There are so many nicknames for cannabis — more than 1,200 in fact — that it’s hard to keep track: weed, ganga, bud, broccoli, herb, wacky tabacky, Mary Jane and pot just for a start. The DEA even keeps a list of cannabis code words and nicknames for trainees and agents, most of which yours truly had never heard of — I mean, smoochy woochy poochy?
Broken down into categories, these nicknames tend to run the gamut and cover weed quality, amounts, type, joints, consumption effects, and even the people who consume it. And the language of cannabis continues to evolve as more Americans gain legal access to the plant. Entirely new segments of the marketplace, such as concentrates and edibles, gain slang terms of their own.
But one nickname in particular seems to be getting less attention in the age of legalization: the Devil’s Lettuce. Why was it called that and what did it say about cannabis consumers throughout the 20th century?
The history of “marijuana” and the Devil’s Lettuce
When it comes to “devil” and “lettuce,” it’s safe to assume that the lettuce part of the term makes at least a little bit of sense because it’s green, but how did the word ‘devil’ become part of the cannabis nickname too?
Looking through a broad lens, most cannabis nicknames came about because it was necessary in the past to keep secret the possession, selling, and consumption of cannabis. However, others came to be due to intentional propaga intended to create negative and inflammatory sets of beliefs not only about the perceived dangers of cannabis itself, but also about misportraying the people who consumed it — “Devil’s Lettuce” falls into this category.
But first, let’s jump into the wayback machine and head to the early 20th century, when cannabis prohibition laws were slowly, surely, and heavy-handedly becoming codified.
The word “marijuana” first came to the Americas in 1874 courtesy of Spaniards who brought cannabis to Mexico for use as industrial hemp. At first, the word “marijuana,” “marihuana,” or “mariguana” was anodyne, but as the Mexican Revolution prompted many of its citizens to flee to the US and seek migrant labor in the 1890’s and beyond, the word took on a more nefarious meaning.
Predictably, an influx of immigrants into the US prompted a surge of racist and anti-immigrant sentiment. NPR unearthed a trove of news articles from the early 20th century implying that marijuana incited violence among the Mexicans who smoked it. Here’s one headline from 1925: “KILLS SIX IN A HOSPITAL; Mexican, crazed by Marihuana, Runs Amuck With Butcher Knife.”
Why is Cannabis Called The Devil’s Lettuce?
While there is no straight line through which we can trace the origin of this term, there are a few threads that come together to give us some evidence of where it came from.
One piece of anti-cannabis propaganda was a 52-minute film titled “Devil’s Harvest,” a sensationalized drama following an investigator who is on a mission to take down those who are “corrupting the nation’s youth” by introducing them to marijuana. It’s not a huge leap from referring to cannabis as the “devil’s harvest” to the “devil’s lettuce,” and this term may have evolved as a result of this film.
Another nickname that was assigned to cannabis at this time was “jazz cabbage.” It’s possible that “devil’s lettuce” was thus a slightly altered hybrid of “devil’s harvest” and “jazz cabbage.” This new and indescribably appealing musical genre, which was led by notable Black musicians, was also villainized by the American public at this time. Anslinger’s office used this anti-Black, anti-jazz sentiment to enhance its anti-cannabis stance. One such quote reads:
“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others.”
One Other Theory on “The Devil’s Lettuce”
Another less sinister possibility is that this term was used accidentally. There is a plant that is commonly referred to as “devil’s lettuce” that has little or nothing to do with cannabis at all.
Amsinckia tessellata is known by the common names “bristly fiddleneck,” “tesselate fiddleneck,” and “devil’s lettuce.” This plant is mentioned in A Flora of California, written by Willis Linn Jepson and published in 1939, which happens to coincide with the height of the original anti-cannabis movement. This plant is native to the dry regions of western North America including California and southwest New Mexico as well as Sonora and Baja California in Mexico.
This plant can grow between 8 and 24 inches in height and produces coiled yellow and orange floral clusters. It has a blooming period between March and June. Anyone familiar with cannabis cultivation is likely to see some parallels in the botanical description of Amsinckia tessellata and Cannabis sativa. One can see how cannabis may have been found in the wild, been innocently misidentified as “devil’s lettuce,” and the name simply stuck.
