European slave owners had less-than-compassionate reasons for encouraging slaves to smoke weed.
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The history of cannabis is messy. Its earliest origins are in Mongolia and southern Siberia. From there, starting in the upper-Paleolithic period (roughly 40,000 years ago), cannabis began its slow spread across the globe. Nearly every major ancient civilization shows evidence of cannabis and hemp use for fabric, religious significance, recreational psychoactivity, or medicinal purposes. Alarmingly, European slave owners encouraged weed smoking as a method of control.
The English were introduced to cannabis through the colonization of India, and there were a number of channels wherein Europeans brought the plant to the Americas. This introduction encouraged smoking cannabis, rather than chewing hash, for its “mind-altering effects.” As the centuries progressed, use of marijuana became codified and scorned. As it spread into the areas around the Amazon, mainly “to fishing villages,” it “became known as the ‘opium of the poor’” among mestizos.
Eventually, its proliferation made cannabis a cash crop. The British used hemp for fibers and in order “to reduce their reliance on Russian supplies,” (hemp remained an important cash crop into the Soviet Union). According to Barney Warf’s Historical Geography of Cannabis, “Queen Elizabeth decreed that landowners throughout the empire with sixty or more acres must [grow] hemp or face a fine.”
The importance of the plant was not lost on American colonialists, who wrote the Constitution itself on hemp. National hemp production increased in response to steep tariffs on its import, and a “major center of production [was established] in Kentucky.” Hemp production, like all of American manufacturing and agriculture at the time, was dependent upon slave labor. Professor Barney Warf tells Mark Hay of VICE:
Alvaro Rubim de Pinho’s “Social and Medical Aspects of the Use of Cannabis in Brazil” detailed that slaves in 1549, largely from Angola, brought cannabis seeds to the northeast Brazilian sugar plantations at which they were enslaved. Slave owners encouraged slaves to plant marijuana in the sugar cane fields so that during their downtime, they would tend to their personal crop. The belief was this would contribute to the productivity of the workers by reducing their periods of inactivity, then believed to promote “laziness.”
Indentured servitude in the Caribbean by the British Empire functioned similarly. According to Professor Warf,
British authorities brought 1.5 million “surplus” laborers from India to labor-short islands in the Caribbean. Indentured Indian workers brought ganja with them to Barbados and Jamaica after the abolition of slavery there in 1834, and it was tolerated so long as sugar production did not suffer. Ganja’s use was closely wrapped up with that of rum, so that the two drugs became intertwined in the cycle of work, debt, and poverty that characterized [indentured] life on the sugar plantation.
Interestingly enough, it was through these channels that marijuana and its “justificatory ideology” spread to and was embraced oppressed cultures. So while backlash and prohibition began in the US as a policy meant to target refugees from the Mexican Revolution, cannabis was embraced and redefined by many island cultures with a colonial past, like the Rastafarian people of Jamaica.