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High up in the rugged Sierra Madre mountains, 50 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean and a three-day journey on muleback to the nearest Mexican village, a terraced crop of marijuana is ready for harvest. Standing more than ten feet tall in blazing sunlight, hundreds of cannabis plants resemble thin bamboo shoots with clusters of long, serrated, fingerlike leaves swaying in the breeze. The gangly plants exude a distinctive, musky aroma.


Concentrated on the upper leaves and on the thick tangle of matted flower tops known as the cola (Spanish for “tail”), minuscule mushroom-shaped trichome glands ooze resin containing psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and many other medicinal compounds. The resin — a kind of natural, frosty varnish — coats the leaves and acts both as a sunscreen and an insect repellant. Before harvesting, farmers test the resin content by squeezing the colas. If a sticky residue is left on their hands, they know the weed is good. Stripped and bundled, the cola-bearing branches are carried to a large shed and hung upside down on special drying racks for ten days. Then the marijuana is pressed into bricks and smuggled into the United States.

Long before it became an economic necessity for local farmers, the pungent herb was widely employed as a folk remedy by curanderas in Mexico, where marijuana patches were sufficiently plentiful in the countryside to be mistaken for an indigenous plant. The Tepehuan Indians in the Mexican highlands occasionally used cannabis — which they called Rosa Maria (“the Sacred Rose”) — as a substitute for the peyote cactus in religious rituals. Indicative of its ability to stimulate collegiality and loquaciousness, Rosa Maria was known as the Herb That Makes One Speak.

By the early nineteenth century, when Mexican peasants first began smoking it as a means of relaxation and inebriation, high-octane cannabis, a heliotropic (sunloving) plant, seemed to grow wild everywhere. It was the hangover-free high that drew most people to the plant in Mexico, especially the multitudes of poor campesinos who utilized cannabis as a social lubricant and an antidote to drudgery and fatigue. There was a common saying among lower-class Mexicans, “Esta ya le dio las tres” (“You take it three times”), which referred to the exhilarating bounce from three puffs of marijuana.

The Opium of the Poor

The fact that the use of cannabis, dubbed “the opium of the poor,” was prevalent among underprivileged elements in Mexico (and in several other countries) may account for many of the persistent myths about the herb. Whereas the salt of the earth smoked cannabis as a palliative to help them cope with everyday tedium and despair, those of a more affluent standing tended to blame the problems of the less fortunate on the consumption of cannabis. Its initial association with the dregs of society — landless peasants, bandits, bootleggers, prisoners, and so on — made marijuana a convenient scapegoat for deep-rooted social inequities.

The military was one segment of the Mexican population that readily accepted marijuana. Conscripts enjoyed smoking the weed, which, in most cases, was cheaper than alcohol and easier to obtain. During the Mexican Revolution (1910–20), the first great social revolution of the twentieth century, Pancho Villa’s guerrilla army, composed largely of peons and Indians, smoked marijuana during long marches and afterward to a celebrate a successful campaign. Known for their toughness, these marijuana-smoking peasants were valiant and tenacious fighters. Their stoned exploits in northern Mexico were immortalized in the well-known folk song “La Cucaracha” with the chorus about a hapless foot soldier (“the cockroach”) who can’t function unless he’s high on marijuana:

La cucaracha, la cucaracha
Ya no puede caminar
Porque no tiene, porque no tiene
Marijuana que fumar

The cockroach, the cockroach
Is unable to walk
Because he doesn’t have, because he doesn’t have
Any marijuana to smoke

“Roach,” modern-day slang for the butt of a marijuana cigarette, derives from this song, which inspired a dance and an Oscar-winning musical of the same name. Initially a battle hymn sung by Mexican rebels, “La Cucharacha” became a popular cultural phenomenon throughout North America. 

Although many of his troops were stoners, it’s not known to what extent General Pancho Villa, the Sierra-bred ruffian, smoked marijuana. Known for his martial prowess and his skills as a horseman, he was lionized as the gentleman bandit who rescued orphans and wowed the ladies while chasing Yankee capitalists out of the country. In an age of stark disparities between the wealthy few and the impoverished many, Pancho Villa was Mexico’s answer to Robin Hood. His military feats became legendary through popular ballads called corridos, which chronicled significant events of the day — from gun battles and government betrayals to love affairs and bountiful marijuana harvests.

