Connect with us

Cannabis Now

Willie Nelson: An Outlaw Country Cannabis Icon

A black and white image of Willie Nelson singing on stage with his guitar.


Willie Nelson: An Outlaw Country Cannabis Icon

Photo by Gracie Malley

Willie Nelson: An Outlaw Country Cannabis Icon

Legendary singer discusses his relationship with marijuana and the origins of songs like ‘Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.’

Outlaw Country legend Willie Nelson is an all-American cannabis icon known and loved by generations of bud smokers. He’s as famous for his friendly, no-frills approach to living the high life as he is for his one-of-a-kind country sound. Cannabis Now contributor, Ricardo Baca, sat down with “Shotgun Willie” on his famously stoney tour bus to talk about his life, music and the future of the marijuana movement. — Cannabis Now

Willie Nelson has heard almost all of the anti-cannabis malarkey out there, including the ridiculous (and now politically topical) refrain that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” When faced with a prohibitionist’s nonsense, he reacts as you’d expect him to: with a gentle but forceful argument that’s as laconic as it is logical.

Sitting at a crowded table inside his Honeysuckle Rose tour bus, he said he always intuitively knew that anti-weed propaganda was just that, and that he thinks most cannabis users did.

“I think we knew more than what most people gave us credit for knowing. We knew we were supposed to be bad people because we smoked marijuana, but we knew we weren’t bad people,” he said. “So we knew somewhere in there was a discrepancy that people had to realize that, ‘Wait a minute: It don’t make him a bad guy just ’cause he smokes weed… It’s not the only thing we’ve been lied to about, if you stop and think about it.”

Nelson wrote music and raised hell with Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, sure. And he’ll forever be remembered for ubiquitous hits like “On the Road Again,” but he’s also one of the most impassioned legalization activists on Earth. His work to legalize and normalize cannabis use has elevated his visage to most ganja aficionados’ Mount Rushmore of legalization heroes.

Black and white photograph of Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard hanging out

Photo Danny Clinch

He’s synonymous with cannabis —  simply think about how many musical references to Willie in relation to weed there are in popular song.

In 1975, Nelson released the full-length “Red Headed Stranger” – and years later a similarly named strain of marijuana emerged as an homage to the eponymous track.

Toby Keith famously sang “Weed with Willie,” where he laments-slash-wisecracks, “I’ll never smoke weed with Willie again.”

And to Canadian rock band the Tragically Hip, Willie is weed — Nelson’s name is an actual synonym for pot. When the band performs the song “Bobcaygeon,” fans know what they mean when they sing, “Could have been the Willie Nelson/Could have been the wine.”

Remember when Haggard joined Nelson on “It’s All Going to Pot”?

And of course there’s the sly “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” which Nelson co-wrote and recorded with Snoop Dogg, Kris Kristofferson and Jamey Johnson.

But when it comes to Wille vis-a-vis marijuana and music, does this 83-year-old singer-songwriter literally want his ashes to be rolled up and ingested by his loved ones after he passes?

“Literally,” Nelson said, adding a dramatic pause. “I don’t give a damn. It was just a funny thing to say.”

When Nelson and I sat together on his bus for an hour, it was a warm October evening in San Diego less than a month before the election. Polls were telling us that California’s historic Proposition 64 was about to pass and legalize recreational cannabis in the world’s most important pot economy.

Polls were also pointing toward the inevitability of a President Hillary Clinton, but Nelson wasn’t interested in talking politics. When asked if he’d been watching the debates or reading the news, he quietly shook his head back and forth and told me about a new song he’d written: a moving-on-from-2016 mantra called “Delete and Fast-Forward.”

But the soft-spoken artist was game for talking cannabis, legalization and his new weed company Willie’s Reserve, which is already selling Nelson-branded marijuana products in Washington state and Colorado.

Nelson accurately predicted California’s passage of Prop 64 and talked on the legalization movement’s remarkable and swift, progress.

As people outside the bus filtered into the venue he was playing later that night, the seaside Humphreys Concerts by the Bay, he said California has always been at the edge of the cannabis movement.

“California has a progressive way of thinking, and they are, in a lot of ways, a little ahead of some of the other states – and they’ve decided that cannabis is a positive plant to have in the land,” he said. “Who would have thought that we would have gotten this far? You had to go through the whole thing from the beginning, from the point where they’d put you in prison for life for a seed. So we’ve gone from there to where we are now, which is a lot of progress.”

Given prohibitionists’ previously successful fear-mongering campaigns, Nelson wasn’t sure he’d live to see legal marijuana being sold in regulated storefronts. But once the knowledge began to spread that this much-feared substance wasn’t as harmful or deadly as other substances used recreationally in America and elsewhere, he was shocked the word didn’t spread faster.

“I’m still surprised it took this long for educated people to get a little sense. We’ve had so many negative things thrown at us about what it does to you and the bad things that marijuana can do to you,” he said. “And ‘Reefer Madness,’ I don’t know if you remember that movie or not, but it was horrible and it made people really scared. And fear is a hard thing to overcome, so all that had to be overcome. Now when people smoke or eat a piece of candy they realize that, ‘Wait a minute. What’s the big deal?’”

He added that he feels like that fear is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

“Most of us have (overcome the fear). Not everybody. I don’t think we ever will be 100 percent for (legalization). We’re not really 100 percent for anything,” he said. “There are always a few stragglers over there who can’t really understand it.”

There’s a reason Nelson has become our official poet laureate of cannabis sativa. When he talks about his relationship with the plant, it’s almost lyrical.

Does weed help with his creative process?

“It has a lot to do with calming the nerves, which makes the creative juices flow a little easier.”

What does he think of the reams of recent marijuana research?

“It’s medicine, and it’s already been proven to be medicine. End of story.”

What crossed his mind when he first heard that CBD was helping children with epilepsy?

“I was a little bit surprised. But doctors know more than me.”

Does this Farm Aid organizer think the cannabis industry can learn lessons from traditional agriculture?

“I don’t like it when they put chemicals and pesticides in it; That makes it not much better than a regular old cigarette.”

What does Nelson think about vaping?

“Smoking a joint in paper is not as good for your lungs as it is doing it in a vaporizer. It’s a no-brainer, really.”

And what keeps Nelson up at night?

“I’m 83 years old, so I really don’t worry about too many things,” he said. “The things I worried about never happened, and the things I didn’t worry about almost killed me. So I don’t think about that stuff a lot.”

And just like that, Nelson gave away his secret — the philosophy that has guided him through a lengthy career, an even longer life and has positioned him in the role of zen marijuana master.

For those who sometimes ask themselves, “What would Willie do?”, he said the answer is simple, if metaphysical.

“I’m 100 percent against worry,” Nelson said, looking me straight in the eye. “I don’t believe in it. I think it causes negative thoughts into your body, which brings on poison, which brings on all kinds of crap from cancer to you name it – all because of negative thinking. Through positive thinking you can avoid it all.”

Parts of this interview were originally published in The Cannabist.

Originally Published in Issue 24 of Cannabis Now. LEARN MORE

TELL US, do you want to smoke with Willie? If you could smoke with any celebrity who would it be?

More in Cannabis

To Top