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How Cannabis Shaped Modern Music

While cannabis was little known to the American public in the 1920s, it was becoming a daily staple among many of New Orleans jazz musicians. Being passed around backstage in music clubs to ’get in the groove’ before performing stimulate new ideas, and allow the inspiration caused by changed perceptions to be expressed through music.

Musicians have long respected cannabis as a source of inspiration for the creative mind, to discover new harmonies, rhythmic variations, and relieve fatigue while working late nights in clubs. From an evolutionary perspective, the birth of jazz music could be viewed as a logical outcome of such an environment. 

A Social Catalyst

While music has been known to catalyse social movements and countercultures, many of the musicians who wrote those soundtracks have credited cannabis as part of their inspiration.

The migration of musicians out of New Orleans seeking work saw cannabis being introduced to music clubs across the US. Louis Armstrong, who was famous for songs such as ‘We Have All The Time In The World’ and ‘What A Wonderful World’, was the first celebrity musician to be arrested for cannabis, caught smoking a joint in an LA parking lot in 1930. Cab Calloway, the first African-American artist to sell more than a million singles, released the jazz song ‘The Reefer Man’ in 1932. 

If he trades you dimes for nickles and calls watermelons pickles then you know you’re talkin’ to that reefer man.

Cab Calloway – The Reefer Man

Federal Prohibition Begins

With Federal prohibition in place by 1937, Harry Anslinger, the original architect of Reefer Madness and what became the War On Drugs, opened investigations by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics into a long list of individuals that read like a who’s-who’s of America’s great jazz musicians. Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Cab Calloway and many more were placed under watch, with files being passed onto the FBI.

In addition to being a racist and a bigot, Harry Anslinger was known to detest the very concept of musical improvisation itself, the idea that one could freely fill in a space with their own expression.

Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.

Harry Anslinger (first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics)

The 1940s saw a continuation of jazz musicians’ appreciation for the herb and a new generation of writers and poets such as Allen Ginsberg, poet and founding father of the Beat generation. In 1943 jazz pianist Fats Waller released the song ‘If You’re A Viper’, one of the earlier ‘code names’ for cannabis consumers from the New Orleans clubs. 

So I dreamed about a reefer 5 feet long. A mighty miff, but not too strong. You’ll be high but not for long. If you’re a viper

Fats Waller – ‘If You’re A Viper’

Stretching the Lyrical Landscape

As popular music became dominated by rock n roll in the 1950s with straight-up adrenalin-charged numbers, fuelled partly by social liberation and partly by excess amphetamines left over following WW2, a young Bob Dylan was honing his craft.

Bob Dylan would go on to create songs that were the lyrical equivalent of what early jazz musicians did with improvisational solos. Unusual phrasing, meandering timing, and evoking visuals that stretched the landscape of the listener’s perception.

It was Bob Dylan that introduced the Beatles to cannabis when they visited New York in 1964, which not only helped to fuel a new period of experimentation in the Beatles music, but keeping with the tradition of musicians ‘passing it on’, the Beatles then introduced a whole new generation of UK listeners to cannabis. 

Let’s Go Get Stoned

Ray Charles, often referred to as the ‘Father of Soul’ and known in musical circles simply as ‘The Genius’, released the song ‘Let’s Go Get Stoned’ in 1966. It was no secret that musicians loved cannabis, which was viewed as antagonistic by the establishment.

At the end of the 1960’s Jimi Hendrix, at the peak of his career, was arrested for drugs possession, including hashish, in Canada. With President Nixon then in charge, who wasn’t known for rapping poetically about the latest bass lines he’d heard either, ’drug abuse’ was declared public enemy Number 1.

The Shafer commission was launched in 1972 to look into cannabis and, much to Nixon’s frustration concluded that cannabis should be decriminalised. President Nixon ignored this advice and launched the DEA in 1973.


The adoption of reggae in the 1970s saw Bob Marley and Peter Tosh share their love of cannabis through music. Importing new sounds and culture from Jamaica with songs like ‘Kaya’, ‘Skankin’ and ‘Legalize It’, which have become synonymous with cannabis culture. DJ Kool Herc, also from Jamaica, is recognised as one of the first hip-hop DJs and artists and known to speak passionately of the herb. 

When you smoke the herb, it reveals you to yourself

Bob Marley

Hits from the Bong

Through the 1980s, an explosion of counter-culture emerged, with hip-hop & rap emanating out of hot-boxed studios across the East and West Coast. The War on Drugs also received a renewed boost by President Ronald Regan, with policies aimed at promoting conservative values. The creative responsive of musicians and artists could be felt in the likes of N.W.A and Public Enemy.

Sing my song, puff all night long, as I take hits from the bong

Cyprus Hill – ‘Hits From The Bong’

The music of the 1990s saw artists like Cyprus Hill, DMX, Nas and Method Man all promote cannabis culture and their love of the herb through music. Dr Dre introduced the world to Snoop Dogg in 1992, both on the single ‘Deep Cover’ and his album ‘The Chronic.’ The following year East Coast rapper Biggie Smalls asked his dealer to introduce him to Tupac Shakur.

As the musical soundtrack of cannabis culture has evolved, artists like Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa have intertwined this lifestyle further with the launch of cannabis companies and brands. In 2020, Snoop Doggs Casa Verde Capital investment fund closed on $100 million. 

Cannabis Goes Mainstream

With cannabis being legalised worldwide, it’s becoming readily accepted in mainstream society and no longer viewed as counter-culture. We’ve seen Miley Cyrus lighting a joint onstage at the MTV awards, household pop names like Ed Sheeran writing about ‘Sweet Mary Jane’, and Bruno Mars joining Snoop Dogg & Wiz Khalifa on ‘Young Wild & Free’ with lines like ‘Roll joints bigger than King Kong’s fingers, and smoke them hoes down until they’re stingers.’

Looking to the Future

Through times of prohibition and legalisation, musicians continue to be inspired by and give credit to cannabis through music, words and lifestyle. As a new era of legal cannabis unfolds around the world, listeners and travelling musicians alike embrace the idea of social consumption venues.

To be able to roll one up, pack the vape bowl, or eat edibles straight from original packaging while enjoying a music event, the prior undue restraints are slowly being lifted from society. The events and energies of a society influence the creation of new music, and the inspired insights of musicians in turn influence society.

As Louis Armstrong sang, ‘and I think to myself, what a wonderful world.’


Collier (1985), pp. 221–222

Cultivation information, and media is given for those of our clients who live in countries where cannabis cultivation is decriminalised or legal, or to those that operate within a licensed model. We encourage all readers to be aware of their local laws and to ensure they do not break them.

Kyle Esplin