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 thick pseudoscientific moat of sometimes cray cray stories that are thinly disguised as “facts.”
The urban legend du jour for 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 stories 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
Vernacular is a Bitch
“Grew pot” is one of those tainted phrases that begs the reader to exit reality in their 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 time in the Wayback Machine, peeps.
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.
In the case of the cannabis culture, this impulse is manifested when we begin to add a Cheech & Chong 1970s veneer to the relatively prudish workaholism that infused the culture of the founders of the United States in the mid-18th century.
But 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 best 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 further 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 Canadian 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, but 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 of use to humans as medicine and for the pursuit of recreational euphoria.
“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 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 few rich white dudes 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
But 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.
And 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 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 anyone—including George Washington—actually smoked cannabis. We know simply that Washington separated male and female hemp plants. We must be diligent and remember that one could smoke an acre of hemp and derive nothing but a headache, with zero euphoria or psychoactive effect.
In the end, did “founding father” patriots like Washington and Jefferson “smoke weed”?
Probably not, kids.
Here’s my theoretical clincher of a reason: 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,” it almost certainly would have been interpreted as a form of spiritual or intellectual enlightenment delivered from the plant—or possibly a message from god—and meticulously documented in diaries, journals, and at the local pub.
Jefferson especially, I believe, would have written extensively about the psychoactive effects of cannabis if he had ever experienced being “high.” Such documentation for the masses was what these dudes did 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.
— Gooey Rabinski
All text and photos, unless otherwise noted, Copyright © 2003-2017 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 JANE, Emerald Magazine, Grow Magazine, Herb.co, The Kind, Skunk, Cannabis Culture, Whaxy, Heads, Weed World, Green Flower Media, Cannabis Health Journal, Green Thumb, and Treating Yourself.
He is the author of Understanding Medical Marijuana, available on Amazon Kindle.