What’s in a Name?
You may be thinking, “who cares what it’s called? It’s all the same to me.” On the one hand, you’re right. As William Shakespeare’s Juliet aptly observes: “that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” The names we commonly use to discuss cannabis, however, tend to reflect the degree of personal and cultural acceptance with which we regard it.
Relating a natural medicinal plant (which has been used in many spiritual practices to connect with one’s higher power) to the work of the devil says a lot about how the speaker or writer views cannabis and its use. Luckily, this outdated and negative term is largely used today in a satirical or humorous tone, like in a clever opinion piece published on the student news site of Eastern Illinois University titled, “Avoid the devil’s lettuce at all costs.” It’s often used to mock some of the misinformed ideas that many still associate with cannabis.
The culture and attitudes surrounding cannabis are changing, and many official outlets are changing their language to reflect this shift. In fact, the Canadian government recently replaced the term “marijuana” with “cannabis” in its official publications as a way of acknowledging the historically negative use of the former. As the tides continue to turn, we may also see “the devil’s lettuce” fall out of common usage and resign itself to antiquity.
What About Other Slang Terms for Cannabis?
A survey of several of the most popular slang terms for cannabis reveals that racism and prohibition were at the heart of the plant’s early lexicon. (“Bogarting,” however, is directly tied to the actor Humphrey Bogart.) For instance, the term “marijuana” was popularized domestically in hopes of giving cannabis an “exotic” name (read: a Spanish term) to ultimately inspire collective xenophobia and push citizens to view the plant as dangerous.
According to the New York Times, “marijuana” was introduced to the English language as recently as 1874 — roughly thirty years after the conclusion of the Mexican-American War. That’s either a wild coincidence, or an obvious precursor to a decision to link cannabis to America’s most recent enemy of the time. The answer was made abundantly apparent when the US passed the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 (spelled with an “H”), and effectively instigating the first step towards full prohibition.
And what was the messaging surrounding the Marihuana Tax Act? To quote Whitney Mallet’s 2017 article for MERRY JANE, titled “Pothead Paranoia: Will Anti-Government Drug Conspiracies Survive Legalization?”:
Harry Anslinger, commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, authored the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act, which imposed a tax on the sale of hemp and marijuana, and propelled a racist campaign against the drug, linking it to homicidal mania, suggesting its principal users were black people and Latino immigrants, and insinuating its effects included minorities forgetting their place in American society. Anslinger warned of what happens when black male college students share joints with white female students. After “smoking and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution,” he concluded the result would be “pregnancy.” William Randolph Hearst helped subsequently spread fear-mongering anti-marijuana propaganda in his newspapers.
Racist fear-mongering — possibly tied to a government conspiracy — led to certain cannabis rhetoric entering the American zeitgeist. This goes for “Devil’s Lettuce” and “Devil’s Harvest.”
Do Words Really Matter This Much?
Yes! Even “weed” has an arguably negative connotation, as it implies that cannabis is an invasive species stealing space and resources from other, more worthy plants. Conversely, some now see weed as an almost ironic way to describe a plant that’s clearly the antithesis of an unwanted crop. In a sense, taking back a term and defining new ownership of it is a pivotal facet of the cannabis industry’s assimilation to the mainstream. That said, the use of the term “stoner” is still a hot-button topic.
It’s arguably best to leave terms like “marijuana” and “devil’s lettuce” to the dust of history, given they were popularized as a form of malice and oppression. However, another term that was meant to suggest evil has been reclaimed, as well.
We will likely always think of the PSA series known as Reefer Madness when we hear the term “reefer.” But some companies have decided to have a bit of fun with the phrase, given that it’s so directly tied to one of the government’s most ridiculous, inefficient efforts to defame cannabis (and that’s saying something).
As is the case with virtually everything: we can always look to words to provide a parallel history to our subject of focus. When it comes to pot, the story could honestly be condensed to how we got from devil’s lettuce to cannabis as the default term. At the very least, delving into the etymology of pot offers an immensely valuable survey of the plant’s evolution from pariah to panacea.