Cannabis has been consumed by some of humanity’s best and brightest throughout history.
Since cannabis use has been stigmatized in the United States since the late 1930s, and has been listed as a Schedule I drug (making it, in the government’s eyes, legally on par with heroin and methamphetamines) since the 70s, many may not know the stories of some of our nation’s celebrated cannabis pioneers.
There are prominent figures in cannabis culture throughout all of human history – and now that restrictions are beginning to lift and more people have access to CBD and other cannabis products, we believe it’s past time to shine a light on those who came before us. Here are some stories of the most important, the most knowledgeable, the most celebrated, the wildest, the well-known, the mythological, and the weirdest cannabis figures in American history. We know there’s no way to cover every important person who used cannabis – if you know of someone we missed, send us an email and we’ll look into adding them to this list. Plus, check out part two of this series, where we cover international figures!
President James Monroe
Almost all of the founding fathers of the United States grew hemp on their plantations in the late 1700s (it was actually frowned upon not to during America’s earlier days) but none of them are confirmed to actually have been consumers of cannabis themselves, be that for medicinal reasons or just for recreation. The same can’t be said for James Monroe, who is rumored to have first been introduced to the wonders of hashish when he was the US Ambassador to France – and said to have continued enjoying to smoke it up until his death. This statement is the closest we have to a real corroboration of any of the founding fathers smoking cannabis, and it’s likely the most concrete proof we’re going to get. And in our opinion, whether or not these early presidents smoked is less relevant than the fact that they saw the undeniable value of hemp as a crop.
Dr. William C Woodward
During the late 1920s and throughout the 30s, support for cannabis prohibition was taking off in the US. Through the efforts of men such as William Hearst and Henry Anslinger, and via propagandic measures such as the film Reefer Madness, cannabis was becoming successfully stigmatized as “harmful” after decades of effective use as a medicine throughout the nation. And in 1937, the first federal law against cannabis was passed despite the concerns of the AMA (American Medical Association) and Dr. William C Woodward in particular. In fact, Dr. Woodward delivered an impassioned speech to Congress in opposition of this law being passed. His full statement can be found linked above; however, to us, the standout phrase is this: “To say, however, as has been proposed here, that the use of the drug should be prevented by a prohibitive tax, loses sight of the fact that future investigation may show that there are substantial medical uses for cannabis.” His words were unheeded by the US government and stringent laws were in fact passed, but his wisdom has lived on in cannabis activists ever since. We hope that, were he alive today, Dr. Woodward would be pleased to see how far cannabis legalization has come.
Before the release of her incomparable autobiography I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings in 1966, Maya Angelou was first visited by what she referred to as her “cannabis muse” two decades earlier in 1946. When she was a waitress, Ms. Angelou first tried smoking cannabis with some customers. After smoking a joint, she wrote in her journal that “From a natural stiffness, I melted into a grinning tolerance… for the first time, life amused me” – just one more anecdotal example of the amazing capability cannabis has to help people cope with trauma. Maya Angelou remained a regular cannabis consumer throughout her incredible writing career, frequently citing cannabis as one of her biggest inspirations.
President John F Kennedy
Though there may not be much in the way of concrete evidence of the American founding fathers using cannabis, there is plenty of proof that presidents from a more recent era imbibed. President Kennedy’s admittance of using cannabis to help alleviate his chronic back pain* isn’t really shocking on its own, but what truly cements his place on this list is the fact that he was known to kick back with a joint every now and then – at the White House. It’s rumored that he once smoked three consecutive joints with a friend of his and then said, “Suppose the Russians did something now…” This is one of the most important steps towards normalization that we can think of! No one bats an eye if (and when) the leader of the free world drinks a glass of Scotch from an artistic glass decanter in the Oval Office – we truly feel it should be the same in regards to smoking a joint or taking a bong hit here and there.
The world’s most celebrated astronomer since Galileo and the man behind the original ‘Cosmos’ series, Carl Sagan should be on every list of important cannabis figures. In 1969, when he was 35 years old, Sagan wrote an anonymous letter under the name “Mr. X” in which he outlined not only why he personally appreciated the effects of cannabis, but why he felt its use should be encouraged, not prohibited. He wrote that when high on cannabis, he was able to experience far more insight into social issues, gain a better understanding of music and art, and more capably experience “an area of creative scholarship very different from the one I am generally known for.” The authorship of this powerful essay remained unknown until after Carl Sagan’s death; however, the message it carries rings true regardless of its writer.
This short list of notable people throughout American history who used cannabis is definitively not comprehensive. Since the plant continues to face such a stigma (as it has for decades at this point, making the negative associations deeply ingrained in society), there is no way to know how many important historical figures tried cannabis or consumed it regularly – but our hope is that seeing a list, brief though it may be, of intelligent, celebrated individuals who smoked weed helps do its part to end the stigma we continue to fight against in the legal cannabis and hemp industry.