Cannabis CultureRead More
by THC staff - Contributors to this article include, in order, Skyler Cannabaceae, Rick Macey, Scott Rappold, and DJ Reetz.
When people think about the 1920s and 30s, they tend to think of their grandparents living through the Great Depression, and alcohol prohibition. It was also the start of the war against cannabis.
This was the calm before a storm calling itself the “Drug War.” States passed their own laws banning the substance. By the end of the 1930s, alcohol was once again legal, and the journey of cannabis culture in America had been born with the Harlem jazz scene.
Louis Armstrong rose to popularity and crossed over at a time when race was an issue. Jazz musicians, especially Armstrong, were known for their love of cannabis, which would not only relax them, but enhance their creativity.
Armstrong made no effort to hide his love of cannabis, even after being arrested for possession outside the Cotton Club in Culver City, CA in 1930, the same year that the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) was created. “Pops,” as Armstrong was affectionately known, was known to smoke cannabis before performing.
“It makes you feel good, man.” Armstrong said. “It relaxes you, makes you forget all the bad things that happen to a Negro. It makes you feel wanted, and when you’re with another tea smoker it makes you feel a special kinship.”
Twenty years later, Armstrong made similar arguments to then president Dwight Eisenhower in an open letter.
Armstrong and other members of the jazz scene enjoyed using cannabis during the ‘20s for their creative process or just to relax. Many other regular citizens, not only fans of jazz, consumed as well. This new culture precipitated a federal intervention, which grossly distorted the danger of marijuana while creating the life-destroying disease of cannabis prohibition.
Harry Anslinger was the first head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and an ambitious politician. He made a name for himself by demonizing marijuana with a lot of support from xenophobic people who did not like the influx of Mexican immigrants.
Cannabis culture in the ‘20s and ‘30s was mostly confined to jazz and other artists’ scenes in big cities. Anslinger and his FBN played on - and created - the fears of rural Americans.
The FBN produced materials showing how harmful marijuana was to the masses. After the over-the-top propaganda film “Reefer Madness” came out in 1936, “The Marihuana Tax Act” was passed, requiring a stamp for production or sale. The government refused to provide the stamp.
So the new cannabis culture was driven underground, supported by great music, but lacking a voice in American society.
The marijuana-fueled beatniks of the 1950s started out as a post-war New York City phenomenon before the movement put down its intellectual roots in San Francisco at Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights, the nation’s first all paper-bound bookstore.
Bohemian, counter culture, and rather narcissistic, beatniks shunned mainstream America while not quite disavowing its benefits and potential. Beatniks influenced our culture by making it a point to disapprove of it.
Think of beatniks and the names Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg usually surface. In this writer’s opinion, that’s cool, but there’s an intellectual entrepreneur of free thought who towers above those guys.
Ferlinghetti is best known for standing trial on obscenity charges for publishing “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg in 1956. However, his own poetry, especially the books “Pictures of a Gone World,” and my favorite, “A Coney Island of the Mind,” are without equal in literary circles influenced by cannabis.
So let’s get to it and publish some quotes:
“I Am Waiting” - A Coney Island of the Mind
“I am waiting for the war to be fought which will make the world safe for anarchy”
“I am awaiting perpetually and forever a renaissance of wonder”
Also from that book:
“In the true mad north of introspection, where ‘falcons of the inner eye’ dive and die, glimpsing in their dying fall, all life’s memory of existence.”
Ferlinghetti was influenced by Henry Miller. Intimate relationships, often coarse and sometimes meaningful.
From “Pictures of a Gone World”
“It was a face which darkness could kill
in an instant
a face as easily hurt
by laughter or light
‘We think differently at night’
she told me once
lying back languidly
And she would quote Cocteau
‘I feel there is an angel in me’ she’d say
‘whom I am constantly shocking’
Then she would smile and look away
light a cigarette for me
sigh and rise
her sweet anatomy
let fall a stocking”
Finally, but not least is Ferlinghetti’s insight into politics:
“Pity the nation whose people are sheep,
and whose shepherds mislead them.
Pity the nation whose leaders are liars, whose sages are silenced,
and whose bigots haunt the airwaves.
Pity the nation that raises not its voice,
except to praise conquerors and acclaim the bully as hero
and aims to rule the world with force and by torture.
Pity the nation that knows no other language but its own
and no other culture but its own.
Pity the nation whose breath is money
and sleeps the sleep of the too well fed.
Pity the nation — oh, pity the people who allow their rights to erode
and their freedoms to be washed away.
My country, tears of thee, sweet land of liberty.”
Hunter S. Thompson said, “San Francisco in the middle ‘60s was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run, but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world.”
