Offbeat Marijuana : The Life and Times of the World’s Grooviest Plant

Offbeat Marijuana : The Life and Times of the World's Grooviest Plant
Saul Rubin
January 1999
Hundreds of Photos and Illustrations
Pop Culture
7 x 9 1/4

An entertaining look at the historical, legal, political, medicinal, and social aspects of what has been called the world's most versatile plant. This fascinating tour of the marijuana universe is for friend and foe alike. Offbeat Marijuana chronicles the history of the world's most versatile plant. From its use by the Chinese in 3,000 B.C.E. to battle malaria, to the burgeoning American Hemp industry of the 17th and 18th centuries, to the politically-motivated demonization of the 1930s, to the U.S. Government's schizophrenic directive to farmers to grow "Hemp for Victory" during World War II, to its enduring presence in late-20th century popular culture, Offbeat Marijuana dares the reader to judge the true nature of this controversial plant.

Click below to purchase this book:

Table of Contents


Chapter 1: The History of Marijuana
What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been

Chapter 2: Marijuana and Society
“Book ‘Em, Dano”

Chapter 3: Marijuana in the Workplace
“May I Have Another Cup, Please?”

Chapter 4: Marijuana as Medicine
“Smoke Two Joints and Call Me in the Morning”

Chapter 5: Marijuana Lab Report
Stoned in the Name of Science

Chapter 6: Hemp
The Soybean of the 21st Century

Chapter 7: Marijuana in Popular Culture
Reefer Madness

Chapter 8: Pot Culture
“Don’t Bogart That Joint, My Friend”

There is no doubt that the cannabis plant (a.k.a. “marijuana”) is the most politicized plant in human history. Bar none.
Yet despite the U.S. government’s 62-year blanket prohibition on the myriad uses of cannabis, many of which are well documented in Offbeat Marijuana, cannabis remains a popularly consumed intoxicant—second only to alcohol. Arguably, cannabis is currently the United States’ fourth most valuable cash crop with an estimated annual value in excess of $15 billion. In the last statistical year, 1997, state and federal law enforcement agencies arrested more Americans than ever before on cannabis charges—a resource draining 695,000 arrests (87% for possessing small, usable amounts). This translates into an arrest every 45 seconds! A recent U.S. Department of Justice report indicates that over forty thousand citizens are currently in state and federal prisons solely on cannabis charges.
The U.S. government spends approximately $10 to $12 billion of taxpayer’s money annually trying to enforce the failed prohibition. Since the early 1970s, the government has been nurturing a massive and pervasive “drug war-prison-industrial complex.”
In his award-winning series on cannabis prohibition, published in 1994 by The Atlantic Monthly, writer Eric Schlosser begs an important, though rarely asked question: How does a society go from nearly decriminalizing cannabis for adults in the 1970s to today, where adults are typically punished more severely for growing under 50 cannabis plants for their own personal consumption than long-held, traditional, violent predatory crimes, such as second- and third-degree murder, manslaughter, rape, arson, assault and battery, robbery, and kidnapping?
Offbeat Marijuana offers the reader numerous examples of how such a Kafkaesque premise came true. Whether it’s the government-sanctioned Reefer Madness scare of the 1930s or the current $2 billion taxpayer-supported Partnership for a Drug Free America propaganda campaign, the hundreds of millions of tax dollars that annually pour into the coffers of the DARE program, or the government agencies who’s only mission is surviving at the nipple of cannabis prohibition, one thing should be clear: cannabis prohibition is one of the greatest frauds perpetrated by the U.S. government on citizenry.
Any fair reading of the history of cannabis in the United States cannot conclude otherwise.
The cannabis plant is one of the most versatile and important plants humans have ever interfaced with, be it for nonmedical, medical, or industrial use. Indeed, it can be said, despite decades of heavy-lauded, misguided government efforts to demonize cannabis and the individuals who employ it, cannabis, in every sense of the word, is here for good. Renowned world-traveling ethnobiologist, Dr. Richard Evan Shultes says it best, “There can be no doubt that a plant that has been in partnership with man since the beginnings of agricultural efforts, that has served man in so many ways, and that, under the searchlight of modern chemical study, has yielded many new and interesting compounds will continue to be a part of man’s economy. It would be a luxury that we could ill afford if we allowed prejudices, resulting from the abuse of cannabis, to deter scientists from learning as much as possible about this ancient and mysterious plant.”

