Cannabis has had a long and storied past in the U.S. At times the plant has been federally prohibited, while during other periods, cultivation was required for use as a resource during times of war. Even now, as cannabis and hemp are being introduced once again to American farms, there is an air of controversy surrounding the cultivation of cannabis among the federal government.
George Washington, the nation’s first President, famously grew Indian hemp, a term loosely given to forms of cannabis, on all five of his farms: Mansion House, River Farm, Dogue Run Farm, Muddy Hole Farm, and Union Farm. In a time of widespread travel by sea, the fibers from commercial hemp could be used for cordage and textile to make ropes and sails for the many ships of the time, making hemp a valuable cash crop for colonists and later the citizens of a newly formed United States.
It was President Washington who famously wrote, “Make the most you can of the Indian Hemp seed and sow it everywhere.” However, claims that Washington was also growing psychoactive cannabis on his farms are so far unsubstantiated. 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 cannabis 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. Though it is certainly possible, and he wouldn’t have been the only founding father to use cannabis personally.
Thomas Jefferson and James Madison have both been tied to smoking Indian hemp. The latter noting that it gave him the creativity to create his drafts of the American Constitution, while Thomas Jefferson is tied to the quote, “Hemp is of first necessity to the wealth and protection of the country.” Four other Presidents of the pre-Civil War era, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, and Franklin Pierce also used cannabis recreationally. The last three in this list, all military men, admitted to smoking cannabis with their troops. In one letter to his family, Pierce complained that hemp was ‘about the only good thing’ about the Mexican war.
Then in 1937, all forms of cannabis, including hemp, were made federally illegal under the Harry Anslinger backed Marihuana Tax Act. This legislation effectively outlawed the cultivation, sale, and possession of cannabis in the U.S., ending a once lucrative industry.
However, come the start of WW2, the federal government once again supported the cultivation of hemp for the war effort through the video Hemp for Victory. Under the newly formed War Hemp Industries Department, the government subsidized the planting of much needed hemp, leading to about a million acres of hemp being planted across the West. Unfortunately, after the war, the program was phased out, and hemp went back to its prohibited status in America.
Then, throughout the height of prohibition, there is no record of American Presidents using cannabis . An exception to this may have been President John F. Kennedy, who reportedly used cannabis both recreationally and to deal with severe back pain.In addition to dozens of painkillers and stimulants, JFK allegedly experimented with cannabis 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.”
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.
In the modern age, Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton have all reportedly smoked cannabis , though Clinton and Bush both denied the fact while pursuing and during their presidencies. All in all there has been over 50 Politicians in modern times that have reported using cannabis during prohibition include mayors, governors, members of the House of Representatives, Senators and presidents.
Barack Obama has been the most open about his use of cannabis in his youth, a telling sign of the direction the country is heading towards legalization. “I inhaled frequently. That was the point,” President Obama famously remarked on the campaign trail in 2008. It was also President Obama who signed the 2014 Farm Bill, launching hemp pilot programs across the U.S. and once again bringing hemp fields back to American farmers.