High Times of Louis Armstrong

From decade to decade, times change drastically as we progress forward in society. No doubt, change is inevitable, but not all things change–at least not as quickly as one would hope. One such issue which seems to somehow continue to be a hot-button topic is marijuana. Marijuana, its legitimacy as a medicinal drug, the penal repercussions it carries, and last but certainly not least, the social stigma associated with the plant.

The treatment of marijuana as a narcotic whose possession and or use is a punishable offense is a relatively new construct in the grand scheme of marijuana chronology. In fact, both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were cultivators of the plant. By the 1840s, the plant was considered mainstream medicine; famous french physician and psychiatrist, Jacques-Joseph Moreau prescribed marijuana as a headache suppressant and sleep and appetite aid. However, early in the 20th century various states imposed prohibitions on marijuana, and the attitude of treating marijuana as a narcotic rose with morality based laws and legislation such as the 18th amendment. By coincidence or not, a year after the infamous propaganda film Reefer Madness was introduced to America in 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed federal legislation that banned marijuana use, production and sale. By 1941 cannabis based medicine and products were removed from the U.S. formulary and could no longer be prescribed by physicians.

Unbeknownst to most, Louis Armstrong was not only a user of marijuana, but he was also an advocate of its benefits. Louis Armstrong may not have physically represented the picture of health, yet he was health-conscious throughout his entire life. Louis was a known promoter of the benefits of laxatives as a health benefit. Still, he also wrote quite a lot about his love of marijuana. When Armstrong first used marijuana, or Gage as he affectionately referred to the plant, it wasn’t illegal. Louis first tries marijuana in 1927 and enjoyed the effect it had on him. In a manuscript for a book Louis was working on, he details his first encounter with marijuana.

“It was actually in Chicago when I first picked up my first stick of gage…And I’m telling you, I had myself a Ball…That’s why it really puzzles me to see Marijuana connected with Narcotics-Dope and all that kind of crap…It is actually a shame. I was 26 years old then. And it never did impress me as dope”.

 As a matter of fact, the mere classification of marijuana as a narcotic offended Armstrong. He felt that anything that clearly had positive effects on your health and mental state didn’t deserve to be lumped into a category with heavy drugs such as cocaine and heroin. Louis Armstrong was no stranger in dealing with the law for using marijuana, for example, in March of 1931, Louis was arrested in California for smoking marijuana. Although his celebrity may have helped him to spend only a little over a week in jail, had he been any other person, his time would have been much longer. Through Louis’ words we can see that as time went on not only did punishment become worse for marijuana but Louis also provides a bit of social commentary, clearly alluding that marijuana laws and punishments were racially charged.

“Because since the days when I was actually ‘Wailing-smoking gage, it was plentiful-much easy to get, the Judges weren’t so heavy with them years like he gives out these days. Why I’d much rather shoot a nigger in his ass than to be caught with a stick of shit…The Judge would honestly respect you better. […] But when a Judge give a man twenty years for the word of a cop who’d probably had it in for the victim (could be you-me-or-anybody) the accused man is charged twenty years- he’s an outcast-nobody want any part of him”.

I find it not at all surprising that Armstrong was a supporter of marijuana; if one views things from a historical vantage, it makes sense that he would have no problem with the plant. For starters, Armstrong was 26 the first time he used marijuana, and growing up in the aughts of the 20th century, cannabis was still viewed as a medicine. Armstrong was also raised with his mother, giving both he and his sister natural remedies to cure ailments, so it doesn’t seem too far off to imagine Louis enjoying the effects of marijuana. Louis states a few reasons why he believes weed to be beneficial to overall health.

“I smoked it a long time…And I found out one thing… First place it’s a thousand times better than whiskey…It’s an assistant-a friend a nice cheap drunk if you want to call it that…Good(very good) for Asthma-Relaxes your nerves…Great for cleanderness”

 Armstrong loved pot; he even mentions in a manuscript for an autobiography that the whole book may be about marijuana. Naturally, his manager knew this would not be a good idea for his image, let alone a good idea for a book topic. Despite the fact that his views weren’t popular, Louis’ fundamental argument for advocating for marijuana is sound and based in a practicality that many people continue to overlook for the sake of appearing morally righteous.

Louis on the cover of the Jazz magazine Metronome in 1960

I am my own public myself…I never wanted to do anything wrong that I personally would not like…I felt at no time when ever I ran across some of that good shit, that I was breaking the law, or some foolish thought similar to it…There isn’t one person in the whole wide world-white-black-grizzly or gray who ain’t breaking the law of some kind, for their kicks-contentment…Right?”

The way one may feel about marijuana is not the point of this blog post, what is important, however, is spreading Louis’ truth about something that he truly cared about. Armstrong spread a message that was centered on joy and love. He also embodied acceptance and respecting other’s prerogatives, as long as it wasn’t hurting or causing harm to anyone else. These days we now can see the attitude on marijuana laws have changed and quite frankly; as a nation we are surely fast approaching federal legalization of pot. Perhaps Satchmo’s philosophy is an attitude that many people are starting to accept.

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