Folk Songs & Folk Heros

Narcocorridos, a subgenre of folk songs devoted to marijuana smokers, smugglers, and drug-related bandidos, originated during this period. More than just a form of entertainment, these ballads were a key source of news and political commentary that resonated with Mexico’s illiterate masses. Some corridos glorified Pancho Villa’s predawn cross-border raid in 1916 against a U.S. military garrison in New Mexico. Other songs lampooned General John Pershing, who sent an expeditionary force of 12,000 U.S. troops into Mexico in fruitless pursuit of the wily guerrilla leader.

Apparently some soldiers under Pershing’s command could not resist the wiles of Mary Jane, the aromatic temptress. “After the guard went down to Mexico and came back, I saw the first white people who smoked the plant,” a Texas-based U.S. Army physician told a federal fact-finding commission in the early 1920s. This practice found favor among U.S. troops stationed on the border, including black cavalry units, who smoked marijuana cigarettes either straight or mixed with tobacco.

In 1925, the U.S. government convened a formal committee to investigate rumors that off-duty American soldiers based in the Panama Canal Zone were smoking “goof butts” for kicks. It was the first official U.S. inquiry into cannabis, and it concluded that marijuana was not addictive (in the sense in which the term is applied to alcohol, opium, or cocaine), nor did it have “any appreciable deleterious influence on the individual using it.” On the basis of this assessment, previous orders prohibiting possession of the weed by military personnel were revoked in 1926.

A Web of Social Controls

The emergence of marijuana smoking in early twentieth-century America was catalyzed mainly by the tumultuous Mexican Revolution, which caused hundreds of thousands of brown-skinned migrants to flee to the U.S. Southwest in search of safety and work. Smoking grass became commonplace among dispossessed Mexicans in border towns such as El Paso, Texas, which passed the first city ordinance banning the sale and possession of cannabis in 1914. Public officials and newspaper reports depicted marijuana, the Mexican loco weed, as a dangerous vice, an alien intrusion into American life.

Enacted in a climate of fear and hostility toward swarthy, Spanish-speaking foreigners, early marijuana legislation was a handy instrument to keep the newcomers in their place. Antidrug and vagrancy statutes, in addition to legally sanctioned segregation in housing, restaurants, and parks, comprised what one historian described as “a web of social controls” that were “mobilized to police Mexicans.”

Several western and southern states proceeded to outlaw the herb, with California taking the lead in 1915, a move that served as a pretext for harassing Mexicans, just as opium legislation in San Francisco forty years earlier was directed at another despised minority, the Chinese. (Concurrent with the ban on opium, there were laws against wearing queues (ponytails), the traditional Chinese hairstyle, in San Francisco.) In each case, the target of the prohibition was not the drug so much as those most associated with its use. Typically in the United States, drug statutes have been aimed — or selectively enforced — against a feared or disparaged group within society.

“All Mexicans are crazy, and this stuff [marijuana] makes them crazy,” said one Lone Star state senator. Marijuana was outlawed in Texas in 1919 amid a wave of labor unrest. There were more than three thousand strikes throughout the country that year. Ignoring the rights of free speech, assembly, and due process, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer launched his infamous raids against aliens, “reds,” and union members in dozens of American cities. The first “Palmer raids” in November 1919 were timed to coincide with the second anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

The U.S. Supreme Court would soon outlaw picketing, abolish the minimum wage for women, and overturn child labor laws, while federal agents roamed the land, breaking up public meetings, seizing political literature, and patrolling freight cars for migrants. Side by side with “Bolshevik” labor leaders, state penitentiaries held significant numbers of Mexican American men serving time for drug crimes, according to sociologist Curtis Marez, who notes that “arrests and convictions of ‘Mexican’ workers for marijuana possession were most concentrated during the years of, and in the areas with, the highest levels of labor organization and action.” The incarceration of Mexican workers, whether for smoking or striking, made the workforce as a whole easier to manage.

Excerpted from Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana – Medical, Recreational and Scientific by Project CBD Director Martin A. Lee. Lee is the director of Project CBD. He’s authored and edited several books, including Smoke SignalsAcid Dreams, and The Essential Guide to CBD. © Copyright, Project CBD. May not be reprinted without permission.

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