Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana

Martin A. Lee

Award-winning investigative journalist Martin A. Lee takes us on an entertaining and informative ride through the complex landscape of the Great American Pot story.

New World Hemp

There is a general consensus among scholars that cannabis, a plant not native to “the New World,” as the Europeans viewed it, was introduced to the western hemisphere in the sixteenth century through the slave trade. Black captives brought cannabis seeds (and seeds of other plants) with them aboard slave ships that made the perilous passage across the Atlantic. These ocean vessels were outfitted with sails, rope, and netting made of hemp, marijuana’s durable, non-psychoactive twin, which doesn’t easily rot or wear when exposed to saltwater. In an era when sea power was paramount, saltwater-resistant hemp fiber was a crucial, strategic substance. For hundreds of years, all the major European maritime powers—the English, French, Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese—depended on a quality hemp harvest to maintain their fleets. Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, Sir Francis Drake, the conquistadors, the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock—they all sailed ships equipped with hemp products. So did an estimated eleven million to twenty million African slaves, who were transported under conditions so horrible that up to a third died en route to North and South America.

The Portuguese were among the first Europeans to enslave Africans and bring them en masse to the Western hemisphere. This is how cannabis took root in Brazil, a Portuguese colony, in the early 1500s. Linguistic evidence in this case speaks volumes: nearly all the Brazilian names for cannabis— macumba, diamba, liamba, pungo, and so on—are African words from dialects spoken by the original slaves (many from Angola, where natives typically smoked cannabis in water pipes). Cannabis cultivation initially took hold on newly established sugar plantations in northeast Brazil. Black slaves seemed to handle the heat and fieldwork better when they smoked the fragrant herb, so Portuguese plantation owners allowed them to grow cannabis between rows of sugarcane. The word marijuana may have come from mariguango, Portuguese for “intoxicant.”

After they came in contact with African slave laborers, some South American Indians began to puff marijuana. The aboriginal peoples of the New World were familiar with an array of psychoactive plants, which they used for religious rites, spirit journeys, divination, and therapeutic purposes. Thus, it was an easy transition for Native Americans to adopt cannabis and include it in their ceremonies.

It was only a matter of time before fishermen and dockworkers in the coastal cities of Brazil also were smoking pot, a practice that slowly spread through the northern half of South America, across the Panamanian isthmus, and into Mexico. As cannabis proliferated geographically, so did its medicinal applications in Latin America and the Caribbean. Tea made from boiled marijuana leaves was brewed to relieve rheumatism, colic, “female troubles,” sleep disorders, and other common complaints. Marijuana purportedly had an analgesic effect on toothaches when packed on the gums near the painful area; leaves soaked in alcohol and wrapped around swollen joints were said to help arthritis.

The European colonial powers were less interested in the medicinal potential of cannabis than in the annual plant’s tough fiber. In 1533, King Henry VIII commanded English farmers to grow hemp for its fibrous content or risk paying a stiff fine, an edict reiterated by Queen Elizabeth thirty years later. Similar measures were enacted in England’s North American colonies. In 1619, eight years after colonists first planted hemp in Jamestown, the Virginia assembly passed a law requiring every household in the colony to cultivate the plant because it had so many beneficial uses—for making fabric, paper products, cord, and other items. Some of the earliest pioneers in North America were contracted to grow fiber hemp in exchange for safe transit to the New World. It was one of the first crops cultivated by Puritan settlers in the rich soil of New England, where hemp grew twice as high as in the British Isles.

Hemp farming and processing played an important role in American history. Its legacy is evident in the names of numerous towns and hamlets from the Atlantic coast to the Midwest—Hempstead, Hempfield, Hemp Hill, and variations thereof. Early American farmers and their entire families wore garments made from hemp, wiped their hands with hemp towels and hemp handkerchiefs, inscribed words on hemp paper, and sewed with hemp yarn. Hemp was considered so valuable that it served as a substitute for legal tender in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century America.

