Cannabeginners: The History of Acapulco Gold

How a counterculture music crusade was funded by smuggled cannabis.
Acapulco Gold
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One of High Time’s 25 Greatest Strains of All Time, Acapulco Gold is a legendary cultivar that is so rare these days the gold in the name might as well be a reference to its scarcity, rather than its color. Yet it was once one of the most commonly found cultivars in the hippie days of the 1960s on the West Coast of the U.S., and later was a crucial lifeline to funding the growth of the early punk scene in the 1980s. 

History of Acapulco Gold

As legend has it, Acapulco Gold (also called Mexican sativa) originated high up in the Guerrero Mountains, east of the port city of Acapulco. Not only was this warm, wet, coastal climate ideal for cannabis cultivation, the location on the Pacific coast made it primary territory for Californian surfers searching for big waves and strong bud. It would only be a matter of time before those surfers and others would bring Acapulco Gold back home with them.

According to Royal Queen Seeds, “Acapulco Gold first showed up in the United States back in 1964,” which tracks with the history of Romulan, where Mexican genetics first appeared in the 1960s. If that timeline is accurate, Acapulco Gold would have arrived in San Francisco just in time for the birth of the hippie movement and 1967’s Summer of Love, a perfect time and place to become a cultural icon. Cementing its status as a connoisseur-grade cultivar, Cheech and Chong immortalized Acapulco Gold by featuring it in Up in Smoke and creating a slogan for it, “No sticks no seeds that you don’t need. Acapulco Gold is….Bad Ass Weed.”

Gary Tovar: From Acapulco Gold to Goldenvoice

When you scour the internet for information about Acapulco Gold, while some finer details of stories might be a bit different, they all tend to mention the same man, smuggler and concert promoter, Gary Tovar. Tovar smuggled a variety of goods over the years, but in the late 1960s he began to smuggle cannabis into the U.S., both seeds and bud, which became “California’s largest marijuana operation.” The most notable cultivars that Tovar smuggled were Afghani, Thai Stick, and Acapulco Gold. Eventually, he would earn millions of dollars before being arrested for drug trafficking in 1991, and imprisoned the following year until 1999. 

In 1978, Tovar entered a new phase of his life, with the hippie movement long dead, the counterculture sought a new music to define the era, and Tovar found that in punk rock at a Sex Pistols concert. Three years later, Tovar founded the concert promotion company Goldenvoice (named for a different cannabis cultivar) to bring punk to the masses. The 1980s was a very different time than 2023, and many venues were afraid to host punk shows out of fears of violence; punk also faced law enforcement crackdowns. 

According to a profile on Tovar, “Punk’s lifeline was cash from cannabis, and music provided a way to wash the proceeds from the trade.” By his own estimation, Tovar spent over $4 million promoting punk music and bringing major British bands to the U.S., which all came from his cannabis business. “When I was doing both my things – smuggling and concerts – I considered them crusades,” Tovar said, adding “Now I think we won on both ends. Our music won – you can hear a Ramones song in an elevator – and we won on the marijuana front.” It wasn’t just punk music though, Tovar was an early booster of goth, industrial, and all sorts of alternate music, and he worked with artists including Siouxsie and the Banshees, GBH, Public Image LTD, Nirvana, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Guns N’ Roses, and Jane’s Addiction, just to name a few. Even though Tovar stepped away from Goldenvoice in 1991 when he went to prison, Goldenvoice has thrived and their flagship festival, Coachella, is one of the most well-known music festivals in the world. 

As the history laid out by Royal Queen Seeds says Acapulco Gold came to the U.S. earlier than Tovar was smuggling it, chances are, he may not have been the first person to bring Acapulco Gold to the U.S., but the identity of that person is lost to the ages. The other name mentioned in connection to Gary Tovar is an associate of Tim Leary known as LaRue, who was Tovar’s connection for Afghani seeds, but no sources clearly connect LaRue to Acapulco Gold. 

