Sunday, October 4, 2009

Marijuana Comes to the Americas

Marijuana Comes to the Americas

If you read my postings on “The Prehistory of Marijuana”, you know I presented two theories of how marijuana came from the old world to the new: from sub-Sahara Africa to Brazil with slaves or from North Africa with Moorish sailors on Spanish ships. You also know I was not enthusiastic about either of them.

I have now stumbled over a third theory that fits the facts much better. Indian hemp came to the Americas from (drumroll) India .  I found it in Grim, Ryan, This Is Your Country on Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America, Wiley (2009), pp 44-45.  Grim is a journalist, now writing primarily for Slate.  He also spent a few years working for MPP.  This book is a fun and informative read.

Great Britain eliminated slavery in all of the British Empire in the 1830s. The Jamaican sugar plantations had been highly profitable, but they needed large amounts of cheap labor to continue their operations. Relations within the Empire made India the best place for them to find workers.

Those Indian workers brought their families with them when they immigrated to Jamaica. And they also brought Indian hemp for relaxation, medicine, and religion. As their numbers grew, they expanded into the coastal areas of Central America, especially Panama.

This theory explains some mysteries and makes good connections with known historical points.

The “aha” moment for me was that this theory explains why Jamaican cannabis is called “ganja”, an Indian name. If the other theories were correct, one would expect the use of “hashish” from North Africa, “cannabis” or “hemp” from Europe, or some name from Southern or Central Africa. We do know from the debates leading up to the criminalization of marijuana in the U.S., that most Americans at that time were not aware of the identity of cannabis, hemp, and marijuana.

When the U.S. began work on the Panama Canal, it brought large numbers of workers from Jamaica and Cuba, believing them to be more resistant to yellow fever. These workers mingled with North Americans working on the canal. Panama became the direct source of three of the marijuana routes into the U.S. and the indirect source of the fourth.

Sometime between 1900 and 1920, marijuana became common in the Port of New Orleans. From the time of the California gold rush starting in 1849 (about when Indian workers first started appearing in Panama), a large part of New Orleans shipping originated in Panama, and as the Canal was being built and finally opened, that traffic increased.

In the early 1940s, Detroit Red (later Malcolm X) was selling reefers in New York to musicians. His source of supply was crewmen on Caribbean freighters, most of which came from New Orleans or Panama.

The army stationed troops in Panama beginning in 1904. The use of marijuana by these troops grew to the point that the Surgeon-General of the Army did a study of it in 1931, leading to publication of his report on marijuana use in 1932, in which he concluded no regulation was needed.

The fourth source of American marijuana, and the largest, was Mexico. Historically, Mexico has always had a strong flow of immigration from Central America, a migration that still continues. Mexico is probably where the name “marijuana” – “Mary Jane” arose. The turmoil of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 led to a large increase of people moving across the border into the U.S., where they found work, primarily as agricultural laborers. The presence of these Mexican immigrants led to the first anti-marijuana laws, beginning with the infamous El Paso ordinance.

This India-Jamaica connection is the most satisfactory one I have seen so far. I have begun looking for sources to try and nail it down. If any of you know of, or run across, anything that might bear on this issue, please help me out.

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