Updated: Oct 9
Did the colonial era founders of the United States really smoke marijuana? Get to the bottom of this mystery in this whimsical analysis of the true history of the issue by Curt Robbins.
Happy July 4 to our American students and readers!
Urban legends of all stripes have gained renewed vigor in recent years. Fueled by pervasive social media networks like Instagram and Twitter, we're surrounded by a pseudoscientific moat of hyperbolic stories that have been thinly disguised as fact.
One urban legend in the burgeoning cannabis industry is the belief that America's founding fathers grew and consumed cannabis (more commonly known as marijuana or pot). Most versions of this story embrace the consumption avenue of smoking.
Here's how this trendy legend recently manifested on LinkedIn:
"Did you know? George Washington grew pot. Washington wrote in letters on more than one occasion that he grew marijuana. Many today suspect he smoked weed." — E. Smith
Vernacular is a Bitch
"Grew pot" and "smoked weed" are tainted phrases that beg readers to associate definitions and mental frameworks borrowed from modern life that simply did not exist in the time of Washington or Thomas Jefferson. The reality: These men lived more than 250 years ago. That's a quarter millennium in reverse in the Wayback Machine, folks.
I know, the notion that an influential cultural ancestor such as Ben Franklin or Jefferson smoked hand rolled joints or hit a primitive wooden pipe full of the kind herb is quaintly delicious. It's also an innocent form of misguided pothead patriotism. We all want to reboot the originals at some point to match the values of contemporary society—or our own self-image.
POTUS #1 (pre-dred wig period)
In the case of the cannabis culture, this impulse often materializes when one adds a 1970s Cheech & Chong-inspired veneer to the relatively prudish workaholism and religion that heavily infused the culture of the founders of the United States in the mid-18th century.
"We all want to reboot the originals at some point to match the values of contemporary society. Or our own self-image."
But could it actually be true? Could revolutionary OGs like Franklin, Jefferson, or Washington really have sparked up joints of cannabis after a hard day of managing their slaves, thwarting British soldiers, and hanging out in libraries?
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Washington experimented with growing hemp (not to be confused with cannabis) in the course of his farming ventures. He even considered replacing his profitable tobacco cultivation business with hemp and wanted to make Great Britain one of his biggest customers. Unfortunately, Washington was never successful. The British market rejected his hemp for a variety of reasons, one of which was purportedly low quality (this obviously could have been a political response).
Digging Deeper: Hemp vs. Cannabis
Let's dig deeper into the difference between hemp and cannabis for more insight into this largely misunderstood topic. Allow this article to drop some science on you:
"The international definition of hemp, as opposed to marijuana, was developed by a Canadian researcher in 1971. That was the year that scientist Ernest Small ( 👈🏽 read our exclusive interview with Dr. Small) published a little-known, but very influential, book called The Species Problem in Cannabis.
From the article cited above >> "Small acknowledged there was not any natural point at which the cannabinoid content could be used to distinguish strains of hemp and marijuana. Despite this, he drew an arbitrary line on the continuum of cannabis types and decided that 0.3 percent THC in a sifted batch of cannabis flowers was the difference between hemp and marijuana."
"Small acknowledged there was not any natural point at which the cannabinoid content could be used to distinguish strains of hemp and marijuana. Despite this, he drew an arbitrary line..."
(The standard in the European Union was 0.2 percent THC to qualify as hemp until November 24, 2021, when the European Parliament voted to increase the limit to 0.3 percent THC. This was part of the Common Agricultural Policy reforms that will go into effect in 2023.)
Another technical point: Hemp is cultivated and embraced from an industrial perspective because of the strong fibers in the stalk of the plant. The appeal of cannabis, on the contrary, is the resin-bearing flowers that contain special molecules (cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids) of use to humans as medicine and for the pursuit of recreational euphoria (although the roots of the plant played a role in its traditional medical applications).
These molecules include cannabinoids such as THC and CBD and cool aroma-producing terpenes like myrcene and pinene—all of which do things like treat sleep disorders, improve the symptoms of cancer, reduce systemic inflammation, or act as an analgesic (pain killer).
Are you buying the bull on social media?
"Some of my finest hours have been spent sitting on my back veranda, smoking hemp and observing as far as my eye can see." This quote has been attributed to Thomas Jefferson for years.
The only problem? He never said it.
