Did George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grow marijuana?

December 11, 2009

Dear Cecil:

I have heard Thomas Jefferson traded marijuana blends with George Washington and the other founding fathers. I find this hard to believe, but the rumor is ubiquitous. Can anyone verify if it is true or false? I e-mailed the famous Jefferson scholar Clay Jenkins but got no response. However, on his podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour, he did admit to donning his Thomas Jefferson impersonation gear and visiting Burning Man. Should I take this as a tacit admission of our third president's smoking habits?

Cecil replies:

Two approaches we could take here. The first is we just stick to the facts. Lotta fun that is. The second is we wave gaily at the facts en route to a more entertaining sociopolitical perspective. This is the Fox News system, and you can see it works for them. Let's see what we can come up with based on the following:

  • Botanically, marijuana equals hemp. As we've established in the past, these are basically two names for the same plant.
  • Useful for rope, paper, and clothing, hemp was long promoted in Virginia as an alternative cash crop to tobacco. Tobacco depleted the soil, and gluts sometimes drove prices down. Shifting economics led to a small "hemp boom" by 1765. In two Virginia counties, folks were allowed to pay their taxes in hemp.
  • Both Washington and Jefferson tried growing hemp on their Virginia farms, with mixed success. Washington used some of what he grew to make hemp clothing worn by his slaves. However, U.S. hemp exported to Britain often was of such poor quality that it couldn't be sold, and Washington was never able to turn a profit on the crop despite sustained effort. Jefferson also seems to have grown hemp strictly for local consumption, from which we deduce he couldn't make money at it either. In short, not only were Washington and Jefferson marijuana farmers, they were unsuccessful marijuana farmers.
  • Notwithstanding their failure to make a fortune from hemp, Jefferson and Washington kept at it. Washington continued to tout the crop after he became president. Jefferson invented a better "hemp brake" to separate the fibers from the stalks, something he thought was so important agriculturally that he refused to patent it. This tells us two things. First, Jefferson ran an advanced marijuana processing facility. Second, he was a socialist.
  • Both Jefferson and Washington traded seeds and plants with other farmers on a regular basis. Jefferson wrote of receiving hemp seedlings from someone in Missouri, and it would have been only neighborly to send some Virginia seedlings back. Chances are Washington did the same. Couple this with the fact that the two men at least tried to sell their hemp crops and we're obliged to conclude: Washington and Jefferson weren't merely marijuana farmers, they were marijuana dealers.

Were they marijuana smokers, though? Let's continue our review.

  • No great social stigma was attached to smoking pot in the late 1700s and early 1800s — pot use wasn't considered a problem until the early 1900s.
  • Thomas Pynchon's novel Mason & Dixon (1997) features a scene in which George Washington shares a blunt with the eponymous surveyors while Martha dutifully supplies them with doughnuts and other munchies. This doesn’t prove anything, of course, being fiction and all. But it’s reassuring to know that whenever an opportunity presents itself to combine historical revisionism and pot jokes, Pynchon is all over it like a wetsuit.
  • Despite the above, I couldn't find any contemporary accounts suggesting either Washington or Jefferson ever indulged in, advocated, or even mentioned smoking pot. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, an organization dedicated to being a voice for "responsible marijuana smokers," simply notes that Washington and Jefferson grew hemp for economic reasons.
  • But let's not give up too quickly. In his diary for August 7, 1765, Washington writes, "Began to separate the Male from the Female hemp … rather too late." Female marijuana plants are the ones that contain enough THC to be worth smoking. Some take this to mean Washington was cultivating the plant not just for fiber. Of course, two days later Washington says he put the hemp in the river to soak and separate out the fibers, and later in September that he started to harvest the seed. That suggests he divided the plants because the males made stronger fiber while the female plants produced the seed needed for the next year's crop. Jefferson in his Farm Book wrote that a female plant would produce a quart of seed, and a bushel of seed was enough to plant an acre.

Do these guys sound like midnight tokers? No, they sound like farmers. Just shows how clever they were at covering their tracks.

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References

Betts, Edwin Morris (ed.) Thomas Jefferson's Farm Book Redmond, Washington: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Inc. 1999.

Federico, P.J. “Operation of the Patent Act of 1790” Journal of the Patent Office Society 18 (1936): 237-251.

Haworth, Paul Leland. George Washington: Farmer 1915.

Herndon, G. Melvin. “Hemp in Colonial Virginia” Agricultural History 37.2 (1963): 86-93.

Mathre, Mary Lynn. Cannabis in medical practice: a legal, historical, and pharmacological overview of the therapeutic use of marijuana. Jefferson, North Carolina: MacFarland & Co., 1997.

NORML Report on Sixty Years of Marijuana Prohibition in the U.S. 2003. http://natlnorml.org/pdf_files/NORML_Report_Sixty_Years_US_Prohibition.pdf

Painter, Alexei. George Washington: Agricultural Innovator George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens, Education Department.

Potter, David J. et al. “Potency of D9–THC and Other Cannabinoids in Cannabis in England in 2005: Implications for Psychoactivity and Pharmacology” Journal of Forensic Science 53.1 (2008): 1-5.

Pynchon, Thomas. Mason & Dixon New York: Picador, 1997.

Sloman, Larry. Reefer Madness: A History of Marijuana New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998.

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