Did Cannabis Come to the U.S. from Mexico or England?

By David Jenison

Did Cannabis Come to the U.S. from Mexico or England?

University of Kansas professor Dr. Barney Warf is a leading expert of the geographical history of cannabis around the world. Most cannabis aficionados know that cannabis entered the south in the early 20th century as waves of Mexican immigrants sought to escape the revolution, but some pharmacies were already selling cannabis tinctures and other items well before the war. So how did medical cannabis originally arrive in the states? We asked Dr. Warf to find out.

Many historical photos, documents and newspaper ads show that medical cannabis was sold in pharmacies dating back to the 1800s. Did these cannabis products come across the border from Mexico, or was cannabis oil already available from another source?

I think it would have all been imported because there's really no evidence to speak of about domestically grown cannabis, especially using it to make these things. I'm quite sure it would have been imported. I have some pictures here of some medicines, like a bottle of something called fluidextract, all one word, and it's liquefied cannabis indica. All of these were made illegal in 1937. There was hemp being grown in New England and upstate New York and Pennsylvania and in Canada, but not smokable cannabis.

Marijuana was a long-standing term in Latin America, and Americans just learned about it from Latinos. [The pharmacies] knowingly called it cannabis because that's the scientific name for it. My guess, and I want to emphasize that I'm a little uncertain about this, my guess is the term “marijuana” would've been used in some circles, but there were a variety of other names that it went by. Reefer was a very common term. Reefer meant smokable marijuana, hence the movie Reefer Madness.

As far as medical cannabis, my guess is [that it came] from Jamaica, but I don't know that for a fact. We had stronger trade ties with the British Empire than we did with Mexico. That's why I'm guessing that the British were the primary conduit. Some may have come directly from India, but they knew exactly what it was. You met rich women in the East Coast who were trying opium just for a little bit of adventure. Remember, up until the '30s, it didn't have this negative connotation that it does today. It was just seen as a plant that might do something good for you. Again, the medical evidence was sketchy to non-existent, but the idea that it was a bad plant was really an invention of Harry Anslinger and his opportunistic buddies in the '30s.

The medicinal cannabis came from India and England, but the idea of using cannabis to get high came from Mexico?

Right. Not from England, but from English colonies. Jamaica would've been the closest. Also Trinidad. The British were very active in promoting cannabis in Trinidad, another British colony at the time.

How did the geographical spread of cannabis occur in the United States after its entry point through Mexico?

There were several entry points. The border with Mexico and particularly along Texas was by far the most important. I did read an interesting little tale about some Arabs who had settled in California in the 1880s and started a small cannabis plot there, although that seems to be an outlier. Then there are people who claim that sailors may have brought it into New York as well, but it was primarily in the Southwestern U.S. and then it found its way into New Orleans. That's why it was considered a “colored peoples” drug—I'm using the nomenclature of the day—really up until the 1960s. White America didn't know much about it.

There were some medicines, like tinctures, of cannabis oil that had been sold in the 1880s and 1890s. It was not unknown. It's just that it was kind of rare and exotic whereas opium was much more widespread in the U.S. in the late 19th century as a result of the influx of the Chinese.

As cannabis became widespread among black and Latino communities, it also began to move up out of the south. There was a vast migration of African-Americans out of the south just before and during World War I and through the 1920s. It's called The Great Migration in black history. Many African-Americans moved up into Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and then up the East Coast into Baltimore, New York, Boston and elsewhere. They no doubt took cannabis with them. We know that in the 1920s during the Harlem Renaissance, which is a specific term that refers to the golden age of black culture in New York at the time, cannabis use was very widespread in Harlem. Musicians, jazz musicians in particular, played a key role in this regard, so there's a whole bunch of songs, Fats Waller and others, about “Sweet Marijuana Brown” and what have you.

So it would've been in the southern U.S. in Texas and among black communities. Then, of course, in the 1960s when the baby boomer went to college, that's when white America discovered cannabis, and its use began to grow exponentially after that.


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