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Flavor/Terpene Profile

True Acapulco Gold is a pure sativa, which makes sense given how close it originated to the equator. As we have discussed, the terms indica and sativa aren’t the most scientifically accurate terms for predicting the effects of a cultivar. That being said, Acapulco Gold is known to be a very energizing cultivar, as one would expect from a sativa. Some sources online have it listed as a hybrid with some indica genetics in the mix, though most refer to it as being a sativa landrace, this discrepancy may be a result of the lack of clarity over what denotes a “pure sativa” cultivar.

The flavor and scent of Acapulco Gold ranges in description from “an intense fruit cocktail flavor,” to “earthy overtones mixed with hints of spice, citrus, and rich toffee/honey-like sweetness.” From my past experience smoking it, nearly a decade ago, it was very fruity, more of a tropical than citrus sweetness, with some spice to balance it out. This makes sense given that its terpene profile tends to be dominated by myrcene (which is found in mangos and would impart a tropical sweetness) and beta-caryophyllene (which would give it that spiciness), there also are notable amounts of limonene (which is responsible for the citrus flavor often noted). 

Is Real Acapulco Gold Actually Gold?

As we discussed in the last section, there is some debate over the exact genetics of Acapulco Gold (how sativa-leaning it is), which could be because it is so rare you have people claiming something is Acapulco Gold when it is not (similar to what some have claimed about Blue Dream). Royal Queen Seeds has this caveat emptor, “Nowadays, many seed banks sell their own version of Acapulco Gold. Some of them can trace the genetics back to Mexican origins, whereas others have slapped the title on unrelated hybrids.” 

One of the most notable characteristics of Acapulco Gold, the source of its namesake, is its color. So does that mean that all Acapulco Gold should be golden in color? According to Tovar, the golden color was from the wind burning the bud yellow, and the older it was by the time it got to the US, the more the color faded to gold. That means the color really was due more to environmental factors and poor storage practices during smuggling than a result of genetics, and perhaps Acapulco Gold grown in a different climate would not be gold.

Do you have an Acapulco Gold story to share or a tip about its origins? Let us know with a comment!

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9 comments
  1. St. Louis , Mo 1970. My neighbor & classmate, Kenny Skaggs went to Acapulco with his parent’s and brought back a little. Three of us shared a joint one afternoon , and I gotta tell ya, I was pretty zonked for several hours ! A one and done for me.

  2. LONG AGO AND FAR FAR AWAY..NO WAIT THAT WAS ANOTHER STORY

    IN THE BEGINNING THERE WAS THE WORD AND THE WORD WAS POT
    AND THE LORD SAW THAT IT WAS GOOD

    LATER THERE WAS A SURFER AND HE THOUGHT THE WAVES WERE GOOD AND THEN HE DISCOVERED POT WHILE EXPLORING THE WILDS OF ACAPULCO

    THE LITTLE KIDS WOULD COME RIGHT UP TO HIM AND OFFER A BAGGIE FULL OF POT FOR $5

    ONE OF THE KIDS WAS APART FROM THE OTHERS AND OUR FRIENDLY SURFER DECIDED TO SEE WHAT WAS WHAT

    IT TURNED OUT THAT HE WAS AN INDIAN BOY AND MEXICAN KIDS WOULDN’T LET HIM SELL THERE.

    HE SAID HIS GRANDPA’S POT WAS MUCH BETTER; OUR SURFER’S EYES GREW BIG AND ROUND HE THOUGHT IT WAS ALL THE SAME

    HE ASKED IF HE COULD GET SOME AND THE KID SAID YEAH BUT WE HAVE TO GO TO MY GRANDPA’S FARM

    FORTY MILES OF BAD ROAD LATER..

