12 cannabis books that changed the game

Published on June 26, 2018 · Last updated January 25, 2023

All kinds of books pair well with weed, from the headiest philosophy to the most escapist fantasy or science fiction. However, the following list of game-changing cannabis books will focus squarely on tomes dealing directly or indirectly with the plant itself, while still running the gamut of novels, memoirs, how-to, science, creative non-fiction, history, cookbooks, and humor.

Twelve books in all, presented here in chronological order, not just for sake of easy reference, but to better tell a story that’s unfolded over many years.

The Artificial Paradises (1860)

Marijuana book #1: Artificial Paradises

by Charles Baudelaire

In 1840, Dr. Jacques-Joseph Moreau put out a few invitations to Paris’ leading writers and artists, with the rather sensible assumption that the offer of altered consciousness would appeal to the creative class. And wouldn’t you know it, when the Club des Hashischins (Hashish Club) met for the first time, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac, Charles Baudelaire, and many other members of the French intelligentsia were in attendance.

While Baudelaire never quite became a hashish-head, he did decide to write The Artificial Paradises, a book about his own experiences getting high and his observations of others. Here’s a favorite passage:

“The brain and the organism upon which hashish operates will only give their ordinary and individual phenomena, magnified, it is true, both in quantity and quality, but always faithful to their origin. Man cannot escape the fatality of his moral and physical temperament. Hashish will be, indeed, for the impressions and familiar thoughts of the man, a mirror which magnifies, yet no more than a mirror.”

The LaGuardia Report (1944)

Marijuana book #2: The LaGuardia Report

Prepared by the New York Academy of Medicine

In 1944, New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia at last released the findings of a blue-ribbon panel he’d convened and tasked with making a full scientific investigation of cannabis based on all previous research plus their own experiments.

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Issued as The LaGuardia Report (and later released as a book), the landmark paper boasted the endorsement of the prestigious New York Academy of Medicine, which helped supply the panel with eminent doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, pharmacologists, chemists and sociologists. The report, in brief, concluded:

“Prolonged use of the drug does not lead to physical, mental, or moral degeneration, nor have we observed any permanent deleterious effects from its continued use. Quite the contrary, marihuana and its derivatives and allied synthetics have potentially valuable therapeutic applications which merit future investigation.”

The prestigious report shot down pretty much every one of Harry J. Anslinger’s central arguments against cannabis. But a rebuttal featured in the April 28, 1945 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association fought back so dirty that many insiders suspected Anslinger himself of writing it.

“Already the book has done harm,” The JAMA editorial unequivocally declared, referring to The LaGuardia Report. “One investigator has described some tearful parents who brought their 16-year-old son to a physician after he had been detected in the act of smoking marijuana. A noticeable mental deterioration had been evident for some time, even to their lay minds. The boy said he had read the LaGuardia Committee Report and that this was his justification for using marijuana.”

Marihuana Reconsidered (1971)

by Dr. Lester Grinspoon

Dr. Lester Grinspoon didn’t set out to write a book that would change the world’s misguided view of marijuana. In fact, he originally started researching the subject in hopes of convincing his best friend—famed astronomer Carl Sagan—to stop getting high all the time.

Written by a leading academic who was also a medical doctor, the book was a sensation, sparking a national debate that led directly to our current era of rapid legalization.

But after a fateful weekend spent digging into old research reports at the library, Grinspoon—a young associate professor at Harvard Medical School—emerged with a new understanding of the plant and its potential as a medicine.

In response, the good doctor took a career detour in order to write Marihuana Reconsidered, a scholarly work that for the first time in decades (see LaGuardia Report above) made the public fully aware of the facts regarding cannabis. Written by a leading academic who was also a medical doctor, the book was a sensation, sparking a national debate that led directly to our current era of rapid legalization. The experience also transformed Grinspoon’s life, as he’s spent the last fifty years advocating for the plant’s medicinal use and full legalization.

