Here’s What People Called Pot in the 1940s

4 minute read

In 1934, when marijuana first appeared in the pages of TIME, it was with an asterisk that clarified that it was “a drug, long common in Mexico, made from a variety of hemp weed.” In the years that followed, the drug showed up in the news a few times, mostly associated with the idea of reefer madness. By 1943 when TIME published its first full article about what the magazine called “the weed,” readers would still be unfamiliar with much of the terminology used.

And, even though marijuana is moving toward legalization in many places in the United States, some of that terminology — giggle-smokes! — is likely to be unfamiliar to modern readers too.

See whether you recognize any of this pot slang from the 1943 story:

To its users, the drug has many names—many of them evasive. Marijuana may be called muggles, mooter, Mary Warner, Mary Jane, Indian hay, loco weed, love weed, bambalacha, mohasky, mu, moocah, grass, tea or blue sage. Cigarets made from it are killers, goof-butts, joy-smokes, giggle-smokes or reefers. The word marijuana is of Mexican origin and means “the weed that intoxicates.” It is made from the Indian hemp plant, a spreading green bush resembling sumac. Known to the pharmacopoeia as Cannabis sativa, it is a source of important paint ingredients and rope fiber as well as narcotics. It can be grown easily almost anywhere, hence tends to be inexpensive, as drugs go. Its recent prices (10¢ to 50¢ a cigaret) have placed it beneath the dignity of big-time racketeers. But its furtive preparation and sale afford a modest living to thousands.

In most U. S. cities the marijuana salesman peddles his cigarets to known clients in public places. He is known to his clients as a “pusher.” His clients are known as “vipers.” Etiquette between pushers and vipers is necessarily delicate. When he wants to buy, the viper sidles up to the pusher and inquires “Are ya stickin’?” or “Are ya layin’ down the hustle?” If the answer is affirmative, the viper says, “Gimme an ace” (meaning one reefer), “a deuce” (meaning two), or “a deck” (meaning a large number). The viper may then quietly “blast the weed” (smoke). Two or three long puffs usually suffice after a while to produce a light jag. The smoker is then said to be “high” or “floating.” When he has smoked a reefer down to a half-inch butt, he carefully conserves it in an empty match box. In this condition it is known, in Mexican, as a chicharra, or in English, as a “roach.”

Though much of that lingo would fade into the skunky haze of time, “the weed” itself wouldn’t stay mysterious for much longer. One reason for that mainstreaming shift is hinted at by the magazine section in which that 1943 article appeared: music. “It is no secret that some of the finest flights of American syncopation, like some of the finest products of the symbolist poets, owe much of their expressiveness to the use of a drug,” the story reported.

The reason for the connection between jazz and pot was, the magazine guessed, that the illusion of a slower sense of time and a keener sense of hearing might allow musicians to improvise with more confidence. Plus, though the effects of the drug might look like the effects of alcohol, it seemed in some ways to be a better choice of vice. Though regular use would get in the way of “orderly living,” it didn’t seem to cause “physical, mental or moral degeneration.” Seeing their heavy-drinking musical colleagues afflicted with cirrhosis or other alcohol-related conditions could further convince jazz artists to choose to light up instead.

As jazz music became more widely appreciated outside its specific scene, marijuana had to be more seriously considered by mainstream media too—and, by extension, mainstream readers.

Read the 2014 cover story about a new trend in the world of marijuana, here in the TIME Vault: The Rise of Fake Pot

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