The Unsung Mother of American Cannabis Culture


New Orleans is known worldwide as “the birthplace of Jazz,” a moniker which may not be strictly accurate. Jazz has many strands that came together from different places. But if no single location can lay solid claim to be the place where this uniquely American art form was “born,” it’s beyond dispute that its trusty guardian is, and has been, New Orleans, a town with a rich multi-cultural scene that invokes the same blend of international flavors as the Jambalaya stew for which it’s also famed.

This much is certain; it was musicians of the 1920s New Orleans jazz scene who created the first American subculture to be identified with cannabis use. This is an amazingly under-reported fact that most people of New Orleans are not even aware of themselves!

History is murky when it comes to the precise chain of events and geographical zig-zags that brought psychoactive cannabis to the Americas. It’s just one more detrimental effect of the prohibition: secret histories are rife with holes into which powerful propagandists can wedge their own version of the past.

Despite the compromised historical record, it is still possible to arrive at the most likely scenario by analyzing what information is available: old shipping routes, ethnic diasporas, social and political histories.

Vintage photographs in window in New Orleans, Louisiana

It’s generally agreed that cannabis arrived in the southern states first. The most oft-repeated claim is that it arrived here with the Mexicans fleeing the revolution of 1910, who brought it to Texas, from whence it spread. Most writers don’t even mention Louisiana or the Caribbean, nor can they explain how cannabis ended up all over the USA from Texas.

I traced the Mexican myth back to two early Time magazine articles from 1934, and 1943.  Articles from that era were full of a new and exotic word: marihuana, said to be Spanish-Mexican for “intoxicating hemp.” Actually it’s a word from no known language, with no certain etymology, nor real definition.

Curiously, it has linguistic links and phonic similarities to three words from languages that would have been present in Latin America for several hundreds of years by the 1920s, and which relate to cannabis: ma-ren-ha, a compound Chinese word/phrase meaning “seed flower hemp.” “Maraguango,” said to be a Brazilian-Portuguese word for any intoxicating substance; and the Spanish word for the “green leafy spice marjoram.”  Mejorano, which could be substituted as a coded slang for cannabis “herb” as well as referring to itself, like oregano and other herb names. Until the propaganda efforts of the 1920s and 30s, Marijuana was not a common word for cannabis even in Mexico, where it was more likely to be called “Oregano Chino” or “Chinese Herb,” indicating correctly the original source of cannabis. The phonetic similarity among “maraguango,” “mejorano” and “ma-ren-ha” could certainly have been merged into the Spanish-sounding “marijuana” as a code for cannabis, though it’s uncertain how this happened.

It is definitely true that cannabis use in Mexico predates American by about a century, and it would logically follow that Mexican users would bring seeds with them when emigrating into Texas. But there is no logic by which it could have spread from there around the states, and it’s far more likely it remained localized within the Mexican immigrant population.

I follow the creed that states the simplest answer is usually the right one: it seems awfully convoluted to imagine that New Orleans had to wait for Texas-based Mexicans to arrive bearing weed, when the town already had its own international ports regularly receiving ships from the West Indies. Caribbean descendants of West African slaves had embraced the ganja and chillum brought by Hindus who arrived in the mid-19th century as a replacement workforce, after abolition of slavery and it makes sense they would introduce it to their fellow West African transplants when they arrived in the New World. The Indo-Afro-Caribbean connection neatly solves the question of how cannabis culture came to the Gulf States. And the history of jazz explains how it then spread to Chicago, New York and beyond.

I’m not the first to note this, while serious researchers like Eric Schlosser have already pointed it out. In his 1994 article Reefer Madness for Atlantic Monthly he wrote:

“The political upheaval in Mexico that culminated in the Revolution of 1910 led to a wave of Mexican immigration to states throughout the American Southwest. The prejudices and fears that greeted these peasant immigrants also extended to their traditional means of intoxication: smoking marijuana. Police officers in Texas claimed that marijuana incited violent crimes, aroused a “lust for blood,” and gave its users “superhuman strength.” Rumors spread that Mexicans were distributing this “killer weed” to unsuspecting American schoolchildren. Sailors and West Indian immigrants brought the practice of smoking marijuana to port cities along the Gulf of Mexico. In New Orleans newspaper articles associated the drug with African-Americans, jazz musicians, prostitutes, and underworld whites.”

Cannabis, or “Indian Hay” in old slang, put down roots in New Orleans where it helped shape the new sound of jazz. As multi-cultural as its hometown, jazz grew up out of the blues format, developing greater harmonic complexities based in Western music theory while putting together never-before-heard combos of instruments and musical styles. Native American beats and vocal stylings merged with West African polyrhythms, chants, and dance moves; German brass bands contributed the horns and other sophisticated wind instruments. The timeless melodies of folk music were enriched and elevated by Europe’s symphonic strings: double-basses, guitars, violins, even harps. Irish laments and ballads of the British Isles found common ground with spiritual songs from the black American churches, and through it all the piano realized its destiny as the most flexible of all Western musical instruments: capable of rhythm, melody, harmony, lead, and accompaniment.