Several of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington, grew hemp—or tried to—and they urged other colonial farmers to do likewise. Among those heeding the call was Robert “king” carter, an ancestor of President Jimmy Carter and a big-time hemp grower from Virginia who provided much of the fiber needed to make uniforms for Washington’s soldiers.

Washington learned from firsthand experience that the sturdy stalk wasn’t the easiest crop to process, and supplies of retted hemp never kept up with a voracious demand. One problem was the lack of a cultivation manual to assist colonial farmers. Such a manual had been printed in Italy (where hemp was referred to as quello delle cento operazioni, the “substance of a hundred operations”), but it was written in an Italian dialect and the prestigious hemp guilds of Venice preferred not to share inside information with foreign competitors. It was not until ten years before the American Revolution that an English-language guidebook for raising hemp became available in the colonies. The author of this how-to pamphlet, “A Treatise of Hemp-Husbandry,” was Edmund Quincy, a cousin of John Adams, the first vice president and second president of the United States. George Washington was a close friend of the Quincy-Adams clan and he surely knew of the grow guide.

Quincy’s treatise was published in 1765, the same year that Washington wrote in his diary about planting and harvesting hemp at Mount Vernon. The entry for May 12–13 states, “Sowed Hemp at Muddy hole by Swamp,” and the notation on August 7 reads, “Began to separate the Male from the Female hemp... rather too late.” Pot partisans have seized upon this statement as proof that Washington was trying to grow high-quality cannabis, the psychoactive kind, which entails separating the sexes to prevent pollination, thereby increasing the potency of unrequited, resin-oozing females. Ipso facto, Washington must have smoked pot. Otherwise why would he be so concerned with separating male and female plants?

“Sexing the plants” would become standard practice among growers of high-potency sinsemilla—seedless marijuana—in California two centuries after the American Revolution. But seedless hemp was likely the last thing George Washington wanted. He was obsessed with increasing the yield of hempseeds and saving them for next year’s crop. Washington made several references to hemp in his diaries, including comments to his gardener, urging him to save the seeds. “Make the most of Indian hempseed. Sow it everywhere,” Washington implored.

When Washington noted that he had separated male and female plants “rather too late,” he was regretting his failure to follow directions that called for removing the male plants after pollination in a timely fashion so that the seed-bearing females had more room to bask and mature in the sun. “The remainder [of female plants] is to stand till the seed be ripened,” Qunicy’s manual instructed. In no uncertain terms, Quincy indicated that the males were to be separated from the females after seeds had been set on the latter. This is just the opposite of what sinsemilla cultivators strive for.

Washington was growing hemp for seed and fiber, not for smoke. There are no references in his diary to smoking any of that good shuzzit. Washington and other American revolutionaries were notorious boozers, not puffers. “Washington not only didn’t smoke pot, he didn’t know pot could be smoked,” concluded Michael Aldrich, who, as a doctoral student at the State University of New York in Buffalo in the 1960s, researched Washington’s hemp-growing efforts. “Why was Washington so keen on maximizing hempseed production? To develop a home supply,” Aldrich explained, “so the colonies would not have to rely on another country, particularly England, for such a critical substance. This was a national-security issue.”

The Founding Fathers didn’t have to read tea leaves or hemp leaves to predict that war with Britain was approaching. Prior to the much-celebrated Boston Tea Party, hemp had already become a source of tension between the colonies and the mother country. one of the first ways the Americans asserted their independence was by refusing to send raw hemp fiber back to Britain. Instead, the Americans began to process hemp themselves in defiance of the crown, which offered a lucrative price for every bale delivered from the colonies. Thanks, but no thanks, hemp entrepreneur Benjamin Franklin told the British ever so diplomatically—the Americans needed all the hemp they could get their hands on. Franklin owned a mill that converted hemp pulp into paper that American patriots used to propagate their seditious ideas of liberty.

