Can L.A. Solve Its Mexican Marijuana Problem?
Not until it confronts its past

Copyright 2009 Ellen Komp

One of the chief reasons given recently for clamping down on the Green Gold Rush currently playing itself out in L.A. is the concern that medical marijuana sold at the city’s 500+ collectives is being supplied through Mexican “cartels.” L.A. City Council members have been debating the topic at many a protracted meeting, including last Tuesday’s 6-hour marathon session. Whether or not the Council can craft an ordinance that will have an effect on the longstanding struggle against the illicit marijuana market is anyone’s guess.

Los Angeles has a remarkable relationship with Mexican marijuana, played out in two seminal Hollywood novels: Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon. The two authors knew each other, and their fates became intertwined.

West began The Day of the Locust in 1937, the year the Marijuana Tax Act passed Congress, effectively making the plant illegal in the U.S. Discussing the book’s title with his editor Bennett Cerf, West wrote, “I rather like ‘THE GRASS EATERS.’ Quite a few intelligent people agree on that one."

West's autobiographical character Tod Hackett is a painter working at a film studio and on a painting titled "The Burning of Los Angeles." He calls himself an unwilling prophet of doom, a Jeremiah. In the bible, Jeremiah is chosen by God to portend disaster for Jerusalem because its people were burning incense to the pagan god Baal, or Bel. Jeremiah 6:20 says, "For what purpose does frankincense come to Me from Sheba, and the kaneh bosm from a distant land? Your burnt offerings are not acceptable, and your sacrifices are not pleasing to Me." Some scholars think kaneh bosm, the fragrant cane, is mistranslated in modern Bibles as calamus instead of cannabis.

Mentioned throughout Jeremiah is Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king and "grass eater" from the bible. (The Arabic word for "grass" is the same as "hashish.") Nebuchadnezzar re-named the Jewish captive Daniel “Belteshazzar,” meaning “worshipper of Bel” and his co-captives, renamed Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, were saved from a firey death by their faith in God.

In Locust, the central, widely desired female character Faye Greener (not Redder, or Bluer) sleeps with a Mexican named Miguel just after she sings five verses of the Stuff Smith tune "If You're a Viper" (best known from Fats Waller's 1934 recording "Viper's Drag"):

I'm the queen of everything
Got to get high before I can swing…
Sky is high and so am I
If you’re a Viper.

A viper was slang for a pot smoker in 1920s Harlem. Faye also sings Johnny Mercer's "Jeepers Creepers":

Jeepers, creepers....where'd ya get them peepers
Jeepers, creepers...where'd ya get those eyes
Gosh oh, git'd they get so lit up
Gosh oh, gee'd they get that size

Golly gee...when you turn them heaters on
Woe is to put my cheaters on
Jeepers, creepers....where'd ya get them peepers
Oh, those they hypnotize
Where'd you get those eyes?

"Where'd you get those eyes" might well have been the 30's vernacular for "what have you been smoking?" Johnny Mercer was a heavy drinker who once got furious at Robert Mitchum for smoking pot at his house. "Cheaters" were sunglasses worn to hide--red eyes? The song was recorded by marijuana enthusiast Louis Armstrong, who was arrested in November 1930 while smoking marijuana outside the Cotton Club in Culver City. (A new biography of Armstrong, "Pops," details his marijuana use.)

Jeremiah 51:14 says (in one translation): "The Lord Almighty has sworn by himself: I will surely fill you with men, as with a swarm of locusts, and they will shout in triumph over you."  (Locusts have also been known to destroy a marijuana crop, after which burning the fields is required.) The Day of the Locust ends with a riot at the imaginary Kahn's Persian Palace Theatre, under a sign "Mr. Kahn a Pleasure Dome Decreed," a reference to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem "Kubla Khan," which was inspired by a medicinal dose of opium. Marijuana considered an Oriental as well as a Mexican pleasure at the time.

According to USC Professor Curtis Marez, Chinese laborers were brought to the U.S. against their will during the second Opium War, and the film industry depicted Chinese in opium dens as far back as D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossom (1919). Similarly, Mexicans were depicted in movies as pot-smoking desperadoes and targeted for arrest by the LAPD.

The production and distribution of marijuana was an important source of income for Mexican peasants since the revolution of the 1860s when other industries were disrupted, Marez writes. Drugs on the border “first appeared as a pressing U.S. problem during General John Pershing’s punitive expedition in pursuit of Pacho Villa (1916-17), when it was estimated that thousands of the general’s soldiers used narcotics while in Mexico.” This was a situation similar to Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of Egypt, which brought hashish to France.

In Marez’s analysis, songs celebrating marijuana and its smuggling were as much about Mexico’s relation to police power as they were about the herb. “La Cucaracha,” a song sometimes banned for its marijuana references, is as much about the social status of the lowly cockroach as the pot he smokes.  Unable to stamp out “La Cucaracha,” the song of Pancho Villa’s revolutionary, pot-smoking soldiers was given “American lyrics,” in one instance making it a sappy-sweet wedding march. Louis Armstrong responded with a rumba version of the song in 1935.