Common threads run through all folk music of the world like circle dancing, call-and-response singing, unison clapping. The diverse folk peoples who found themselves thrown together in New Orleans will have recognized these similarities and further melded and morphed them; aided, I would imagine, by generous infusions of cannabis smoke.

One cultural heritage conspicuously absent from New Orleans is that of Mexico. This fact alone makes it impossible to believe that Mexicans were responsible for bringing cannabis there, while leaving no other trace.

But Harry Ainslinger, head of the Narcotics Bureau from 1930-1962, never let a little thing like the facts stop him. Inspired by sensational (and false) newspaper stories of the 1920s about crazed Mexicans on cannabis, he identified it as the latest threat to American society. When Mexico banned “marijuana” in the late ‘20s, just before the Bureau opened for business, he capitalized on it fully: marijuana was the bogeyman he needed to justify the budget of his fledgling department. Sticking it to minorities, poor whites and jazz musicians was just icing.

And that’s how we got stuck with the made-up word and the incorrect back-story.

Referring to the cannabis plant as Mexican marijuana and obscuring its correct  taxonomy enabled propagandists to say whatever they wanted about it, without any pesky botanists catching them in a lie.

Here’s an example of one of Ainslinger’s outrageously racist and inflammatory remarks:

“Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind. Most marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz and swing, results from marijuana usage.”

At least he got that last part right, if you remove the word “satanic.” His associate, the amusingly named Dr. James Munch, also hated cannabis (two puffs of which he infamously claimed turned him into a bat) but he had some cogent insights into its effects on musicians:

“Because the chief effect … was that it lengthens the sense of time, and therefore they could get more grace beats into their music than they could if they simply followed the written copy… In other words, if you’re a musician, you’re going to play the thing the way it’s printed on a sheet. But if you’re using marijuana, you’re going to work in about twice as much music between the first note and the second note. That’s what made jazz musicians. The idea that they could jazz things up, liven them up, you see.”

Indeed, the freedom to deviate from written sheet music forms one of the fundamental principles of jazz, allowing, as it does, for limitless variations and interpretations of the same compositions by different artists, a notion most threatening to the conventionally minded.

artist hands of a piano player

Researcher Peter Webster, writing for the Journal of Cannabis Therapeutics described the original jazz-cannabis scene as a kind of extended family that: “constantly practiced together, brainstormed together, performed together, and smoked marijuana together. As a cumulative effect, it is my contention that the practiced use of cannabis provides a cognitive training that assists and accentuates the improvisational, creative frame of mind much as other kinds of study or training shape abilities and perfect talents… Over time, the kind of perception and thinking initiated by cannabis leads one to be generally more open to alternative and perhaps adventurous ways of seeing things which enrich normal consciousness.”

In a way, Ainslinger was right that cannabis users posed a threat to the status quo. Just as cannabis inspired the first jazz musicians to play notes from the heart that weren’t written on the page, so did it inspire later generations of political activists to regard the social order as a collaborative construct, badly in need of some improvisation.  This fact was not lost on Richard Nixon, whose “war on drugs” exploited it viciously. Fifty years later, the man who’d once been his domestic policy adviser, John Ehrlichman, would admit in a shocking Harper’s interview (April 2016, by Dan Baum) that the laws were never about the drugs, they were about controlling and disenfranchising the anti-war activists, non-conformists and African-Americans who used them.

I have discovered that it’s no exaggeration to consider cannabis use as central to the development of  jazz in New Orleans as Louis Armstrong, her most beloved son. This kindest and most loveable of musical geniuses was very open about his use of cannabis and spoke of how it helped produce the innovative style he became famous for. But it also caused him personal problems, such as arrest and incarceration, due to prohibition. Later in his life, he recalled ironic situations where the arresting officer would be a fan, so at least he knew he wouldn’t be mistreated in custody.

If Armstrong were still alive, he would be pleased to see his legacy, both on trumpet and in support of cannabis use, perpetuated by Mr. Kermit Ruffins, leader of the BBQ Swingers and owner of the Mother-in-Law Lounge in the famed Treme neighborhood. Ruffins is a great ambassador for the city and its traditions, keeping the spirit of jazz well and truly alive. In 2016, he lent his name and support to a successful city ordinance to decriminalize simple possession, and is so well-known as an advocate that some bars around town have tongue-in-cheek signs in their outdoor smoking areas, specifically reminding Kermit that it’s still tobacco only.

Hopefully this restriction will soon be lifted. The state legislature has recently passed two new bills that pave the way for expanding the list of conditions that will be covered under medical cannabis laws, with the first New Orleans dispensary set to open later this year.

It’s a promising improvement but not enough. Louisiana laws should step up and recognize the great contribution cannabis has made to jazz and the culture of this unique city. The year is 2018 and it’s about time New Orleans was honored as the birthplace of American cannabis culture. Instead of fear of arrest, “vipers” should feel pride in knowing they’re keeping up a great local tradition with a long history.

Let the good times roll, y’all!

Emerald contributor since April 2019


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