Ed. Note: The early history of cannabis use here in the U.S.A. is fascinating. Cannabis was widely cultivated in the colonies and used for healing and getting high.
The History of Weed in America: The Colonial Days
One brief glance back at the history of weed in America and you’ll realize that cannabis is as American as apple pie… or Xenophobia. As the cannabis movement spreads across the US, you might be curious to know how the plant became so deeply rooted in American culture while simultaneously being vilified. Today, we will take a look back at how the history of weed in America began.
The first appearance of cannabis in American history might be far earlier than you’d expect. In fact, the plant predates the founding of the nation itself!
In 1619, Jamestown was England’s colonial frontier in the North American mainland. This was an era in which all of the major European powers were scrambling to grab a slice of the new world. Therefore, it might come as no surprise that King James I of England had one thing on his mind… WEED!
The King released a decree stating that all residents of Jamestown were required to grow Indian Hemp (the name for cannabis at the time). This represents the first formal legalization in the history of weed in America.
In this era, hemp was a valuable cash crop for the English. The plant would be cultivated on the North American continent and then transported on ocean-going ships for export back to Britain. What were these drug trafficking pioneers up to?
You’re probably thinking that the early colonists must have been higher than the Empire State Building right? Sadly for these puritan pioneers, this was simply not the case. At this time in the history of weed in America, the North American strains of the cannabis plant were non-psychoactive. This so-called “Indian hemp” contained such low THC levels, that getting high off of it would not have been possible. Perhaps there exists an alternate timeline where the settlers got their hands on some good kush and burned joints instead of witches.
While they couldn’t get you high, these North American hemp plants had some notable and dynamic uses that made them invaluable to both the British Empire and the colonists alike. Hemp is an extremely useful and versatile plant. Its fibers are extraordinarily lightweight and durable and can be used for a variety of purposes that you might not expect.
Settlers in America manufactured hemp to make an inexpensive yet durable rope which was utilized on naval vessels.
Believe it or not, the hemp plant is also an excellent untapped source of paper. Once refined this hemp paper is more sustainable and durable than traditional pulp paper. Many early Americans including founding fathers made abundant use of this writing material. In fact, many of the working drafts of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were written on paper made from hemp.
In addition to these essential uses, the fibers from the cannabis plant could be refined to produce a coarse cloth that was utilized to make itchy uncomfortable clothing and textiles. The plant’s seeds also represented an essential commodity. American farmers would extract the oil from this part of the plant for use in paint, varnish, and soap.
George Washington and History of Weed in America
As the American colonies matured and gave rise to a nation state, George Washington would become the most important figure in the history of weed in America. The first president of the United States saw tremendous potential in cannabis.
At Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, he grew a great many cannabis plants for use as cash crops. In a memo addressed to his gardener, the president expressed his love of cannabis.
“Make the most of the Indian hemp seed, and sow it everywhere”
This is far from the only record we have of George Washington discussing weed. In fact, Washington mentioned cannabis over 90 times in his personal diary. The pothead president’s memoirs went into excruciating detail about his harvests, discussing American, New Zealand, and Indian strains of the plant.
As previously mentioned, at this time in the history of weed in America, North American cannabis was simply not THC rich enough to get you stoned. This means that without a doubt, George Washington was not getting high on his own supply. So don’t think I’m going to include some crudely photoshopped picture of the American president with a blunt in his mouth.
In the next century, cannabis would go from cash crop to medicine and Americans would begin to get high for the first time. In our next installment of the history of weed in America, we will take a look into the 1800s.