Thomas Paine hyped hemp in Common Sense, his influential clarion call for independence that persuaded many Americans to support the revolution. Paine cited the fact that “hemp flourishes” in the colonies, providing a homegrown source of paper, clothing, rope, linen, oil, and other essentials, as an argument to convince the colonists that they could successfully secede from Britain. Without enough hemp, revolutionary forces would not have prevailed. Patriotic wives and mothers organized spinning bees with hempen thread to clothe the revolutionary army. The first American flags were made from hemp cloth.

Thomas Jefferson penned the original draft of the Declaration of independence on Dutch hemp paper. Jefferson’s second draft, also inscribed on hemp paper, was ratified on July 4, 1776, and then copied onto animal parchment. Jefferson not only raised and praised hemp (which he strongly favored over “pernicious” tobacco as a cash crop), he went to great lengths, unbeknownst to the British, to procure different varieties of hempseed from abroad. “The greatest service which can be rendered by any country is to add a useful plant to its culture,” wrote Jefferson the hempseed smuggler.

In 1803, President Jefferson presided over the Louisiana Purchase, one of the largest land deals in history, whereby the United States paid France approximately $15 million (two and a half cents per acre) for more than 800,000 square miles of North American territory. At the time, Napoleon, the French emperor, desperately needed money to finance a military thrust to cripple the British navy by cutting off hemp supplies from Russia, then the world’s leading exporter of this hardy fiber. British designs on securing access to hemp were also a factor in the War of 1812. Long before oil wars, nations fought over hemp, the plant that “fueled” international maritime trade and imperial expeditions by providing the best raw material for sails to harness wind power.

The domestic hemp industry prospered during the early days of the American republic in large part because black slaves were utilized to plant, harvest, and process the crop. it was arduous, backbreaking work—uprooting the hemp, pounding the tenacious husk, extracting the slippery raw fiber, and making it usable. So prized was hemp that some plantation owners even paid wages to slaves to encourage production. As the frontier moved westward, farmers established vast hemp-growing operations in Missouri, Mississippi, and especially Kentucky, where hemp was known as a “nigger crop” because of its association with slaves who worked the land.

After serving two terms as president, Jefferson retired to his Virginia estate in 1809 to raise fiber hemp, among other crops, with the help of his slaves. He eventually abandoned this project because it was too labor-intensive. “Hemp is abundantly productive and will grow forever in the same spot,” he acknowledged after his 1815 harvest, but “breaking and beating it, which has always been done by hand, is so slow, so laborious, and so much complained of by our laborers, that I have given it up.”

By mid-century, hemp was America’s third-largest crop, exceeded only by cotton and tobacco. Seeking to boost his fiber-making capacity, John Augustus Sutter, a Swiss émigré, acquired a hemp-thrashing machine from Fort Ross, a Russian trading post in Northern California. Gold was subsequently discovered at Sutter’s Mill by the American River in California on land where hemp grew. The news touched off an overnight stampede in 1849, as prospectors rushed in, manic for mineral wealth. Some made the journey overland to the Pacific in horse-drawn wagons covered with hemp canvas. in America’s “Wild West,” lynch mobs dispensed frontier justice using the “hemp collar”— otherwise known as the hangman’s noose. More than one hundred years later, cannabis cultivation would precipitate another “gold rush” of sorts in Northern California as marijuana, the high-resin type, blossomed into the golden State’s most lucrative agricultural crop, boasting a multibillion-dollar annual yield despite its proscribed status.

Hemp was well established as a fiber crop in North America long before European settlers and their descendants discovered the psychoactive properties of cannabis. As new technologies, most notably the cotton gin and the steamship, eclipsed the urgency for hemp fiber, the resilient plant appeared in another guise—as a medicine for a wide range of infirmities. When the American civil War began in 1861, fiber hemp had already begun to decline in commercial value, while the plant’s reputation as a curative was surging.

