I have always been an explorer and when I was about eight years old, I became aware of and interested in drugs. In second grade, my main subject of interest was dinosaurs. Dinosaurs were a gateway to Pleistocene megafauna. After Pleistocene megafauna, I began innocently experimenting with legal substances. I started drinking coffee (with lots of cream and sugar) and tea. I methodically explored the cupboards and cabinets of our kitchen, tasting every spice and extract. In school, our out-of-date textbooks were covered the by-then mostly forgotten names of drugs that sounded like the marshmallows in a box of Lucky Charms: red devils, yellow jackets, purple hearts, &c. In fourth grade, our class had a program called Junior Deputies in which a law enforcement officer would lecture us about the evils of drugs (well, the illegal ones — the legal ones are A-OK), and after sitting through his lectures, we’d get a badge declaring us junior deputies. I thought it was obviously nonsense refused to participate and so was moved to an empty classroom where I mostly entertained myself by reading volumes of the encyclopedia whilst painting with glitter glue that I may’ve huffed a bit of here and there.
Not surprisingly, I smoked cannabis the first time it was offered to me. While I almost never consume cannabis in any form anymore, I had a long history with it. I used to smoke in order to overcome the tedium of jogging. I smoked on hikes and swims. Working at Amoeba, I smoked inside of the sign above the entrance, in a space accessible through a small hatch at the back of a closet. Eventually, I introduced others to my so-called Paisley Lounge (named after its shape) and formed, with my fellow smokers, a secret society called COIG — the Clandestine Order of Illuminated Gentlemen. Gradually, COIG members snuck books, lamps, fans, a backgammon board, rugs, and inflatable furniture (to fit through the hatch) into the sacred space. I wonder what became of it. Long after I was
fired “let go,” I asked a newer employee if she knew about the space accessible through a panel behind the boxes of VHS. She did and said that she and her co-workers referred to it as Narnia. Maybe it’s still all there, being enjoyed by the employees of Immersive Van Gogh Los Angeles. And maybe, when the building is demolished, it will cause some sort of temporal rift in the spacetime continuum. Who knows?
Today is 420. I’ve never known any stoners who paid any more attention to that date than an alcoholic does to St. Patrick’s Day or New Year’s Eve — or a junk food addict does to National Fast Food Day (16 November). However, the Los Angeles Times ran a great story by Christian Orozco about the holiday’s origins in San Rafael, California which sparked the idea for this look at the history and culture of Cannabis in Los Angeles. And if you like to smoke at 4:20 on 4-20, don’t let me harsh your mellow. In fact, why not put on some music, activate your device’s speech function, close your eyes, and relax.
WHAT IS CANNABIS
Cannabis is one today of those psychoactive that is so common and its use so widespread that I doubt most users ever think about its origins. In that way, it’s like legal drugs such as tea (c. 1500 BCE Burma/Yunnan), coffee (c. 1400 CE Yemen), tobacco (c. 5000 BCE Central Mexico), or alcoholic drinks (c. 10000 BCE Levant). Cannabis, it so happens is native to Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent. The oldest archeological evidence for the burning of cannabis has been dated to roughly 3500 BCE in what’s now Romania. The name, cannabis, is likely derived from either a Scythian or Thracian word. By the time of the Spanish Conquest of the Americas, cannabis smoking was common across much of Asia, Europe, and Africa. Indigenous Americans introduced Europeans to chocolate, maize, potatoes, psychedelic mushrooms, sweet potatoes, tobacco, tomatoes, and vanilla (among other things). The Spanish introduced apples, bananas, coffee, mangos, onions, rice, tea, wheat, wine, catholicism, and cannabis (among other things). The Spanish first began cultivating cannabis in Chile around 1530.