How to sum up the hippie era, the 1960s and early 1970s, when marijuana finally went mainstream? How does one explain how cannabis culture became popular culture, how this forbidden weed helped to energize an entire generation to embrace peace, free love, political action and rock and roll?
I turn to my inspiration to become a journalist, The Good Doctor, Colorado’s own Hunter S. Thompson.
Many writers have tried, then and now, to explain what it all meant, when a generation rose up against the old ways, when marijuana use and support for legalization reached a zenith not matched until, well, now.
Thompson, who committed suicide at his home near Aspen in 2005, was there when it began, an observer and active participant in the marijuana- and LSD-fueled counterculture explosion that spread from San Francisco to the entire country.
Marijuana was not the impetus. But it found a receptive audience among a listless generation, fed up with straight-laced society, outraged over the war in Vietnam and racial injustice in the South.
People were in search of a new way of thinking, and getting high, the euphoria, camaraderie and empathy for others, provided that. In his literary masterpiece, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” memories of the ‘60s are intertwined with a bawdy tale of drug-addled misadventures in Las Vegas. Recalled Thompson, “No matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was.”
But I quote Thompson not just because he was there for this magical time, when “there was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.” He, more so than any other writer, also chronicled its downfall, when the movement collapsed under its own excesses.
He wrote of “all those pathetically eager acid freaks who thought they could buy Peace and Understanding for three bucks a hit.” The war dragged on. San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, ground zero of the movement, became a dangerous ghetto. Street kids who had started on marijuana were hooked on heroin. “’Consciousness expansion’ went out with LBJ … and it is worth noting, historically, that downers came in with Nixon,” he wrote.
In the 1970s, popular culture adopted the style and music of the hippies, but not the peace and love. It also adopted the marijuana. According to Gallup, 12 percent of Americans reported having tried marijuana in 1973. The number was doubled by 1977. President Jimmy Carter even spoke out in favor of legalization.
Thompson, meanwhile, became a counter-culture icon of his own, running unsuccessfully for Pitkin County sheriff in 1970 on the “Freak Power” ticket. He remained a prolific writer – and consumer of substances of all sorts – for decades.
I smile when I imagine what he would think of Colorado today, with marijuana stores lining city streets, selling the most potent buds known to man.
Despite his cynicism about the ‘60s, he remained a fan of the plant that helped inspire it all.
“I have always loved marijuana. It has been a source of joy and comfort to me for many years. And I still think of it as a basic staple of life, along with beer and ice and grapefruits - and millions of Americans agree with me.”
The next decade saw the Drug War get into high gear.
The ‘80s was a particularly rough time for cannabis, and drug culture in general. Following the crackdown of the Nixon years, marijuana had gained a bit of a bad rap and the scheduling to go along with it. The decade saw the rise of the hard-lined attitudes of neoconservatives in the form of Ronald Reagan, most assuredly a reaction to the perceived (if somewhat unfair) lackadaisicalness of the Carter administration.
But the resurgence of good ol’ American values wasn’t the only thing rising in the ‘80s. Among other things, the decade saw two other important cultural developments; the rise of crack cocaine, and the emergence of hip hop and rap music into the commercial arena.
Where is cannabis in this equation?
This confluence of factors, the rise of a drug epidemic, the will of conservatives to push back, and a genre of music that was rooted in the communities that were feeling the greatest burden, meant that marijuana’s place in music was tenuous. Unfortunately, cannabis was often lumped into the same bulk category as crack and rolled into the collective terror.
Much of the emerging music fluctuated between light-hearted party anthems and bleak portraits of life in the ghetto. The increasingly desolate urban landscape was working its way into more and more of rap music, moving the genre from the disco-inspired acts of the late ‘70s like Sugar Hill Gang to the more hard-edged acts like Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five. With some exceptions, the mentions of drugs were mostly directed at cocaine and crack.
But that changed in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s with the emergence of gangsta rap as a subgenre. Rap pioneers N.W.A. punched America in the face with their “just don’t give a f*ck” attitude, an attitude that included openly admitting to use of marijuana. This culminated in the release of Dr. Dre’s 1992 solo debut “The Chronic.” This album may be the single most important moment in the fusion between rap music and marijuana, featuring cover art modeled after a Zig-Zag package and the first notable appearance of Snoop Dogg, who has since gone on to be one of hip hop’s most visible weed smokers.
With these developments, marijuana became indelibly tied to the outlaw culture of rap music, a trend that continues. Legends like Tupac, Biggie Smalls, Bone Thugz n Harmony, and many others spoke openly about their use of marijuana in lyrics and in interviews, all paving the way for a genre-wide acceptance and even promotion of marijuana in hip hop.
From the Jazz Era to Beat to hippie to rap, marijuana culture is woven in threads, and together, we’re still making the fabric.