The History of Blunts
Come January 1, flavored tobacco products — including blunt wraps — will be banned in the state of California. San Francisco issued a similar ban in 2017, and flavored tobacco has not been legally available for purchase in the city since July 27, 2018. Whether such bans are justified is fiercely debated, with advocates pointing to research that suggests bans curb youth smoking rates and the opposition claiming such bans are excessive or infringe on their personal autonomy. What is less understood, however, is what this ban will mean for blunt smoking culture.
For years, blunts have been synonymous with the intersection of hip-hop and cannabis. Whether you’re looking at publicity shots of Notorious B.I.G. or selfies from Andre Nickatina’s feed, blunts are ubiquitous.
As is the case with much of hip-hop’s heritage, there is no clear cut answer to the question of where the practice originated. However, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting that the tradition of wrapping sticky buds in the gutted husks of Backwoods, Phillies, and Swisher Sweets descends from Caribbean cigar culture.
New York City’s population of Caribbean immigrants swelled in the 1990s and early 2000s. Over the course of that same decade, hip-hop became the best-selling genre of popular American music, the magazine Cigar Aficionado printed its first issue, and a lanky buffoon known as “Kramer” would regularly rave about the quality of his illicitly obtained “Cubans” on the hit NBC sitcom Seinfeld. Keying the word “blunt” into Google Trends indicates that national interest in the fusion of cigars and cannabis grew steadily from 2004 (the furthest back you can search on the platform) until around 2018, when it began to decline.
Taking all the aforementioned information into consideration — and weighing it against the fact that the word “blunt” is used only once, while the term “joint” makes five appearances in the Luniz’s iconic 1995 weed-smoking anthem, “I Got 5 on It” — and you have a strong case that historically Black neighborhoods in New York City, like the Bronx and Harlem, are the American home of tobacco-rolled cannabis cigars.
In California, blunt culture has taken on a unique tenor. NorCal cannabis consumers have a long-held reputation of being “purists,” choosing products that get them as close to the plant as possible, without any bells and whistles, like flavor add-ins or brand-name packaging. NorCal natives that partook long before legalization — and especially those who discovered cannabis in the free-loving ’70s — tend to be distinctly aware of this reputation, if not proud of it. So when Gavin Newsom signed a bill to ban flavored tobacco throughout the state at the end of August, sources who spoke with SF Evergreen didn’t think it would be particularly disruptive to Bay Area cannabis culture. To those longtime stoners, especially, blunts are merely a fad for the kiddos.
“I believe it’s an age thing,” says Melodye Montgomery, Oakland First Fridays’ de facto master of ceremonies. As a legend in the local cannabis community, she says she doesn’t see too many blunts passed — much less, those with flavors added in. “I haven’t noticed a lot of seniors smoking them, and it’s very specific to probably those 40 and under.”
Her remarks, echoed by most of the heritage smokers who spoke with SF Evergreen, recall the anti-flavor campaigning of the last several years. In July 2018, the city of San Francisco banned all flavored tobacco products, saying that “the tobacco industry has historically targeted sales of flavored products, especially menthol cigarettes, to youth communities of color.” In 2019, California notoriously sued the San Francisco-based vaporizer company Juul for targeting teens and doing little to prohibit underaged customers from buying their product. The Tobacco Free CA campaign “Flavors Hook Kids,” which has plastered bus stops and billboards throughout the state, insists that the “tobacco industry uses flavors to spark curiosity and mask the harshness of tobacco.” Though the current research shows that youth ages 12-29 years old do use flavored tobacco products at disproportionate rates, critics of the bill say it unnecessarily targets Black and brown adults, who are more likely to smoke menthol cigarettes. However, there’s no research on who was mostly smoking flavored blunts — much less, in the Bay Area specifically.
Wayne Justmann, the nation’s first medical use cannabis patient, takes a different approach. Though he doesn’t see flavored blunts often, he hasn’t noticed any difference by demographic. “It’s surprising when I hear a general statement like ‘all seniors do this,’ or ‘only teenagers do this,’” he says. “People enjoy flavor, and there’s something about a sweet tooth that we all enjoy.”
Shawn Gill, a Bayview native and local cannabis influencer going by @disfuckinguy on Instagram, says the way people smoke has much more to do with how they were introduced to cannabis, rather than age. For his younger brother, who’s in his early 20s, Gill says smoking blunts is part of “how he identifies himself to the outside world, as a person who is from the city and who is very simple, no-nonsense.” But for his sister, who won’t smoke anything other than weed wrapped in a natural tobacco leaf wrap, blunts are much more of a precise science. “People have a very specific idea of what it means to smoke,” he says.
Gill was introduced to blunts by his cousins in high school, who only smoked out of natural or slightly-sweetened wraps, like Diamond Swisher Sweets. “Flavors, just like flavored alcohol, was mostly ‘for girls,’” he says. From his experience, the assumption that flavors are a teenager favorite is only half-true. More important is the cannabis culture people are raised in — and in NorCal, consumers more heavily use natural leaf wraps than elsewhere in the country.
NorCal’s affinity for more ‘natural’ methods makes sense, especially in the context of the region’s broader affinity for crunchy-granola hippiedom. Whereas in Los Angeles a stoner’s expertise may be judged by the brand label slapped on their bong (I, a proud San Fernando Valley girl, grew up thinking anything less than an Illadelph was worthless), artistic blown glass is proof of taste.
Dina Reudel, a long time employee of Amoeba Records, says the first time she remembers Bay Area stoners caring about the vehicle through which they smoke was when Dead Heads, following the Grateful Dead on tour, started selling simple hand-blown pipes on the side of the street. “I don’t remember ever seeing any of that before I came out to California,” she says. “The Dead were through here all the time, and all the trolls would come along with them, wearing their mushroom-colored clothes, and putting their cloth out on the sidewalk so they could sell their pipes.” Now, some of the best hand blown glass makers in the world sell their work in smoke shops throughout the Bay Area.
Roach clips, too, appear to have been a big local trend. Often decorated with feathers or beads, roach clips had an alligator clip at the end in place of the smaller piece of cardboard papers now normally used as a ‘filter’ on joints. Montgomery says she still uses them. “I have a ton of clips, because I’m old school,” she says.
While blunts might be bigger on the east coast, and artisanal bongs and pipes in the west, all of that seems to be fading with the rise of legal cannabis. Defining yourself by smoking preferences is going out of style, whether you’re signaling your love for rap or psychedelic rock. Now, the trend is to “normalize,” cannabis — rather than calling ourselves out as stoners, we’re integrating cannabis into the benign parts of everyday life. Tech is getting smaller and the cannabis more concentrated, with brand name cannabis vaporizers and on-the-go preroll packs dominating the market. “Stoner culture used to be more all-consuming, whereas now you can be a stoner and a business person, you can be a stoner and a nurse, you can be a stoner and an army vet,” says Gill.
Thus, a ban on flavors isn’t as disruptive to the Bay Area cannabis community as some might have suspected. In the Bay, we keep it real.