    GRAND PA TOOK THEM DOWN THE SLOPE BEHIND THE FARM AND THEIR WAS THE PLANTS THAT MADE POT

    THE FARMER NOT HAVING A BARN OR EVEN MUCH OF A HOUSE
    HAD CUT THE FLOWERS TO HANG FROM THE PLANT BY LEAVING SOME FIBERS TO KEEP THEM ATTACHED TO THE PLANT WHILE DRYING.

    THE HIGH ALTITUDE SUN HAD BLEACHED THE FLOWERS TO A GOLDEN HUE QUITE UNLIKE THE TYPICAL REDDISH BROWN HE WAS FAMILIAR WITH

    HE ASKED TO TRY IT AND AFTER A FEW HITS HE SAW GOD AND GOD SAID WHAT DO YOU THINK. HE SAID NEXT TO SEX AND SURFING THAT WAS YOUR BEST IDEA YET

  3. Three weeds I do remember

    1 red 1 Gold and one weirdly green and sparkly looking They were the bestest ever. Red was giggle weed and gave you permasmile for 4 hours, AH the famous Panama Red, quite wonderful
    Gold was from Acapulco and a very different buzz It was my forst real high ….very very very high.

    Eventually I had Thai Stick. 4 little nuggers on a skewer. AMAZING More of a couch lock sedative, but amazing. The Gold was easily the best , but a pot seed away was P. red and it was kinda couch locking, but not like Thai. I thought the Thai Stick was laced with opium. So I never reindulged. Centuries later I found it was just amazingly strong.

    Wish I had a time machine, I would go back buy certain stocks and 40 pounds of weed.

    one day I would love all 3 again. And to my eyes, the Gold was yellowish gold and the red was red, the thai was green and sparkly, I know know that was tricomb madness.

  4. I’d heard that the gold colour comes from cutting a ring round the base of the stem, a week before cropping. This causes the plant to die, withdraw its chlorophyl and decarb the thca to thc, hence the golden colour. Frankly, all weed can do with this, unless its being decarbed some other way.

    As for the red strains, they have extra bang, and are very long lasting. Maybe someone knows what does this?

  5. I smoked a lot of the ACTUAL Acapulco Gold back in the day..that WAS Gold in Color..This Strain they are selling now is NOT true Acapulco Gold. Enough said!

  6. I found a coin on the sidewalk around 1982. It said Acapulco Gold on it with a leaf and it said “the best”
    I wonder if anyone knows where it came from?

  7. I first tried Acapulco Gold this pre-rolls when I was in Ontario. It’s a really energetic High you feel like you’re soaring as if you’ve picked up altitude it’s very pleasant. You could smoke this at the Cannabis gym for sure.

  8. Every year along about this time it all goes dry
    Nothing ’round for love or money that’ll get you high
    Henry got pissed off and said he’d run to Mexico
    To see if he could come back holding twenty keys of gold
    Now the road to Acapulco is very hard indeed
    And it isn’t any better if you haven’t any weed
    Henry’s driving hard and straight on twisty mountain roads
    Fifty people waiting back at home for Henry’s load

    And now he’s rolling down the mountain, going fast, fast, fast
    And if he blows it, this one’s gonna be his last
    Run to Acapulco to turn the golden keys
    Henry, keep your brakes on for this corner if you please

    John Dawson and the New Riders of the Purple Sage, 1970

  9. Got a couple of ounces of gold in the early- and mid-70’s on the east coast. It really was GOLD, smelled unbelievably good compared to the typical weed going around at the time, and was VERY strong. Back then, weed had seeds in it. After getting the second ounce, I planted a few seeds the next spring and ended up with a single female. The plant was about 6-1/2 feet tall and pretty lean. The bottom of the leaves turned purple in the fall and the top were pale green. There were plenty of buds, but they weren’t full and fat like the buds bred into strains nowadays. I dried it inside and it did NOT turn gold, so the original color was definitely part of the drying process used in Mexico. However, the weed was just as good as the original. Since I only got one female it came out sinsemilla, so I didn’t get any seeds to plant the next year. Glad I got to smoke the real thing.

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