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Busting some myths about the Founding Fathers and marijuana

Is the Constitution really made out of hemp paper? Did Washington and Jefferson have acres of marijuana plants? One of these two statements is likely true.

Thomas Jefferson, hemp fan?

The buzz about two new state laws allowing recreational marijuana use has people looking back to the age of the Founding Fathers, when hemp (a.k.a. marijuana) was a popular cash crop.

The theory is that the Framers knew about marijuana, grew it, and consumed it, so what’s the big deal about the states of Colorado and Washington making it legal?

Fortunately, along with the urban myths about hemp are some contemporaneous records about how the Colonists, and then the first generation of American citizens, viewed and used marijuana-related products.

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So let’s start by clearing up a few myths about hemp, marijuana, and the men who ran society in the 18th century.

Myth 1: The Framers loved marijuana. In reality, the word “marijuana” or “marihuana” cropped up in the late 1890s, according to research at Kingston University in the United Kingdom. The Founders knew the plant as hemp.

Myth 2: The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are written on hemp paper. The two great documents were written on parchment. The point of debate is that some working drafts of the documents might have been composed on paper made from hemp, which was widely used in that time period.

Myth 3: The Founders smoked hemp. If they did smoke hemp, they likely didn’t get high from it, since the type of hemp they grew had very low levels of THC, the active ingredient that causes euphoria.

Here’s one quote commonly attributed to Thomas Jefferson that our friends at Monticello debunked on their website.

Quotation: “Some of my finest hours have been spent on my back veranda, smoking hemp and observing as far as my eye can see.”

Status: “This statement has not been found in any of the writings of Thomas Jefferson. … Thomas Jefferson did grow hemp, but there is no evidence to suggest that Jefferson was a habitual smoker of hemp, tobacco, or any other substance.”

Hemp was a crop that dated back to the early English days in Colonial America. It was used to make rope and canvas products for ships, cloth for fabric, and pulp for paper.

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George Washington wrote about growing hemp on his lands. We can’t confirm reports that Ben Franklin used hemp at his paper mills.

It seems doubtful that Washington and Jefferson grew hemp for recreational enjoyment. Now, for John Adams, there is a mysterious quote that comes from a column he wrote in several Boston newspapers.

Adams was a big fan of hemp as a multipurpose crop.

In 1763, writing as Humphrey Ploughjogger in the Boston Evening-Post, Adams had an odd postscript to a column he wrote about the advantages of growing hemp.

“Seems to me if grate Men dont leeve off writing Pollyticks, breaking Heads, boxing Ears, ringing Noses and kicking Breeches, we shall by and by want a world of Hemp more for our own consumshon,” Adams wrote.

But in an annotated version of the letter in the records of the Massachusetts Historical Society, it seems Adams was talking about hemp rope that was used to hang men, not the type of hemp smoked for pleasure.

Program Note: Echoes of Prohibition: Today’s War on Drugs

Thursday, November 15, 2012, 6 p.m.

Daniel Okrent, bestselling author and curator of the Center’s world-premiere exhibition American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, joins Christopher Bracey, Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at George Washington University Law School, to discuss the legacy of Prohibition in relation to the nation’s evolving drug policies.

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I have heard Thomas Jefferson traded marijuana blends with George Washington and the other founding fathers. I find this hard to believe, but the rumor is ubiquitous. Can anyone verify if it is true or false? I e-mailed the famous Jefferson scholar Clay Jenkins but got no response. However, on his podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour, he did admit to donning his Thomas 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 just 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:

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• Botanically, marijuana equals hemp.

• 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 was never able to turn a profit on the crop despite sustained effort. Jefferson also seems to have grown hemp strictly for local consumption, from which we deduce he couldn’t make money at it 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 agriculturally 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 on a regular basis. Jefferson wrote of receiving hemp seedlings from someone in Missouri, and it would have been only neighborly to send some Virginia seedlings back. Chances are Washington did the same. We’re obliged to conclude: Washington and Jefferson weren’t merely marijuana farmers, they were marijuana dealers.

Were they marijuana smokers, though? Let’s continue our review.

• 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.

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• Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon (1997) features a scene in which Washington shares a blunt with the eponymous surveyors while Martha dutifully supplies them with doughnuts and other munchies. This doesn’t prove anything, being fiction and all.

• Despite the above, I couldn’t find any contemporary accounts suggesting either Washington or Jefferson ever indulged in, advocated, or even mentioned smoking pot. • But let’s not give up too quickly. In his diary for Aug. 7, 1765, Washington writes of separating male from female hemp. Female marijuana plants are the ones that contain enough THC to be worth smoking. But he probably 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. —Cecil Adams