Marijuana Horticulture (1983)

Marijuana book #3: Marijuana Horticulture: The Indoor/Outdoor Medical Grower's Bible

by Jorge Cervantes

George Van Patten (writing under the pen name Jorge Cervantes) has sold over one million self-published cannabis cultivation books, providing solid information and detailed instructions to countless hobbyists and professionals around the world. He’s also a guy who clearly loves both cannabis and those who grow it.

As reported in a previous Leafly article, the earliest iteration of Van Patten’s Marijuana Horticulture had its roots in his own carefully collected field notes, based on his many years as an underground grower in Mexico and Southern California. After photocopying those detailed notes and sharing them many, many times with fellow cultivators, he finally printed up a small batch of self-published books to save himself the trouble of making copies, only to find he had a perennial bestseller on his hands.

Even as the popular conception of cannabis cultivation has shifted to large, professionally operated production facilities, Van Patten continues to focus on those cultivating in a backyard, basement, or small plot.

The Emperor Wears No Clothes (1985)

Marijuana book #4: The Emperor Wears No Clothes

by Jack Herer

Born in New York City in 1939, Jack Herer dropped out of high school to join the Army and serve in Korea. He didn’t try smoking cannabis for the first time until he’d turned thirty, and not long after, ditched his job as a sign maker and opened up a head shop on Venice Beach in Los Angeles, pledging to campaign tirelessly until cannabis was legal and everyone was let out of prison, or he turned 84—whichever came first.

In 1981, Herer was arrested for trespassing on federal property while collecting signatures for a cannabis ballot initiative. Given two weeks in prison, he used the time to start work on The Emperor Wears No Clothes, which was published in 1985 and immediately lit a fire under the cannabis legalization movement and the hemp movement, both of which had been floundering in Reagan’s America.

Herer also captured the popular imagination by offering a $100,000 reward to anyone who could disprove the claims made in the book. The book’s title, meanwhile, refers to Hans Christian Anderson’s classic children’s tale The Emperor’s New Clothes, used here as an allegory for the failures and illogic of cannabis prohibition.

Mr. Nice (1996)

Marijuana book #5: Mr. Nice

by Howard Marks

Howard Marks wasn’t a well-known entity outside of international cannabis smuggling circles until 1996, when he wrote Mr. Nice—a funny, frolicking, and ultimately life affirming first-person account of his life and crimes.

Marks created 25 separate businesses to launder his smuggling profits, while operating under 43 different aliases.

Marks first got started selling hashish—albeit it in small amounts—while studying nuclear physics at Oxford University. After a chance meeting with a Pakistani supplier, and an uneasy alliance with a senior member of the Irish Republican Army, he began to grow his operation until, according to the book, he’d created 25 separate businesses to launder his smuggling profits, while operating under 43 different aliases. He also claims to have made deals in concert with the CIA, the Mafia, and M16, the British spying agency, for whom he’s also claimed to be an asset.

Beyond all the action, adventure, travel and incredibly exotic cannabis detailed in the book, the real reason it became such a game changing success is the wit, wisdom, and cool British charm exuded by its author, who comes off as a perpetually stoned James Bond.

Shattered Lives (1998)

Marijuana book #6: Shattered Lives

By Mikki Norris, Chris Conrad, Virginia Resner and RU Sirius   

A massive undertaking championed for decades by cannabis couple Mikki Norris and Chris Conrad, Shattered Lives was the first book to put a human face on the terrible destruction of the war on drugs. Using art-quality photography and presentation, the book tells the tales of people and families from every walk of life, and from all over the country, in order to document in crushing detail how drug prohibition has the potential to shatter entire families.

Published at a time when few in politics or the media would consider the need for empathy and understanding towards those given long prison sentences for growing or selling cannabis, Shattered Lives—along with Mikki and Chris’s tireless effort to advocate for the families written about in the book—led to a sea change in our understanding of who actually gets busted for drugs in America, and what happens next.

It’s Just a Plant (2005)

Marijuana book #7: It's Just a Plant

by Ricardo Cortés

Think it’s a little weird that there’s a children’s book about cannabis? Well, you might feel differently if you had a few kids at home, and felt the need to explain to them why Mommy smokes a special plant to help her get through chemo, or why Daddy’s special brownies are only for grown-ups.

