Did George Washington smoke cannabis to alleviate chronic pain? Did Thomas Jefferson grow the plant on his Monticello estate? Rumors that our Founding Fathers enjoyed cannabis abound — and every year, they resurface on the Internet in viral Presidents’ Day-themed articles that paint America’s earliest leaders as bona fide enthusiasts.
The truth is a bit more nuanced, but no less intriguing. And today, the federal holiday officially known as Washington's Birthday (though often called Presidents' Day), is a fitting time to reflect on that history.
Some blogs and websites allege that Washington used cannabis to soothe the pain from his bad teeth and clunky, pre-industrial dentures. No historians of the period have found reliable accounts to support this claim. But our original commander-in-chief did cultivate hemp for industrial purposes on his estate at Mount Vernon, according to preservationists in charge of maintaining the site. The plants Washington farmed would have had few, if any, psychoactive properties. Instead, they would have been valued for their strong, coarse fibers, which were then processed to produce rope, fabric, and other consumer goods. (For a deeper dive on the differences between cannabis and industrial hemp, this Leafly article has the full scoop.)
What about our third president? A popular quotation attributed to Thomas Jefferson portrays the man as an avid cannabis connoisseur. But no record exists of Jefferson ever having enjoyed the benefits of cannabis on his back veranda — or anywhere else, for that matter. Still, like Washington, Jefferson oversaw acres of hemp cultivation on his property, writing about his crop frequently in letters and diaries.
Washington and Jefferson weren't unusual; all of their contemporaries viewed hemp alongside wheat, corn, and oats as an ordinary, everyday crop. John Adams, the second president, referenced hemp in his personal correspondence. James Madison, the fourth president, is also said to have farmed the plant. And although he never became president, Founding Father Alexander Hamilton sparred over hemp import duties as the first-ever Secretary of the Treasury.
Our Founding Fathers were publicly outspoken about hemp's utility and potential. They used hemp products in their own households and corresponded with farmers and merchants about hemp cultivation and trade. Jefferson even developed a special machine to make hemp cultivation more efficient. He and his peers would be aghast at the laws in place today that stifle industrial hemp cultivation.
Most likely, they wouldn't be fans of cannabis prohibition, either. Were he around today, Washington, no stranger to chronic medical woes, might find medical cannabis a preferable alternative to his era's more popular therapeutic remedy: bloodletting. Jefferson, ever the inventor, would appreciate the industry's emphasis on high standards, technological innovation, and scientific research. And the potential economic and social benefits of ending prohibition would be hard to deny.
The bottom line? Our earliest presidents probably weren't cannabis enthusiasts, but were they alive today, they'd probably be enthusiastic about cannabis.