Christopher Columbus gets a lot of flack these days for kickstarting the bloody conquest of the Americas, but one upside to his voyage: cannabis in the New World.
Cannabis first came to America in the form of hemp fiber, writes historian Isaac Campos in the 2012 book "Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico's War on Drugs."
While cannabis evolved out of Central Asia and became dispersed throughout the Old World through its use as a fiber, food, medicine and mood-changer, it was the Age of Exploration that blew weed to the Americas.
"Hemp had become indispensable to shipbuilding, where only flax could rival its utility for the construction of salt-resistant ropes, hawsers, sails and nets," Campos writes.
"Cannabis fiber had thus literally become the stitching of maritime empire. This fact above all helped to further disperse the plant to the New World. It would arrive first in New Spain, where the peculiar structure of Mexican colonial life would guide its historical trajectory, transforming it from an industrial fiber symbolizing imperial expansion and might to a psychoactive medicine rumored to facilitate communication with the devil."
Little-known conquistador Pedro Quadrado claims to have first planted pot in the New World in the 1530s. In 1545, the Spanish Crown officially mandated hemp's cultivation in the Americas, stating: "We order the Viceroys and Governors that they mandate the cultivation of hemp and flax in the Indies, and that they get the Indians to apply themselves to this farming and to weaving and spinning flax."
Did they ever. Cannabis was quickly assimilated by the talented Indian physicians of the New World, and later emerged from the countryside under the mysterious name, “marijuana”.