Longform

The history of cannabis in Colorado...or how the state went to pot

In the beginning, it grew wild. But at some point nearly 10,000 years ago — and most likely in Southeast Asia, although it soon spread through much of the world — it became a domesticated plant, with different varieties bred for fiber, medicine...and recreation.

Cannabis eventually reached the Americas through the slave trade. In Brazil in the 1500s, slaves were allowed to grow small amounts in the cornfields they tended and smoke it during work; their Portuguese masters reported that it made the slaves more complacent. As cannabis crossed into Central America, indigenous tribes regarded it as a medicinal and spiritual plant, similar to the native peyote. Soon it evolved into a healing herb that soothed the hardships of peasant life in general. Soldiers in the Mexican revolution reportedly loved it, as noted in the folk song "La Cucaracha": "The cockroach/can't walk anymore/because it doesn't have/because it is lacking/marijuana to smoke."

See also: William Breathes looks back on three years as the country's first pot critic

Further north, though, people were more interested in more fibrous strains of the plant, which came to be known as hemp, cultivating them for fiber to make ropes and sails for ships. By the time of the American Revolution, hemp was grown all over North America — including on the plantations of founding fathers such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. "Make the most of the Indian hemp seed, sow it everywhere," Washington pronounced. Colonists paid taxes with hemp, and in mid-1700s Virginia, refusing to grow it was punishable by jail time. But while hemp and cannabis today are still similar plants, commercial varieties of hemp have been bred to contain little to none of the psychoactive ingredient THC found in cannabis; hemp is prized primarily for its fibers.

When Colorado became a state, in 1876, both hemp and cannabis were legal — and they stayed that way for decades. By the late 1800s, cannabis oil was a common ingredient in medical tinctures, and Asian-style hashish dens had become fashionable in cities like New York and San Francisco. That increased popularity led to concerns that hashish would lead to mass addiction, and in 1906 the federal government imposed the first regulation on cannabis intended for consumption: A product simply had to be labeled if it contained the herb.

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But in the Southwest, cannabis was gaining a darker reputation. The plant was associated with the migrant workers flooding the area for low-paying field work: brown-skinned people who made light-skinned people uncomfortable by eschewing liquor in favor of the crazy herbs they brought with them from Mexico or the Far East. Officials and the media began calling the herb "marijuana" rather than the traditional "cannabis," because it sounded more like Spanish and was therefore scarier to whites. California became the first state to outlaw marijuana; the law, passed in 1913, had another name for it: "loco weed." Between 1915 and 1917, Wyoming, Utah and Nevada all banned cannabis.

In March 1917, Colorado legislators made the use and cultivation of cannabis a misdemeanor; those who broke the law were subject to a fine of between $10 and $100 and up to a month in jail. The bill was sponsored by Andres Lucero of Las Animas; given his Hispanic surname and the fact that, later that same year, he also sponsored a measure outlawing cocaine and opium distribution, it's likely that Mexican immigrants were not the target of the bill. Instead, it might have been part of the growing national temperance movement that led to Prohibition in 1920.

But in 1929, when the Colorado Legislature passed a law making the sale, possession and distribution of marijuana a felony in Colorado, minorities were clearly the focus of the measure. A Mexican immigrant who'd murdered his stepdaughter in Denver that year was reportedly under the influence of cannabis; sensational newspaper stories played up both the drug and his origins. Val Higgins, a Denver chaplain, told the Rocky Mountain News that the new, stricter legislation was necessary to control the growing Mexican population. "The use of marijuana came into the state with the Mexicans migrating here for agricultural work," he said. "Its use is growing because of the increasing number of Mexicans and the ease with which most of them have been able to avoid penalties."

News reports in the early 1930s continued to push the perception that marijuana was a scourge of minorities. Articles detailed raids on Hispanic homes and busts in traditionally Hispanic neighborhoods. A News story in August 1937 titled "Marijuana in Denver? Sure, Plenty of the Stuff" detailed the writer's excursion to then-seedy Larimer Street to deal with "dark faced men" who were dealing herb bundled into "deuces, and aces" and selling two joints for a quarter. Another piece talked about how beet workers — traditionally migrants from Mexico — brought the marijuana into Denver regularly to "augment their scanty income."

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William Breathes
Contact: William Breathes