Probably one of the most widespread stories around weed is the one about the Founding Fathers having a close relationship with cannabis. Myths abound about Thomas Jefferson writing the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper and it is widely suggested that Franklin, Jefferson, Madison and Washington grew hemp on their properties.
We know Jefferson grew hemp on his Montecello estate. Mind you, this is hemp, not cannabis. By our current legal definition, hemp is a variety of cannabis with a THC concentration of no more than 0,3% and is harvested for industrial purposes. How did they know the precise THC content at the time? The jury is still out on that one. Even though we know he grew hemp, there is no official record of Jefferson ever smoking any of it. Rather it would most likely have been used to produce valuable and sturdy hemp rope.
George Washington was also a prolific hemp farmer, mentioning the plant at least ninety times in his diaries and writings. According to Dean Norton, Director of Horticulture at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, our first President wrote often of his interest in finding, sowing, harvesting the best hemp seeds. While we don’t have any evidence of Washington smoking his goods, we know he was very keen to put this plant to work in the form of heavy duty rope on his fishing ships.
Always at the forefront of innovation, Benjamin Franklin owned one of the first paper mills that processed hemp into parchment. In his newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, he wrote often of the importance of hemp in industry and innovation.
James Madison was interested in hemp and was reportedly a hemp farmer as well. In a 1784 letter to Jefferson, Madison talks about the drop on hemp prices compared to the increase in the price of tobacco.
Did they actually smoke?
Nearly impossible to prove, but such fun to speculate about, the smoking habits of the founding fathers will likely remain a secret lost in time. Thomas Jefferson is known to have imported seeds from Asia and it is easy to presume that he was aware of the hemp culture there, which is believed to be the place of origin of cannabis.
According to Dr. Burke, who was the President of the American Historical Reference Society, “Early letters from our founding fathers refer to the pleasures of hemp smoking,”. Burke also listed seven of the earliest Presidents of the United States as hemp smokers: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor and Franklin Pierce.
It is also key to understand that cannabis at that time was seen differently. Prohibition and the stigma that followed is relatively modern. Regulation started during the early 1900’s and was made illegal with the Controlled Substances Act only as recently as 1970.
What does this mean for us today?
Not much, unfortunately. We have a lot of work to do towards the legalization of this precious plant and debating the use of cannabis by our forebears isn’t nearly as important as electing politicians who will fight the good fight on our behalf.