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Tuesday May 25, 2021

By Erin Hiatt

420 Culture

If you’ve ever had a smoke sesh with friends you know there are a few cardinal rules: puff, puff, pass (because the first puff is polite, the second puff says you’re really enjoying it, but the third puff is just selfish), and then pass the joint to the left.

But why to the left? Is there some sort of regional or cultural preference, or a longstanding superstition? Or maybe it’s just one of those things you do because everyone else is doing it? Let’s take a look at why the joint is always passed to the left.

Which Direction to Pass a Joint

There are at least a few theories of where the practice originated. Lizzie Post, the great-granddaughter of advice guru Emily Post is the author of Higher Etiquette: A Guide to the World of Cannabis, from Dispensaries to Dinner Parties. Her advice, while not specifically addressing passing to the left, relies on simplicity and common courtesy. Passing etiquette, she writes, “is very similar to what we learned both at the dinner table and in the kindergarten circle”: pass in one direction, don’t skip people, and don’t forget to keep passing.

Cultural Roots of Passing to the Left

A second theory harkens back to the Rastafarians who use cannabis as part of their religious rites and consider cannabis to be the “wisdom weed” whose use helps one to gain wisdom. When practitioners gather, they use a cannabis smoking pipe called a chalice that resembles a bong-like ceremonial pipe, also known as a wisdom chalice or chillum chalice. During this rite, thanks and prayers are offered to Jah – the personal name of God – the chalice is lit, and then is passed counterclockwise (aka, to the left) among the group. 

A man sitting next to a chillum chalicec
The roots of passing to the left are heavily influenced by the Rastafarians' practice to pass the wisdom chalice to the left. photo credit

Speaking of Jamaica, some attribute the tradition of passing to the left to the Jamaican harmony trio Mighty Diamonds, whose music is strongly influenced by Rastafarian culture. Their 1982 song “Pass the Kouchie” gets right to the point with this chorus:

Pass the kouchie pon the lef' hand side

Pass the kouchie pon the lef' hand side

It a go bun, it a go dung, Jah know

The rest of the lyrics reference encountering a group of rastas during a smoking session and hearing them sing the chorus above, further tying the practice to Rastafarian customs. This seems to be the most likely source of the practice.

The UK's Royal Navy
Other cultural influences of passing to the left can be dated back to the U.K.'s Royal Navy. photo credit

However, another theory relates tangentially to the U.K.’s Royal Navy old seafaring tradition of passing a decanter of port to the left. The logic behind passing to the left is sound. By passing to the port side of the ship, or the left side, it’s easy to remember which way to pass and everyone gets to partake. Another theory is that the port was passed to the left so everyone could keep their sword arm free (hopefully no one in a smoke circle will need to have a sword handy). 

But it may come down to something much simpler. Most people are right-handed, so by passing to the left you are more likely to put the joint in the dominant hand of the next person in the circle. 

General Joint Sharing Etiquette

While we may not know the exact origins of passing to the left, doing so will keep you from making a rookie mistake. Here are some other tips for acing your smoke circle: 

  • Whoever rolls it, sparks it
  • Roast your joint
  • Take slow, steady hits
  • Puff, puff, pass
  • Ash before you pass
  • Don’t babysit the joint (hold for too long without passing)
  • Don’t exhale in anybody’s face
  • Try not to slobber on the joint
  • Respect house rules
  • Don’t criticize people who choose not to partake

The note to “respect house rules” is of key importance. People may have individual preferences or quirks in their smoking etiquette. If you’re a guest, let the host set the standards.

The Wrap Up

Remember, we are still in the throes of a pandemic so it’s important to be really thoughtful about who you share joints with – or if you should share joints at all for the time being. Stay safe out there!

Where do you think passing joints to the left came from? Chime-in below in the comments!

Photo Credit: Goodboy Picture Company (license)


Erin Hiatt Erin Hiatt

Erin Hiatt is a New York City-based writer who has been covering the cannabis industry for more than six years. Her work - which has appeared in Hemp Connoisseur Magazine, PotGuide, Civilized, Vice, Freedom Leaf, MERRY JANE, Alternet, and CannaInvestor - covers a broad range of topics, including cannabis policy and law, CBD, hemp law and applications, science and technology, beauty, and psychedelics.

Erin's work and industry insights have been featured on the podcasts The Let's Go Eat Show, In the Know 420, and she has appeared as a featured panelist on the topic of hemp media. Erin has interviewed top industry experts such as Dr. Carl Hart, Ethan Nadelmann, Amanda Feilding, Mark A.R. Kleiman, Dr. James Fadiman, and culture icons Governor Jesse Ventura, and author Tom Robbins. You can follow her work on LinkedInWordpress, @erinhiatt on Twitter, and @erinisred on Instagram.

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