The high road to Panama: A connoisseur’s guide to the dope scene along the Gringo Trail – 1976

The High Road to Panama

Connoisseur’s guide to the dope scene along the Gringo Trail in 1976

Commercial Grade Columbian & Homegrown – The US Market

Seaweed – Key West

Mayan Green – Tulum

Magic Mushrooms – Palenque

Oaxacan Spears – San Cristobal de las Casas

Panama Red – Panama

Colombian Gold – Cartagena

Blue Mountain Ganja – Port Antonio

Mexican Shake, Commercial Grade Columbian and Homegrown – US Market Snapshot

‘Lumbian mersh’ (dealer-speak for Commercial Grade Colombia dope) started to hit US streets around 1973. Mersh was a big improvement over the harsh Mexican shake that defined the late 60’s pot scene. Nixon’s 1971 War on Drugs and Operation Intercept had disrupted the cross-border supply chain for cheap Mexican weed. As a result, smugglers turned to importing higher margin, more potent herb from Colombia via Florida.

Mersh was strong enough, lots of flower tops mixed in with the leaf, but usually quite seedy (up to 20% by weight) with stems. By the time consumers bought a lid of mersh in New Hampshire it would be dry and brownish and might even crumble into powder as you were rolling a doobie. Street prices were around $20 to $30 an ounce, double the price of Mexican shake. Mersh was widely available, especially in college towns like Boulder, Madison or Austin.

Domestic cannabis production was just starting to take off. Homegrown traditionally had a bad rep – think lots of leaf, stems and seeds – and was typically ‘headache material’. You had to smoke a lot to get a buzz. But switched-on hippies in Humboldt County, California and Josephine County, Oregon had perfected the art of Sinsemilla and were packaging the aromatic herb in glass jars for delivery, just like the moonshiners of old. But ‘sinse’ was hard to find outside of the region and very expensive…upwards of $100 an ounce.

No, in 1976, if you wanted to smoke the very best dope and have plenty of it you had to head south

Seaweed – Key West, Florida

Key West was a doper’s paradise in 1976. Celebrated in song by Jimmy Buffet (load that last ton), pot smoke would waft down Simonton every night and joints would be surreptitiously passed around down by the shrimp dock. Weed was everywhere.

You’d get two types of weed in Key West. Good Colombian bud for $25 – $30 an ounce. Hardly any leaf or stem. A few big, beautiful brown ‘tiger stripe’ seeds but they were fun to have. And it was fresh off the boat, loosely packed, so the buds held their shape and were still aromatic and sticky. Very potent, a hit or two in the morning and a few more around dusk and your entire day would be miraculously transformed into Key West time.

Or there was seaweed. Key West was a convenient stop on the drug highway between Colombia and Miami. The Keys had many isolated bays and beaches, perfect for late night rendezvous. Fishing, diving and pleasure boats were readily available for hire with no questions asked. But sometimes pot smugglers would get nervous and dump their load of 50kg bales overboard. Bales of Lumbian mersh would literally wash up on the beaches of the Keys.

It still worked, of course, but it would be musty and smell like dead fish. Not the best, but you could get quarter pounds for $25 or so if a load has washed up.

With all of this money around, corruption was rife, especially amongst the native Conchs in Key West. In September of 1975 undercover DEA agents busted the Key West Fire Chief, Joseph ‘Bum’ Farto, for selling cocaine out of the firehouse. As the City tow truck arrived to haul away his Chief’s car, the DEA agents confiscated it as well. The good ol’ boys were peddling dope all over town. Code-named Operation Conch, a total of 28 community stalwarts, including Manny James, the City Attorney and son of the Police Chief, were arrested.

James would eventually spend nearly a decade in prison on unrelated drug charges. The Fire Chief disappeared the following February. ‘Where is Bum Farto’ tee shirts were big sellers for years on Duval Street. Miami Vice was still seven years in the future.

Mayan Green – Tulum, Quintana Roo

The dope improved markedly across the Yucatan Channel on the beaches of Quintana Roo. Fresh green, sticky buds, very potent. Highly aromatic with a sweet, almost fruity smell. Only a few little white seeds in the buds, a sure sign of freshness. You could squeeze the bud between your fingers and it would stick to your thumb due to the resins in the hairs. Nice. Little paper-wrapped packets of un-manicured buds, maybe 10 grams, would set you back 50 pesos (about $3) and keep you loaded for a week.

Each little beachside bar / café had it’s own dealer, usually a friend of the owner. A case in point was El Paraiso, one of the hipper joints on the beach at Tulum. A few minutes after ordering a Cerveza Montejo, the local brew, you’d be sitting out at a table by the beach. A cool looking dude would sit down.

“Amigo, welcome.” A little small talk, enough for both of us to check each other out. It didn’t take long to establish our bona fides. “Do you have enough weed?” “Sure what do you have?”

