Cannabis’s influence and initial introduction to North and South America have always been a hazy subject. Cannabis has been present in the US since at least shortly after the formation of the Congressional Colonies. Yet cannabis was traditionally only grown in large quantities within the early United States as a textile crop in the form of hemp. There is no direct evidence that cannabis was grown as a ‘drug’ at any significant scale in the mainland American colonies and later in the US until at least the 20th Century. The long and often times violent story of how cannabis eventually ended up in North America starts in North and Central Asia a thousand years before the birth of Christ.
From as far back as 1100BC, there have been reports of cannabis being used throughout China as a medicinal herb. As time went on, the popularity of this plant grew, becoming a hot commodity within the ancient Silk Road trading system that linked the East with the West. In the oldest Hindu texts known as the Vedas, it was written that cannabis was given as a gift to humanity and was meant to bring happiness and relieve humanity from fear. Shiva, the god of Creation, is one of the most important characters in ancient Hindu mythology and is often linked with cannabis.
A Hindu holy man in Kathmandu smokes a chillum, a traditional clay pipe, on March 6, the eve of a festival honoring the god Shiva. (Prkash Mathema /AFP/Getty Images)
“Shiva wandered off into the fields after an angry discourse with his family. Drained from the family conflict and the hot sun, he fell asleep under a leafy plant. When he awoke, his curiosity led him to sample the leaves of the plant. Instantly rejuvenated, Shiva made the plant his favorite food and he became known as the Lord of Bhang.” Vedas, (Psychology Today, 2011)
The British East India Company had gained large amounts of influence within India throughout the 1600s and traded extensively with India for their raw goods. As British control became stronger, so did the influence cannabis had on this new regime. Cannabis became a staple of the British East India Company and exported around the Britsh Colonies as both a textile material in the form of Hemp, Cannabis Sativa L., and as a recreational drug commonly in the form of hashish from either the genus Sativa or Indica.
So when the Britsh took Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655 and consequently started to build up Jamaica’s agricultural production by the 1670s, Jamaica had become a massive center of agricultural production of sugar, indigo, and cocoa along with being a staging point for almost all slave trade of African slaves being transported to the continental colonies. A large amount of Indian indentured servants brought as skilled and semi-skilled workers by the East India Trading Company also traveled to Jamaica and the Carribean. These workers brought with them cannabis seeds, but not of the widely traded hemp variety, Cannabis Sativa L, but the more potent Cannabis Indica seeds. As these Indian indentured workers began to grow the plant in their new home, they introduced it to the black slave community that had probably never been introduced to this plant before. The colonial slavers instead of condemning the use of the plant actually encouraged it and saw the use of cannabis to “calm and pacify” their charges. Cannabis in both the hemp form and consumable form became an integral part of Jamaican culture and of the larger Carribean culture in time.
(Photo by Prisma/UIG/Getty Images)
Meanwhile, in what would eventually be the US and Canada, the consumption of cannabis was not a normal activity. Although cannabis was being grown and cultivated on a large scale for textiles, it was not present as a consumable except in the form of hashish. It would take another 150 years for cannabis to become a large scale recreational drug of choice within North America. By the 1900s, cannabis was widely cultivated and smoked throughout Central and South America even as far up as Mexico, so when the Mexican revolution started in 1910, it sent refugees flooding into the United States. Some of the first laws banning this new drug coined “Marijuana” were passed directly due to refugee migration. Many of these new laws were drafted in a decidedly racist hope of curbing the migration of Mexicans into the US. Ultimately it was these policies and laws that led to the current stance by the US federal government that we have today but this is a story for another day.
And that day is tomorrow, Check back in tomorrow for Part 2!
Gumbiner, Jann. “History of Cannabis in India.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 16 Jan. 2011, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-teenage-mind/201106/history-cannabis-in-india.
Hay, Mark. “Marijuana’s Early History in the United States.” Vice, VICE, 31 Mar. 2015, www.vice.com/en_us/article/xd7d8d/how-marijuana-came-the-united-states-456.
Bass, Sam. “Origins of Cannabis: Latin America.” Herban Indigo, Herban Indigo, 21 May 2018, www.herbanindigo.com/cannabis/p/origins-of-cannabis-latin-america.