Viper, Tea and the Reefer Man: The Intersection of Black History and Cannabis Culture
One of the many outcomes of the racially biased War on Drugs and 1970s cannabis prohibition is that mass incarceration, not creative inspiration, is what many people think of when they consider the intersection between Black cultural history and cannabis culture. But Black artistry has long been entwined with cannabis. And it was the rising mainstream popularity of Black culture that some of the racist bureaucrats of the 1930s responded to when developing policies still causing harm to marginalized communities today.
For Black History Month this year, we dig into how Black culture and cannabis culture intersected over a century ago, and changed the world in the process.
The Origins of Black History Month
In 1926, an organization called the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History launched Negro History Week (NHW)—the precursor to today’s Black History Month and the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). NHW was intended to counterbalance growing nostalgia for the Civil War, bookended by the theatrical releases of Birth of a Nation a decade prior and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind a decade later.
But NHW was also a potent symbol of a burgeoning civil rights movement—one that included the founding of the NAACP in 1909 and the Great Migration of Black Americans from the rural South to northern cultural centers like Chicago and Harlem. Smack in the middle of these acute cultural shifts, another organization was established—the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN).
The FBN was headed by Harry Anslinger, a man so deeply racist even by the standards of his day that some of his peers called for his resignation. The country was a decade into Prohibition, and the FBN ostensibly was formed to protect public health and battle organized crime. But Anslinger realized on some level that he could also use the newly formed agency’s powers to fight what he saw as an equally threatening force—the rising popularity of Black culture.
Black Cannabis History in the United States and Beyond
To understand why Anslinger saw such a close connection between Black culture and cannabis culture, we need to rewind the clock a lot further—to the 12th century, to be precise. While cannabis cultivation likely originated in what is now western China, it eventually followed other commodities along the Silk Road, reaching commercial centers in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa. By the 16th and 17th centuries, when European nations began their colonial conquests in earnest, various cannabis products—particularly hashish—could be found around the world.
In India, visiting merchants learned cannabis was called bhang. In southern Africa, the Khoekhoe called it dagga. In Hawaii, it went by pakalōlō. Spanish, Portuguese and British colonists of the day valued fibrous cannabis sativa plants as a key component for the ropes and sails that made maritime exploration possible. But Europeans had long known about the other uses for hemp—a word that comes from the ancient Germanic root for cannabis, hanf—thanks to documents written by early explorers like Marco Polo and ancient Greek medical texts.
Cannabis followed colonial merchants from India and Africa to the Caribbean, along with numerous other commodities, indentured servants and enslaved peoples. As Chris S. Duvall notes in The African Roots of Marijuana, white explorers and merchants writing about their experiences abroad tended to portray their cannabis consumption as “open-minded experimentation, free-thinking expression, or intrepid worldliness.” Unsurprisingly, those same elites cast non-white, non-European cannabis consumption as exotic at best and at worst as immoral, unproductive and detrimental.
The Prohibition Era and the Jazz Age
That characterization intensified in the 19th and early 20th centuries as slavery was slowly outlawed, first in Europe and its colonies, and later in the United States. Following the Haitian Revolution of the late 1700s and political upheaval and natural disasters in other Caribbean countries such as Jamaica, the American South saw an influx of free Black immigrants. That Afro-Caribbean diaspora mingled with the culture of Black Americans that developed around the Civil War, especially in Southern cities like New Orleans.
Uniquely American, distinctly Black music styles began to emerge, including jazz, blues and ragtime. These new genres and their Afro-Caribbean influences were carried north during the Great Migration to cities like Chicago, Detroit and New York. But those influences weren’t limited to percussive beats or call-and-response vox formats—they also included the social and creative use of cannabis.
Musicians like Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Ella Fitzgerald and Cab Calloway celebrated the role of “grass,” “viper” and “tea” in songs like Muggles, Weed Smoker’s Dream, Reefer Man, When I Get Low, I Get High and That Cat’s High. The connections between the thrilling new pop songs of the day and cannabis produced new slang for the plant like “jazz cabbage.” It also caught the attention of men like Anslinger, who despised the growing influence of Black culture on the mainstream.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, news stories about cannabis began to take on a radically more racialized tone. Rather than being discussed as a harmless, bohemian curiosity, the perjorative term “marijuana” come to the fore in response to an early 20th-century increase in immigration from Mexico. Anslinger himself wrote an article for The American Magazine and later reprinted in Reader’s Digest titled Marijuana—Assassin of Youth. (Ironically, the term hashish comes from the same etymological root as the word assassin).
It’s no coincidence that the criminalization and racialization of cannabis by the FBN and 29 states coincided with the increased visibility of Black culture—and the opening act of the Civil Rights movement. When Billie Holiday recorded the anti-lynching protest song Strange Fruit in 1939, Anslinger was incensed. While free speech protected Holiday’s right to perform the piece, it was the singer’s well-known use of cannabis and heroin that gave Anslinger’s FBN an excuse to repeatedly arrest and prosecute her.
Holiday’s Jim Crow-era experience with the FBN presaged the pattern that the War on Drugs would take over the next several decades. Black Americans have been and continue to be disproportionately arrested and incarcerated for cannabis possession compared to white Americans. As the 2001 NACLA report The Drug War is the New Jim Crow by Graham Boyd notes: “the number of Black men in prison (792,000) has already equaled the number of men enslaved in 1820.” That report was published over 20 years ago.
Despite the racial disparities of the drug war, however, from Anslinger to President Nixon and domestic policy adviser John Ehrlichman through to today, Black artists have continued to create, and to celebrate cannabis culture. Just as New Orleans, New York and Chicago were the epicenters of tea-soaked jazz in the 1920s, cities like Detroit, Philadelphia and Los Angeles gave rise to new Black genres like funk, disco, techno, hip-hop and rap from the 1960s on—each with their own odes to ganja, dope and chronic.
While much of the 1970s and ’80s stoner genre features white protagonists like the titular Bill and Ted or Fast Times at Ridgemont High's Jeff Spicoli, it’s important not to forget that American cannabis culture is deeply entwined with and influenced by Black music and creative output. The deep trauma of systemic racism, including the War on Drugs, has not managed to erase Black excellence—or stop Black Americans from continuing to innovate and advocate for themselves through art. This month and every month, we honor that legacy, and celebrate the contributions of Black artists to both cannabis and our culture as a whole.