It’s an urban legend that has gained serious traction since the 1990s and it all started with one-dollar US bills stamped with a conversation bubble near George Washington’s mouth reading, “I grew hemp.”
Those supporting modern-day legalization of marijuana jumped on the notion with a fury. Whispered rumors and stamped currency transformed into full online treatises about Washington’s weed growing—and smoking—days. By 2015, blog posts examined whether or not the founding father was a user of medical marijuana, too.
But, does any of this hold up to a fact check? Let’s dive into this fascinating topic to find out whether or not our first president was a “Founding Father of Weed.”
The “Muddy Hole” Marijuana Scandal
The “First President of Marijuana” legend resurfaced in August 2018. That’s when Smithsonian Magazine reported that industrial hemp was again being grown and harvested at Mount Vernon, the site of Washington’s plantation. Oddly enough, this report was 100 percent accurate, both in terms of the contemporary news story and its historical underpinnings.
According to the Washington Post, a farm journal entry from August 7, 1765, proves that the first president did indeed cultivate hemp on a large plot of land that he referred to as “Muddy Hole.” In the journal entry, he notes having taken too long to separate the male from the female hemp plants.
However, his journal falls far short of extolling marijuana for its medicinal—let alone recreational—purposes. As it turns out, hemp was a popular cash crop in the Americas, highly valued for its numerous industrial applications.
Washington wasn’t alone in his hemp cultivation interest. Thomas Jefferson also enthusiastically wrote about hemp’s potential as a cash crop. Among his favorite things about the plant? It proved highly productive and hearty, growing forever on the same plot with little farmer-intervention needed.
Hemp’s Myriad Uses
For both Washington and Jefferson, hemp represented a cash crop. In other words, they didn’t intend to use the plants they harvested for themselves. Rather, they sought “cash” for them on the market. Either way you slice it, hemp was a handy commodity to have around, from bringing in money to providing necessary fiber products for the farm.
How did 18th-century hemp get used? Its tough fibers proved excellent for crafting rope and canvas or spinning into cloth. However, its myriad uses didn’t end there. Hemp oil could be extracted from its seeds and used to manufacture everything from varnishes to paints. In essence, hemp represented a cash crop of the first order.
Of all the parties interested in hemp exports, the Royal Navy proved the most enthusiastic. After all, strong ropes and canvas sails proved crucial to the daily operations of British sailing ships.
The Plant that Helped Britain Rule the Seven Seas
Britain’s navy proved very active at this time and was considered the most effective fighting force in the world—having won all of the great battles and many wars at sea in recent memory. No event better illustrated this reputation than the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War in 1763.
Known as the French and Indian War in North America, it came with decisive victories for the UK against both France and Spain. Now, the Royal Navy had more territory than ever before to maintain and, as a result, it required more rope and canvas in the process.
In essence, the hemp fields of Virginia buttressed up Britain’s ambitious exploration, militarization, and colonization efforts around the world.
American Farmers and Hemp Production
Over time, America became synonymous with hemp production. Hemp farmers in the thirteen colonies represented an integral part of ensuring the Royal Navy’s strength.
And after the Revolution? The newly-minted US government encouraged hemp production for the budding nation’s industrial needs.
Besides rope, canvas, and cloth-making, hemp also came in handy for a wide variety of other tasks that would have been crucial to late 18th-century and early 19th-century agricultural practices. These included making sacks to store grain and seeds, weaving linen for clothes, and even repairing nets used during fishing trips to the Potomac.
No wonder Washington and Jefferson proved such staunch supporters of this immensely useful plant. But, oh, how times would change!
In 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act categorized hemp, along with marijuana and other forms of cannabis, a highly suspicious substance. By 1970, the Controlled Substances Act classified all forms of cannabis (including hemp) Schedule I drugs. The fate of American farmers who cultivated hemp changed radically within just a few short decades.
The Founding Father of Weed?
When it’s all said and done, Washington wasn’t smoking blunts or advocating for legalized marijuana. After all, it wasn’t even illegal yet.
Despite hemp’s tarnished 20th-century reputation, Washington and Jefferson didn’t grow strains of the crop that would be recognized as marijuana today. The tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) levels were far too low to induce any kind of “high.” And, as Washington’s journals clearly indicate, he was interested in hemp solely for its industrial purposes.
Nonetheless, when hemp became illegal to grow and possess in 1970, knowledge of its industrial uses vanished, too. And the history of one of America’s most important cash crops disappeared in the shadow of the “War on Drugs.”
By Engrid Barnett, contributor for Ripleys.com