The Use of Cannabis, Other Than as Hemp in Colonial America

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Image retrieved from on February 4th, 2014.
Image retrieved from on February 6th, 2013
Image retrieved from on February 6th, 2013

We know colonial Americans were aware of the medicinal properties of Cannabis. It was one of the few medicines they had, and they used it as commonly as we use aspirin today. That means that in addition to farming hemp for fiber they cultivated "garden varieties" of Cannabis with a high Tetrahydrocanbinol content--marijuana. They either smoked it, brewed it as tea, or ingesting it. Washington's diary entries indicate that he grew hemp at Mount Vernon, his plantation, for about 30 years. According to his agricultural ledgers, he had a particular interest in the medicinal use of Cannabis, and several of his diary entries indicate that he indeed was growing cannabis with a high Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content--marijuana. "Sowed hemp [presumably Indian hemp] at muddy hole by swamp" (May 12-13, 1765), indicates he was growing it away from the hemp he grew for fiber. "Began to separate the male from female plants at do [sic]--rather too late" (August 7, 1765), and, "Pulling up the (male)hemp. Was too late for the blossom hemp by three weeks or a month" (August 29, 1766), indicates that he was trying to grow female plants, which produce a high THC content.
Like all farmers, Washington probably sampled the quality and potency of what he grew, and he may have used this hemp to treat his chronic tooth aches. Jefferson (also a hemp farmer)noted in his diary that he smoked hemp for relief from migraine headaches.
Actually, it was a common practice for colonial Americans to smoke Cannabis, of varying degrees of potency, in lieu of tobacco, for recreational and for medicinal purposes, and the practice probably lasted until well after the Civil War. It was readily available, and free--you could simply pick it, dry it, and smoke it. Unless it is grown specifically for its medicinal or intoxicating properties, ordinary hemp contains relatively little Tetrahydrocannabinol, the intoxicant. African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans, too, have a long history of and appreciation of the pleasure of smoking Cannabis, because after the Civil segregation marked a rejuvenation of that practice and included the White community.
Duke Durham's
The primary market for hemp was the ship-building industry and the appearance of the "Iron Clads," the steamships Monitor and Merrimac, drastically changed the way ships were built. Also, tobacco products increasingly supplanted Cannabis, particularly after the introduction of pre-made cigarettes and the development of sophisticated distribution networks.
In the early days, even wealthy gentleman farmers and businessmen commonly smoked Cannabis, sometimes the ordinary kind, sometimes more potent. No fewer than eight US presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Taylor, Pierce, and Lincoln) have been identified as Cannabis (hemp) smokers. Washington reportedly preferred a pipe full of "the leaves of hemp" to alcohol, and wrote in his diaries that he enjoyed the fragrance of hemp flowers. Washington and Jefferson, both known to have grown medicinal hemp (marijuana), are said to have exchanged smoking blends as personal gifts. In a letter, Washington wrote, "The artificial preparation of hemp, from Silesia, is really a curiosity." It has been suggested that this may be a reference to hashish. Monroe apparently began smoking Cannabis while he was Ambassador to France and continued using it to the age of 73. Andrew Jackson, Zarchary Taylor and Franklin Pierce reportedly smoked Cannabis with their troops and wrote home of the pleasures of smoking hemp. Pierce, a reformed heavy drinker, is said to have written home that smoking hemp was the only good thing about the Mexican War. And Abe Lincoln, who grew up poor and probably couldn't afford tobacco, reportedly said he liked nothing better than sitting on his front porch smoking from his hemp pipe.
These realizations raise the quirky question of whether American founding fathers and several of our early presidents were "pot heads"? (The Clintonesque answer, of course, is that it depends on what your definition of pot head is.)
These men never would have attained their leadership roles if their peers had thought the use of Cannabis negatively affected their mental or physical capacities. In fact,judging from the extraordinary accomplishment of drafting the Declaration of Independence (written by Jefferson) and the Constitution (in which Madison played a primary role), the two principle documents upon which the United States is founded, it is hard to imagine that their abilities were impaired in any way.
Furthermore, Washington, who was unquestionable the man who brought life to the Constitution, couldn't have been more beloved by the people. Washington's widespread popularity was legendary; however, it is important to note that he did not attain the love, respect, and loyalty of his troops or the American people because he was a military genius. In fact, Washington had not distinguished himself as a military strategist or leader before being appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Revolutionary Army. He was put in charge mainly because he attended the Continental Congress meetings, Day after day, wearing his former military uniform, the uniform he had worn during the French and Indian Wars, leaving the impression that he was more experienced than the other candidates--and, of course, he looked great on his white horse! But looks alone were not good enough, and since Washington did not immediately produce meaningful results there were efforts afoot within the military and in Congress to replace him as Commander-in-Chief. His only military victory was the surprise attack on Trenton, New Jersey, on the morning of December 25, 1776. Even the final battle of the Revolutionary War, the defeat of Cornwallis at York-town Virginia, on October 19, 1781, was due primarily to the unexpected but timely arrival of the French fleet.
