By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Did Washington and Jefferson smoke dope?
ConnectSavannah Import Default Image

I've heard Thomas Jefferson traded marijuana blends with Washington and the other founding fathers. Can anyone verify if true or false? I e-mailed Jefferson scholar Clay Jenkins but got no response. However, on his podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour, he did admit to donning his Jefferson impersonation gear and visiting Burning Man. Should I take this as a tacit admission of our third president's smoking habits? - Piddyx

Two approaches we could take here. The first is we stick to the facts. Lotta fun that is. The second is we wave gaily at the facts en route to a more entertaining sociopolitical perspective. This is the Fox News system, and you can see it works for them. Let's see what we can come up with based on the following:

• Botanically, marijuana equals hemp. As we've established, these are basically two names for the same plant.

• Useful for rope, paper, and clothing, hemp was long promoted in Virginia as an alternative cash crop to tobacco. Tobacco depleted the soil, and gluts sometimes drove prices down. Shifting economics led to a small "hemp boom" by 1765. In two Virginia counties, folks were allowed to pay their taxes in hemp.

• Both Washington and Jefferson tried growing hemp on their Virginia farms, with mixed success. Washington used some of what he grew to make hemp clothing for his slaves. However, U.S. hemp exported to Britain often was of poor quality, and Washington was never able to turn a profit. Jefferson also seems to have grown hemp strictly for local consumption, from which we deduce he couldn't make money either. In short, not only were Washington and Jefferson marijuana farmers, they were unsuccessful marijuana farmers.

• Washington continued to tout the crop after he became president. Jefferson invented a better "hemp brake" to separate the fibers from the stalks, something he thought was so important that he refused to patent it. This tells us two things. First, Jefferson ran an advanced marijuana processing facility. Second, he was a socialist.

• Both Jefferson and Washington traded seeds and plants with other farmers regularly. Jefferson wrote of receiving seedlings from someone in Missouri, and it would have been only neighborly to send Virginia seedlings back. Chances are Washington did the same. Couple this with the fact that the two men did at attempt to sell their crops and we're obliged to conclude: Washington and Jefferson weren't merely farmers, they were dealers.

Were they smokers, though?

• No great social stigma was attached to smoking pot in the late 1700s and early 1800s-pot use wasn't considered a problem until the early 1900s.

• Thomas Pynchon's novel Mason & Dixon (1997) features a scene in which Washington shares a blunt with the eponymous surveyors while Martha supplies them with munchies. This doesn't prove anything, but it's reassuring to know that whenever an opportunity presents itself to combine historical revisionism and pot jokes, Pynchon is all over it like a wetsuit.

• Despite the above, I couldn't find any accounts suggesting either Washington or Jefferson ever indulged in, advocated, or even mentioned smoking pot. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws simply notes that Washington and Jefferson grew hemp for economic reasons.

• But let's not give up too quickly. In his diary for August 7, 1765, Washington writes, "Began to separate the Male from the Female hemp ... rather too late." Female marijuana plants are the ones that contain enough THC to be worth smoking. Some take this to mean Washington was cultivating the plant not just for fiber.

Of course, two days later Washington says he put the hemp in the river to soak and separate out the fibers, and later in September that he started to harvest the seed. That suggests he divided the plants because the males made stronger fiber while the female plants produced the seed needed for next year's crop. Jefferson in his Farm Book wrote that a female plant would produce a quart of seed, and a bushel of seed was enough to plant an acre.

Do these guys sound like midnight tokers? No, they sound like farmers. Which just shows how clever they were at covering their tracks.