Allen F. St. Pierre
Executive Director
NORML Foundation
Washington, D.C.
February 11, 1999

Excerpt–Chapter 1: The History of Marijuana
What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been

The marijuana plant is truly a weed success story. Like an herbal Zelig, marijuana has played a versatile, high-profile role through five thousand stormy years of cultivation. The plant has such great survival instincts that it can change sex as needed and adapts quickly to new climates. It also has a quirky reproductive method. Nearing the end of its spring-to-fall cycle, it relies on a breeze to carry pollen from male stamens to waiting female flowers. This capricious union creates seeds that spill to the ground and germinate next season’s crop. In a kind of horticultural shrug, each new generation of the plant literally moves in whatever direction t he wind is blowing. Amid the fierce survival battles so common in the wild, along comes a plant that says, “whatever.”
In its most sobering incarnation, the marijuana plant’s hollow stalk has been used for centuries to make vital fiber products, including clothing, rope, and paper. Europeans and early Americans knew it as hemp, and considered it a crucial crop. American farmers stopped growing it after the Civil War when demand dropped, but the hemp plant kept right on going. Even today wild hemp continues to crop up across America in areas as diverse as rural pastures and city sewers.
More than just a useful fiber, marijuana has been harvested as medicine for thousands of years. Various cultures have added it to medicinal teas, extracts, and potions to treat a variety of illnesses, from bronchitis to “absentmindedness.” Chinese medical records show that it was used as far back as five thousand years to battle malaria, gout, and to ease the discomfort of menstrual cramps. In the West, marijuana was prescribed for everything from pain relief to convulsions. It was suggested to Queen Victoria by her court physician, with no great fuss, to treat her cramps.
If the marijuana plant’s story ended here, it would make for a worthy tale. But it would be one of simple benevolence, lacking complexity and depth. The story doesn’t end there, of course—it continues on, further up the stalk, where the plant’s darker side enters the picture. Marijuana survives in blazingly hot regions by secreting a leaf-coating resin that protects it from the sun’s dehydrating effects. This heat-shielding nectar is saturated with a compound scientists call tetrahydrocannabinol, commonly referred to as THC. Marijuana contains 400 chemicals and 60 cannabinoids—compounds unique to the plant—but THC is by far the plant’s most famous and profound substance. THC has made all the difference for marijuana, infusing its flowering tops and leaves with mind-altering powers. In concentrated form the intoxicating resin is called hash.

The First Toker?
There’s no documentation of when a thrill seeker first used marijuana for fun. No record of a Pothead X, so to speak. But it’s a good bet that pot smoking didn’t begin in Europe or North America, where most hemp farmers were unaware that right under their noses was a mighty herbal concoction. Even if they had inhaled, they wouldn’t have been awed by the experience. Industrial hemp is bred for its fiber, not its killer buds, so it produces low levels of THC. In any case, Americans and Europeans weren’t looking for other stimulants during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. They had already found their recreational drugs of choice—tobacco, alcohol, caffeine, and, ultimately, morphine and opium.
This was not the case, however, in the world’s hot zones. In Africa, India, and Arabia, word was out early that this was no ordinary weed. In these regions, the plant’s historical role as an intoxicant is rich and colorful. The Greek historian Herodotus observed the Scythians of northern Greece practicing a unique burial ritual during the fifth century involving hemp seeds. They would drop the seeds into a fire and then run wildly through the vapors, howling with joy. In India, drinking a tea made from an extract of the plant’s resin has been practiced for centuries. Called bhang, this stimulating drink is consumed in holy rituals and at informal social gatherings. In Indian folklore, the hemp plant has been called the “joy giver,” “the sky flier,” “the heavenly guide,” “the poor man’s heaven,” and “the soother of grief.”
Not surprisingly, Indians were one of the first populations studied to evaluate the consequences of hemp consumption. The Indian Hemp Drugs Commission was convened in 1893 when British authorities became alarmed by rumors circulating about the dangers of hemp drug use. Their concern stemmed from scandalous reports suggesting that hemp drugs triggered insanity and lurid crime sprees. The commission was told of an unfortunate Bengali man who brutally murdered his own family after an attack of “ganja mania.” Another witness testified about a ruthless band of eleventh-century Persian warriors who would eat hashish and then commit horrible murders. Because this group was known as the haschischin, the Arab word for hash, it was reported that from this word came the English term for “assassin.” The lexicography lesson was intended to illustrate the horrors of hemp use. The commissioners weren’t impressed, concluding that the moderate use of hemp as a recreational drug wasn’t harmful.