A packet would be passed under the table. “Anything better?” “Oh, Amigo, maybe this, but more expensive.” Another packet. “60 Pesos.” “Looks good but 60 is too much…how about 40?” “50.” The pesos passed back under the table. Big grins all around. You’d be all set for your beach holiday.

Weed was illegal, of course, but officials turned a blind eye if you were discrete. That went for travellers like myself and the local dealers. Nobody really cared if you got high or not. The upshot was that, for the rest of my time in Mexico, buying good dope at rock bottom prices was always easy, safe and very rewarding.  (300)

Magic Mushrooms – Palenque, Chiapas

Magic Mushrooms (Psilocybe cubensis) thrive in the lush pastures around Palenque. Creole cattle graze the rich grasses and transform the fodder into nutrient-rich soft, squishy manure. Every morning, especially after a rain, a fresh crop of Magic Mushrooms blooms out of the shit.

Psilocybin mushrooms were everywhere. The pasture across from Mayabel was perfect. You look for semi-fresh plops of cow shit, being careful not to disturb the cattle, and keep an eye out for the elegant fungi. The whitish caps are less than an inch in diameter, sitting atop delicate stems with dark gills. The flesh on the heads turns purple if you bruise them. You could pick a dozen beauties in minutes once you got the hang of it.

Back at the palapa, the ‘hongas’ as they were known locally, would quickly go into the frying pan over the open fire along with eggs from the local farmer and peppers and fresh cheese from the market. They taste earthy, much like Oyster Mushrooms, with a sweetness all their own.

Maybe 20 minutes later you’d start to feel a bit ‘different’. The sounds would reverberate, the colors – especially the greenery in the jungle – would become more intense. Your fingers and toes would tingle.

You can control your buzz easily. If you felt like it, you could follow the forest path, past the pools and waterfalls, up to the ruins and spend the day drinking in the atmosphere. Or you could lie back and gaze up at the mahogany lattice-work that held the palapa together. Or even wander into town for a cold helado on the Zocalo and watch the world go by.

Not only is Palenque a perfect lab for propagating Psilocybe cubensis but it’s also the perfect place to eat them. Still like that, I understand.

Oaxacan Spears – San Cristobal Las Casas, Chiapas

I had to ride up into to the highlands of Chiapas to track down the fabled Oaxacan Spears. I’d heard legends for years, of course, but they never seemed to filter up above the border.

Oaxacan Spears are entire flower tops, or collas, maybe 8 – 10 inches long and as thick as a hot dog. Kind of like giant Thai sticks. The color can vary between green (fresher) through light brown (cured). Each spear would weigh in at around 10 – 20 grams. These were the real deal.

No seeds at all – the campesinos had discovered the art of growing sinsemilla – just hairy, sticky, stinky flowers. The heads would be tightly wrapped with hemp twine around the main stem making for an attractive and aromatic package. They just felt good to hold. And smoke. Just a couple of hits would send you to a happy place and keep you there.

Vendors could be found at the market or plaza. You could bargain them down to 50 pesos per spear, same cost as Tulum but twice the volume and at least twice the potency. One spear would last for weeks and make you very popular.

San Cristobal de las Casas was awash in Oaxacan. Discretely, of course, everyone in town was stoned. Shop keepers, café operators, street hawkers. Tourists. Add to that cosy little colonial-era posadas, quaint cafes with inexpensive, tasty comida typica, vibrant markets and a relaxed, laid back atmosphere. Even a public steam bath. Why would you ever want to leave?

Panama Red – Panama City, Panama

Buying weed in the back alleys of Panama City is not for the faint hearted. But the fabled Panama Red, one of the first ‘name brands’ of dope and made famous by the New Riders of the Purple Sage song, beckoned. So the first thing you do in Panama City is look to score.

You start in a sleazy bar by the docks. We sat down with our beers and started to scope out the bar loungers. The dealers would already be sizing us up. We looked promising.

“Psst, you need anything?” “Weed?” “Yah, man”. “Let me see”. “Oh man, not here. Out back, in the alley.” Out we went.

He flashed a paper bag that looked right. “$20 dollars.” I pulled the note out of my pocket and handed it over. He shoved the bag in my hands. Just then a figure loomed up from the shadows. “Policia! Let’s get out of here.” Off he bolted, the figure disappeared back into the gloom and I was left holding the bag. A bag full of crumpled up newspaper. We’d been had.

Hot, un-stoned, $20 poorer and pissed off. What a rip-off! This place sucks.

But then the sweet aroma wafted out from another alley. We peered in. A dude in dreads was puffing a giant spliff. He offered us a toke. Felt better already.

“Mon you need anything?” “Weed”. “Right here, $20”.

Another paper bag. Only this one was filled with about a dozen tight, well-cured, red-haired buds. We’d stumbled onto the mother lode. A few minutes (and a few puffs) later, it was “Isn’t Panama great, so mellow…I could stay here forever.” The fabled Panama Red lived up to its reputation.

