Evolution of Cannabis Through the Decades
The 60s were a tumultuous ride. Revolution was in the air, the Civil Rights movement reached its apex, and hippies were protesting the Vietnam War by sticking flowers down rifle barrels. Hippies were inspired by the literary and cultural beatnik movement of underground, non- conformist youth popularized by Jack Kerouac. And beatniks were characterized in part by an openness to embracing African American culture – particularly jazz and, by extension, cannabis. Hippie culture opened the door to whole new ways of perception and being. Instead of obsessing over material things and consumerism, hippies turned inward, cultivating inner peace and exploring Eastern religions.
The 60s also unleashed a barrage of creativity that was indisputably sparked by cannabis. Rebellion against mainstream conservative culture, the Summer of Love, and a live-and-let-live ethos were set to a backdrop of Janis Joplin, the Doors, the Grateful Dead, and countless bands whose music was composed under heavy influence of pot. Bob Dylan introduced The Beatles to cannabis in 1964, the Summer of Love spread its seeds from San Francisco across the world in 1967, and by the time Woodstock came around in the Summer of ’69, music and culture had been forever changed by the influence of cannabis.
The hippies’ strain of choice? Colombian Gold, a landrace sativa from Colombia. This strain, like other landrace sativas, was favored for its propensity toward creativity, energetic exuberance, and an overwhelming sense of contentment and joy that made it ever so easy to make love not war.
The psychedelic exuberance of the 60s eventually gave way to a more down-to-earth approach to counterculture, spearheaded by a proliferation of reggae music that promoted reverence for cannabis. With its roots in Rastafarianism – a natural lifestyle characterized by the ceremonial use of cannabis – reggae became another underground movement that had cannabis at its forefront.
Several prominent reggae artists, most notably, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, promoted cannabis use through their lyrics and lifestyles. From Tosh’s “Legalize It,” to Marley singing, “Excuse me while I light my spliff,” cannabis was center stage. With a decided influence on countless bands around the world, like the Clash, the Police, and UB40, cannabis gained exposure to a wider and wider audience through reggae. And with growers in the 70s pioneering stealthy outdoor growing techniques, cannabis began to take hold in an even bigger way.
Although the only available weed in the U.S. was primarily Mexican or Colombian, Panama Red managed to capture the attention and affection of cannabis enthusiasts in the 70s – perhaps because it was so strong it was reported to have almost psychedelic effects, something many in this decade could relate to.
With cannabis imported mostly from Latin America in the 60s and 70s, the 80s saw an influx of Thai landrace sativas. Thai Stick was the name given to just about any strain that came from Thailand at the time. A unique cross came out of this import: Chocolate Skunk. This strain combines what is presumed to be a Thai Skunk with a variety called Chocolate, and it was one of the first times cannabis had been selectively bred. Like the decades before it, the 80s saw cannabis waft into another burgeoning underground scene – California skate culture.
The sidewalk surfers of Dog Town, a working-class neighborhood of Venice Beach, pioneered skating, a sport defined by creative self-expression and individual style. With its poor, working-class, non-conformist roots running in parallel with the advent of hip-hop, perhaps it is no surprise that skate culture adapted one of hip-hop’s most prominent features: a love of cannabis.
Skating and smoking weed went hand in hand. Some say getting high lowered skaters’ inhibitions and increased their self-esteem – essential components to landing the fearless moves they invented. Skaters rebelled against the establishment, being among the earliest subcultures, along with punk, that had no mainstream aspirations. Instead of working within the system to try and be something society would approve of, skaters were among the first to be okay with not being anything. Punk highlighted the existential crisis they found themselves in – marginalized for being poor and not highly educated, yet expected to achieve a measure of success that to them seemed wholly unrealistic. Songs like the Sex Pistols’ “No Future,” and the Ramones’ “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” gave skaters a sense of camaraderie. But with the rise in popularity of groups like the Beastie Boys in particular, and hip-hop in general, skate culture found new camaraderie in cannabis.
Nineties culture saw cannabis flirting with social acceptability. Between Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Cypress Hill, hip-hop became a monumental force in legitimizing pot use. And no album was more instrumental than The Chronic, Dr. Dre’s debut solo album featuring a novice Snoop Dogg. That album, named after a nickname for high-grade weed and paying homage to Zig-Zag rolling papers in its cover art, didn’t just bring hip-hop into the mainstream, it brought cannabis into the mainstream, normalizing a substance that had been demonized for half a century.
Movies like Dazed and Confused, Half-Baked, and How High also served to establish cannabis culture, even if they perpetuated stoner stereotypes. Like skate culture that was happening contemporaneously, hip-hop provided a creative outlet for the young and marginalized. But hip-hop wasn’t the only thing to explode in the 90s.
Domestic cannabis production also took off, and changed the weed game entirely. There was a colossal leap in quality – from seedy, stemmy imports to suddenly super dank sinsemilla covered in mouthwatering trichomes. The advent of indoor cultivation changed the landscape of cannabis almost overnight.
White Widow deserves mention as one of the most prolific strains of the 90s. Bred specifically for indoor cultivation, it ushered in one of the biggest quantum leaps in the history of cannabis, being vastly different from anything grown the decade before. When it was introduced, White Widow was the strongest cannabis anyone had really ever seen at the time, and it helped turn growing from a hobby to a very lucrative skill. With its signature frostiness that earned the strain its name, White Widow won three Cannabis Cups over the decade, and remains a classic to this day.
