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.

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.

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