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George Washington and Marijuana: Fact vs Fiction

The marijuana legalization debate goes on within America, with both sides working diligently to achieve their own goals. Prohibitionists try to point to potential harmful effects that the plant can have on both the body and the population, while legalization supporters try to argue for its merits and health benefits.

As both sides go back and forth, many different strategies are utilized to make their points effectively. One method, sometimes used by marijuana supporters, is to bring the Founding Fathers into the debate. After all, many people claim George Washington himself used marijuana and didn’t he also grow hemp?

First President of the United States George Washington, one of the Founding Fathers known to have grown hemp prior to prohibition.

According to the Washington Post it is true that George Washington grew hemp in abundance, especially on one plot of land he called Muddy Hole. The Huffington Post goes on to say that in his farm journal of August 7, 1765, Washington notes that he “began to separate the male from the female hemp… rather too late.” Thomas Jefferson wrote that hemp “is abundantly productive and will grow for ever on the same spot.” Hemp was a popular plant at that time and had tremendous value for many industrial applications. At times Virginia farmers even had to pay to grow it. Hemp strains were utilized for making rope, creating canvas and even being spun into clothing.

Oil from the seeds was used to create things like paints or varnishes. Overall, the plant was primarily looked at as a cash crop for all of its uses.

Small Marijuana Leaf.

At the time, hemp was invaluable to a naval force. The strength of the rope produced by hemp came in handy aboard ships and as such, it was one of the most important crops that could be grown in a country that had an active navy.

One such country was Britain, which saw the necessity to have significant crops of the planet. Growing hemp would be necessity for colonial Virginia to support the British. This is where the growth of hemp was introduced into colonial America.

George Washington as a Farmer at Mount Vernon by Junius Brutus Stearns, 1851.

Over the years, hemp would come to be seen as an important part of American production. While they were part of the British colonies, it was seen as necessary to aid the strength of their navy. After the United States gained independence, hemp was still primarily seen as a valuable crop and the government encouraged its growth.

On top of that, the British, still seeing hemp as a necessity for their own naval strength, offered lucrative bounty programs in the hopes of gaining exports from American hemp farmers.

Kentucky hemp farmer with his harvested hemp plants, 1942. Photo by Bobeocean CC BY-SA 4.0

These bounties were what initially interested George Washington in growing hemp as a cash crop. The term cash crop means he was intending to sell the plants harvested instead of using them for his own self.

Great U.S. Presidents quotes

However, also according to the Washington Post, when doing a cost analysis of deciding which would be the best crop to grow, he realized that wheat would be the most financially rewarding cash crop for Mount Vernon. However, this didn’t mean he wasn’t interested in growing hemp for his estate’s own use.

A cannabis leaf and a bottle of hemp oil

Growing hemp for the rope, linen cloth, and sacks would be useful on his property for a variety of tasks. Indeed, he was a proponent of growing hemp so that he would be able to repair the fishing nets that they used on fishing trips to the Potomac.

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, 1797.

Yet, George Washington was not growing the strain of hemp that we would recognize as marijuana today. The big difference in the strains was the THC content. Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the component of marijuana that is psychoactive. This is where the “high” of marijuana comes from.

Marijuana is bred to produce increasingly higher amounts of the psychoactive substance THC.

Hemp that was used for industrial purposes barely contained any THC, usually less than 0.3%. The strains of cannabis that produce the euphoric effects are much higher in THC content. Marijuana contains a number of other psychoactive substances, such as CBD. No-one can say for certain which, if any, of these chemicals could have medicinal benefits without scientific research.

And while strains of hemp were grown for the purpose of smoking, there isn’t much evidence that George Washington intended to use hemp for anything other than the many useful products that could be cultivated from a harvest. There is no direct evidence that he ever engaged in smoking or consuming hemp for recreational or medicinal purposes.

Andrew Pourciaux is a novelist hailing from sunny Sarasota, Florida, where he spends the majority of his time writing and podcasting.

The marijuana legalization debate goes on within America, with both sides working diligently to achieve their own goals. Prohibitionists try to point to

Sorry, but George Washington and the Founding Fathers never actually got high

Early American presidents may have been enthusiastic growers of low-THC hemp, but there is no evidence whatsoever that any of them ever consumed it

George Washington in 1772, just before the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War. Photo by Washington and Lee University

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    Across the various cannabis-related corners of the internet, it is now taken as common knowledge that for the first 100 years of U.S. history, its presidents were all occasionally tripping on weed.

    Sorry, but George Washington and the Founding Fathers never actually got high Back to video

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    “Some of my finest hours have been spent on my back veranda, smoking hemp and observing as far as my eye can see,” reads a quote widely attributed to Thomas Jefferson.

    George Washington smoked it to soothe the pain of his false teeth, James Madison is said to have conceived the U.S. constitution in a haze of hemp smoke. James Monroe picked up the habit while in Paris and was reportedly puffing away on a hash pipe well into old age.

    Thomas Jefferson, who admittedly looks like a cannabis enthusiast. Photo by White House Historical Association

    Even 13th president Franklin Pierce allegedly puffed a few tokes while serving in the Mexican-American War, proclaiming it as “about the only good thing” to come out of the conflict.

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    Unfortunately, it’s all very, very untrue. Early American presidents may have been enthusiastic growers of low-THC hemp, but there is no evidence whatsoever that any of them ever consumed it.

    In fact, the whole thing is largely thanks to a wildly successful 1970s hoax.

    The Seed, an underground Chicago newspaper, ran a satirical story claiming that seven early U.S. presidents had smoked hemp. Citing a non-existent “Dr. Burke” from the equally non-existent American Historical Reference Society, the story spun convincing descriptions for each president’s encounter with the drug.

    “James Madison once remarked that had it not been for hemp, he would not have had the insights he had in the work of creating a new and democratic nation,” read one claim.

    The hoax took off after it was unwittingly repeated by Jesse Steinfeld, the then-U.S. surgeon general. Speaking before the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, Stenfeld cited “Dr. Burke” in claiming that “no less than seven U.S. presidents smoked marijuana.”

    Ever since, the alleged cannabis usage of early U.S. leaders has been an oft-repeated argument by pro-legalization activists.

    The National Constitution Centre now has a dedicated webpage to refute the notion that the likes of Washington and Madison were lighting up 18th century joints.

    Part of the confusion stems from the fact that many early U.S. presidents were indeed massive hemp enthusiasts, and indicated as much in letters and editorials. But they grew the crop as a way to make rope and paper, not as a hallucinogen.

    Second president John Adams even left behind this particularly cryptic quote from 1763: “Seems to me if grate Men dont leeve off writing Pollyticks, breaking Heads, boxing Ears, ringing Noses and kicking Breeches, we shall by and by want a world of Hemp more for our own consumshon.”

    While it seems like Adams is calling for Colonial America to treat its violence problem with a few more bong hits, he is in fact calling for more hemp rope by which to hang criminals.

    John Adams, who actually wanted to kill people with hemp, rather than get them high. Photo by Naval Historical Centre

    As for the quote about Thomas Jefferson smoking pot on his back veranda, that dates back only about 10 years. The non-profit that runs Monticello, Jefferson’s Virginia home, notes that the quote does not appear in any of Jefferson’s official writings, and only started appearing online in 2008.

    The widespread belief that Washington, Jefferson and Adams all smoked hemp is actually just a very successful 1970s instance of fake news