The buds were beautiful, carefully manicured with the red hairs accented. The pot was cured nicely with a rich brownish / reddish hue and exuded a rich earthy aroma. Not quite as sticky as the fresher spears, the Panama Red was mature and quite potent. No seeds what-so-ever, just flowers and pistles covered in dried resin. Hardly any stems. Whoever grew / packed this stuff knew what they were doing.

Each bud weighed maybe two or three grams, enough for five or so stocky joints. We figured that we got close to an ounce for $20…the US dollar is the currency in Panama. Not cheap, but worth every cent. One joint would keep the four of us zoned for most of the day.

Colombian Gold – Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena was the epicentre of the drug trade in 1976. Probably still is. Colombia’s Caribbean littoral is perfectly suited for growing powerfully potent Colombian Gold. Like most brands, any weed from Colombia could be called ‘Colombian Gold’, even mersh (shudder). But true Colombian Gold cannot be faked. It’s in a class of its own.

Everybody in Cartagena, it seemed, had dope, but of varying quality. It really comes down to your source. Trying to buy on the street and you’ll be lucky to get anything decent. Dealers at the bars were somewhat better, but what sailor ever got a bargain in a port town? No, the best dope is from well-connected friends. The Fantasy was berthed at the Club de Pesca, the most exclusive address in the harbour and, it being Holy Week, the place was hopping.

Pepe, son of the owner of The Bandit, the yacht berthed next to us, was young, good looking and rich. And he liked to party. We quickly became friends. It didn’t take long for him to pull out his stash.

There’s no mistaking genuine Colombia Gold. It truly is golden. Big buds, thick with yellow hairs. And fluffy. Most of the Colombian smuggled into the states would have been packed tightly for weeks or months so the buds – even true Colombian Gold – would be crushed and mouldy-smelling. Still potent, but all the vitality and color had been squeezed out. Not this stuff. Pepe’s buds were carefully hand-picked, trimmed, cured and packaged. The Gold Standard.

No seeds at all, Pepe’s friends were embracing the sensimilla craze big time. Highly aromatic, as well. You can smell the buds long before you see them. And they are thick with resin. If you smoke a joint, your finger tips will be brown from the tar. Indeed, the Policia could tell dopers by looking at their fingers. Pipes are more prudent.

Never did figure out how much dope cost in Cartagena…joints just always happened to be going around any time we met up with friends. Cartagena and Colombian Gold lived up to their reputation.  

Blue Mountain Ganja – Port Antonio, Jamaica

There’s an almost mystical aspect when you are smoking a big fat spliff of powerful Jamaican Ganja with a dread-locked Rastaman in his cool jungle retreat. “Psst, hey mon! You smoke herb?” I looked around couldn’t see anyone… the jungle came right up to the road. “Over here”. I saw his face, framed by massive dreads, a big smile of flashing white teeth. A path opened up. His comfortable hut was grass-covered and open-sided, basic but ideal for the jungle. Isaac rolled a ridiculously large spliff from a burlap sack full of the freshest, greenest, most aromatic herb I’d seen. “We grow it all right here, along with the pineapples.”

The first puff and I was there. The second and I was out there. The third and I was almost out. We finished it off and I staggered back out to the road. “Have a good walk, Mon.”

Jamaica, if anything, was more stoned than Colombia. And much more relaxed about it. You could get high on the beach, behind the bar or shops, on the roadside. No paranoia at all.

Everybody had a cousin who grew world-class ganja in the bush. The herb from the Blue Mountains, the same climate and elevation that produces the legendary coffee, had the reputation of being the best.

Smaller buds, highly concentrated and very compact. Almost hash-like in their consistency. And smooth. You could take giant hits and not start hacking away. Rich and mellow. Color would vary, depending on age and cure. The golden variety was cured to perfection, left to hang in well-ventilated huts up in the misty mountains. The purple bud was more tightly wrapped during the drying and was darker and slightly musky. All of it, of course, would knock your socks off.

I had maybe $10 left to my name so I traded my 35mm Camera and case for a quarter pound of primo Blue Mountain ganja. I don’t think I’d ever held such a magnificent prize in my hands. Even better than the Oaxacan spears! I wrapped it up tightly (no avoiding it) in duct tape and buried it deep in the chain locker under 200 metres of galvanised anchor chain.

We sailed into Key West, cleared customs (Jim declared three cases of Jamaican Rum, for which he paid duty) and docked. The first thing I did was to haul the anchor chain on deck and rinse off the salt. “Gee Phil, I love the way you’re always cleaning the anchor chain, good work.” said Captain Jim.

That quarter pound not only made me very popular amongst my friends in Key West but it also financed my next adventure up the East Coast and then off to Montana and Wyoming.

One thought on “The high road to Panama: A connoisseur’s guide to the dope scene along the Gringo Trail – 1976

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: