In the US, the history of cannabis is inextricably linked to the origins of cannabis in Latin America. While the plant has its own history within Anglo culture that goes back much further than the overtly xenophobic association with immigrants from south of the border, the modern notion of “marijuana” as a controversial, illegal, counterculture phenomenon has everything to do with our perception of the plant’s relationship with Spanish-speaking cultures. The prohibitive laws that still exist today arose from those anxieties, and the still-favored terminology for the plant came from propaganda linking cannabis with maligned Mexican immigrants. In essence, the cultural perception of cannabis as something mysterious and foreign originated in part from America’s love/hate relationship with the culture of its southern neighbor.

Despite the fact that cannabis products had been sold in pharmacies in the US for almost a century before it became illegal, Americans didn’t really think twice about the plant until a torrent of early 20th century propaganda linked “marijuana” to the supposedly criminal nature of Spanish-speaking immigrants.

As we work to change our laws, we should also take the time to understand the truth about the cultural history of cannabis. How many of us really understand the history of the plant in Latin America?

Cannabis Latin America Prohibition Propoganda

Smokeable cannabis only made its way onto the radar of America following the Mexican revolution of 1910-1911, arriving with immigrants fleeing political chaos south of the border. While hemp and orally ingested forms of medical cannabis had a long history in America, the act of smoking cannabis was primarily associated with immigrants and quickly linked by propaganda to the Spanish slang word “marijuana” and the public’s distrust of the immigrants that used it. It wasn’t long before states started to prohibit cannabis, and in 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act effectively made it illegal nationwide, following a propaganda campaign that had exploited the public’s fears of Mexican immigrants. But what role did cannabis really play in Mexico and other Latin American cultures?

Hemp first came to the Americas as part of the Columbian exchange – the exchange of flora, fauna, diseases, and cultural practices that occurred when Europe first came in contact with the Americas. By 1545, the Spanish were encouraging hemp production, and seeds were planted in Chile’s Quillota Valley, according to Martin Booth’s Cannabis: A History. At this point, hemp in the Americas was primarily used as fiber to make rope for the Spanish army, and for rigging on ships docked in Chile. Surplus hemp was shipped to points north such as Peru, where hemp cultivation never took hold.

During this same time frame, conquistador Pedro Cuadrado is believed to have brought the plant to Mexico in his travels with the army of Hernando Cortes. Cuadrado raised hemp in Mexico commercially, but the Spanish governor decided to cut production when it became clear the natives had seen the psychoactive potential of the hemp, which expressed itself in the plants as they were now being grown in the hot temperatures and extended daylight hours of a tropical climate.

It’s also worth mentioning that the use of other plants for their psychoactive potential was already a prominent feature of many pre-Columbian American cultures by the time the cannabis plant arrived. In South America, Amazonians favored ayahuasca, while the Mayans in present-day Mexico utilized psychoactive mushrooms and peyote cactus. Even the Aztecs, the imperial conquerors of their era, used such psychoactive drugs for spiritual purposes.

While cannabis was overshadowed by these stronger drugs for many native tribes in the area, others took to it, particularly in Central America and Mexico. The Tepehuan, of northwestern Mexico, used cannabis when other psychoactive plants were scarce. The Cuna, of Panama, regularly smoked cannabis in pipes at tribal gatherings. The Cora, from Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental mountains in western Mexico, used the plant for its spiritual, or entheogenic, potential.

cannabis hemp vs. marijuana

In other parts of Latin America, such as Brazil and the Caribbean, slaves from Africa had brought their own knowledge of recreational cannabis use, as well as their own psychoactive cannabis seeds, by the 19th century. In Brazil, many authorities quickly recognized and disapproved of the practice, criminalizing its use (specifically by slaves). In other instances, in Brazil and the Caribbean, authorities took advantage of the sedative effects of cannabis to pacify the slave population. In both cases, notions about cannabis followed a divide between the white, European view of cannabis as a fiber plant, and the native and African knowledge of the spiritual and psychoactive potential, with the latter considered backward, “savage,” and generally reprehensible.

While European elites couldn’t agree on whether cannabis made its users rebellious and murderous on the one hand, or sedated, lazy, and compliant on the other, a generally disapproving and even fearful attitude toward psychoactive plants in general meant that they didn’t really need to settle on a coherent theory to justify banning its use. Altering one’s consciousness with anything other than alcohol was an alien notion at best, and the work of the devil at worst. Spiritual and recreational cannabis use became just another native practice that needed to be stomped out, in the same way the Catholic church had systematically eliminated comparable pre-Christian traditions in Europe. 

