Cannabis has been used for centuries, although it hasn’t always been in the potent form we know it as today. Early civilizations used it for mild mind-altering effects, fibers to make clothes and paper, and as a food source.
Before making its way to the United States via trade and imperialism, cannabis was found in places like Greece, Egypt, Iraq, India, and Africa.
From Jazz Cabbage to Jam Sessions
Cannabis came to the Caribbean via European colonists, who themselves plucked it from its native origins. The plant quickly took root in Jamaica, where it would be adopted locally and recreationally, becoming a cultural and religious staple. As Haitian and Jamaican migrants arrived in the Southern U.S. at the turn of the 20th Century, up cropped distinct cultural districts where cannabis flourished. One such community was Storyville in New Orleans, Louisiana. The plant helped usher in a distinctly American and definitively mind-altering mode of music ... jazz.
At the dawn of the 1900s, in the brothels and speakeasies of Storyville, New Orleans, this marijuana matrimony was sparked ablaze. When they docked in New Orleans, sailors brought weed to the United States from Brazil and the Caribbean, and it was there where Black jazz musicians first adopted and embraced it.
Cannabis helped the Jazz Age flourish, serving as a conduit for creativity, music production and performance. During the Roaring 20s and subsequent Great Depression (and the contemporaneous Prohibition Era), predominantly Black communities developed a cannabis slang and culture.
Joints were sold outside tea pads or cannabis bars. Musicians would light up on tea, reefer, grass — codes for cannabis, since the drug was vilified nationally and on the cusp of its 1937 criminalization — singing tributes to the substance. The plant aided not just in the creation of new sounds, but in the perception and enjoyment of them.
Aided by reefer, pioneers like Louis Armstrong and later Dizzy Gillespie experimented with time, rhythms, and improvisation- the earliest sounds of what would become known as jazz, even though it was heavily stigmatized by the culture at the time, especially in the segregated American south.
As legend tells it, Armstrong was accustomed to getting the jitters before his performances, until someone offered him “some gage," a popular reference for marijuana even back then, owing its debt to the influence of Caribbean and Creole immigrants.
“That was our cute little nickname for marijuana," recalled Louis Armstrong. "We always looked at pot as a sort of medicine, a cheap drunk and with much better thoughts than one that’s full of liquor. I can gladly vouch for a nice fat stick of gage, it relaxes my nerves if I have any.”
Not only did cannabis help musicians get rid of the pre-show jitters, it also was seen as a way to change a person’s perception of time. There are biochemical reasons for this, and the result when filtered through the lens of a musical instrument or voice, became something of a revelation.
From one source at the time:
“Because the chief effect [of cannabis] as far as [jazz musicians] were concerned was that it lengthens the sense of time, and therefore they could get more grace beats into their music than they could if they simply followed the written copy… In other words, if you’re a musician, you’re going to play the thing the way it’s printed on a sheet. But if you’re using cannabis, you’re going to work in about twice as much music between the first note and the second note. That’s what made jazz musicians. The idea that they could jazz things up, liven them up, you see.”
Instead of playing the notes on the page, early jazz pioneers could now fit many notes in the space where there would have only been one. Before we had such things as "jazz standards," the early engineers of this sound and rhythm set those standards. Improvisational music, while not expressly a cannabis-related invention, certainly wove it into the fabric of America ... long before it even entered the mainstream.
A Brief Mystery of Time
The science behind the uniquely cannabis-caused time-bending goes a little something like this: Although there is no dedicated brain region to perceiving time, our central nervous system does come equipped with an internal clock. As our internal clocks quicken, it actually slows down the sensation of time passing around us.
In a classic study, when asked to time "15 seconds," folks under the influence of cannabis responded with an average of 16.7 seconds. [These figures were adjusted via sober controls.]
“If you look into the literature on timing, it seems to be that the brain systems that are influenced by cannabinoids are producing a state of mind in which there seems to be a slower backward counting,” says Jorg Fachner, professor of music, health, and the brain at Anglia Ruskin University in the United Kingdom.
“ ... that means your timing units, the time frames that you are overseeing, seem to be enlarged. So those who are improvising seem to have a bit more time to foresee the melodic developments in improvisation and to fine grain the rhythmic patterns.”
As time slows, sensory perception heightens. The brain is able to take in more peripheral data via sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. As it pertains to music, this includes having an enhanced ability to discern certain elements of a song because the alteration of perception comes to a shift in focus. Cannabis enables an individual to select or disregard certain information, which is fundamentally critical when performing activities like viewing art or listening to music. It also opens the mind up to select more information, and dive into it more deeply.
Additionally, according to Daniel Levitin, a professor of neuroscience at McGill University:
"Music combined with marijuana tends to produce feelings of euphoria and connectedness to the music and the musicians." That said, music—with or without the influence of cannabis—enhances activity in the mesolimbic dopamine system.
On August 28, 1964, Bob Dylan introduced the Beatles to cannabis.
Music, and pop culture, would never be the same. From that point on, the smoke spread throughout a number of genres of music, including jazz, rock and roll, country, folk, and even metal.
The popularization of cannabis in artistic communities, and in particular its ability to shapeshift our perception of time and sensory intake, bled into psychedelia. Jam bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival, Traffic, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and (most famously) the Grateful Dead partook in the plant to elevate their output.
War, What Was It Good For?
Around the same time the hippies and dropouts were puffing along to psychedelia and soul, the "Silent Majority" started harshing everyone's mellow. In 1971, U.S. President Richard M. Nixon debuted the “War on Drugs.” In the 1980s, President Reagan put significantly more muscle behind it.
At its apex (and we use that term with a certain degree of side-eye), 1 million Americans every year, predominantly from Black and Latinx communities, were put behind bars due to drug-related offenses. Many of these "crimes" involved cannabis.
At that time, African-American drug users made up:
- 12% of the US population
- 35% of drug arrests
- 55% of convictions
- 74% of people sent to prison on drug-related offenses
The prejudiced enforcement of US drug laws, then and now, disproportionately impacts Black and Brown communities. Cannabis itself became protest symbols against wars, corporations, injustices and conformity.
The War on Drugs reverberates to this day in the form of a continued disparity in incarceration and a lack of representation in the music industry starting at the very top. (To say nothing of White artists profiting off the work and artistic prowess of Black artists.)
As a response, hip-hop emerged from the communities ravaged by Nixon and Reagan's unholy war. Early Gangsta Rap, first in New York and then on the West Coast, took to cannabis as a central unifying theme both lyrically and aesthetically.
Some of the most influential artists to make cannabis a mainstream substance like Snoop Dogg, Redman, and Afroman, taking it from brief mentions in song lyrics to full-on themes for their tracks.
Which leads us to today.
As the US continues to move toward federal legalization and more states begin their own medical and adult-use programs, there are more ways to consume cannabis than ever before.
It seems like no genre of music has been left untouched by the magic of this plant. Even country music, which according to Newsweek in 2017 contains the most references to drugs in its lyrics. (Should we be thanking Willie Nelson?) The number of hit songs that feature lyrics referencing marijuana has increased dramatically over the last 30 years, according to Marijuana Moment, and the plant continues to garner appreciation around the globe for its ability to bend time, congregate communities, and make that dope beat sound even more, ummmm, dope.
From jazz to reggae, from rock to rap. Cannabis and creativity continue to make sweet, sweet music together.
To celebrate, we've curated a few select playlists for you, featuring some of our favorite songs and strains of music. We hope you enjoy them. You can find them all here.