Whether it’s gummies, cookies, brownies, or even soda, it is hard to imagine today’s cannabis culture without edibles. Many of these stony treats offer the delectable pairing of cannabis and sugar, two of the world’s most popular indulgences. Yet most people do not know that the two commodities share a historical relationship as well as a culinary one—and that historical relationship is rooted in oppressive labor regimes.
Over the last two decades, changing cannabis laws around the world have brought renewed scholarly attention to the plant. Together with older work, recent books have helped us piece together the bigger picture of cannabis history, giving us a better idea of how the plant traveled the world, for instance, or how large-scale cannabis cultivation affects the environment. Research on the plant’s history in previously overlooked areas, such as Mexico and Africa, help us see the true depth and extent of trends that earlier scholarship only partly exposed.
One of the most significant of these trends is that cannabis traveled across the Americas within oppressive systems of agricultural labor—in particular, the sugar industries that developed across the Atlantic World after 1492.
From its earliest history in the Americas, cannabis was linked with exploitative labor systems. Having evolved in Central Asia, the plant did not reach the Americas until the early sixteenth century, when the Spanish brought hemp to grow for nautical rigging and sails. Without modern machinery, hemp is notoriously difficult to harvest and process. Thus, from the start, Spanish hemp production relied on the forced labor of indigenous peoples, from Chile to Mexico to California.
Later, enslaved Africans worked hemp farms in the United States. But the American hemp industry faltered after the end of the Civil War due to the loss of its labor force and competition from other fibers.There is no evidence that either indigenous South Americans or enslaved Africans in the United States made any attempt to incorporate the plant into their own cultures.
Hemp was almost certainly the first type of cannabis grown in the Americas, but it was largely confined to the cultural orbit of the Anglo-Europeans who brought it. As important as it was to invading colonizers, hemp did not offer enough value to anyone else to become firmly established in the hemisphere.
What truly helped spread cannabis across the New World was a different kind of commodity, one that arrived later and deepened the plant’s ties to slavery and other types of oppressive agriculture: sugar. While cannabis’s connection with marginalized groups has been known for some time, recent scholarship helps us better understand its specific connections to sugar labor forces in Brazil, the Caribbean, and the American West.
Unlike hemp, drug cannabis took root in all of these places as a direct result of its use by workers, who used it to cope with brutal labor regimens and poverty. This three-part relationship between master crop, subjugated worker, and subversive crop was a big part of the biological and cultural foundation for the upstart cannabis industry sweeping the Americas today.
Drug cannabis likely first came to the Americas with enslaved Angolans, most of whom were brought to Brazil to work fields of sugarcane (saccharus berberi). In the mid-fifteenth century, the Portuguese began cultivating sugarcane on the Canary Islands off the coast of West Africa. By the early sixteenth century, they had transplanted cane to their new colony of Brazil.
With cultivation centered in the northeast region of Pernambuco, sugar quickly became Brazil’s leading commodity through the seventeenth century. Most of the 4-5,000 slaves brought to the colony each year were put to work in the cane fields. Enslaved Africans cleared huge swathes of the Atlantic forest for the cash crop, incidentally creating the kind of open landscapes preferred by weedy plants like cannabis.It is not known when drug cannabis first came to Brazil, but the plant was a fixture in Angolan culture by the early nineteenth century and may have crossed the Atlantic with enslaved Angolans before then. Accounts from mid-eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Brazil indicate an “organized market for the plant drug” that almost certainly originated with the enslaved Angolan work force. Moreover, accounts from the 1880s (slavery was not abolished in Brazil until 1888) specifically place cannabis in the subsistence gardens of enslaved people in northeastern Brazil—the historic center of the sugarcane industry. By the mid-seventeenth century, however, that center was already moving to the British Caribbean, where a different set of workers introduced cannabis drugs.
Unlike the Angolans in Brazil, slaves in the British Caribbean came from cultures in West Central Africa that did not have a strong cannabis tradition, and there is no evidence to suggest that Africans brought cannabis to the Caribbean sugar islands.
However, Britain abolished slavery in its colonies in 1834 and replaced enslaved Africans with indentured workers from India. These laborers brought marijuana—known to them as ganja—to the British sugar islands, especially Jamaica and Trinidad. Enduring conditions scarcely different from outright slavery, indentured Indians in the Caribbean grew and sold cannabis to one another, using the drug as a ritual work aid.
At first, British planters mostly tolerated ganja because it kept their work force motivated, even if they frowned upon the smoking of “Indian hemp.” Eventually, however, social pressure from British missionaries, combined with the industry’s need to find a market for another sugar product, rum, led colonial authorities to restrict ganja and force rum on its labor force instead. Authorities played up supposed links between crime and cannabis while ignoring actual links between alcohol and violence on the islands. In late nineteenth-century Trinidad, rum was made available at all hours, either from regular businesses or sugar company stores.
By the early twentieth century, authorities had largely succeeded in replacing ganja with rum amongst their Indian labor force. Historian Michael Angrosino writes that the workers had attached rum to “the same sort of spiritual cachet that was attached to ganja,” holding drinking sessions instead of smoking sessions.
Of course, this did not mean that cannabis left the Caribbean; indeed, the plant had staying power precisely because it endeared itself to workers and other marginalized islanders. As they fled the poor conditions of their indenture or began securing their freedom, Indian laborers moved around the Caribbean and Central America. They likely spread Indian cannabis traditions, and perhaps certain varieties of the plant itself, to the mainland Americas. Over the next several decades, ganja’s legacy in the Caribbean became manifest in the rise of the Rastafarian religion and the proliferation of reggae music and culture.
The American West
In 1898 the Spanish-American War cut off the United States from sources of foreign sugar, especially the Spanish Caribbean. During and after the war, Americans rapidly developed their own sugar industry around a different crop—the beet plant (beta vulgaris). Americans had been harvesting beets for sugar since the 1870s, but by the early 1900s the crop was a huge moneymaker for farmers in California, Colorado, Montana, and other parts of the American West.
Like sugarcane, sugar beets required intensive labor that involved a lot of stooping, weeding, and hoeing. At first, German-Russian immigrants did the bulk of this labor, as they knew it well from their homeland. Japanese and Filipino laborers were also used. But by the 1930s, the majority of the beet labor force in the American West were betabeleros, workers of Mexican origin.
Though marijuana was not popular in Mexico, it nonetheless proliferated among marginalized groups, including soldiers, prisoners, indigenous communities, and poor farmers. Before the arrival of Mexican-origin sugar beet workers, cultivation of drug cannabis in the western United States was generally unheard of; over the next several decades, however, dozens of reports confirm an informal marijuana industry in the region that neatly overlaps with beet-farming hotspots.
Most of these laborers were itinerant families who came to work the harvest season and either returned to Mexico or found other jobs during the off-season. In addition to their pay, which was barely enough to get by, employers provided workers with temporary, inadequate housing near the fields. Long days of hard labor filled seasons of uncertainty, as families never knew if their work would be enough to get them through the rest of the year.
Into this difficult environment, some of these workers brought marijuana, growing, selling, and using it to help them deal with the toil of the beet farm or for supplementary income. Again, the same type of landscapes that supported the sugar crop—open, cleared, irrigated—fostered cannabis cultivation. While the beet industry served as a kind of nexus for a new, illegal cannabis industry, working-class Latinos also raised cannabis on ranches, leased farms, and other places within the agricultural landscape of the West. This disparate patchwork of cannabis plots raised by exploited Latino workers represented the first illicit marijuana industry in the United States.