Hemp Catches On
By the late nineteenth century, the use of hemp as an intoxicant was spreading to other parts of the world. North African tribes, introduced to hash by visiting Arabs, embraced it and explored ways to make smoking more enjoyable and social. These tribes soon mastered the technique of smoking hash through long water pipes connected to a burning bowl made of animal horns. Their indulgence became communal, with groups gathering in smoking circles. This was the genesis of silly pot party behavior. Tribal smokers sometimes amused themselves by seeing who could spit the most after taking mammoth, saliva-drying hits off the communal water pipe.
Napoleon’s Nile army picked up the hash habit while on duty abroad and dutifully brought it home. By the mid-nineteenth century, bohemian enclaves were gathering to imbibe at discreet hashish clubs in Paris that served up gourmet meals with a hash jelly appetizer. Similar clubs sprung up in New York City and other urban zones across America.

Two Plants in One
By the time botanists got around to classifying the plant, there was controversy. Carl Linnaeus named it cannabis sativa in 1753. But others in the horticultural world weren’t satisfied, pointing out that there really were two types of cannabis. There was the plant known as hemp to North Americans and Europeans, and that other kind of plant, the one with the intoxicating belt. So they decided to add a designation for the more provocative hemp plant, naming it cannabis indica.
By dividing marijuana into two categories, botanists were making it official that cannabis is truly a Jeckyl and Hyde plant. Viewpoints about marijuana are passionate and extreme. Lighting up a joint is the path to ineffable pleasure for some; to others, it’s the first step on the road to ruin. Marijuana makes you a red-hot musician, or it just makes you lazy and forgetful. Contradictions abound. Early American marijuana critics charged that the weed caused insanity; during the same period, doctors were using marijuana to treat insanity. Marijuana smoking induces binge eating known as “the munchies”; meanwhile, Indian ascetics ingest hemp to prepare for fasting.
Virtually every culture has named it, from Scandinavians to Slavs, from Arabs to Anglo-Saxons. As an intoxicant, marijuana has been called everything from Acapulco gold to zol, the term given to a marijuana cigarette in South Africa. The Chinese call it ma. In other Asian cultures, it’s referred to as the “increaser of pleasure,” the “cementer of friendship,” and the “exciter of desire.” One of the earliest uses of marijuana in English refers to it as a “drug that brings false heart to the user.”

Earning a Bad Name
Marijuana wasn’t even “marijuana” in America until the 1920s. As Mexican slang for a hemp cigarette, “marijuana” is the name that stuck, mostly because it was the preferred choice of politicians, journalists, and others opposing it during this time. These anti-marijuana forces believed that by linking cannabis to the decadent ways of Mexican field workers, Americans would quickly grow to despise and fear it.
Shunned by the mainstream, early marijuana smokers clustered in bohemian enclaves, speaking a secret language to bond with others and exclude the unhip—and the cops. There are hundreds of ways to talk about marijuana without using the word. Marijuana smokers have answered to names such as “bushwacker,” “hay burner,” and “weed head.” “Pot,” another common name for marijuana, most likely came from the fact that marijuana was grown in flower pots during the 1940s. It was also commonly brewed in a pot as a tea. From pot comes “pot head,” a frequent user of marijuana, and “potted,” which means to be high. You could be potted but you could also be wasted, stoned, or just have a little buzz. The herb itself has been called “gage,” “gash,” “giggle smoke,” and “green griff,” to name only a few. With such a large marijuana vocabulary, choice of words is revealing. When someone talks about “dirt weed,” you know it’s bottom-barrel stuff that can’t compare with a bud of potent chronic. The herb itself has been rolled into cigarettes known as “joints,” “reefers,” “muggles,” “goof butts,” “doobies,” “fatties,” and “blunts”—a list that goes on and on.

