Presidents’ Day: (In)hale to the Chiefs
A cannabis timeline featuring America’s most plant-friendly presidents.
Being the leader of the free world is a tough job. Perhaps that’s why we know that at least a handful of former US presidents have consumed cannabis. Be it before, after, or during their White House tenures, there does indeed exist a track record of commanders-in-chief partaking or otherwise advocating for aspects of cannabis that goes back as far as the origins of our country. This Presidents’ Day, let’s explore this historical—and fascinating—fact.
From the founding fathers through to the most recent names to hold the post, the intersection of America’s top leaders and their affinities for cannabis makes for a fascinating survey. Be it a curiosity for cultivation, a massively cloudy college transcript, or the origin for arguably the coolest Willie Nelson story of all time, on Presidents’ Day, we’re paying homage to those who’ve served the nation’s highest post and who also harbor an affinity for weed.
In addition to being the first US president and his pivotal leadership role in the Revolutionary War, George Washington somehow also found the time to keep detailed diaries throughout his life. Covering all manner of his adventures, meditations and challenges, Washington dedicated significant ink to his interest in botany—including hemp. Though historians can’t say anything definitively, it does appear possible that the “hemp preparations” Washington writes of making and consuming to deal with toothaches and other ailments could conceivably have been made from female cannabis plants rich in THC.
Thomas Jefferson was also fond of hemp, possibly going so far as to smuggle seeds back from China to cultivate in America. In his tenure as ambassador to France (cue the Hamilton song), Jefferson was smack dab in the middle of a hashish craze. Unfortunately, we have no documentation to tell us whether Jefferson ever blazed properly, but his actions are a worthy reminder that, at times, even sitting US presidents may have been reduced to trying to smuggle cannabis compounds into the country they led.
Like Jefferson, Monroe served as ambassador to France where he experienced a first-hand glimpse into the hashish craze. Some accounts suggest that our fifth president took the fervor back home with him, where he continued to unapologetically smoke hashish for the remainder of his life. It’s also possible such tales are the result of unfounded claims or confusion, but it appears the jury is destined to forever remain out on exactly how high Monroe was when it comes to hashish.
One has to take Jimmy Carter at his word when he says he tried cannabis, but it’s thanks to our 39th president that one of stoner culture’s greatest stories came to be. Indeed, it was Carter’s son, Chip, who invited the seminal folk musician and cannabis advocate Willie Nelson to join him for a late-night toke on the roof of the White House. It’s incredible stuff, compounded by the fact that Carter also pitched Congress on legislation to eliminate all federal penalties for possession of up to an ounce of cannabis—in 1977. Talk about a leader who was ahead of his time.
A meme in an age before memes, Bill Clinton’s infamous quote (“I didn’t inhale”) was a punchline made in pot comedy paradise. As the world collectively rolled its eyes at Clinton’s phrasing, his unwillingness to acknowledge his own past cannabis consumption was made infinitely worse through his advocacy and support of the draconian 1994 Crime Bill, which was also sponsored by the current President, then-Senator Joe Biden (and every Republican in elected office). Next time? Definitely inhale, President Clinton.
When 46 separate people serve as president over the course of more than 250 years, it’s tough to squeeze everyone in there. That said, it’s worth noting that varying accounts suggest James Madison was also fond of hemp; that Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor and Franklin Pearce all (separately) wrote letters during the Mexican American War that referenced enjoying cannabis; and that John F. Kennedy quite possibly used cannabis to treat his back pain while in office.
Meanwhile, our modern crop of commanders-in-chief now face a turning of the tide in which previous rhetoric equating cannabis to an enemy to be defeated by means of a “war” will no longer suffice. Instead, we see recent American presidents such as Barack Obama openly admitting to past cannabis use and successfully moving on from the topic. However, such personal enjoyment has yet to translate into concrete policies geared at freeing those incarcerated for cannabis crimes and mitigating future arrest, incarceration and systemic prejudice.
Though recent administrations have made waves with pardons related to cannabis prisoners, including some issued by former President Trump in 2021 and President Biden’s 2022 welcome announcement that he was pardoning “all prior federal offenses of simple marijuana possession,” the leader who’s in charge the day such pardons are no longer necessary is destined to find their name atop the heap as America’s first true cannabis positive president.