While we’re really sure about the last three presidents’ history of pot smoking, the historical record is unclear about some of the rest. Here’s a Presidents Day look at the tokers and anti-tokers in the White House.
YES #44 - Barack Obama: The current president wrote about his cocaine and marijuana use as a youth in Hawaii and famously said, “When I was a kid, I inhaled, frequently. That was the point,” when running for president in 2008.
YES #43 - George W. Bush: Dubya was known as a cocaine user in his younger days, but he would never respond to questions about his marijuana use. Later, he told his biographer, Douglas Wead (yes, pronounced like “weed”), “I wouldn’t answer the marijuana questions. You know why? Because I don’t want some little kid doing what I tried.”
YES #42 - Bill Clinton: Slick Willie famously said, “When I was in England, I experimented with marijuana a time or two, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t inhale and never tried it again,” when asked about his marijuana use. In true Clintonian fashion, he may have been telling the truth. The late Christopher Hitchens, who attended Oxford with Clinton, said Bill had an affinity for pot brownies, so he may not have ever tried “it” (inhaling) ever again.
NO #41 - George H. W. Bush: It’s probably safe to say Poppy Bush never touched a reefer. He is the president who brought us the Drug Czar’s office and closed off the experimental federal medical marijuana program when AIDS victims started applying en masse. On the “scourge” of drugs, Bush specifically called for “intolerance” of drug users and prophetically announced that “Some think there won’t be room for them in jail. We’ll make room.”
NO #40 - Ronald Reagan: Given that he died from Alzheimer’s disease, it is a shame the Gipper wasn’t able to embrace the cannabis medicine that could have protected his brain. Not that he would have used it, since Reagan told us, “I now have absolute proof that smoking even one marijuana cigarette is equal in brain damage to being on Bikini Island during an H-bomb blast.”
NO, BUT… #39 - Jimmy Carter: Jimmy Carter says he’s never smoked pot, but there’s no doubt his son Chip did on the roof of the White House with Willie Nelson. Still, Carter was the most progressive president on pot in the War on Drugs era, telling Congress, “I support legislation amending Federal law to eliminate all Federal criminal penalties for the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana.”
NO #37 - Richard Nixon: Tricky Dick is the one who brought us this War on Drugs in the first place. The Nixon Tapes are replete with Nixon’s mix of irrational hatred of marijuana and non-white races and ethnicities, with quotes like, “I want a Goddamn strong statement on marijuana, I mean one that just tears the ass out of them. You know, it’s a funny thing, every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish.”
YES #35 - John F. Kennedy: JFK used marijuana to deal with severe back pain, according to a few written accounts, including “John F. Kennedy: A Biography”, which described this White House scene: “On the evening of July 16, 1962, according to [Washington Post executive] Jim Truitt, Kennedy and Mary Meyer smoked marijuana together. … The president smoked three of the six joints Mary brought to him. At first he felt no effects. Then he closed his eyes and refused a fourth joint. ‘Suppose the Russians did something now,’ he said.”
From President #17 Andrew Johnson to President #34 Dwight Eisenhower, we have almost nothing in the way of historical record of presidents smoking pot. Pre-Civil War America was a land of hemp farmers and slaves who could commonly roll up some hemp leaf as a smoke. Post-Civil War America heralded the development of pre-rolled tobacco cigarettes and prejudice against the Mexican immigrants who smoked “marihuana”. Cannabis was becoming a patent medicine, so perhaps some presidents used it in that fashion. But by the turn of the 20th century, the temperance movement was in full swing and states were beginning to prohibit cannabis. Pot smoking is not likely to be something the late 19th and early 20th century presidents wanted recorded for posterity, if they did it at all.
NO #16 - Abraham Lincoln: The internet abounds with people claiming Honest Abe loved “a pipe of sweet hemp, and playing my Hohner harmonica.” Hohner didn’t make harmonicas until two years after the alleged quote and didn’t export them to America from Germany until 1868, four years after Abe’s assassination. Also, that oft-cited “Prohibition... goes beyond the bound of reason…” Lincoln quote? It’s a fake, written by a former mayor of Atlanta in 1922 to court black voters to oppose alcohol prohibition. That doesn’t necessarily mean Lincoln didn’t partake; we just have no proof that he did.
YES #14 - Franklin Pierce: One of three military men to become president who enjoyed smoking marijuana with the troops fighting the Mexican-American War. In a letter to his family, Pierce wrote that marijuana smoking was “about the only good thing” about the war.
YES #12 - Zachary Taylor: Another of the three military men who smoked marijuana with the troops.
YES #7 - Andrew Jackson: Third of the three military men whose letters referred to smoking marijuana with the troops.
YES #5 - James Monroe: Openly smoked hashish while he was Ambassador to France and continued smoking it until his death at age 73.
YES #4 - James Madison: The “Father of the Constitution” claimed that hemp gave him the insight to create a new democratic nation.
YES #3 - Thomas Jefferson: In addition to farming hemp, Jefferson was Ambassador to France during the hashish era there. At risk of imprisonment if caught, Jefferson smuggled hemp seeds from China known for their potency to America. However, as far as our research takes us, he never said or wrote, “Some of my finest hours have been spent sitting on my back veranda, smoking hemp and observing as far as my eye can see.”
YES #1 - George Washington: The father of our country kept meticulous diaries, wherein he noted “Sowed hemp at muddy hole by swamp” away from the hemp he grew for fiber. “Began to separate the male from female plants at do [sic --rather too late” and “Pulling up the (male) hemp. Was too late for the blossom hemp by three weeks or a month” indicates he was going for female plants with higher THC content. There is also indication he used hemp preparations to deal with his toothaches.
"Radical" Russ Belville is the host of "The Russ Belville Show."