On Presidents’ Day, we celebrate the lives of all our U.S. presidents. What you might not know is that the lives of many of these presidents are linked to the cannabis plant in some way. A number of our former presidents grew hemp, others smoked marijuana, and some presidents have been instrumental in establishing the various laws that have governed the use of this plant throughout U.S. history. Keep reading to learn some things you might not know about cannabis and our U.S. presidents.
George Washington (president from 1789-1797)
Washington was the first U.S. president. In fact, the Presidents’ Day holiday was originally established in celebration of his birthday. He played such an important role in our history that he is often called the “Father of His Country.” He also grew a lot of hemp. In the 1700s—when Washington was president—hemp was not restricted like it is today. Instead, it was a pretty common crop for U.S. farmers. Its strong, durable fibers were used in many essential items including rope, cloth, and paper.
In fact, because hemp fiber is so strong and durable, some farmers were even required by law to devote some of their land to growing hemp.
Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809)
A respected diplomat, lawyer, and philosopher, Thomas Jefferson served as America’s third president. Many know him best as the author of the Declaration of Independence. Like Washington, Jefferson also grew hemp throughout his life. Jefferson’s writings frequently mention the benefits of this versatile plant, and some of the growing and processing techniques that he used. In 1815, for example, he wrote, “[H]emp ... is abundantly productive and will grow for ever on the same spot.”
Franklin Pierce (1853-1857)
Making rope and cloth apparently wasn’t the only thing America’s early presidents did with the cannabis plant. Many people believe that a number of these men also smoked it. For example, the author of Hemp: American History Revisited: The Plant with a Divided History, writes that Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Taylor, Pierce, and Lincoln may have all been cannabis smokers. He says that Pierce reportedly smoked it with his troops and,
Is said to have written home that "smoking hemp was the only good thing about the Mexican War.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945)
It wasn’t until the 1900s that many Americans started to view cannabis in a less positive light. As anti-cannabis sentiment grew, so did the misinformation circulating about this plant. For example the infamous film, “Reefer Madness,” showed marijuana pushing teens into violence and insanity. It was under FDR’s presidency that all of this anti-cannabis sentiment culminated in the passing of the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act. The tax and licensing regulations imposed by the 1937 Act made it extremely difficult for American farmers to grow hemp, effectively beginning the era of hemp prohibition in the United States.
John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)
Kennedy—one of America’s most popular presidents, and its youngest—suffered from a number of health problems including back pain. There are widespread rumors that he smoked marijuana to help relieve his symptoms. In one story, which has been recounted in a number of places including a Kennedy biography, one evening while in the White House, Kennedy smoked three joints but refused a fourth, saying, “No more. Suppose the Russians did something now.”
Richard Nixon (1969-1974)
Nixon definitely didn’t do anything to improve the status of the cannabis plant in the United States; he did just the opposite. In 1971, Nixon began a “War on Drugs,” and that included war on cannabis in all its forms. Under the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, cannabis became classified as a Schedule I drug. What you might not know is that something called the Schafer Commission was created to investigate whether or not that classification was justified, and in 1972 the commission found that, in fact, it was not.
The commission report states, “Considering the range of social concerns in contemporary America, marihuana does not, in our considered judgment, rank very high.” However, Nixon ignored the committee’s findings, leaving cannabis—including hemp—to be categorized as a Schedule I drug.
Bill Clinton (1993-2001)
Almost everyone has heard Bill Clinton’s memorable contribution to U.S. cannabis history. In 1992, before he was elected as America’s 42nd president, he was asked about drug use by an interviewer. Clinton famously replied,
“When I was in England I experimented with marijuana a time or two, and I didn't like it. I didn't inhale it, and never tried it again."
Barack Obama (2009-2017)
In contrast to Clinton, Obama openly admitted smoking marijuana when he was younger. He talked about it in his 1995 memoir, Dreams of My Father, writing about how everyone was equal when it came to smoking. He said, “I had discovered that it didn’t make any difference if you smoked reefer in the white classmate’s sparkling new van, or in the dorm room with some brother you’d met down at the gym, or on the beach with a couple of Hawaiian kids who had dropped out of school. . . . Everybody was welcome into the club of disaffection.” Later, in a 2006 interview he talked about his marijuana use again, riffing on Clinton’s famous comment about not inhaling.
“When I was a kid, I inhaled frequently,” Obama said, “That was the point.”
Donald Trump (2017-present)
In 2018, President Donald Trump signed the 2018 Farm Bill into law. The bill removed hemp from the Controlled Substances Act. States can now regulate hemp farming and treat the plant as an agricultural commodity, not an illegal drug. This has spurred an explosion in the CBD industry in particular, and more and more people report using CBD for its numerous potential health benefits.
What Comes Next?
What cannabis milestones will we see with our next president? And the one after that? While we don’t know for sure, we can hope that the cannabis plant will to continue to be better understood and accepted in the United States and that more and more people will learn about the thousands of beneficial uses for this amazingly versatile plant.
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Written by: Andrea C. Nakaya