First published in a time when any discussion of cannabis and children bordered on the hysterical, It’s Just a Plant ignores all cultural fear mongering in favor of following “the journey of a young girl as she learns about the plant from a diverse cast of characters including her parents, a local farmer, a doctor, and a police officer.”

Written by Ricardo Cortés, the #1 bestselling illustrator of Go the Fuck to Sleep, the book is beautifully illustrated and does an admirable job of mixing education and advocacy, while seeking to “educate children about drugs by satisfying their curiosity but without piquing a desire to try them.”

Marijuana: Gateway to Health (2011)

Weed book #8: Marijuana: Gateway to Health

by Clint Werner

By the time Marijuana: Gateway to Health was published in 2011, most reasonable people had already come to accept that cannabis can prove beneficial for those suffering through chemotherapy. But few medical cannabis supporters, even those fully devoted to promoting the plant’s therapeutic value, had a clue about how many serious ailments cannabis can improve, and how much scientific evidence there is proving this incredible therapeutic potential.

By writing a single volume that both chronicled the history of the medical cannabis movement and compiled the latest scientific studies into the plant’s efficacy, author and researcher Clint Werner made a powerful case that cannabis is not only effective at treating symptoms, but also preventing diseases, while supporting underlying healing and wellness.

Smoke Signals (2012)

Weed book #9: Smoke Signals

by Martin Lee

Martin Lee’s authoritative and exhaustively researched “social history of marijuana” perhaps didn’t change the game, so much as it is the game.

Smoke Signals tells the story of a community of people who fought back against a terribly oppressive system to ultimately win the day.

In 528 pages, the bestselling author of Acid Dreams brings an incredible depth of knowledge and a sharp eye for heroism and hypocrisy to this long and winding tale of a plant that’s been celebrated and denigrated to an astonishing degree.

By showing not just what happened, but how and why it happened, not to mention how misguided and cruel the authorities were in carrying out this herbal vendetta, Smoke Signals tells the story of a community of people who fought back against a terribly oppressive system to ultimately win the day.

The Official High Times Cannabis Cookbook (2012)

Weed book #10: The Official High Times Cannabis Cookbook

by Elise McDonough

Full disclosure, this groundbreaking cookbook was written by my wife, noted edibles impresario Elise McDonough. I hesitate to include it for that reason alone, but truly do believe it changed the game in terms of expanding the idea of cannabis cuisine “beyond the brownie” at a time when many “real chefs” still scoffed at the idea.

But don’t take my word for it, because here’s what noted snobby food critic, and author of The Man Who Ate Everything, Jeffrey Steingarten wrote in Vogue:

“The Official High Times Cannabis Cookbook is in a category of its own—intelligent, savvy, and knowledgeable about food, with excellent general information about cannabis and cooking with it. Yes, some of the recipes are of the getting-high-on-apple-pie variety. But the folks at High Times magazine know something about the role cannabis has played in the world’s history and culture, and my favorite recipes are those for iconic dishes, such as hash brownies, or those that cannot exist without cannabis, such as bhang.”

Beyond Buds (2014)

Weed book #11: Beyond Buds

by Ed Rosenthal and David Downs

From its first issue in 1974, High Times magazine featured Ed Rosenthal’s coverage of cannabis cultivation, instantly making him one of the very few recognized experts on a subject that would remain largely sub rosa for the next forty years.

While still best known as a grow guru and rabble rouser, Rosenthal recently broke new ground, and changed the game (again), with the publication of Beyond Buds.

A next-level examination of cannabis extracts—with sections on hash, vaping, dabbing, edibles and other medicinal applications—the book attempts to make sense of “marijuana’s future” at a time when a technological revolution has “generated powerful medicines and products containing almost zero carcinogens and little smoke,” while also teaching readers about safe extraction and consumption.

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David Bienenstock
David Bienenstock
Veteran cannabis journalist David Bienenstock is the author of "How to Smoke Pot (Properly): A Highbrow Guide to Getting High" (2016 - Penguin/Random House), and the co-host and co-creator of the podcast "Great Moments in Weed History with Abdullah and Bean." Follow him on Twitter @pot_handbook.
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