Vipers, Muggles, and The Evolution of Jazz

“I’m the king of everything
Got to get high before I sing
Sky is high, everybody’s high
If you’re a viper…”

‘Viper’s Drag’ (1934), by Fats Waller

 

Without doubt the history of early jazz and the use of marijuana are intimately intertwined. Thousands of Hindu immigrants from India had brought the use of cannabis to the West Indies in the 1870s; where black and Mexican sailors picked up the habit and introduced marijuana use to the harbor of Storyville, the red light district of New Orleans, the city usually considered the birthplace of jazz. At the beginning of the 20th century, countless black jazz musicians performing in the bordellos of Storyville and in other locations in New Orleans smoke what they call ‘gage’, ‘tea’, ‘muggles’, ‘muta’, ‘Mary Jane’. They will later call themselves ‘vipers’ – allegedly named after the hissing sound taking a quick draw at a ‘reefer’.

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Watanuga Lahele is radiating. His glassy eyes peep out under a large, conical straw hat, his movements slightly erratic. He has been chewing on a dark-greenish kalangi root and the drug tetralin it contains now clearly shows its euphoric and mind-altering effects. Lahele sits at a huge wooden table, as he does every in May, at the kalangi root festival in Bomaki, the capital of the Republic of West Africa. Hundreds of thousands of visitors have come here again to get collectively intoxicated at the festival. Lahele does not quite manage to get up from the table, he stumbles and falls sideways onto some other visitors. Soon, several people get in a brawl. The kalangi root is not only highly addictive, but also makes many of its consumers more aggressive. In the Republic of West Africa tetralin is completely legal, despite its mind-altering effects and various dangerous side effects.

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