Cannabis History, Myth and Lore

Cannabis has a long and colorful history. Most likely because of its illegal nature most of it was never committed to writing and was handed down verbally. We thought it would be a fun exercise to educate our customers on some of the more interesting history, myths and lore surrounding our cherished plant.

A team led by archaeologists Yang Yimin and Ren Meng of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing reported clear physical evidence that mourners burned cannabis for its intoxicating fumes on a remote mountain plateau in Central Asia some 2500 years ago. Yang’s and Ren’s team ground bits of an ancient type of bowl into powder and applied gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to identify chemical compounds left behind. They found unusually high levels of THC compared with typical wild cannabis, although much less than in today’s highly bred plants. The cannabis was apparently burned in an enclosed space, so mourners almost certainly inhaled THC-laced fumes, the authors say, making this the earliest solid evidence of cannabis use for psychoactive purposes.

When Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) in 1970 it created a series of “schedules,” classifying drugs by the dangers they supposedly posed. Marijuana was placed on Schedule 1, the category for harmful drugs with no medical use. Congresspersons who knew that marijuana was relatively safe and had medical potential punted the scheduling decision by creating a commission that would conduct a thorough study and “aid in determining the appropriate disposition of this question in the future.” Although the CSA left scheduling decisions up to the Attorney General rather than the Surgeon General, it was assumed—foolishly— that the findings of the new commission would result in marijuana being rescheduled to a drug that was not in the same class as heroin and cocaine.

In declassified tapes of the Nixon White House then President Nixon can be heard ordering the head of the commission, Ex Pennsylvania Governor Raymond Shafer, to publish a report that showed Marijuana was equally as dangerous as Heroin and Cocaine with no societal or medical benefits.

After exhaustive research the report was turned over to Nixon and it showed the exact opposite of what the President ordered. In quoting from the report “No significant physical, biochemical, or mental abnormalities could be attributed solely to marihuana smoking… No valid stereotype of a marihuana user or non-user can be drawn… Young people who choose to experiment with marihuana are fundamentally the same people, socially and psychologically, as those who use alcohol and tobacco… No verification is found of a causal relationship between marihuana use and subsequent heroin use…. Most users, young and old, demonstrate an average or above-average degree of social functioning, academic achievement, and job performance…

“The weight of the evidence is that marihuana does not cause violent or aggressive behavior; if anything marihuana serves to inhibit the expression of such behavior… Marihuana is not generally viewed by participants in the criminal justice community as a major contributing influence in the commission of delinquent or criminal acts… Neither the marihuana user nor the drug itself can be said to constitute a danger to public safety… Research has not yet proven that marihuana use significantly impairs driving ability or performance…

“No reliable evidence exists indicating that marihuana causes genetic defects in man… Marihuana’s relative potential for harm to the vast majority of individual users and its actual impact on society does not justify a social policy designed to seek out and firmly punish those who use it.”

When presented with the report President Nixon tossed it in the garbage!

Many don’t know the origins of the “420” reference, but have vague recollections of once-heard tales about its origins. Some believe it’s the number of active chemicals in marijuana, others that it’s based on teatime in Holland. Some reference Bob Dylan’s legendary “Everybody must get stoned” refrain from his hit “Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35” (12 multiplied by 35 does equal 420). But in reality, it can all be traced back to a group of five California teens who used to hang out by a wall outside their San Rafael school—a meeting spot that inspired their nickname, “the Waldos.”

In the fall of 1971, the Waldos learned of a Coast Guard member who had planted a cannabis plant and could no longer tend to the crop. Provided with a treasure map (some say by the plant’s owner himself) supposedly leading to the abandoned product, the group would meet at the Louis Pasteur statue outside their high school at least once a week conduct a search. Their meeting time? 4:20 p.m., after practice (they were all athletes). The Waldos would pile into a car, smoke some pot and scour the nearby Point Reyes Forest for the elusive, free herb. One of the original members of the Waldos, Steve Capper, told the Huffington Post, “We would remind each other in the hallways we were supposed to meet up at 4:20. It originally started out 4:20-Louis, and we eventually dropped the Louis.”

They never did score the free bud, but perhaps they stumbled on to something more lasting? The term 420 was coined, allowing the high schoolers to discuss smoking pot without their parents or teachers knowing. But how did this ragtag team of pot plant-seekers at a high school in California manage to spread their secret phrase internationally? For that, we turn to the Grateful Dead.

Members of the Waldos had open access, and many connections, to the band. Mark Gravitch’s father managed the Dead’s real estate. Dave Reddix’s older brother was good friends with Dead bassist Phil Lesh and managed a Dead sideband. Capper told the Huffington Post, “There was a place called Winterland, and we’d always be backstage running around or on stage and, of course, we’re using those phrases. When somebody passed a joint they said something like, “Hey, 420.” So it started spreading through that community.

The first time Steven Bloom ever heard the phrase “420” was during Christmas week at a Grateful Dead concert in Oakland, California, in 1990 while he was a reporter for High Times. Bloom was wandering through the congregation of hippies that would gather before Dead concerts, and a “Deadhead” handed him a flyer that said, “We are going to meet at 4:20 on 4/20 for 420-ing in Marin County at the Bolinas Ridge sunset spot on Mt. Tamalpais.” Bloom found the old flyer and sent it to the Huffington Post. The flyer told the history of 420, referencing the Waldos of San Rafael. Once “High Times” latched on to the story, the magazine helped launch the word globally.

The word Marijuana entered English usage in the late 19th century. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first known appearance of a form of the word in English is in Hubert Howe Bancroft’s 1873 The Native Races of the Pacific States of North America. Other early variants include “mariguan” (1894),[12] “marihuma” first recorded in 1905, “marihuano” in 1912, and “marahuana” in 1914.[19] According to the second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary. the word originally denoted a species of wild tobacco.

The use of “marihuana” in American English increased dramatically in the 1930s, when it was preferred as an exotic-sounding alternative name during debates on the drug’s use. It has been suggested that in the United States the word was promoted by opponents of the drug, who wanted to stigmatize it with a “foreign-sounding name”. According to Lizzie Post, the word “marijuana” is deprecated because “in the early 1900s, the term marijuana was purposely used to negatively associate it with the Latino community.” The word was codified into law and became part of common American English with the passing of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.

The word Cannabis has much simpler roots… The plant name Cannabis is derived originally from a Scythian or Thracian word, which loaned into Persian as kanab, then into Greek as κάνναβις (kánnabis) and subsequently into Latin as cannabis.