Marez links the rise of the red scare and LAPD police power with the marijuana laws and their exploitation in order to repress Mexican labor organizers and revolutionaries. A white judge named Charles W. Fricke, who was particularly hard on Mexicans, formed the Narcotic Research Association (NRA) and lectured to groups about the “epidemic” of marijuana use among Mexican laborers. The NRA was housed at the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce Building, along with The Hollywood Hussars, a paramilitary group formed to suppress communism. One member of the Hussars was actor Gary Cooper. Actress Lupe Velez, Cooper’s former girlfriend, was unjustly targeted as a communist and committed suicide.

By disproportionately imprisoning Mexicans, whites were able to turn them into forced and controlled laborers. To do so, newspaper articles and movies depicted Mexican men as sexual predators against white women, much as images of white women in opium dens were used against the Chinese. The national hearings that brought about the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 solidified the image of the dangerous, pot-puffing Mexican male; it is likely Nathanael West was reading accounts of those hearings as he began The Day of the Locust. In the book, Miguel and Faye dance provocatively to a rumba, which her white cowboy actor Earl is unable to join, so he flies into a rage and clubs Miguel over the head.

While West was writing Locust, F. Scott Fitzgerald was at work on his unfinished Hollywood novel, The Last Tycoon. One of the characters in Fitzgerald’s book calls Hollywood “a mining town in lotus land,” a reference to the Land of the Lotus Eaters from Homer’s The Odyssey, where explorers get lost in a drug-induced stupor. 

Of a scriptwriter on the movie lot, Fitzgerald writes:

Out the window Rose Meloney watched the trickle streaming toward the commissary. She would have her lunch in her office and knit a few rows while it came. The man was coming at one-fifteen with the French perfume smuggled over the Mexican border. That was no sin—it was like a prohibition.

Who smuggles French perfume over the Mexican border, and calls it a prohibition? Rose (a flower like marijuana, which was called Santa Rosa or Santa Maria in Mexico) with a surname that starts with an “M,” like marijuana. The reference to knitting may have come from Fitz Hugh Ludlow's 1857 book The Hasheesh Eater, wherein he describes a hashish-induced vision of a crone knit of purple yarn. In Food of the Gods,Terrence McKenna connects the expression "spinning a yarn" to hemp's dual purpose as a fiber and an intoxicant leading to flights of fancy.

Tycoon's main character, producer Monroe Stahr, first sees love interest Kathleen Moore floating on a studio-made head of Siva that had become dislodged from a set in an earthquake. To this day, worshippers in India drink bhang (a drink made with cannabis) to celebrate Siva’s birthday. That night, cameraman Pete Zavras attempts suicide by diving off an office building on the studio lot. “I knew he’d gone to pot,” said Stahr. When asked why he’d done it on the lot, Zavras replied, “Before the oracle. The solver of the Eleusinian mysteries.” Those were the Greek rites whose attendees worshipped the grain goddess Demeter and took the mind-altering drug kykeon, thought to be related to LSD (which is derived from ergot, a mold that grows on grain crops).

Stahr’s relationship with Kathleen almost certainly is based on Fitzgerald’s affair with Shelia Graham, the subject of the book Beloved Infidel. Both Fitzgerald and Stahr were in their 40s, while both Graham and Moore were Englishwomen in their 20s. Unbeknownst to Stahr, Kathleen is engaged to another man, whom she marries. To take out his anger, Stahr arranges a meeting with a Communist labor organizer, gets drunk, and starts a fistfight. As a prelude, they go to dinner and spot Gary Cooper with a group of fawning men.

When Stahr goes to Kathleen’s door, she says, “I’m sorry I can’t ask you in. Shall I get my reefer and sit outside?” (A reefer is also the name of a sailor’s coat.) Stahr refuses. He tries to meet her halfway when they go to his house, where he's had a strip of grass brought in from the prop department. Kathleen laughs and asks, “Isn’t that real grass?” Stahr replies, “Oh yes—it’s grass.”

The scene is reminiscent of one in Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby. Gatsby is a man of wealth by unknown means, an associate of a character based on the original international drug smuggler, Arnold Rothstein. He speaks of “a little business on the side…a rather confidential sort of thing,” and offers the narrator Nick a piece of the action in exchange for setting up a meeting with Nick’s cousin Daisy. After Gatsby sends a servant to mow Nick’s lawn in anticipation of the meeting, Nick tells him, “The grass is fine.” “What grass?” asks Gatsby. “Oh, the grass in the yard.”

In 1940, Nathanael West married 24-year-old Eileen McKenney, the subject of Ruth McKenney's play "My Sister Eileen." The couple died in December of that year in a car accident near El Centro, California, while returning from a trip to Mexico. It was less than 24 hours after Fitzgerald died in his apartment of an apparent heart attack.

Hollywood returned to marijuana themes in two movies from the 1950s, Sweet Bird of Youth and Sweet Smell of Success, both of which involved characters who tried to bribe or smear others over their marijuana use, real or imagined. Today’s crop of “bromances” featuring pot-puffing antiheroes are wildly popular, but add little to any serious debate about the topic. Gritty films like Traffic (2000) that depict Mexican drug violence and the dreary 2006 film version of the John Fante novel Ask the Dust also miss the point: it’s fundamentally human to alter one’s consciousness, and no amount of violent or societal restraint will ever alter that fact. We will never have peace until marijuana is legal to cultivate in the U.S. and in Mexico, with free trade between the countries.

Ellen Komp is an activist/writer who manages the website

cited: Curtis Marez, Drug Wars: The Political Economy of Narcotics, (2004, University of Minnesota Press)