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Pot Planet: Adventures in Global Marijuana Culture

By Brian Preston

Grove, 298 pages, $24.95

Loaded: A Misadventure on the Marijuana Trail

By Robert Sabbag

Little, Brown, 332 pages, $34.95

Vancouver journalist and marijuana fancier Brian Preston sets himself an enticing task: As a book project, he is to toke his way through 12 countries, sampling the local grass and hash. "A global gourmet-ganja holiday," is how he puts it.

But that's not how it turns out, at least in the beginning. He wanders Nepal, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, looking for dope or -- afflicted by tourista -- the nearest latrine. For this reader, hard content about marijuana is thin, and most of the people he encounters are not very interesting.

Preston, however, is a good reporter, and when he gets down to business, he writes an engaging and informative book. It happens in Australia. We've been at Nimbin in New South Wales, "the great citadel of cannabis culture Down Under." It's Mardi Gras -- peace, love and the hard sell. The price of pot doubles, then triples. But then Preston visits a third-generation farmer named Kog, a family man who has done time in jail for growing cannabis.

"So Brian," Kog asks him, "is writing this book the most important thing you've ever done in your life?"

The question gives Preston pause. "In the beginning, this book had almost seemed a lark. Pure pleasure," he tells us. But after meeting so many people like this man who had been persecuted and jailed, "I understood I owed these people something."

Though Preston never says exactly what that something is, in England, the next stop on his tour, we begin to meet marijuana activists who are not merely passionate about pot, but also eloquent and deeply thoughtful.

In dreary Luton, of all places, an hour west of London, we visit the Exodus Collective, whose dedication to love and community is so idealistic that Preston warns us his account "is likely going to sound very hokey." But who's to argue with success? Working on the belief that cannabis promotes conscience, Exodus holds pot raves on land provided by a sympathetic Duke of Bedford. In six months, attendance jumps from 100 to 10,000, local crime rates fall and Luton breweries complain to police and government about lost pub business.

Just weeks ago, Britain reclassified cannabis, easing penalties for possession and smoking. Belgium and Portugal have now decriminalized it (which falls well short of legalizing). The Swiss are liberalizing, and even cautious Canada is once again making permissive noises 22 years after the justice minister at the time, Jean Chrétien, promised to decriminalize pot. (An idea soon scotched by a lobby of parents and teachers from vote-rich Ontario.) But, as Preston explains in a fascinating chapter on Amsterdam, all these pseudo-solutions cause more difficulties than they resolve.

The vaunted freedom of the Netherlands' 1,200 cannabis coffee shops is, in fact, a sham. Yes, you can buy grass or hash and smoke it on the premises. But Dutch legislators, like their counterparts everywhere else, could not bring themselves to legalize commercial production and distribution. So the police must connive in illegal activity, looking the other way while supplies are hustled through the back door, a standing invitation to manipulation and corruption.

Caught in the pinch between the law and reality are coffee-shop owners and growers like Ben Dronkers, a pioneer breeder of new varieties, who has been arrested more than 80 times. "I don't want to be a pain in the ass any more," he tells Preston wearily. "I want what I do to be accepted."

But that's not likely to happen, as Pot Planet explains in a review of marijuana court cases past and pending, including a split decision from the B.C. Court of Appeal that's headed for the Supreme Court. The issue, as always, is where to draw the line between the power of the state and the rights of the individual.

As we in Canada know all too well, it's American drug-war fundamentalism that drives the statist cause around the world. In California, Preston goes to see Dennis Peron, founder in 1991 of the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club, prototype for clinics -- including a number in Canada -- that supply prescription marijuana to patients with medical conditions that respond to cannabis.

Peron is also the man who organized the 1996 state ballot that endorsed medical marijuana in California. It's the law now, sanctioned by the state legislature, yet the federal Drug Enforcement Administration persists, raiding clinics and finally driving Peron away to his farm. He still faces charges.

Near the end of Pot Planet, a woman named Watermelon makes a plea for activists to remember that they represent "hundreds of thousands of users, white-collar and blue-collar regular folks." With some skipping over the groovy bits, such regular folks will find much of interest on Preston's tour. Pot-heads will love it all.

It's hard to imagine anyone getting off on Robert Sabbag's Loaded, a pot pot-boiler that tells the story of Allen Long, an American who made and lost millions smuggling Colombian marijuana into the United States in the 1970s. The names are changed, but the usual cast of clichés remain -- plane crashes, suitcases spilling cash, machine guns and alligator cowboy boots, all unredeemed by Sabbag's hyperventilating prose.

Given such elements, Loaded doesn't have to be dull. But it is. And a big part of the problem is all those damned meetings. Meetings in motels, meetings in the jungle, in villages, on boats, planes. If that's what you have to do to deal dope, it sounds even worse than jail. Long should know -- that's where he ended his druggy career.

Sechelt, B.C., writer Michael Poole is the author of Romancing Mary Jane: A Year in the Life of a Failed Marijuana Grower . He is presently at work on a novel set in the First World War.

Related Reading Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography, by Dominic Streatfield, St. Martin's, $41.95

Streatfield, a London documentary filmmaker, offers a comprehensive, engaging and sometimes cheeky look at the history of cocaine, from 1499, when Amerigo Vespucci discovered natives stuffing their mouths with coca leaves in what is now Brazil, to our own time, when the cocaine trade is an estimated $149-billion per year or more, he points out, than the combined revenues of Microsft, Kellogg's and McDonald's.