An interesting question emerges and re-emerges from time to time on the Internet: Did America’s Founding Fathers use marijuana?
This question is prompted by spurious quotes circulating in chain emails and online forums from America’s founders discussing the manner in which cannabis might be smoked. It gets a tinge of legitimacy by an interesting, if little-known fact: Some of America’s founders apparently grew hemp.
The assumption, obviously, is that if men like George Washington grew hemp—which is a generic term for varieties of the cannabis plant—then they must have smoked it, right? Well, not exactly.
We searched the Library of Congress’s records for instances in which the topic of hemp came up in George Washington’s diaries. We found several entries which describe sowing or harvesting hemp, but no instance in which he described smoking or otherwise consuming it.
The Online Library of Liberty has graciously assembled the collective writings, speeches, and correspondences of America’s founders in a single online database. We searched George Washington’s records for the word “hemp.” We found nine results in which the word occurred. The first was a letter in which he discussed commodities, including “tobacco, hemp, and flour.” Taken alone, this might suggest he meant for hemp to be consumed—much as tobacco and flour are consumed. But in the other eight search results, hemp was always discussed in the same context as flax or cotton.
This is important to note, because it treats hemp as a raw good. But what use would Colonial Americans have of hemp if not to smoke it? The answer is found in part in a 1720 act by the House of Burgesses awarding a bounty of four shillings for every gross hundred of hemp produced in the colony of Virginia. This was in addition to bounties offered by the British Parliament for Naval exports.
The general consensus is that these bounties were offered to encourage the production of hemp, as it was a valuable fiber crop—just as cotton and flax were. But it was not cultivated for the purposes of smoking. It was, rather, cultivated for more practical reasons, such as manufacturing rope, paper, or cloth.
This is substantiated by a set of writings translated from French into English by Thomas Jefferson, in which it was said, “To manufacture, is, with the assistance of some instruments, to change hemp first into linen, and then into shirts.”
This same set of writings also says, “Flax and hemp will multiply in the north, and yield linen to furnish the south.”
Searching the records on Monticello’s website, we find that Jefferson himself wrote to John Adams, “We consider a sheep for every person in the — family as sufficient to clothe it, in addition to the cotton, hemp and flax which we raise ourselves.” Jefferson also spoke of blending hemp with cotton to produce cloth.
Finally, in his Notes on Virginia, Thomas Jefferson mentioned “Virginia hemp” (Acnida cannabina) under the heading “Useful for fabrication,” alongside flax and varieties of lumber.
Today “hemp” typically connotes a variety of cannabis with much lower levels of THC and other active ingredients than a typical marijuana plant. Modern marijuana has been cultivated for optimal potency when smoked, while “hemp” is typically utilized for its fibers.
While we can’t know for sure how much THC was in the hemp plants Washington and others grew on their plantations, we can assume their plants did not possess the levels found in modern marijuana, because that was not the point in hemp cultivation. The purpose was to produce fiber that could be spun into cloth or cordage. That is the trait they would have valued most in hemp. Looking at credible, original sources, we cannot find a record of hemp being utilized in any other matter. It is well-documented that tobacco and alcohol were consumed throughout the colonies during the same time hemp was in production; if hemp had been widely consumed as a drug rather than a raw material, it is reasonable to expect that would be equally as well-documented, but it is not.
So did America’s founders cultivate varieties of the cannabis plant? Yes, it seems they did. But was this cannabis consumed as marijuana is today? We can find no credible evidence that says so.