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How the Spaniards introduced the Cannabis Plant to the Americas

Posted: May 17, 2021 in News

Cannabis’s Journey to the America’s

As one of the oldest plants on earth, there is evidence to suggest that cannabis usage goes back as far as 12,000 years. The first recorded reports of medicinal usage date to 4000 BC in China. The cannabis plant spread to the Middle East between 2000 BC and 1400 BC. It eventually made its way to Europe, through Africa, to South America and finally to Central and North America. In this article I will focus on how Spain’s promotion of hemp production in its colonies led to the establishment of cannabis usage in South, Central and North America.

Please note that I am making a distinction between the hemp plant and the cannabis plant for this article. The British brought hemp with them when they established the colonies on the east coast of North America in the early 17th century. Farmers in some regions were legally required to grow it. Many of our founding fathers grew it and advocated for its many uses and benefits.

Spain Spreads Hemp Production

One of the most significant events in human history was the Columbian Exchange which resulted from the voyage in 1492 of Christopher Columbus. The exchange between the Americas, West Africa and the Old World had during the 15th and 16th centuries had many effects. The result was the transfer of plants, animals, human populations, culture, communicable diseases, ideas and technology. The hemp plant was part of this exchange.

Spanish officials promoted hemp production in their South American colonies of Chile, Peru and Colombia. The first hemp seed crop was sown in 1545 in the Quillota Valley near Santiago, Chile. Its successful cultivation led to the use of hemp fibers for the production of rope for the army troops stationed in Chile. It was also used to replace the worn-out rigging on ships docked in Santiago. There was even hemp fiber left over to ship to Peru. The Spaniards attempted the cultivation of hemp in Peru and Colombia, but it was unsuccessful.

Hemp Comes To Mexico

Pedro Cuadrado, a conquistador in the army of Hernan Cortés, has been credited with bringing hemp plants to Mexico in the early 1500s. Cuadrado began cultivating industrial hemp primarily for the production of rope which became a very lucrative business for him. However, in 1550 when the native Mexicans began using hemp for other purposes, the Spanish governor limited its production. Despite its restrictions, its cultivation was allowed to continue.

Hemp Comes To New Spain

As Spain’s economy began to fail terribly in the 18th century, the viceroys decided to turn to its colonies for financial help by implementing the cultivation of industrial hemp. In 1777, hemp experts were sent to different outposts throughout Spanish America in order to teach the residents how to grow and cure industrial hemp.

By 1800, by order of the monarchy, all viceroys were told to encourage inhabitants to produce hemp throughout New Spain. It was comprised of twenty-one religious missions established between 1769-1833 which made up the province of Alta California. Unfortunately, both the mission and the individual farmers in the parishes preferred raising cattle and crops for food. Spanish hemp experts were again sent to Alta California to demonstrate to the inhabitants how to cultivate and cure hemp to be sold at market.

In 1801, the area surrounding Mission San Jose (now Fremont, CA) became an experimental farm used to cultivate industrial hemp for market. Between 1807 and 1810, hemp production in Alta California increased from 12,500 pounds to over 220,000 pounds. It would probably have continued to increase were it not for the 1810 Mexican Revolution which severed ties between the Mexican government and Alta California. That ended the subsidies available for hemp production and put an end to commercial production of the crop.

Cannabis in Mexico

By the end of the 19th century, cannabis could be found growing wild in Mexico. The peasants cultivated it, mostly smoking it in pipes. They also infused it or ate it mixed with milk, sugar cane and chiles. Witch doctors or curanderos used it for healing. Ten years later, cannabis cigarettes containing “marijuana” were readily available.

Cannabis Arrives in North America

Cannabis use made its way to the southwest United States from Mexico at the beginning of the 20th century, brought by the immigrants escaping that country during the 1910-1911 Mexican Revolution. The hugely unpopular dictator of Mexico, General Porfiro Diaz, was overthrown, sending the country’s economy into turmoil. Most of the Mexican citizenry who emigrated made their way north across the Rio Grande into Texas while a smaller proportion went to New Mexico. They found work as unskilled laborers, settling in shanty-towns in the poorer sections of towns.

Over time, Mexican migrant workers emigrated further north and east within the US. Cannabis usage, now part of their culture, became widespread as a result of the inroads they made in populating their new homeland. In response, conservative newspapers demonized cannabis by fomenting barely concealed racist fears of its smokers.

Origins of the Term “Marijuana”

The origins of the term “marijuana” are not known. One possible source may have been the the Mexican military slang phrase “Maria y Juana” which translates to Mary and Jane. It referred to a prostitute or brothel where marijuana cigarettes were bought and used. Another possible explanation is that it was derived from a word in the indigenous Mexican language Nahuatl, “mallihuan” which meant “prisoner.” Its pronunciation was later changed to marijuana. Still another source may have to do with Pancho Villa and his army’s anthem “La Cucaracha” which means cockroach and ends with the line “Marijuana to smoke.”

The most likely explanation for the reference is that it was directed at the Mexican dictatorial president, Victorian Huerta, 1913-14, who was portrayed by his enemies as a drunk and a marijuana fiend whose entire life revolved around his daily marijuana habit.

Do you consider the term “marijuana” to be racist? Leave me a comment with your take on it!

leafly.com, Muchas Gracias: How Spain Brought Cannabis to the Americas and Influenced Hispanic Culture, Ross Scully, Sept. 25, 2017

livescience.com, Marijuana’s History: How One Plant Spread Through the World, Agata Blaszczak-Boxe, 2015

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