These men would have much more likely smoked tobacco.
"It’s important to note that the distinction between hemp and marijuana is often overlooked. They are of the same plant family, but hemp does not contain THC (the chemical that gets people high) like marijuana does. Smoking wild hemp is more likely to bring on a headache than a high." — Daily Beast
Let's review the science: In North American and the European Union, hemp is defined as the mature male version of any strain of cannabis that contains less than 0.3 percent THC (the molecule that delivers psychoactive effects for humans and any mammal). This is an admittedly arbitrary dividing line that was established by a Canadian scientist during the previous century.
What Others Think
Before getting too cocky about our conclusions of this cultural controversy, let's consider some other opinions:
"I couldn't find any contemporary accounts suggesting either Washington or Jefferson ever indulged in, advocated, or even mentioned smoking pot," reported Cecil Adams, host of The Straight Dope podcast.
"The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), an organization dedicated to being a voice for 'responsible marijuana smokers,' simply notes that Washington and Jefferson grew hemp for economic reasons." — Cecil Adams, The Straight Dope Podcast
Believers do have a reasonable snippet of fact to justify maintaining a glimmer of hope that one of the founders of their nation was ever-so-possibly an occasional consumer of female cannabis plants, however.
Maybe, just maybe, those female plants featured mature flowers containing enough THC to result in a psychoactive effect.
But we're entirely outside of proof here, folks. It's borderline fantasy land. That noted, let's hear from another respected authority on the topic.
"Radical" Russ Belville is a charismatic cannabis legalization advocate from Portland, Oregon. In an article for High Times, Belville quotes Washington from one of the first American president's diaries:
"Began to separate the male from female plants at do –rather too late" [sic] and "Pulling up the (male) hemp. Was too late for the blossom hemp by three weeks or a month." — George Washington, POTUS #1
Thus, at least for a brief period, Washington was separating male and female hemp plants. By modern standards, if any of the female flowers developed more than 0.3 percent THC, they would no longer be considered hemp and would leap the contemporary categorical chasm to become cannabis.
The Truth About George Washington & Hemp
Check out this excerpt from the article "The Truth about George Washington and Hemp" by John L. Smith, Jr. for the Journal of the American Revolution.
Armed with the solid "proof" that Washington talked about "blossom hemp" and separating male from female plants, marijuana advocates have made sweeping generalities ever since. It's no fun to let the agricultural facts get in the way; specifically that the male plants (with the pollen) are distanced from female plants at a proper time in the cultivation cycle for the controlled breeding of seeds needed for the next year's crop. Another benefit stated of that time: "This may arise from their [the male] being coarser, and the stalks larger," the fact that separated male plants yielded stronger fiber. But just two days following the tantalizing August 7, 1765 "separation" diary entry above, reads the anti-climactic entry of August 9: "9. Abt. 6 Oclock put some Hemp in the Rivr. to Rot."
Getting it in the End
Once again, I must stress: There is zero proof that any of the "founding fathers"—including George Washington—actually smoked THC-bearing cannabis flowers. All that is known is that Washington separated male and female hemp plants.
"There is zero proof that any of the 'founding fathers'—including George Washington—actually smoked THC-bearing cannabis flowers."
Part of the key to this mystery is obviously the simple knowledge of the difference between hemp and cannabis. In the end, did revolutionary period patriots like Washington and Jefferson "smoke weed"?
Here's my personal justification for my position: Influential authority figures like Franklin, Jefferson, and Washington were inherently didactic intellectuals who obsessively curated, documented, and archived the world around them.
If any of them had experienced a psychoactive effect from smoking hemp or cannabis, it probably would have been interpreted as a form of spiritual or intellectual enlightenment derived from the plant—or possibly more likely perceived as a message or inspiration from god—and meticulously documented in diaries, journals, and at the local pub.
"Jefferson especially, I believe, would have waxed at length about the psychoactive effects of cannabis if he had ever experienced the euphoria of tetrahydrocannabinol."
Jefferson especially, I believe, would have waxed at length about the psychoactive effects of cannabis if he had ever experienced the euphoria of tetrahydrocannabinol. Such documentation for the masses was a big part of what these men did for a living and at the core of their beings. It was their jam.
But that's just my opinion. Form your own from the facts and share your thoughts in the comments below.
And don't forget to #LearnAndTeachOthers™ every day.
— Curt Robbins
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