Weeding through fact and fiction: Dr. John Chasteen’s seminar on the history of marijuana

Chasteen is an expert on Latin America and marijuana.

Dr. Chasteen is an expert on Latin America and marijuana. On Wednesday, he gave a lecture about the drug’s history to CofC students and faculty. (Photo by Sam Posthuma)

On Wednesday, Dr. John Charles Chasteen spoke to college students and faculty about the history of marijuana in Latin America. Providing insight into the drug’s origins, its arrival into mainstream American culture and the various cultural influences represented by the drug, Chasteen’s speech certainly answered many questions, as well as disproved many common misconceptions.

Chasteen is a cultural historian who has extensively studied Latin America, with an emphasis on Brazil. He achieved his Ph.D. in History and now teaches at UNC, where he studies a variety of subjects such as the Brazilian cowboy-like gauchos, Carnival, as well as rebellions and civil uprisings. One thing he was always interested in, however, was marijuana.  Speaking about the subject, he said, “It does awaken so much interest … I wanted to know and there was nothing to read, I was really interested in the history of marijuana.” Like any die-hard history professor, the realization was sudden and certain. “I realized that I had to write it myself.”

He began his study by working backward, starting in the present and uncovering the history down into the past — as he explained, “much like an archaeologist.” It is a fact that most marijuana came from Latin America, and also that there were reports of Americans getting high sometime before the first World War.

Cannabis itself originated in central Asia, along a very long strip of land centered on the border between Russia and China. This strain of cannabis was, in fact, not psychoactive but rather a huge commodity for Europeans, who used the hemp for rope and sails. This exploded once sails were set for the New World and ships were produced by the ton. The Spanish, he explained, actually had governmental orders to start hemp plantations in the New World.

Fast forward to the 1760s, when a priest who was sitting atop the highlands of Mexico City received word from his parishioners about indigenous people doing “something they weren’t supposed to be doing.” If you guessed getting extremely, outrageously high, you’re absolutely correct. In fact, they were eating this new strain of cannabis, eloquently called “Pipilzintzintli,” and telling the future. This became more and more widespread, as indigenous people began exploring more and more with different strains and composition methods. Chasteen explained that Latin America “had more psychoactive drugs than anywhere in the world,” concluding that the experimental mixtures and domestication of these plants were the way — he thinks — marijuana was invented.

He also spoke about Jamaica, the legendary pot capital of the world, explaining that the cannabis there was formed from indentured servants from India. The servants then traveled to Jamaica to work, bringing with them a substance called “ganja” or, as Chasteen explained, “the flower of the plant.” This stuff was much more potent and former slaves often took it to the mountains, living self-sufficient lives off the land while smoking the herb.

One of the most startling topics discussed by Chasteen was that for the longest time, the practice of smoking marijuana was largely a lower-class, worker/prisoner/military hobby, and was largely unknown to those outside of these circles. After the hemp boom in the early discovery era, marijuana largely fell to the wayside. In fact, it wasn’t until it was introduced to America that it became a huge hit. Americans were buying the stuff in troves, feeding the drug markets of Latin America and Jamaica. This practice then became “cool,” which led marijuana to spread to other classes of people inside the countries that produced it. Chasteen explained that “even when I was in Brazil in the 70s, marijuana was largely unheard of by the middle class.”

Chasteen’s work does wonders to dispel the myths commonly associated with marijuana. It was largely a non-problem throughout history, and until the rampant propaganda against the plant commonly associated with early 20th century America, it wasn’t a problem here either. Now, with multiple movements to legalize the drug in the states, it is certain to become another chapter in marijuana’s rich history that I’m sure Chasteen can’t wait to dive into.

For more info on Latin America, be sure to check out Chasteen’s latest book Born in Blood & Fire: A Concise History of Latin America.  For more info on marijuana, be sure to check out Reefer Madness.


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'Weeding through fact and fiction: Dr. John Chasteen’s seminar on the history of marijuana' has 1 comment

  1. March 15, 2015 @ 9:20 am Jerry Golick

    I must admit to being surprised after reading this piece. One is left with the impression that marijuana somehow first entered the US from Latin America as a fairly recent phenomena. This is far from the case.

    The recorded use of cannabis, (aka marijuana – a slang pejorative), and it’s history are quite well known, dating back at least 5000 years. A simple search for “marijuana history” on amazon will yield many results.

    Cannabis was grown and exploited in the USA from the time of its founding. The hemp plant was considered a strategic crop and used for a wide variety of purposes including paper, oil, cordage, fabric, and of course medicine. The American Pharmacopoeia during the 1800s indicated that many ailments could be effectively treated by cannabis. Indeed, virtually all of the drug manufacturers of the era had at least one product based on cannabis sativa.

    IOW – Long before the so called Mexican Marijuana was being imported for supposed nefarious purposes, the use of hemp and cannabis was already very well established in North America, respectable and thriving. The story of how the government of that day came to prohibit this beneficial plant is very interesting and enlightening, but not germane to my response.

    Incidentally, the hemp that was grown back then had a much higher concentration of THC than today’s commercial variant which has been specifically bred to a much lower standard. It was plenty potent enough to get the natives high, as it has been doing for many people, for many centuries now.

    I might also add that there is a significant debate currently underway in the religious community as to the use of cannabis in early sacred rites of many religions. It appears highly likely that many sacred “oils” and “incense” were derived from the cannabis plant.

    As to cannabis use being restricted to a ” largely a lower-class, worker/prisoner/military hobby”, well, I would suggest that position would be rather difficult to prove. It actually smacks more of the outdated “reefer madness” mentality rather than anything else. The recreational use of cannabis crosses almost all demographics.

    Speaking of which, were you actually serious about giving Reefer Madness as a link for people who want to know more about cannabis? Really? Not very cool, I thought.


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