The Marijuana Menace
Narcotics officers and lawmakers have their own terms for marijuana too, but they’re less flattering. In the early part of the twentieth century, authorities aimed to outlaw the “marijuana menace” and stamp out the “loco weed.” This period was critical for marijuana in America. The campaign was designed to generate public hysteria. Marijuana smokers were portrayed in newspapers and lurid pulp fiction books as lazy, degenerate, crazy, and, most often, foreign. Marijuana addiction was seen as an outside problem threatening to corrupt Americans. Historians suggest that hidden racism was really behind political and legal efforts to wipe out marijuana use in America in the 1920s and 1930s. Most smokers at that time were black Americans or visiting Mexican laborers. Conspiracy theorists have other ideas. Some suggest that the liquor industry mounted the campaign, since marijuana was a cheaper thrill than another vice—alcohol, which was once again socially acceptable following the repeal of Prohibition. Others suggest that the government was moving to protect the interests of a few large companies who made wood, paper, and plastic products that competed with hemp.
Americans who started lighting up reefers in the 1930s often talked about how it gave them confidence and a sense of well-being. That was a double-edged sword for a government trying to steer its way out of a depression. Poor Americans might smoke reefers and suddenly imagine they were entitled to more in life, threatening the country’s stability. On the other hand, good reefer might make the masses content to settle for less. The idea that marijuana smoking might encourage counterproductive attitudes in America’s work force was eloquently stated in a short story by Terry Southern called “Red Dirt Marijuana.” In the story, an experienced marijuana smoker tells a young boy why he believes marijuana is illegal: “It ain’t because it makes young boys like you sick, I tell you that much….it’s cause man see too much when he git high, that’s why. He see right through ever’thing…Shoot, ever’body git high, wouldn’t be nobody git up an’ feed the chickens!”
No matter the motivation, marijuana was first restricted at the federal level with the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. It was now illegal to use marijuana—in the eyes of the Treasury Department. While marijuana offenses were considered tax violations, they could still get you serious prison time—up to five years. Marijuana laws have grown more severe in passing years. There was a brief respite during the stoner heyday of the 1970s. Once the haze cleared, however, legalization efforts went up in smoke during the 1980s under Ronald Reagan’s “zero-tolerance” war on drugs. In fact, when Reagan launched the war on drugs in a 1982 speech, marijuana was the only drug he mentioned by name.
This harsh political and legal climate endures, but smokers keep lighting up. Marijuana use caught hold in America during the 1960s, when widespread experimentation spread to the biggest enclave in America: the college campus. Marijuana’s mild euphoric effects meshed perfectly with the mind-expanding curiosities of rebellious young Americans looking for safe thrills. By 1972, it was estimated that 24 million Americans had used it. That figure is now up to 70 million. Marijuana use has spread to all parts of society, from weary office workers to grandmothers toking up to stave off the effects of cancer treatments.

