Did George Washington Use Medical Marijuana?

Before “Choom Gang” Obama or “I didn’t inhale” Clinton, the first president likely smoked pot.

02.16.15 11:50 AM ET

Presidential aspirants smoking pot, states growing hemp for industrial use—2015 sounds a lot like 1776.

In fact, America’s first president may have been one of the nation’s original users of medicinal marijuana.

George Washington’s rotting teeth and the dentures that replaced them—made of hippopotamus ivory, gold springs, and brass screws—caused enormous pain, which some believe he alleviated with weed as evidenced from a passage from one of the president’s letters:

“Began to separate the male from female plants rather too late...Pulling up the (male) hemp. Was too late for the blossom hemp by three weeks or a month.”

The implication is that the Father of the Nation was going for female plants with higher THC content.

However, it’s most likely that the female plants he refers to were used for seeds to grow more hemp and the male hemp plants were pulled up for fibers.

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.

Hemp was easy to grow because it required little water or fertilizer and did not need replanting year after year. The root structure was essential to creating rich soil with lots of aeration. Because it grew quickly, and took hold, it was used for stabilizing soil, which made it ideal for growing all kinds of other plants.

Once harvested, the hemp was used to make rope and clothing. Benjamin Franklin owned a mill that made hemp paper. The paper on which the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were written was made from hemp.

The men who signed the Charters of Freedom may have taken the edge off the Revolution with the help of drugs, too. Hemp farmer Jefferson and paper maker Benjamin Franklin were ambassadors to France during the initial surge of the hashish vogue.

Thomas Jefferson brought a variety of cannabis seeds from Europe to America at great personal risk, but there is no direct evidence he ever used the ensuing crops for recreational purposes. Benjamin Franklin isn’t known to have smoked weed but he did use laudanum, a mixture of alcohol and opium, to lessen the pain from gout, kidney stones, and other ailments.

James Monroe allegedly began smoking cannabis as Ambassador to France and maintained the habit into old age. 

Andrew Jackson, Franklin Pierce and Zachary Taylor are rumored to have smoked with their troops. In one letter to his family, Pierce complained that hemp was ‘about the only good thing’ about the Mexican war. Presidents remained mostly sober from Pierce to Dwight Eisenhower, but John F. Kennedy made up for lost time.

In addition to dozens of painkillers and stimulants, JFK allegedly experimented with marijuana to deal with severe back pain, according to a few written accounts, including John F. Kennedy: A Biography, which described this White House scene:

“On the evening of July 16, 1962, according to [Washington Post executive] Jim Truitt, Kennedy and Mary Meyer smoked marijuana together. … The president smoked three of the six joints Mary brought to him. At first he felt no effects. Then he closed his eyes and refused a fourth joint. ‘Suppose the Russians did something now,’ he said.”

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This story also seems somewhat apocryphal and ridiculous, given the amount the president is alleged to have smoked. After three joints, JFK would likely have entered into a potentially harrowing and overwhelmed state and been subjected to intense visuals; to the extent that he may even have believed he could see Russia from his house.

The Oval Office was strait-laced until the Baby Boomers came in.

There is then another lull, until the political ascendancy of the baby-boom generation, when Mary Jane becomes almost ubiquitous. On the Democratic side, we have Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry, John Edwards and Barack Obama. Astonishingly, every Democratic presidential nominee since 1992 is on record as having smoked pot: Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Barack Obama.

It’s a bipartisan affair, too. George W. Bush admitted to past marijuana use in a recorded interview with a friend. Newt Gingrich told the Wall Street Journal in 1996 he used to toke up. Even Rick Santorum admitted to smoking in college. Ditto, Sarah Palin when marijuana wasn’t illegal in Alaska.

No president was probably as prodigious a marijuana smoker than Obama, who was part of the “Choom Gang” in high school and freely admitted to smoking weed (and using cocaine) in his youth. So, from our first president, growing cannabis and buying replacement teeth from his black slaves, to the current president, a black man who wrote in his memoir:

“You might just be bored, or alone. Everybody was welcome into the club of disaffection. And if the high didn’t solve whatever it was that was getting you down, it could at least help you laugh at the world’s ongoing folly and see through all the hypocrisy and bullshit and cheap moralism …”

Around that time—just before Bill Clinton said he “didn’t inhale”—81 percent of Americans, according to Pew research, said marijuana should be illegal. In 2014, only 45 percent of Americans said they felt that way. The Founders would agree.