CANNABIS IN EARLY CALIFORNIA
Cannabis was grown at the California missions as early as 1795 — although for fiber and rope. Aware of its psychoactive properties, however, I have to assume that some at the mission smoked it recreationally at least on occasion. When the Gold Rush kicked off in 1848, cannabis was reportedly grown for recreational use. At least as early as the 1890s, Armenians, Arabs, and Turks in the state were cultivating cannabis to produce locally made hashish. There doesn’t seem to have been much if any stigma attached to its use. In 1892, the Los Angeles Evening Express carried a recipe for a tonic made from collodion, salicylic acid, cannabis indica extract, and warm water to be applied to the body with a camel’s hair brush. However, in 1894 — about twenty years before absinthe was similarly scapegoated and made illegal in most places — a criminal act was blamed on cannabis use. In 1894, a 21-year-old man named Charles Beecher set fire to a railroad bridge in San Dimas. Although there was no physical proof, his attorney argued that he’d been unknowingly “doped” with cannabis. Cannabis, though, was still entirely legal and then commonly added to cigarettes along with opium and valerian.
The first federal restrictions on the sale of cannabis, alcohol, cocaine, heroin, morphine, and other drugs came with the passage in 1906 of the Pure Food and Drug Act. By then, especially in the West where cannabis was more popular, the plant was deliberately rebranded “marihuana” and deliberately and repeatedly linked to Latino and Native Americans. In 1905, the Los Angeles Evening Post-Record ran an article titled “Yaqui Indians Returning to Absolute Savagery.” It was followed by stories like “Killed by Gendarme,” and “Marihuana Weed Deadly: Users of Deadly Drugs Commit Violent Crimes.” Even a relatively even-handed article in the Long Beach Daily Telegram ran with the decidedly dark title, “Use For Deadly Weed.”
By the 1910s, it wasn’t just stoned Mexicans that were a threat to society. Henry J. Finger, a member of the California Board of Pharmacy, campaigned to ban cannabis outright and warned “Within the last year we in California have been getting a large influx of Hindoos and they have in turn started quite a demand for cannabis indica. They are a very undesirable lot and the habit is growing in California very fast; the fear is now that it is not being confined to the Hindoos alone but that they are initiating our whites into this habit.” In 1913, the Poison Act of 1907 was amended to make possession of “extracts, tinctures, or other narcotic preparations of hemp, or loco-weed, their preparations and compounds” a misdemeanor and thus California became the first state to prohibit cannabis by law — thus forever sparing whites from the ravages of marijuana addiction — if not entirely from the Hindu menace. In 1913, “Golin R. Gohn, a Hindu” was arrested for stealing a watch. His defense was that he’d taken three puffs off of an “innocent” looking cigarette that had turned out to be filled with “Mexican hemp.”
The raids on cannabis growers spread but continued, for the most part, to target Mexican Americans. Los Angeles was the site of the nation’s first cannabis raid. In 1914, police officers raided two “dream gardens” in the Sonoratown neighborhood, a Mexican enclave then located north of Los Angeles City Hall. In 1915, Calvin Jackson became the Orange County Sheriff and focused much of his attention on busting “blind pig” businesses for selling illegal liquor and stamping out “Mexican murder weed,” which he announced was grown throughout Anaheim, Fullerton, Olinda, and Placentia. Over in the Inland Empire, a 1917 raid in Mentone‘s “Mexican Colony” netted wagon loads of “go getter” with an estimated street value of $400 — or about $9,000 adjusted for inflation. In 1919, Estofina Diaz of Santa Ana was arrested for growing “dream weed.”
The nationwide prohibition of alcohol followed cannabis but the partaking of both was celebrated in dozens of jazz songs released in the 1920s. Cannabis use came to be increasingly associated with black Americans and, not surprisingly, criminal penalties for it were increased. In 1925, the penalty for possession increased to a six-year prison sentence. In 1927, laws targeting opium were extended to cannabis. In 1929, the sentence for a second possession offense was lengthened to up to ten years. Then as now, wealth and fame provided protection not afforded to working-class cannabis smokers. Louis Armstrong, a vocal champion of cannabis who described it as being “a thousand times better than whiskey” had cut a tune with his Hot Five in 1928 about cannabis called “Muggles.” In 1930, he moved to Los Angeles. That November, during an intermission at Frank Sebastian‘s Cotton Club in Culver City (6500 Washington Boulevard), Armstrong and his drummer, Vic Berton, stepped outside for a smoke break and were observed by police officers. They were allowed to finish their set and afterward were arrested and taken to the police station. The duo were sentenced to six months of jail time and slapped with $1000 fines. However, their sentences were mysteriously suspended in the first celebrity cannabis bust.
