“There's a long tradition of growing both hemp and smokable cannabis in Latin America,” explains Dr. Barney Warf, a University of Kansas professor and author of the 2014 study “High Points: A Geographical History of Cannabis.” “The most prominent country that comes to mind was Chile. There was a very large and active psychotropic cannabis industry in Chile. Networks of merchants called marijuanistas would sell it far and wide, but not so much in the Portuguese-speaking areas like in Brazil. It never could compete with the drugs that indigenous tribes had in the Amazon, but it did throughout much of Western South America.”
In the 1970s, Colombia became the largest U.S. supplier of cannabis, but Dr. Warf notes that the cannabis influence of northwestern South America dates back many decades earlier.
“Remember that Panama was part of Colombia until the U.S. took it away,” Dr. Warf continues. “When Teddy Roosevelt wanted to have the Panama Canal built, he basically seized Panama and created a country. Smokable cannabis had already been in widespread use there, and the canal workers, who came from all over the world, became acculturated to it. They had ready access to supplies in Colombia and elsewhere. I don't know the specifics of Colombian cannabis growing, but I think it's most important in light of what happened with the canal in the early 20th century.”
Some writers have suggested that wild cannabis grew in parts of the New World in the 1600s, but Dr. Warf rejects that theory. He concludes, “No, it's an import from the New World. We know quite clearly when and where the Portuguese introduced it. There are several times from Angola to Brazil. Remember that Southern Atlantic slave trade dwarfed the North Atlantic slave trade. The Portuguese were by far the biggest slave traders in the world. I've heard people claim it was an Aztec crop and things like that. It's just not true.”
Image of the century-old Panama Canal mural by Nyuhuhuu via Flickr.