That is not to imply that Washington as not a man of substance; he clearly grew into the position of responsibility he had taken on. What the people really loved about Washington was that he truly was a man-of-the-people. He treated every one as equals--he was there, like everyone else, to help win America's independence from England. He was the ultimate role model, the kind of man they all wanted to be. And what is most important, many of them, just like Washington, were hemp farmers--so that there was a commonality of concerns, ideals and feelings about the events of the day.
When Washington finally agreed to become the first president, the United States was already beginning to fall apart. The Articles of Confederation under which the Continental Congress was organized and operated had numerous flaws that especially hindered interstate commerce. The Constitutional Convention that took place at Philadelphia's Independence Hall in 1787 was convened specifically to address and fix those problems (not to crap it and start over; that was Alexander Hamilton's idea, and when he proposed it a lacerating war of words broke out).
The US Constitution that was eventually produced was bitterly debated and was not at all popular because it created and empowered a federal government, when most Americans felt allegiance to the individual states.
Washington's support of the Constitution and his reluctant acceptance of the presidency were the keys to its ratification, implementation, and ultimate success. His virtual coronation as President of the United States simply reflected his popularity. He could have made the presidency into a monarchy, but told those addressing him as "Your Majesty" to simply refer to him as "Mr. President." He also felt that it would not be consistent with the best interest of the people to create a dynasty, so he served only eight years as president--thus setting a percent for his successors. Actually, Washington didn't want to serve a second four-year term at all, but there did not seem to be anyone else available who could moderate the almost constant bickering between Jefferson and Hamilton, and Washington believed both men were important to Americas future.
These men had very good minds; no one can claim that any of them was in any was impaired by smoking Cannabis, of whatever kind. Their insight, vision and ideology set high new standards.
early pipe
It is also significant that, while people all across colonial America took up the habit of smoking, the cultivation of tobacco was pretty much confined to Virginia. Farmers living the northern colonies more commonly smoked hemp leaves. Some people like to think that smoking hemp leaves rather than tobacco may have contributed to the development of more liberal Northern attitudes. The most hotly contested issue at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 was slavery, and the opposing sides were undeniably split along geographical lines-- North and South-- and this was years before Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin and well before cotton and slavery became major economic issues for the South.
But the slavery issue was not resolved in 1787, and in 1793 Whitney did invent his cotton gin; cotton became far cheaper than hemp to turn into cloth. Gradually it supplanted hemp as America's textile industry standard. Cotton farming was much more profitable, especially in the southern states were slavery was predominately practiced.
We also know that many of the colonists who inherited and kept slaves--including Washington and Jefferson, who are believed to have smoked hemp/marijuana regularly--were actually opposed to slavery, and in their wills many bequeathed their slaves their freedom. They did use slaves to build their mansions and tend their vast farms, and regularly slept with their female slaves; but they seem to have treated them better than many others did. Jefferson's long term relationship with is servant Sally Hemings was a common practice in those days, and mirrored similar relationships his father and grand father had with their servants.
It is also worth noting that while slaves rarely had access to alcohol, they did have access to hemp; and they had knowledge of the intoxicating properties and medicinal properties of Cannabis. They brought that knowledge with them from Africa, and easily recognized the unique leaves of the plant they knew as "dada." Actually, the use of marijuana as an intoxicant was a well-established practice long before the white man ever discovered Africa, and the Africans probably used it as commonly and as long as their Arab neighbors have used hashish--another form of the same intoxicant. African women reportedly smoked it to stupefy themselves during childbirth. They would grind the seeds into a mush (gruel) that they used to wean children on, and they made it into bread. African tribes historically treated anti-social behavior by forcing the transgressor to ingest large quantities of marijuana smoke; they had an almost nonexistent repeat rate. South African mine owners even supplied "dada" to their workers because it helped them work harder with less fatigue. That situation dramatically stopped after the Boer War, when the British took control--the British saw the use of "dada" by the blacks as a threat to their supremacy. Undoubtedly, the African slaves passed that knowledge on to American-born slaves, but rarely to white Americans, whom they distrusted and rarely spoke to.

pp. 25-30 Hemp - American History Revisited by Robert Deitch (20030

George Washington
Duke Durham's, early cigarettes
early pipe