By 1932, though, 60% of narcotics arrests in Los Angeles were for cannabis possession and the first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics‘ Harry J. Anslinger hammered home the links between cannabis and the “dangers of jazz.” He claimed that cannabis was mostly used by “Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers” and referred to jazz as “satanic music.” The Prohibition of alcohol was repealed in 1933 but the war on cannabis continued. Soon, Hollywood would wade into the dank waters of the war on drugs. The Hays Code was passed in 1934, creating a set of industry guidelines for self-censorship in an effort to rehabilitate Hollywood’s tawdry image. Under the guise of moral concern, filmmakers on Hollywood’s fringes skirted censorship by making roadshow exploitation films disguised as social documentaries. Tell Your Children, a film about the dangers of cannabis funded by a church, was acquired by Dwane Esper who inserted titillatingly salacious scenes and re-released it as Reefer Madness. Esper had earlier directed Marihuana: Weed With Roots in Hell — another pious picture that promised “weird orgies, wild parties, and unleashed passions” for concerned filmgoers. It was filmed at the Aloha Apartment Hotel in Hollywood (today rehabilitated as The Aloha Suites). 1938’s Assassin of Youth (“a puff, a party, a tragedy”) followed and was directed by Elmer Clifton, who also directed films like Slaves in Bondage, Swamp Woman, Virgin Lips, and Beautiful But Dumb.
Cannabis didn’t remain a Poverty Row concern for long. In 1945, Boppers Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker arrived in Los Angeles for an engagement at Billy Berg’s, a club that stood at DeLongpre and Vine. Parker, addicted to heroin, couldn’t find a reliable source in Los Angeles. After Gillespie returned to New York City the following February, Parker cashed in his ticket and remained, sitting in with Los Angeles’s Howard McGhee Sextet at the Streets of Paris on Hollywood Boulevard and later performed at Downtown‘s Philharmonic Auditorium. Parker turned to cannabis and was twice arrested outside of Billy Berg’s as he smoked — once with former boxer Harry “the Hipster” Gibson and the second time with Gerry Mulligan. Parker assembled a new band with Addison Farmer, Chuck Thompson, Joe Albany, and Miles Davis for a residency at The Finale Club in Bronzeville — where mostly black musicians and jazz fans mingled (unlike the jazz clubs on South Central Avenue) with white Hollywood celebrities like Gene Kelly and Judy Garland.
In August 1948, Hollywood star Robert Mitchum was arrested by detectives for smoking a joint at the Laurel Canyon “marijuana shack” of actress Lila Leeds with her friends, dancer Vickie Evans and real estate man Robin Ford. The police described the home as a “Reefer Resort.” Time magazine reported that Mitchum stated, “Well, this is the bitter end of everything—my career, my home, my marriage. Sure, I’ve been smoking marijuana since I was a kid. I guess I always knew I’d get caught. My wife and kids are on their way out here now.” When asked how marijuana affected him, Mitchum replied, “Well, try it yourself some time.” A photo of the actor was captioned “a man in the grip of demon drugs.” For his crime, Mitchum was sentenced to a year in prison. After two months, however, he was suitably rehabilitated and released… and his wife, Dorothy, with whom he was separated at the time of his arrest, came back to him.