Critical Period
The marijuana plant is entering a crucial time in its history. Still popular as a recreational drug, marijuana is also experiencing a resurgence in its more sober historical applications. Activists are campaigning at federal and state levels to legalize it for a variety of medical uses, most notably to ease the nausea of chemotherapy patients and the “wasting-away” syndrome of AIDS sufferers. Others are campaigning to use it to treat glaucoma and arthritis.
Meanwhile, hemp is suddenly hip. A major effort is underway to revive hemp in America, harkening to a simpler time before the plant got all mixed up with marijuana. Hemp merchandise is showing up in mainstream malls in the form of clothes and more exotic fare such as body lotion and hair products. Major retailers such as the Body Shop have boldly placed marijuana leaves on their front windows to promote their line of hemp skin care products. Some visionaries are touting hemp as a substitute for plastic goods and even as an energy source.
Strangely enough, hemp is also turning up at the dinner table, in another resurgence of a past application. Hemp seed was for years pressed into cooking oil. It was also fed to birds as a nutritional snack that made their coats fluffier and coaxed them to sing in a pleasing, full-throated style. Shoppers now find hemp listed in the ingredients of beer, wine, and pretzels. You say hemp, but some people still say marijuana. Efforts to expand the hemp market have been met strongly by the anti-drug movement. Pity hemp—the straight-A student mistakenly tarnished with the shameful reputation of a delinquent sibling.
If hemp does make it all the way back, it will revive a once-starring role for the almost forgotten fiber. Hemp once played a pivotal role in North America and Europe during the age of exploration. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century, when world power was determined by naval domination, hemp was the fabric of choice for maritime sails and rope. Fleets depended on quality hemp and wars were fought to protect supply lines. Hemp rope was coveted because it was so strong. Because of this quality, it was widely used as a noose, leading to terms such as “hempen necklace” and “hempen necktie.” An early American expression, “all right on the hemp,” meant that you were dead sure about something. The value of hemp was not lost on American colonialists. They were ordered to grow it as a way of building a foundation for independence. Not growing hemp could land a farmer in jail. Echoing that patriotism, American farmers were urged to plant a “Hemp for Victory” crop during World War II in order to produce enough hemp fiber to supply the military effort.
Hemp was a back-breaking, labor-intensive crop, and one that American farmers weren’t particularly adept at growing. American hemp was inferior to hemp grown in Europe and Russia. New equipment was developed for use in America in the 1930s that would make hemp processing easier and profitable. However, a government-backed anti-marijuana effort crushed any hope of a hemp comeback.

A Shadow Culture
While it’s possible to track the hemp economy, marijuana is never officially listed as part of a nation’s fiscal activity. But marijuana has generated a sizable marketplace of its own, involving growers, dealers, and buyers. They trade in not only marijuana but related products, from growing supplies and stash boxes to bongs and rolling papers. It’s a marketplace that has grown more sophisticated through the years. Young entrepreneurs have spruced up the old head shop by opening combination marijuana boutiques and hemp food cafes. Bongs, once marketed as throw-away plastic accessories, are now sold as one-of-a-kind art items, with the expected higher prices.
While American farmers grew inferior hemp, they’ve excelled with marijuana. American growers have led the way as pot has soared to a new level of complexity. Like mad scientists with green thumbs, growers have crossbred seeds to adjust for a plant’s potency, perfecting a killer bud from unfertilized females called “sinsemilla.” Sinsemilla in America began in select growing regions. The Emerald Triangle area of Northern California is to sinsemilla as Napa Valley is to wine. In a state famed for its agricultural output, marijuana quickly became California’s biggest cash crop. It is also America’s richest crop. High-quality marijuana is now grown in every state. It is painstakingly bred by connoisseurs who sample buds like wine lovers to evaluate their bouquet, physical appearance, taste, potency, and the depths of the resulting high. Even with diligent federal efforts to eradicate the U.S. marijuana crop, growers have survived by being industrious and adaptive, enduring much like the plant itself in the wild.

I Want to Take You Higher
The high from marijuana is very subjective. Many first-time users report no reaction at all. When marijuana smokers are asked to recall the first time they got high, most will divide the answer into two parts: the first time they smoked pot, and the first time they caught a buzz. Users praise pot for promoting a sense of well-being and increasing sensory perceptions. Being high enriches simple pleasures, such as eating, sex, or listening to music. It may bring about insights and spiritual enlightenment, or it may simply impair driving skills or make people forget the subject of conversations they’ve just started.
Marijuana has certainly had a profound effect upon American culture. It paved the way for the creation of jazz music in New Orleans by inspiring Storyville musicians to experiment with new musical phrases and syncopation. Long before Clinton swallowed the truth with his “I didn’t inhale” line in 1992, America’s first president, George Washington, openly talked about tending to his hemp garden, and not very well at that. Washington grew hemp for its useful fiber, but gave indications he expanded his garden to include more intoxicating varieties of the plant. Washington even took pains to separate male and female hemp plants, a method of improving a crop’s psychoactive potency. In his book Mason & Dixon, author Thomas Pynchon conjures up a scene where the father of our country smokes a bowl of hemp with the two famous surveyors. The stoned trio is then served a welcome plate of munchies by Martha Washington.
Writers from Homer to playwright Neil Simon have included references to marijuana in their works. Some, like French Romantics and, later, American Beats, smoked it for artistic inspiration. Marijuana has been celebrated in song by musicians ranging from jazz vipers, including Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong, to modern pop stars such as the Black Crowes and Cypress Hill. Marijuana has made it to the big screen and the little screen. It was smoked up in mass quantities by the super-buzzed comedy duo Cheech and Chong in the 1970s. More recently, it was used matter-of-factly by Arliss, the duplicitous sports agent of HBO’s comedy series. Meanwhile marijuana is now a featured player in cyberspace, where a network ofcannabis-related sites offer everything from vital medical information and brownie recipes to instructions for pot games and home-growing tips.

