Cannabis has been called by many names in its long history of medical, spiritual, and recreational use in human history. Many of its pseudonyms have ranged from positive labels such as sensimilla, lamb’s breath, and kind to relatively neutral terms like pot, grass and bud. There are, however, a few names for cannabis that have remained in the American English lexicon that carry a distinctly negative connotation. One such sinister term is “the devil’s lettuce.” If you have ever wondered why weed was called “the devil’s lettuce” and where this phrase came from, we’re here to help you learn more.
Cannabis Use in the 19th and 20th Century
It’s unclear exactly when “the devil’s lettuce” became a commonly used term, but with some deduction we can trace it back to the beginning of cannabis prohibition with relative ease. First, let’s discuss a little history of the American public opinion surrounding cannabis:
During the 1800s in the United States, cannabis was used regularly for a number of common ailments ranging from sleep disorders to menstrual pain. It was even included in the US Pharmacopeia for the first time in 1850. Americans at this time typically referred to this natural herb by its Latin scientific name, cannabis or cannabis sativa.
Cannabis wasn’t considered by the American public to be anything other than an over-the-counter remedy until the early to mid-twentieth century when a vicious and racially-motivated campaign to villainize cannabis began. At this time, Mexican immigrants were fleeing their home county and relocating to the American Southwest in large numbers as a result of political unrest in the wake of the Revolution of 1910. With them they brought their preferred recreational substance, which they consumed typically by smoking and called marihuana(or other variations of this spelling and pronunciation).
The Federal Bureau of Narcotics, led by Harry Anslinger, soon set out on a campaign to demonize the “evil weed.” Anslinger preferred to use the term “marihuana” to play up xenophobic sentiment and associate cannabis with this new wave of immigrants and other so-called “outsiders.” With the use of baseless propaganda, what was once viewed as a benign herbal tincture became an evil boogeyman and harbinger of psychotic and amoral behavior in the hearts and minds of the American public.
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:
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.