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Marijuana's Early History in the United States

Smokeable pot's proliferation in North America involves the Mexican Revolution, the transatlantic slave trade, and Prohibition.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons user Chmee2

America is a weed nation. Love it or hate it, you or someone you know inevitably has a deep tie to the ubiquitous herb. And with four states now declaring recreational pot legal and 19more supporting medical marijuana, weed's set to become not just an unavoidable illicit experience, but an integral and nonchalant part of our culture. Given its prevalence in modern life, it's only natural that we assume pot's been a part of our culture for ages, just now coming into the light. Sure, it's not an indigenous American crop (weed originated somewhere in Central Asia, then spread across the Old World over thousands of years), but it's easy to think that it must have come to America in days of yore and taken root from there.


Yet, the truth is that most histories of weed's origins in America are spotty at best. We know that in the 1930s, weed became the primary target of the nascent post-Prohibition drug wars. We know that our names for it, like marijuana, reefer, and dope, have their roots in Spanish and African American and Caribbean slang. Yet what weed's place was before the 1930s and what these two groups had to do with its American history are pretty murky.

If you go a-googling, chances are you'll see a host of stories about the origins of weed in the Americas. Some folks boldly claim that cannabis came over with Columbus in 1492 and just set up shop. Some say that it first emerged in the 16th century in Brazil and Chile and spread out from there. Possibly the most common account holds that weed came to America in the form of hemp plantations that proliferated in 17th century American colonies. Many seem to directly link this hemp to the smokeable marijuana of today, implying that somehow we began toking on what started out early on as a crop.

All we really know for sure about the emergence of weed-the-narcotic in America is that accounts of its recreational and medicinal use start popping up along the east coast in the 19th century. It became exceptionally prevalent in the South in the early 20th century. And this explosion of usage made it a target for the embryonic Drug Enforcement Agency.

A bit frustrated by all of these possible points of entry and the lack of any firm narrative of weed's emergence and entrenchment in American culture, I called up Barney Warf. A professor at the University of Kansas, Warf is an authority on the global spread of smokeable pot—last year he published a paper entitled " High Points: An Historical Geography of Cannabis." He was more than glad to tell me why proof of hemp in the early colonies cannot be described as the origins of narcotic weed, how smokeable pot really came to America, and how its origin and modes of transmission were key to its opposition in early 20th century politics.


VICE: There's a lot of vague, disjointed information out there about how the smokeable narcotic we know today came to America. So let's get down into the historical weeds here.
Warf: [Laughs] Alright.

A lot of people point to the hemp plantations of 17th century America, like the ones at the colony of Jamestown, as the origins of cannabis in America. But hemp's not the cannabis you smoke. So is there any real connection between weed as we know it and the colonies?
It's important, first of all, to differentiate between the different types of cannabis. There are four species within the genus. One is cannabis sativa L, and that's what we call hemp. That's what was grown in both the British colonies on the East Coast and by the French in Quebec. But hemp is less than one percent THC, so you really can't get stoned off of hemp. It was used for bales and ropes and sometimes paper and clothing and things like that [and that's all].

The other species of cannabis are cannabis sativa (without the L), which is much higher in THC and has become much more potent over the years. [Then there's] cannabis indica and … cannabis ruderalis , the last of which was discovered by a Russian scientist in 1923. But that one's almost invisible.

So yes, there was hemp grown in the colonies. But as far as I know, no smokeable weed.

When and where did weed as a narcotic enter the New World?
It [was] brought to the Americas by the Portuguese, who took it to Brazil, and again by the British, who took it to Jamaica. In both cases, it was used to pacify slaves.


How did people there go from seeing weed as a tool of slavery to seeing it as a fun drug?
Well, it doesn't take a big leap of logic. You had cannabis being grown by the British East India company. [They] grew it in Bengal and India and exported it to Guyana, South Africa, and Jamaica. [They] taxed it heavily and encouraged its plantation well after slavery ended there.

It was sold in company stores in Jamaica [for instance] well up into the 20 th century. Slave-like conditions persisted in the sugar cane fields [there] well into the 20 th century, when there was this widespread mechanization of sugar cane production. Until the production of sugar cane ended, I think people were smoking cannabis for much the same reasons. It just became part of Jamaican culture [and in other places it was grown and smoked from the slave-era on].

There were [also] large Indian populations in the Caribbean. Indentured Indian workers who worked alongside blacks were probably another vehicle by which [smokeable, recreational marijuana] was brought into [the Caribbean, for example] at the time.

It [was] brought to the Americas by the Portuguese, who took it to Brazil, and again by the British, who took it to Jamaica. In both cases,It was used to pacify slaves.