Penalties for cannabis possession were increased in 1954 to a minimum of one to ten years. Sale became punishable with a five to fifteen-year sentence. To priors for either could result in life imprisonment. Nevertheless, cannabis use was of central importance for the writers of the Beat Generation and their beatnik followers, many of whom congregated in Venice coffee shops like the Venice West Café (which Stuart Perkoff and Rudy Croswell opened in 1958) and the Gas House (which Al Matthews opened in 1959). Fixtures of the beat scene included artists like Bob Farrington, Charlie Newman, John Altoon, Larry Rivers, Nico van den Heuvel, and Saul White; actor John Gifford; and poets like Clair Horner, Frank Rios, Gregory Crose, John Thomas, Lawrence Lipton, Michael McClure, Philomene Long, Shanna Baldwin-Moore, Stuart Z. Perkoff, and Tony Scibella. Filmmaker Roger Corman had a studio in Venice and filmed his beatnik comedy horror film, A Bucket of Blood, in part at the Gas House. Undercover police also frequented the scene, no doubt hoping for drug busts. They must’ve been clocked as squares every time because they ultimately charged the beats for obscene painting and performing poetry without an entertainment license.
A teenaged Jim Morrison had his first public performance, reciting poetry at a beatnik coffeehouse, Washington D.C.’s Coffee ‘n’ Confusion. In 1964, he moved to Venice, where the Doors formed in 1965. The members of the Doors were familiar with the mind-expanding properties of cannabis, magic mushrooms and LSD (which California and Nevada were the first states to make illegal in 1966) as were their peers in the Los Angeles psychedelic scene that also included
The Byrds, Love, Spirit, Canned Heat, The Electric Prunes, Buffalo Springfield, Strawberry Alarm Clock, and others. Mind-altering experiences were likewise embraced by the hippies, freaks, and flower children who followed them. At Los Angeles’s first Love-In, which took place in Elysian Park on 26 March 1967, the air was filled with the smoke from both incense and cannabis. In 1968, a Les Blank documentary of the even, God Respects Us When We Work But Loves Us When We Dance was completed. Rather amusingly, though, the great Gene Clark scored an anti-drug “educational film” starring a stoned-looking Sonny Bono, titled Marijuana.
Cannabis use might’ve increased in the 1960s but the police only became more determined to stamp it out. in 1960, when a married couple, Diane Ker and George Douglas, were observed by Los Angeles County Sheriffs buying something from a suspected dealer at the corner of Fairfax and Slauson, the officers decided that they didn’t need a warrant to afterward search their home. There they found “a brick-shaped package of green leafy substance” and arrested the couple. The California District Court of Appeals and the California Supreme Court upheld the conviction, ruling that the evidence was not seized in the course of an unlawful search. The case of Ker v. California was decided in 1963, which upheld the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable search and seizure. However, the US Supreme Court agreed with the California courts that the seizure was incident to a lawful arrest since the cannabis was in plain sight, lying as it did on the kitchen table. The following year, the first cannabis legalization group, LEMAR (LEgalize MARijuana), was formed in San Francisco.
There were numerous attempts by both Hollywood and independent Los Angeles-based filmmakers to capture the cannabis and acid-fueled counterculture on celluloid, including. The Wild Angels, Hallucination Generation, Riot On Sunset Strip, The Love-Ins, Mondo Mod, Something’s Happening, The Trip, I Love, You Alice B. Toklas, Psych-Out, Revolution, Wild In the Streets, and The Big Cube. None, though, succeeded like Easy Rider, released in the decade’s final days on 14 July 1969. It was written by Peter Fonda, Terry Southern, and Dennis Hopper — the latter of whom also directed. The plot follows two cocaine-smuggling motorcyclists on their way to from Los Angeles to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Along the way, they visit a hippie commune, take LSD, and get their lawyer (portrayed by Jack Nicholson) to smoke cannabis. Although hardly shocking today, the fact that the cannabis smoked onscreen was real and the film was distributed by a major Hollywood studio, Columbia Pictures, was presumably earth-shattering for some. The critical and commercial success of Easy Rider inspired a wave of low-budget bikespoitaiton and hippie exploitation films.