A Role at Work
While the prevailing image of a pothead is one who sits around and munches out while pondering his ash-strewn naval, marijuana has in fact woven itself into the fabric of the workplace. For centuries, soldiers have taken it to war. Zulu warriors in Africa were observed toking up before battle to boost their courage. Pancho Villa’s revolutionary army was probably the first documented band of warriors to go to battle while stoned. A half-century later, American GIs would also seek solace in a marijuana high while fighting in Vietnam.
Marijuana has proven to be the downfall of some classes of workers, from politicians to professional sports stars. The public continues to show less tolerance for pot use among its more high-profile citizens. For others, including Indian laborers under British rule, Mexican farm workers at the turn of the century in America, and, more recently, bored office workers, marijuana has provided relief from tedium and fatigue.

The Science of Marijuana
Marijuana has been at the heart of heated scientific debate for decades. Research shows that the human brain has specific receptors for THC in a high-density region known as the “hippocampus,” which plays a role in cognition and motor function. Other parts of the brain bond with THC as well, including regions related to sensory awareness. Beyond these basic facts, controversy reigns as to the health and psychological consequences of marijuana use. Dozens of unsuspecting laboratory animals have been stoned in the name of science, from baboons to bats, in the search for answers about the weed’s mysterious and complex effects upon people. Human volunteers have gotten buzzed in the lab as well. One seemingly obvious study set out to determine if stoned subjects would drink more chocolate milkshake than straight ones. The results were as expected.

The Battle of Perception
Against this backdrop of scientific research, politicians, law enforcement officials, and advocacy groups continue to voice opinions about the marijuana plant. American anti-drug forces now battle a three-headed drug menace in marijuana: hemp advocates, medicinal proponents, and those fighting for the right to light up. Despite spending billions to convince Americans of the evils of marijuana, the federal government still faces a public that doesn’t view it as harmful as other illegal drugs, such as heroin or cocaine. At a 1995 conference sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, then drug czar Lee Brown noted that one of the biggest challenges facing anti-marijuana efforts was changing the public’s perception. His aim was to silence any opposition to the government’s “no tolerance” policy on marijuana, and he boldly told the conference gathering, “We who have access to the most accurate and advanced information should be driving the discussion about finding solutions to the drug problem, not those with the least knowledge who often seem to have the most to say.”
Caught in the middle of all this hot air is the plant itself. Maybe what is needed is not less talk, as Brown suggests, but more. How much influence has marijuana really had in America? It was around when jazz was born, and many other artistic endeavors have been nurtured by marijuana smoking. Marijuana continues to have a profound effect upon the daily lives of Americans. It’s still the most frequently detected banned substance among drug-tested American workers. The marijuana business is a black market industry, but one that has a great impact on the American economy. Consider this: The 1970s saw a rise in convenience stores alongside a similar rise in marijuana smoking during a period of relaxed marijuana enforcement. Coincidence? As any munchie-crazed stoner can tell you, the convenience store is nirvana—it’s loaded with easily accessible junk food. Stoners pump up profits at convenience stores. How many other economic trends have been fueled by marijuana use?
Where is it all going? Will hemp become a world-saving miracle crop? Will American tokers one day be able to walk into a supermarket and buy a pack of joints as naturally as picking up a gallon of milk? Will former American tobacco farmers rebound with a hemp crop? Will it become common for doctors to send patients to pharmacies to pick up their marijuana medicine? Or will the vice tighten even more around marijuana, hemp, and hash? The fate of the marijuana plant, much like the way it reproduces, is up in the air.

© 1999 Santa Monica Press LLC