Drug Use Among Our Chief Executives
In honor of Presidents’ Day, let’s explore stories of both admitted and alleged drug use among some of our former Chief Executives, starting with the most recent.
Wild and Frivolous Youth
In one of his memoirs, Barack Obama stated that he took drugs in high school because of his strained relationship with his absentee father: “Pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it.”
Obama was also a member of the “Choom Gang,” and even thanked his drug dealer in his yearbook.
Reports of George W. Bush’s younger days indicate he also led a wild lifestyle at one time, indulging in marijuana and even cocaine. Brian Abrams is the author of Party like a President: True Tales of Inebriation, Lechery and Mischief from the Oval Office. He states that, in the 1970s Bush drank and took cocaine at a Houston nightspot. In Fortunate Son, J.R. Hatfield’s controversial Bush biography, the author even alleges that Bush was once arrested for possession of cocaine.
Former President Bill Clinton is famously known for stating that he had tried pot as a 20-something Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford, but “didn’t inhale.”
“[When] I was in England, I experimented with marijuana a time or two, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t inhale it, and never tried it again.”
Chilling Out During the Cold War
According to a former girlfriend, John F. Kennedy lit up a marijuana cigarette while on vacation in Jamaica.
Abrams’ book revealed a much more disturbing situation, however. He states that at the height of the Cold War, JFK reportedly smoked three marijuana cigarettes with a mistress. When “offered a fourth joint, the president begged off,” saying, “Suppose the Russians did something now.”
Kennedy also took numerous prescriptions for a variety of health conditions that he hid from the public. According to medical records, it’s a long list: “codeine, Demerol and methadone for pain; Ritalin, a stimulant; meprobamate and librium for anxiety; barbiturates for sleep” and more.
FDR on Cocaine?
Historian Steve Gillon said he believes FDR took cocaine during his White House tenure, perhaps even during the attack on Pearl Harbor. He based this speculation on a historical record which shows the president was receiving treatment for a chronic sinus infection on Dec. 7, 1941. Back then, physicians commonly used cocaine as part of these treatments.
If he was administered cocaine, Roosevelt most likely was not aware. At the time, doctors were instructed not to let their patients know they were being given the drug.
On the other hand, President Ulysses S. Grant used cocaine throat drops regularly to soothe the pain of throat cancer. And he reportedly was taking cocaine while he wrote his now famous memoirs. Of course, during the 19th century, cocaine was a legally available and widely used – albeit still highly addictive — pain reliever. Grant remained addicted to the drug until the cancer finally claimed his life at age 63.
Honest Abe’s “Blue Pills”
One of the stranger drugs used by former presidents was the “blue pill” taken by Abraham Lincoln to control his melancholy and “hypochondriasis.” This medication was in fact “finely dispersed elemental mercury.” So it’s likely Abe suffered from mercury poisoning.
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A decade before his presidency, Lincoln was known to act erratically on occasion. He’d suddenly run out of the house for no reason or burst into inappropriate laughter. Once he realized that the blue pill was causing the strange behavior, he stopped taking the drug, shortly after his inauguration.
Motivating the Troops
President Franklin Pierce is said to have motivated his soldiers by smoking marijuana with them on the battlefield. During the Mexican-American War, Pierce declared that smoking cannabis was “about the only good thing” to come out of the conflict.
And he wasn’t the only one. Andrew Jackson also openly smoked marijuana (as well as tobacco cigars) with his troops during wartime. Of course, this was all perfectly legal, as cannabis was not outlawed in this country until the 1930s.
The Founding Fathers Were Hemp Farmers
It’s well known that Thomas Jefferson grew vast fields of hemp on his plantation — an early draft of the Declaration of Independence was even written on hemp paper. But historians have debated as to whether Jefferson actually smoked any of his crop. There’s a quote that’s often attributed to Jefferson, suggesting that he did imbibe:
“Some of my finest hours have been spent on my back veranda, smoking hemp and observing as far as my eye can see.”
But it can’t be substantiated by any of his writings. While some references in Jefferson’s Farm Book could indicate he was growing the hemp for recreational purposes, most people don’t think so.
In fact, Abrams believes virtually all the accounts of 18th– or 19th-century presidents smoking marijuana are suspect, because there was no open trade to the Caribbean at that time. So “whatever hemp was in the U.S. at the time wasn’t strong, and was probably just used to make clothes.”
Did Washington Smoke Weed?
George Washington also grew hemp; several of his journal entries detail his efforts to grow a better crop. And some historians have speculated that Washington smoked marijuana to relieve his tooth pain.
Here’s Mount Vernon’s official position on the matter:
“His painful, ill-fitting dentures made Washington’s mouth bulge out; he clamped his lips to hold them in. Supposedly he lost his teeth by cracking Brazil nuts between his jaws.
“By the time he became President, he had only one tooth left. One set of dentures was carved from hippopotamus tusk and had a space to accommodate the single tooth. This caused almost constant pain, which he tried to ease with laudanum.”