Elixirs and Tinctures

The dual role of hemp as a healing herb and a source of fiber had deep roots in European culture. Hemp festivities were common throughout the continent long before Columbus set sail under the Spanish flag. Farmers, hoping for robust growth, sowed hempseed on days associated with tall saints. Peasants jumped for joy and danced in fields of hemp to usher in a bountiful harvest, and they plucked flowers from the venerable plant to protect themselves from the evil eye. The French had a saying, “Avoir de la corde de pendu dans sa poche”—“To have hemp in your pocket”—which meant to have luck on your side. Young women in the Ukraine and England carried hempseed as an amulet to attract a mate and hasten their wedding day. When a bride entered her new home after a Slavic marriage ceremony, well-wishers sprinkled her with hempseed for good fortune.

According to peasant folklore, the vapors from smoldering hemp possessed cleansing qualities that protected against disease. But given the low levels of psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol (THc) typically present in northern strains of hemp, it’s doubtful that many Europeans were getting stoned from inhaling the smoke. Unlike high-THc plants in India, Africa, and the Middle east, the variety of hemp that grew best in Europe’s cooler climes didn’t deliver much by way of euphoria. Nevertheless, European folk traditions still considered hemp a medicinal and magical plant, attesting to what twenty-first-century scientists would eventually confirm: THc is not the only therapeutic compound in cannabis, and certain non-psychoactive compounds prominent in fiber hemp are powerful healing agents.

Cannabis sativa illustration

A familiar ingredient in European folk remedies, hemp served as a multi-purpose medicine—for quelling fevers, soothing burns, relieving headaches, and dressing wounds with a disinfectant paste made of hemp flowers, wax, and olive oil. The curative powers of hempseeds, roots, leaves, and sap were well known in Germanic regions, where midwives placed sprigs of the mighty fiber over the stomach and ankles of pregnant women to prevent convulsions and difficult childbirth. it was customary to honor Freya, the German fertility goddess, with hemp as a pagan sacrament. In the twelfth century, Hildegard von Binge, the legendary German folk healer, wrote about hanaf (hemp) in her Physica. The first written European reference to the medicinal use of hemp smoke appears in the Kreuterbuch, the massive sixteenth-century herbal compendium by Tabernaemontanus, a German doctor in Basel, Switzerland.

Linked to witches’ unguents and potions, hemp was outlawed as heretical by papal fiat in 1484. Though forbidden by religious authorities for such purposes, the continued use of hemp as a medicament, lubricant, and anointing oil, and as a focal point for rural ritual was widely known. But few spoke of it openly so as not to arouse the wrath of the Holy inquisitor. Pope Innocent VIII’s demonization of cannabis was a continuation of the church’s war on pre-Christian traditions.

François Rabelais, the French Renaissance doctor, author, and humorist, referred cryptically to the “good herb pantagruelion,” by which he meant hemp, in his satirical masterpiece Gargantua and Pantagruel, published in 1532. This early novel devoted three chapters to an allegorical plant that was used for making medicine as well as sails, cord, and hangman’s nooses. Apparently his writing was not cryptic enough, for Rabelais’s books were banned by the Roman Catholic church.

William Shakespeare and several of his contemporaries often wrote in coded language to address topical social issues during a particularly volatile era in English history that was marked by intense religious and political strife. Professor Francis Thackeray, a South African paleontologist and a Shakespeare aficionado, suspected that the Bard may have been alluding to hemp when he mentioned “the noted weed” and “compounds strange” in one of his sonnets. It sounds like someone had the munchies in this couplet:

Like as, to make our appetites more keen,

With eager compounds we our palate urge.

Was Shakespeare obliquely extolling the virtues of the heretical herb? Did he actually smoke the noted weed? in 2001, Thackeray enlisted the aid of South African police forensic scientists, who used gas chromatography equipment to analyze two dozen clay pipe fragments that were excavated from the area of Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon residence in early seventeenth-century England. Lo and behold, several of these fragments tested positive for hemp, a plant that had been cultivated in the British isles at least since AD 400. Not surprisingly, tobacco residue was also found, along with traces of other curious substances.

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