As English-speaking Americans, we may be used to thinking of Latin America as a massive, Spanish-speaking monolith, but nothing could be further from reality. The continent and a half that represents Latin America has its own racial, ethnic, and class partitions that go back centuries, and cannabis came to embody those divisions there the same way it did in the US in the 20th century. To this day, cannabis prohibition in the US chiefly affects non-white and poor Americans, and the same pattern can be seen in colonial Latin America.

Mexican researchers in the late 19th century were actually among the first to put forward theories that cannabis could lead to conditions such as “multiple personalities,” and “a terrible and blind impulse that leads to murder,” in mestizo and working-class populations. Even within Spanish-speaking Mexico, the Eurocentric pseudoscience of the era linked cannabis use to elements of the population that the elite viewed as inferior yet threatening. Even though the plant had been brought to the Americas by Europeans, its use was linked to cultures that those same Europeans were working hard to marginalize.

Nonetheless, cannabis use was widespread in Mexico, Brazil, Central America, and the Caribbean by the end of the 19th century, usually among poor farmers and plantation or ranch workers, as a respite from the struggles of daily life. In Mexico, it grew in the wild and was cultivated by peasants, smoked out of pipes or consumed as a beverage with milk, sugarcane, and chilies. Cannabis cigarettes also became a popular method of consumption by the 1890s. In fact, the curandero were herbalists who had preserved pre-Columbian traditions, practiced alongside newer Mexican folk remedies, which included cannabis.

General Porfirio Diaz

General Porfirio Diaz

The origins of the slang word “marijuana” are unclear, but they can be traced to Mexico in this late 19th century period.  “Maria y Juana,” or Mary and Jane, was a military slang phrase for local brothels, where cannabis use was common. The term may also derive from the Nahuatl phrase “mallihuan,” which means “prisoner.” In any case, the terminology began traveling north over the border with refugees fleeing political chaos and economic stagnation under Mexican dictator General Porfirio Diaz, and during the revolution to depose him in 1910 and 1911. This led to the wave of Mexican immigration, and the smokeable cannabis that came with it, that kicked off the story of prohibition in the US. These immigrants brought a plant that Americans were already familiar with, but smoking it recreationally was considered new and strange. And the new arrivals were already distrusted as one of the earliest large waves of non-white, non-European immigrants. This story is still playing out to this day, with a new wave of anti-immigrant sentiment, and the legalization movement’s inevitable backlash. It’s no coincidence that Jeff Sessions’ second biggest pet peeve, after cannabis use, is immigration. The two sentiments have always gone hand-in-hand. 

Once cannabis prohibition really took off in the US, the status of cannabis in Latin America followed a trajectory along the same lines. Continued efforts to crack down of cannabis, now backed by Harry Anslinger’s anti-drug push in the US, pushed it further into the domain of organized crime. Demand for cannabis briefly increased in the 60s and 70s, after which the drug war was escalated even further in response. At this point, the center of cannabis production in Latin America shifted to Columbia instead of Mexico, as the latter became embroiled in the renewed US war on drugs in the 70s. It wasn’t long before this drug war violence followed cannabis to Columbia as well.

Finally, after many decades of failure, this policy has started to give way to substantial reform. Short of decriminalization, a 2006 law in Brazil sought to ensure cannabis activity for personal use would not result in prison sentences. In Mexico, the 2009 “Small-Scale Narcotics Law” enacted partial decriminalization for small quantities of cannabis. In the past decade, the country has seen a widespread pro-cannabis movement, and in 2017, Mexico legalized medical cannabis on a national level, making it one of the first nations worldwide to do so. The same year, Argentina also decided to legalize medicinal cannabis nationwide, and Chile had legalized the use and distribution of medical cannabis two years prior. Even Columbia, the most notorious hub of drug trafficking and violence of the late 20th century, has legalized medical cannabis, and is laying the foundation for a legal export industry.

But most remarkably of all, Uruguay fully legalized the cultivation of cannabis in 2014, with legal sales beginning last year. It was a first in Latin America, a part of the world that saw perhaps the most brutal effects of 20th century prohibition policies.

While American perspectives may draw a fine line between the English speaking and Spanish speaking parts of the Americas, we’ve been subject to a lot of the same forces throughout history. Cannabis is no exception. Anti-cannabis sentiment in the US picked up where European elites had left off in Latin America, and was dialed up several notches. While Spanish, Catholic authorities were often content to let practices they disapproved of go under the radar or blend with Christian life, Anglo elites in the US really believed that they could use the law to fully eliminate cultural practices they didn’t like. This led to the extreme violence and injustice of the 20th century’s US-led war on drugs. But the ideological basis for cannabis prohibition, with a foundation of anti-indigenous and anti-black racism, was the same. Stomping out cannabis use was always just another step in the European domination of the Americas.