1970’s Zabriskie Point, like Easy Rider, depicted disaffected “pot-smoking post-teenybopper[s]” in Los Angeles, most took a decidedly darker turn after the Manson murders, which occurred a month after the release of Easy Rider. The Los Angeles Times labeled the Manson Family a “hippie clan.” However, while they were dirty, practiced free love, and took LSD and cannabis daily, they were hardly proponents of peace and love. In the decade that followed, cinematic films like I Drink Your Blood, The Night God Screamed, The Last House on the Left, Thumb Tripping, and Helter Skelter (and later Fatal Vision) all depicted hippies as drugged-out homicidal maniacs.
The nightmarish images were in sync with Yorba Linda-born President Nixon‘s attempts to demonize cannabis. The bipartisan Shafer Commission was appointed by Nixon to study drug abuse. Nixon’s commission found that, rather than awaken murderous tendencies, cannabis rendered users “timid, drowsy and passive.” They furthermore recommended the decriminalization of possession. Nixon rejected their findings and Marijuana, in 1971, was elevated to a Schedule I substance — a substance, that is, with no medical benefits and the highest potential for abuse. A year later, however, there was the first attempt to legalize cannabis in California came with the introduction of Proposition 19 (the California Marijuana Initiative). It failed to pass but in 1975, the passage of California Senate Bill 95 downgraded the possession of an ounce or less to a misdemeanor. The law went into effect on 1 January 1976. To celebrate, Danny Finegood, then an art student at California State University, Northridge, hiked up Mount Lee with $50 worth of fabric where he and some friends altered the iconic Hollywood sign to read “Hollyweed.”
It was during this time that California became a global leader in cannabis production. Sinsemilla – produced by cultivating more potent, seedless cannabis, was developed in California and by the mid-1970s Humboldt County had emerged as a global cannabis production center in the wake of the US government targeting Mexican cannabis fields with eradication using an herbicide, paraquat, the use of which is linked to Parkinson’s Disease. By 1979, 35% of cannabis consumed in California was grown in-state.
Perhaps the most famous proponents of cannabis consumption in the 1970s were the stoner comedy duo of Cheech & Chong. The duo met in Vancouver, where Granada Hills-raised Cheech Marin was avoiding the draft and where Edmonton-born Tommy Chong had lived since he was a child. Their first album, 1971’s Cheech and Chong, rose to No. 28 and went gold. Their second, 1972’s Big Bambú, was a reference to Bambu brand rolling papers. Their first film, 1978’s Up in Smoke, established the stoner comedy genre.
The 1970s were also the decade in which heavy metal music emerged. By 1974, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Humble Pie, Judas Priest, and Led Zeppelin had all released genre-defining albums and commemorated cannabis with songs like Led Zeppelin’s “Misty Mountain Hop,” Humble Pie’s “30 Days in the Hole,” and Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf.” It was in 1974, too, that the first stoner gang emerged in Los Angeles, the Stoner 13 Locos, who formed in Boyle Heights‘ Estrada Courts. The mostly-teenage stoners bonded over getting loaded (not just on cannabis but on booze, cocaine, LSD, PCP, and speed, too), and listening to heavy metal that marked a break with traditional, oldies loving, turf-associated cholos or sharply dressed pachucos with their gangs rooted in car clubs. Other stoner gangs followed like the Dog Town Stoners, King Boulevard Stoners, Lott Stoners, Mid-City Stoners, Morton Town Stoners, Varrio Stoners 13, and West Side Stoners. Even the notorious Mara Salvatrucha began as a stoner gang. Stoners were also often known as Hessians, hippies, loadies, rebels, and rockers. Most of the early bands embraced by stoners were British, but by the early 1980s, stoners had local acts to champion like Mötley Crüe, Ruthless, W.A.S.P., Huntington Park‘s Slayer.
In 1980, Scot Baio starred in an ABC Afterschool Special called Stoned, in which he portrayed a shy, awkward nerd who, once turned on to cannabis, has his doors of perception opened. As a result of smoking pot, he grows more confident and wins the affection of his crush, Felicity… but, of course, he also accidentally almost kills his brother and thus rejects cannabis. We watched it in health class. in 1982, former Hollywood actress and first ladyNancy Reagan told elementary school kids in Oakland to “just say no.” In 1983, LAPD chief Daryl Gates founded D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education). The message was loud and clear: drug abstinence was for Republicans, schoolies, brown nosers, and bootlickers.