You may know that there are two kinds of cannabis: indica and sativa. But before the 2000s, these were not the categories the casual buyer cared about, or even necessarily knew about. Back then, there were essentially only two kinds to choose from: brown or green. Crappy, brown, seedy “shwag” weed or frosty, green, “high-grade” (also known as “kind bud,” “chronic,” and a host of other nicknames). But by the time the 2000s rolled around, weed became widely available as distinctly different strains. Cannabis enthusiasts became more discerning, cannabis connoisseurship became a thing, and cultivation became an art form.
The 2000s gave birth to a huge explosion in cannabis culture and, for this, we all owe a debt of gratitude to the great State of California. California became the first state to legalize cannabis for medical use in 1996, and from there, the floodgates were open for other states to follow suit. By the 2000s, 13 states had passed MMJ laws, and cannabis was for the first time in recent history gaining legitimacy.
The effect this had on the arrival of new strains and the expansion of the cannabis gene pool was huge. Ironically, before recreational legalization, California actually had the most liberal pot laws in the world. The medical marijuana law was deliberately written such that anyone could use cannabis legally, for any reason, as long as cannabis helped. And the bill placed no limits on how much a patient could grow (although some counties later did). That meant that you could legally grow an unlimited amount of plants for even something as transient as a broken heart. Overnight, people with conditions as mundane as headaches, anxiety or stress – and who doesn’t occasionally experience stress? – could legally grow as much as they wanted. This changed the game. And it opened doors to a new world for breeders.
Because breeding is an arduous process that may require hundreds of plants in order to find the perfect genetics to combine, California’s MMJ law allowed breeders to explore the infinite possibilities legally for the very first time. And from this, for the first time in modern history, sinsemilla became the norm. An endless number of seedless strains were created, potency quadrupled, and California pot culture blossomed from underground misfits to a booming economy.
Growers weren’t the only ones who benefited. The effects of this reefer renaissance rippled out far and wide. Entire economies were built around cannabis, creating untold numbers of high-paying jobs for trimmers, and keeping cash flowing into the cities and counties it was grown in. In fact, many Northern California economies avoided the worst of the Great Recession of the 2000s because of the new green economy. Restaurants and boutiques in towns that had all but gone dormant since the logging industry dried up suddenly were not just surviving, but thriving.
A widely smoked strain during this time was Blue Dream. It was eerily, almost annoyingly popular, and for good reason. It was a sativa-dominant hybrid that was fast and easy to grow, finishing in half the time as most pure sativas, it had a dreamy blue tint, it smelled incredible, and it provided a heady, functional high that was, quite frankly, pretty amazing. For commercial growers, it was the Holy Grail. And that became its undoing. Everybody and their grandma – probably even your grandma – was growing it. It was popular to the point of overkill. These days it is so commonplace as to be mundane. But Blue Dream ruled the decade of the 2000s like no other strain.
The 2010s saw a broad proliferation of transformational festival culture. With their roots in Burning Man and Rainbow Gatherings, these decidedly underground parties brought healthy lifestyles, veganism, spiritual awareness, radical self-reliance, bombastic self-expression, mindfulness, and conscious partying to the mainstream in a new way. Unlike a typical summer music festival, transformational festivals espoused a “leave no trace” ethos and often were run entirely on green energy – in more ways than one.
California’s new grower economy is partially responsible for fueling the production of some of the West Coast’s most notable and iconic transformational festivals. While legal cannabis cultivation created an influx of cash into local economies, this nascent industry also contributed to financing some of the best-known festivals. And the festivals themselves were populated by high populations of trimmers, one of the few categories of employment that enabled young people to have enough disposable income to afford to travel to multi-day festivals, sometimes one right after the other, all summer long. They had no bosses to request time off from, and they were paid in cash that they were happy to put back into their own communities through patronizing such events.
They often featured visionary art installations, prayerformances, workshops, yoga, and an open encouragement of audience participation. You were much more likely to stumble upon an elixir bar instead of alcohol, and cannabis – among a stunning array of psychedelics – wafted freely. It was not uncommon to drive up to the entrance of a festival and be asked by security, “Do you have any drugs or weapons? It’s okay if you have drugs.”
Although it’s debatable how much influence transformational festivals have really had on mainstream culture, there is little debate about which strain stands out the most for this decade. Girl Scout Cookies and its progeny take the proverbial cake. This exclusive designer strain came to public awareness after Bay Area hip-hop artist Berner, who lays claim on creating the strain with the Cookie Fam, name-checked the strain in his songs and got some choice nugs into the hands of Wiz Khalifa. Its meteoric rise is a miracle of branding that the cannabis industry had never before seen, and likely wouldn’t have existed without constant promotion on Instagram.
GSC repeatedly sold out at dispensaries, and the Cookie Fam was careful to protect the clones so that almost no one else had access to growing it for a long while after its launch. Cookies won a ton of awards throughout the decade, and parented other boutique strains like Wedding Cake, Thin Mints, Gelato, and Sherbet. As for its own contested genetics, GSC is said to include any combination of Durban Poison, Cherry Pie Kush, and OG Kush.
If there’s one thing we can see across decades of cannabis use, it’s that cannabis has always had its roots in the underground, and it brings people together across ethnicity, cultural background, and economic status. Underdogs from across the spectrum of demographics have found refuge and acceptance in the gamut of cannabis culture. And even though the plant is currently enjoying a wave of mainstream acceptance, cannabis remains a symbol of counterculture, and sparking up is still a rebellious act.