The Meaning of Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Puff The Magic Dragon”

Peter, Paul and Mary in 1970.

Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Puff The Magic Dragon” is a popular children’s song from the 1960s that has long been assumed to be about drugs. First released in 1963, the song was written by Peter Yarrow and is based off a 1958 poem by Leonard Lipton, who at the time was Yarrow’s roommate at Cornell University.

The lyrics, while they tell a story of innocent adventure, do seem to reference marijuana. This was mostly taken with a wink and a nod of recognition at first, but in 1964 Newsweek blew it up with a scathing cover story about drug references in popular music.

However, both Yarrow and Lipton have denied that the song has any connection to drugs whatsoever.

[“Puff” is about] loss of innocence, and having to face an adult world. It’s surely not about drugs. I can tell you that at Cornell in 1959, no one smoked grass. I find the fact that people interpret it as a drug song annoying. It would be insidious to propagandize about drugs in a song for little kids.

Leonard Lipton on the lyrics to “Puff The Magic Dragon”

Yarrow was even more pointed in his response, calling out the Newsweek cover story directly:

As the principal writer of the song, I can assure you it’s a song about innocence lost. It’s easier to interpret “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a drug song than “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” This is just a funny rumor that was promulgated by Newsweek magazine [who ran a cover story about covert drug messages in pop music]. There is no basis for it. It’s inane at this point and really unfortunate, because even in Hong Kong it’s not played because of the allegation it’s about drugs. But I assure you it’s not.

When ‘Puff’ was written, I was too innocent to know about drugs. What kind of a meanspirited SOB would write a children’s song with a covert drug message?

Peter Yarrow on the lyrics to “Puff The Magic Dragon”

Cannabis users may laugh at the songwriters’ claims after hearing the song, because if “Puff The Magic Dragon” wasn’t purposely written about smoking pot then it certainly was done on accident. Of course the writers are going to deny that the song is about drugs when confronted, but it’s like, come on, guys.

Then again, this is 2022 and not 1964, and public views on cannabis have shifted quite a bit since then, as has the general knowledge that most people have about the lingo surrounding its use.

Take the protagonist, a dragon named “Puff”, who travels to a land called “Honah Lee” to visit his friend Jackie Paper.

Together the pair take on many mighty adventures, but since Puff is a mythical creature and Jackie is a human, time passes and Jackie grows up and the adventures come to an end.

This story arc gives the songwriters plausible deniability, because the plot itself has nothing to do with drugs. It’s simply a story about childhood slipping away, which is something that we all experience and can relate with. But then you hear the names and places used in the story, and your brain just lights up.

Artwork inspired by “Puff The Magic Dragon”. Artist unknown.

The name “Puff” is a dead giveaway, and the word dragon can also be heard as “drag in” or “draggin'”, meaning to take a puff of the magic drag (a.k.a. a joint). The name Jackie Paper further cements this, as once you’ve got Puff and Paper then you certainly will be frolicking in the autumn mist.

It can also be assumed that “Honah Lee” is a reference to the Hawaiian city of Hanalei, which has long been known for having some of the best marijuana in the world.

Some also suggest that “Honah Lee” is a reference to smoking hash, but I personally lean toward the geographic reference.

“Puff The Magic Dragon” was a massive hit upon its release, reaching number two on the Billboard Hot 100. Thus sparking the attention and outrage in the media, and simultaneously achieving legend status for getting a song on the radio during this time that was such a clear reference to drugs.

Puff The Magic Dragon (1978)

The song inspired a 1978 animated TV movie that premiered on CBS, produced by Fred Wolf Films. Like the song, the cartoon brought the drug references to the forefront but never out into the open. Puff simply looks like a nugget of weed and hangs out with a young boy who looks like a stoner.

The special was popular enough to inspire two sequels, bringing “Puff The Magic Dragon” into American homes nationwide.

Listen to “Puff The Magic Dragon” by Peter, Paul and Mary below, and decide for yourself if the song is about weed. Watch the full animated short below that.

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