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:
• 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.
• 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
Is there something you need to get straight? Take it up with Cecil at straightdope.com.