Years ago, while violating the foremost rule of the internet (never, ever, EVER, read the comments), I laughed out loud when an anti-cannabis fanatic ranting on the Anchorage Daily News website referred to the plant as “the Devil’s lattice.” It was, of course, an internet troll’s unwittingly hilarious misspelling of one of the most popular anti-marijuana terms, “the Devil’s lettuce.”
And while he was undoubtedly serious in his misguided opinion, he was helping spread propaganda so deeply rooted in the federal government’s war on gardening that it’s hard to tease out precisely when it first came into use.
A Google search on “Devil’s lettuce” turns up plenty of articles using it in their titles, either ironically or sincerely. Its origin, however, appears lost to the fog of history. The Urban Dictionary, often a good source for these things, labels it a colloquial term that likely originated in upstate New York and offers no further clues.
If we can’t say who first coined it or when, we can certainly guess who motivated the initial utterance of the phrase: Harry J. Anslinger. The nation’s notorious first drug czar was appointed as commissioner of the Treasury Department’s newly created Bureau of Narcotics in 1930 and promptly did more to demonize what was then a mildly intoxicating plant that no one worried about than anyone else in history. Without his efforts, it probably never would have been outlawed.
Had his policies not ruined the lives of millions by making them criminals for enjoying a weed commonly found across the landscape, Anslinger’s statements would be nothing short of hysterical in both senses of the term.
For instance, in 1937, he told the Washington Herald, “If the hideous monster Frankenstein came face to face with the monster marihuana, he would drop dead of fright.”
A darker quote frequently attributed to him evokes visions of the Dark Lord. “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”
Summoning the Devil to justify a drug policy driven by unbridled racism puts the entire sordid argument into proper perspective. But it took Hollywood to whitewash it. Exploitation films about the presumed horrors that inevitably arise from that first puff began emerging in the early ‘30s. First to invoke eternal damnation via relaxing buzz was the 1936 B-movie trash classic Marihuana (the common spelling at the time), which frequently carried the subtitle “the Weed with Roots in Hell” on its posters.
Satan was formally declared not just Master of Lies, but master gardener as well by producers of the 1942 propaganda quickie, “Devil’s Harvest.” A few years later, the 1949 low-budget flick “She Shoulda Said No” bounced from one distributor to another in a failed effort at finding a market. In the process it was retitled several times, appearing in some theaters under the name “Marijuana: the Devil’s Weed.”
Two years later, an obscure country singer named Mr. Sunshine recorded a cautionary song titled “Marijuana, the Devil’s Flower,” in which he admonished listeners that “when you get the habit / you’ll sink right in to sin / for the Devil’s got you in his fold.”
And in the ‘60s, when the enormous popularity of Johnny Cash prompted tiny regional country labels to record anyone who could sound like him, and when reefer madness was at fever pitch among those who never tried it, Johnny Price came along with the similarly titled “Marijuana, the Devil Flower,” calling the plant “the Devil in disguise.”
Both singers and both of their songs sank without a trace, only to be resurrected in the new millennium by YouTubers and a rising popular interest in old novelty songs.
Meanwhile, Satan’s thumb was getting greener, having gone from harvesting weeds to raising flowers.
Exactly when along this twisted path the Devil took to growing lettuce as well remains unclear, but by the ‘60s the leafy plant was a common analogy for cannabis. The late Rock Scully, a longtime manager for the band most heavily affiliated with its consumption once wrote that “grass in the Grateful Dead camp is just like a salad — that you smoke.”
But what would the Devil do? As with God, we don’t know, but his followers claim they do. Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan, was rabidly opposed to all chemically altered states of consciousness and said of marijuana (and other mind-altering substances) that it “ought to be shunned like the plague”
Of course, like any religion that’s lasted more than a few hours, Satanism has long been beset by schisms. So if the Devil is your bag and you want to keep him in your baggie as well, consider what Malcom Jarry, spokesman for the Satanic Temple, told High Times in 2018. The religion, he said “believes in individual sovereignty, which includes the right to ingest whatever chemicals a person chooses.”
Regardless of Lucifer’s feelings, the feds are on to his supposed involvement. According to the website Green Entrepreneur, the Drug Enforcement Agency includes Devil’s lettuce on its list of slang terms for the plant, along with other creative monikers such as love nuggets, burritos verdes, and perhaps best of all, smoochy woochy poochy, which doesn’t have much of a demonic ring to it.
Meanwhile, Devil’s lettuce has come a long way. Once a term that implied the evils of marijuana, it’s now a product grown and sold by Nevada cultivator Flora Vega. And in case you’re still concerned, the company assures customers that it is “far from a diabolical strain, as its powerful Indica properties help you to relax away all of your sins.”
So feel free to indulge in some Devil’s lettuce if you wish. But it’s probably wise to avoid the Devil’s lattice. You might catch your foot in it and wind up twisting your ankle instead of a fatty.
David James is a freelance writer in Fairbanks. Comments about this story? Email editor@AlaskaCannabist.com.