Did America’s Founding Fathers “Smoke Weed”?

This article has caused more uproar than anything I’ve written in recent memory. I’m happy that it’s evoking the pride of patriots, while also revealing the nuanced and sometimes desperate logic of fundamentalism of any flavor. 

Zealotry is defined by Merriam-Webster as a “fanatical devotion.”

Those who are convinced of an outcome before they begin research have obviously limited the scope of their potential discoveries. While I respect the passion of zealots, their preconceived notions often limit their ability to employ logic in the pursuit of truth. 

I invite you to leave constructive comments below.  

Gooey Rabinski

Urban legends of all stripes have gained renewed vigor in recent years. Fueled by pervasive social media networks like Facebook and Twitter, we’re surrounded by a vague pseudoscientific moat of sensationalistic stories thinly disguised as fact.

The urban legend du jour in the cannabis industry is the belief that America’s founding fathers grew and consumed cannabis (more commonly known as marijuana or pot in many areas of North America). Most versions of this story embrace the consumption avenue of smoking.

Here’s how this trendy urban legend recently manifested itself 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.” — Ellis Smith

Have you been duped by lazy sensationalism on social media?

Vernacular is a Bitch

“Grew pot” is one of those tainted phrases that begs the reader to exit a realistic thinking process and associate definitions and frameworks borrowed from modern life that simply did not exist in the time of Washington or Thomas Jefferson.

This is one of those issues that is defined within shades of grey, not ignorant bantering or flag waving fantasy. A simple binary “yes” or “no” doesn’t suffice the depth of the science or the reality of the situation more than 250 years ago. That’s a quarter millennium back in the Wayback Machine, peeps.

Romantic Notions

I know, the notion that someone like 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 countercultural 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 Cheech & Chong-inspired 1970s veneer to the relatively prudish workaholism that 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.” — Gooey Rabinski

Could it actually be true? Could revolutionary OGs like Washington and Jefferson really have sparked up joints of cannabis after a hard day of managing their slaves and hanging out in libraries and pubs?

Washington experimented with growing hemp (not to be confused with cannabis) in the course of his farming business. 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 to get more insight into this charged and 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 published a little-known, but very influential, book called The Species Problem in Cannabis.

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.”

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 and terpenes) of use to humans as medicine and for the pursuit of recreational euphoria.

These molecules include cannabinoids such as THC and CBD and cool aroma-producing terpenes like myrcene and linalool—all of which that do things like kill cancer, reduce systemic inflammation, and act as an analgesic (pain killer). 

Are you buying the bull on social media?

More Bull

“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.

Besides, no sane human would ever want to smoke hemp, because it wouldn’t result in the typically pleasant psychoactive effect of modern marijuana. In fact, it would produce only a headache. 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: 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 Say

Before getting too cocky about the situation, let’s consider the opinions of a few others:

“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.” — 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 cannabis 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 expert on the topic.

“Radical” Russ Belville (not my photo).

“Radical” Russ Belville is a charismatic cannabis legalization advocate and journalist from Portland, Oregon. In an article for High Times, Belville quotes Washington from one of the first 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, it would no longer be considered “hemp” and would jump the categorical fence 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.”

In the End

Once again I must stress, we have 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.

Part of the key to this mystery is simply knowing the difference between hemp and cannabis. In the end, did revolutionary period patriots like Washington and Jefferson “smoke weed”?

Probably not.


Here’s my personal justification for my position: Authority figures like Jefferson and Washington were inherently didactic intellectuals who obsessively curated, documented, and archived the world around them. If either had experienced a psychoactive effect from smoking hemp or cannabis, it probably would have been interpreted as a form of spiritual or intellectual enlightenment delivered from the plant—or possibly more likely perceived as a message 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 (THC).  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: Learn + teach others.

Gooey Rabinski

All text and photos, unless otherwise noted, Copyright © 2003-2018 Gooey Rabinski. All Rights Reserved.

Gooey Rabinski is a technical writer, photographer, and compliance documentation specialist for cannabis businesses who has contributed feature articles to magazines and media outlets such as High Times, CannaBiz Journal, MERRY JANEEmerald Magazine, Grow Magazine, Herb.coThe KindSkunk, Cannabis Culture, WhaxyHeads, Weed World, Green Flower MediaCannabis HBK11RenderHealth Journal, Green Thumb, and Treating Yourself.

He is the author of Understanding Medical Marijuana, available on Amazon Kindle.

His cannabis-related freelance photos, spanning back more than a decade, are available on Instagram and Flickr. He tweets from @GooeyRabinski.