the least productive of its uses. The taller, more fibrous variety of this family of plants is known for its Hemp fibre, traditionally used to make everything from ropes, cloth and even paper.
The hemp plant is one of mankind’s earliest domesticated plants. It dates back almost 12,000 years with everything from paper to pottery being made from hemp in ancient China. Hemp seed and leaves are used as food and there is even hemp milk that serves as an alternative to that vile liquid that tastes like peeled off paint — Soy milk.
And the plant itself is ridiculously easy to grow and farm, a fact that became a bit of a problem for certain industrial interests in the early part of this century. William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate who inspired the Orson Welles classic movie Citizen Kane, needed a way to control the supply of paper as part of his monopolistic strategy to kill his competitors. It is, as you will imagine, slightly hard to make a competing newspaper if you did not have paper to print.
The problem, however, was the Cannabis plant. Paper from hemp was quite easy to make and presented a serious challenge to the timber industry where Hearst had a lot of investments in. So thus began the first organised “free market” smear campaign against the plant. Randolph Hearst’s newspapers began to scare the general public about the dangers of “Marijuana”, a suitably scary sounding foreign term that had never been used in the US to describe the plant before.
And while Hearst had paper in mind, plastic manufacturing companies joined the “Let’s get hemp banned” party to ensure that their petrochemical-based plastics had a leg up over bio-degradable hemp-made plastics. The alcohol and tobacco industries also contribute astronomical sums to fund the “Weed is a dangerous narcotic drug” canard with absolutely zero sense of irony and the pharma industry would prefer that you buy expensive pain killer drugs instead of chewing on some bhang.
At this point, you might be thinking — Wait, this is too malcolmgladwellesquely glib and sounds more like a socialist conspiracy theory, but I’ll leave it for you to research this subject as a homework assignment after reading this column.
And that brings us to diamonds. These glitteringly beautiful arrangements of the fourth most abundant element in the universe were historically rare for one reason. They were typically fished out of river beds in India and Brazil. But once mankind figured out a way to bore deep holes into the earth, we ended up finding substantially massive sources of this gemstone in places like South Africa, which became a bit of a problem for the British financiers of these mines. Abundance is typically a problem for business because it drives prices down, so the response to this is to create a monopoly that controls all known mines so that an artificial scarcity can be created for diamonds. Combine this with the stunningly effective advertising slogan from 1947, “A Diamond is Forever”, we now have a product whose raw materials are tightly controlled, and the answer to the question “Can I sell my diamond for the price I bought it?” is typically “Hard luck”.
We now segue from newspaper magnates and diamond monopolies into a typical Indian home where there is a baby. I have an 18-month-old son who spends every minute of his waking life plotting the destruction of household articles around him and I was told by many a concerned well-wisher that I had to shave his baby hair off because that would encourage the growth of healthy, thicker hair. This is something that is so deeply entrenched into our way of life that practically no one stops to ask “Really? Are there research studies that confirm this to be actually true?” Being the general purpose annoying anti-social engineer that I am, I did ask the question and did a bit of studied research (also known as googling).
It turns out that shaving a baby’s hair has zero effect on its future prospects of becoming a shampoo model. Our hair grows half an inch on an average every month; it’s the same hair follicle under the scalp that keeps producing the keratin that makes up our hair, so shaving typically achieves nothing unless you take your baby to a laser-based follicle neutraliser device, which, if you did, would render your baby permanently bald. So just because something is repeated often enough and loudly enough by a large number of people, it does not make it true. Our current image of the Cannabis plant is a product of a century of misinformation and the precious rarity of diamonds is another myth sustained by the nexus of advertising and earth digging interests and we pointlessly shave our babies’ hair for no good reason because our elders tell us it’s the right thing to do.
To quote Daniel Patrick Moynihan, you are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts. If you think you are, you might want to stop smoking some of that cannabis.