Getting back to the United States proper, how did weed-the-narcotic make its jump from South America and the Caribbean into America, and when?
The introduction of smokeable cannabis to the US largely begins after the Mexican Revolution of 1910 to 1911. There were a number of refugees crossing the border from the violence of the revolution at the time, and they brought smokeable cannabis with them. There had been a long tradition of smokeable cannabis in Latin America [after its introduction to the region via plantations] and networks of marihuaneros [pot growers] in Spanish-speaking countries.


The immigrants fleeing the violence in Mexico brought cannabis into the southwestern US, particularly Texas. It was there that the first backlash against cannabis began. El Paso became the first city to have an ordinance against it in 1914.

What impact did that have on the way we look at pot today?
These Mexican roots of American smokeable cannabis are important because it was known as a colored-people's drug well into the 1960s when the baby boom discovered it and white college kids began to smoke it and it lost its racial connotations.

There was also cannabis being brought into places like New Orleans by sailors and sometimes by immigrants from the Caribbean [around the same time]. The black community also began to pick up on cannabis, so that reinforced this racial stereotype that brown and black people smoke cannabis and white people did not.

Because it was used by black Americans and Mexican Americans, it helped to feed into the racist fears and stereotypes that were used to make it illegal in the 1930s.

How did that happen?
When Harry Anslinger, who was leading a federal agency that would later become the Drug Enforcement Agency, was confronted with the end of prohibition in 1933, he panicked because he and his man were charged with enforcing prohibition… He was worried that he didn't have a mission in life, that he and his men would be out of a job. That's when he began to lead the crusade against marijuana. They very deliberately, systematically chose marijuana as their new whipping boy.


When Anslinger was participating in federal hearings that would eventually culminate in the passage of the Marijuana Stamp Act in 1937, which essentially made marijuana illegal, the arguments against marijuana use were not at all grounded in scientific evidence. They were grounded in hearsay and stereotypes: That this was a drug black men used to seduce white women. That it was a drug that led Mexicans to murder their white neighbors.

But there were accounts of cannabis use of some kind in America before the Mexican Revolution. In the 19th century, there was that book, The Hasheesh Eater, about hash use in the Northeast, for instance. Where does that fit into this story of weed's American roots?
Hash had been used in Europe widely going back to the 16th and 17th centuries.

[In the 19th century] French soldiers who'd returned from Napoleon's invasion of Egypt brought hash with them. In Paris, there was a group called the club des hashischins that included many of France's most famous writers like [Charles] Baudelaire, [Gustave] Flaubert, [and Honoré de] Balzac.

New York had extensive linkages to continental Europe. There were circuits of writers and scholars and musicians who went back and forth. It doesn't surprise me that some of that hash would find its way into New York through those transatlantic circuits.

But it never proliferated, I'm guessing, because it was more like a luxury import or something you did abroad? So it'd be like well-heeled Americans going on vacation now and trying ayahuasca vines and maybe bringing back a bit at great expense?
That's an interesting analogy. It does kind of make some sense.


Hash was also much more expensive than cannabis because it's purified resin. Not many people could afford it.

[Side note:] Cannabis actually never really caught on in the Amazonian part of Brazil because it couldn't compete with the indigenous drugs that the native population there had [like ayahuasca].

OK, so you said the Mexicans coming into America were the main way that weed spread north. But you also mentioned Caribbean sailors. Who came first and who was more important to the establishment of weed in America?
Honestly, I can't give you a good answer. I'm not sure anybody knows. This part of the history of cannabis is very sketchy. We know that it got entwined with jazz very early on, much of which came out of New Orleans [and used that to spread north]. But whether the Caribbean or Mexican route came first, I can't give you an honest answer. I suspect that it may have been simultaneous. But I think that the Mexican influence was much bigger and more important.

Why? Because they were the less insular communities?

In some respects, the [widespread] use of marijuana may have been an ironic and unintentional outcome of Prohibition.

So we have these Caribbean and Mexican communities smoking weed in the 1910s in America. How does weed become so widespread and popular?
[At first] it may have been largely confined to the Mexican and Mexican-American communities in Texas and confined largely to the black community in New Orleans … but it had to have grown in popularity or Anslinger wouldn't have chosen it as his demon of choice.

Does that mean it just spread through gradual contact with immigrant communities?
Right—as far as I can tell. I wish we had a much more detailed account of this.

In Texas, the boundaries between the immigrant community and American Latinos was a very porous one. There was a great deal of intercourse between them, so it's not a surprise that [marijuana] became widespread among the Hispanic community of the southwest.

The Caribbean connection actually surprises me much more [because they were insular].

Was there anything else that helped marijuana to get so popular within two decades?
It was especially popular as an alternative to alcohol, which was illegal [in the 1920s]. In some respects, the [widespread] use of marijuana may have been an ironic and unintentional outcome of Prohibition. I don't have firm evidence to justify that claim. But it does make sense.

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