Cocaine, though, defined the 1980s bright, shiny, narcissistic drug culture. Respectable people snorted it, depraved people smoked it (an inversion, it seems, of heroin). Cannabis seemed to be relegated to the margins for much of the decade. Pop Reggae acts like Musical Youth and The Toyes sang about cannabis. Metalheads and surfers smoked it. Cannabis seemed grubby — something Gen Xers parents had done back in the corduroy bell-bottom and tie-dye era. Of course, the 1960s remained in fashion with the decade’s neo-psychedelic bands and the Los Angeles-based Paisley Underground. But, in the end, it wasn’t rockers who restored cannabis to the mainstream, it was rappers. It wasn’t always thus. In 1988, Rob Base rapped “Don’t smoke buddha, can’t stand sess” on “It Takes Two.” That same year, Dr. Dre, rapped, in “Express Yourself,” “I still express, yo, I don’t smoke weed or sess, ’cause it’s known to give a brother brain damage and brain damage on the mic don’t manage, nothing but making a sucker and you equal. Don’t be another sequel.”
Of course, Dr. Dre’s partner in Compton‘s N.W.A., Ice Cube, rapped on the same album’s “Gangsta Gangsta,” “Since I was a youth, I smoked weed out.” Following the rise of N.W.A., rap’s center of gravity moved shifted from New York City to cannabis-loving Los Angeles. Gangsta rappers weren’t shy about smoking — and selling — cannabis but no rap act more wholeheartedly embraced cannabis than South Gate‘s Cypress Hill.
A year later, the formerly pot poo-pooing Dr. Dre released The Chronic, named after a strain of cannabis and the album cover of which was an homage to Zig-Zag rolling papers. The Chronic helped launch the career of another smoked-out rapper, Long Beach‘s Snoop Doggy Dogg. Cannabis helped inject comedy, in the aftermath, into “hood films” like Friday, filmed on location in Gardena and West Athens.
In 1996, 55.6% of Californian voters voted “yes” on Proposition 215, or the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, legalizing the possession and cultivation of cannabis for personal medical use. By the 2000s, a short stretch of 3rd Street had emerged as a district full of wholesalers selling hookahs, hand pipes, rolling papers, vaporizers, &c. By 2008, it was colloquially known as the Bong District. In 2016, 57.13% of California voters voted to legalize recreational cannabis use for anyone 21 years old and over. in 2020, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office began the process of dismissing 3,000 misdemeanor convictions dating back to the 1940s. Today in the US, only Idaho, Kansas, and Nebraska haven’t legalized any form of cannabis, CBD, or THC. but cannabis remains illegal at the federal level and in 2004 (I couldn’t find a more recent figure), the Bureau of Justice Statistics‘ Survey of Prison Inmates estimated that 40,000 Americans were then incarcerated for cannabis offenses. Meanwhile, outside of prisons, the cannabis industry employed about 340,000 people and generated $13.6 billion in 2019. That same year, California produced 17.3 million pounds of cannabis, or 58% of the cannabis produced in the US, making California today not just the US’s biggest consumer of cannabis, but its’ biggest supplier.
As always, suggestions and additions and welcome!
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One thought on “Cannabis Los Angeles”
Thank you for another entertaining and edifying post! As someone who has experienced weed culture sporadically for 50 years or so (arrested on Western Avenue in San Pedro in 1975 for possession, thus making Graduation Day even more memorable than it would have been otherwise) followed by a few small roles in the Emerald Triangle grower explosion of the 80s, then a long hiatus filled by parenthood, Librarianship, etc., in Humboldt County for 30 years, it’s fascinating to be back in San Pedro discussing favorite dispensaries with multi-generational neighbors.
As always, your piece blends history in all its various flavors, providing new insights mixed with well-chosen reminders of old weirdness. Thanks again!
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