The US Presidency is, as Theodore Roosevelt famously said, a bully pulpit. From their position at the top of the US government, presidents set policy and enforce law. At times, they also attempt to influence cultural attitudes towards hemp and cannabis, with varying degrees of success. Yet the relationship hasn’t always been strained. To celebrate Presidents’ Day, we’ve made a timeline of US Presidents and their relationship with hemp and cannabis.
Hemp cultivation played a crucial role in the early days of settling Jamestown, Virginia. It produced necessary materials used in everyday life (rope, cloth, paper, etc.) Bibles and maps were printed on hemp. Lamp oil was derived from pressed hemp seeds. One single ship in the British naval fleet required 120,000 pounds of hemp fiber, and as a result, the British Crown made farming hemp mandatory for settlers in Jamestown. Each farm cultivated at least one acre of hemp. Farmers who didn’t comply would be fined or jailed.
George Washington predicted that hemp would become more profitable than tobacco. He grew New Zealand, West Indies, and American hemp on the 5 farms comprising his Mount Vernon plantation. Washington grew hemp plentifully to utilize its strong fibers to make rope and canvas for his large-scale fishing operation on the Potomac River. Currently, George Washington’s Mount Vernon historical site grows 4 acres of hemp and harvests every summer to demonstrate Washington’s role as an entrepreneurial farmer. During Washington’s presidency, hemp was used to pay taxes because of its inherent value in the New World.
Benjamin Franklin established the first commercial cannabis operation with his large hemp mill that converted cannabis fibers into paper. This mill enabled the settlers to gain freedom from a reliance on Britain for the product. Hemp paper produced at his mill was used to print Common Sense by Thomas Paine, a manifesto that incited the colonists to protest. He often wrote about the importance of hemp in his newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette.
John Adams believed that hemp was a critical component for the health of a young nation. As president, he wrote newspaper columns that advocated farming hemp for its many practical uses.
As our 3rd president, Thomas Jefferson played a critical role in the advancement of hemp production. His invention of a hemp threshing machine received the first United States patent (although, as Secretary of State, he oversaw the development of the Patent Act and its guidelines). Jefferson diversified hemp phenotypes by smuggling new strains from China into the colonies and believed firmly that “Hemp is of first necessity to the wealth and protection of the country.”
Our 4th president, James Madison, known as “The Father of the Constitution” farmed hemp at Montpelier, a 5,000-acre plantation that he inherited from his father, a longtime tobacco farmer.
A decorticating machine was invented by George W. Schlichten as an economical solution to drive down labor costs associated with hemp production. The machine enabled use of 95 percent of the hemp stalk, 3 times the amount used previously for hemp textile and paper production. An acre of hemp could produce 5 times more paper than an acre of trees. Hemp became an affordable, sustainable paper source. At the height of World War 1, what could be more patriotic than preserving our precious natural resources?
On the coattails of the Reefer Madness anti-marijuana campaign, the Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner Harry Anslinger, pushed to implement the Marihuana Tax Act. This tax regulated the importation, cultivation, possession and/or distribution of hemp and cannabis. These regulations led to the development of harsher criminalization, soon to follow.
World War II proved again that hemp fibers were needed for war essentials such as cordage, twine, rope, marine rigging, thread for soldier’s shoes and parachute webbing. The U.S demanded farmers grow hemp solely for the WWII effort. Hemp truly became a patriotic crop. But pesky cannabis? A menace. As the Department of Agriculture declared in its campaign for Hemp for Victory: “Hemp chokes out the weeds. See this cannabis thistle? Dead as a Dodo!”
After WWII, President Harry S. Truman signed into law the first mandatory minimum sentences for drug convictions. A first-time offender possessing marijuana faced 2-10 years in prison and a fine of up to $20,000 or over $200,000 today.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower continued the trend of using prison time as an ant-drug deterrent with the passage of the Narcotic Control Act of 1956, which increased penalties for the sale and possession of marijuana, heroin, and opium.
Mary Pinchot Meyer, one of President John F. Kennedy’s mistresses and a talented painter, shares “marijuana cigarettes” with the president in a White House bedroom.
Longtime opponent of cannabis, Harry Anslinger, left his position as chief of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, opening the possibility of shifting to a treatment-based approach to drug use. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice found that the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 overreached by lumping cannabis in with opiate use. However, rising controversies and cannabis use among the youth dashed the administration’s leverage to enact reforms.
President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse to be “public enemy number one,” launching the War on Drugs. The policies would devastate black and other minority communities, all while winning huge public support. The belief that drugs were America’s #1 problem leapt from 3% to 23% in two years. This is the same year John Lennon released “John Sinclair,” a protest song telling the story of John Sinclair who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for possession of two joints.
While Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter both continued investing resources in the War on Drugs, the anti-drug effort was reinvigorated by President Ronald Reagan, with Nancy Reagan at his side. During the signing of Executive Order 12368: Concerning Federal Drug Abuse Policy Functions, Reagan remarked, “We’re taking down the surrender flag that has flown over so many drug efforts; we’re running up a battle flag.”
President Ronald Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act into law, infusing $1.7 billion ($2.5B today) into anti-drug efforts. It also created 29 mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. It lumped cannabis in with drugs like heroin and exploded the incarcerated population for decades to come.
Building on Reagan-era efforts to target cannabis growers, President George H. W. Bush targeted horticultural equipment companies offering products that could be used in growing cannabis in Operation Green Merchant. It also led to raids on the homes of customers of the targeted companies.
A program nicknamed “Smoke a joint, lose your license” was instituted by the George H. W. Bush administration. It called on states to punish drug offenses, including cannabis use, with the suspension of a driver’s license for six months. Any states that did not comply by 1995 would lose federal highway funds.
President Bill Clinton famously stated in an interview that he smoked but did not inhale marijuana once as a younger person. This marked a generational shift in attitudes and exposure to cannabis of US Presidents.
At the end of his time in office, President Bill Clinton spoke with Rolling Stone magazine about his support for decriminalizing marijuana and reforming policies leading to incarceration rates which were still climbing at the time.
As president, George W. Bush appointed John Walters as America’s drug czar, who shifted focus to anti-marijuana enforcement, leading to nearly 50% of drug arrests in the US to be marijuana related at the time. This included raids in states with legalized medical marijuana, like California, thanks to a Supreme Court ruling clearing the way for the federal government.
Starting with Nixon’s declaration of war on drugs in 1971, the incarceration rate for drug convictions rose 400% before finally reaching its peak in 2008. That year also marked the election of Barack Obama, who famously spoke about smoking marijuana in his youth and supported decriminalization. Public support, state-led legalization efforts, and decades of advocacy started paying off in changing presidential attitudes and reduced enforcement under the Obama administration.
President Donald Trump rolled back Obama-era policies by rescinding the 2013 Cole Memorandum, which had halted federal marijuana prosecutions in legalized states.
Despite campaign promises to seek decriminalization of marijuana, five staff members of the Joe Biden administration were fired for past cannabis use.
2022 and beyond….
Time will tell what the future of cannabis and hemp holds, and the relationship the Commander-In-Chief will have to the plants. In the meantime, the work of education, advocacy, and voting for change lands in the hands of we the people.
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