With the 4th of July approaching, it’s time to celebrate freedom in America–and of course that starts with weed, now completely legal in eight states and the District of Columbia, the nation’s capital.
Despite the national divisions of liberal and conservative, as well as race, color and creed, weed can serve as a unifying force, as you’ll see in this diverse list of those individuals who helped advance the growth, use and acceptance of cannabis in its varied forms—be it industrial hemp or mind-blowing flowers.
Each of our 10 selections represents an “archetype” of the type of courageous and innovative people who were instrumental in the history of this nation, while simultaneously underscoring how vital and central cannabis has been to the American experience—even when America hasn’t treated the wonder weed, or its proponents, very kindly.
As any stoner worth his or her stash can tell you, there are far more than a mere 10 pot people who could have populated this list, and indeed, many others incredible Americans were closely considered who didn’t quite make the cut; hemp farming Founding Fathers, like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, anthropologist Margaret Mead, the “Hemperor,” pot author and activist Jack Herer and even tech titans Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.
The fact that there were so many worthy candidates for inclusion on this list speaks to the influence this profound plant has had on so many influential citizens of our nation.
None of these entries are without controversy; some may offend the politically correct, others may disturb more traditional and conservative pot smokers. Yet, there’s no denying the use, facilitation and/or support of cannabis by each of the individuals listed has shaped America for the better. especially now as we celebrate an increasingly liberated stance on weed in our land of the free.
The first half of the list is more hemp-oriented, with the latter entries more concerned with medicinal and recreational cannabis use and legalization.
This list is not to be viewed as a “ranking” according to some arbitrary qualifying standards, but rather as a chronological countdown, tracing America’s hemp and cannabis history through the eyes of some of its greatest explorers, leaders, capitalists, activists and artists.
So take a huge hit, and then blow out 241 birthday candles to mark America’s age in 2017, as these factoids of figures both historical and present-day embody the history of cannabis in the USA.
1. CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS
Represents: The origins of America, Bringing cannabis to America
While our first entry was not an American (Columbus was Italian)—due to the simple fact the U.S. was not in existence during his lifetime—the legendary explorer Christopher Columbus leads off this list due to his seminal role in the transformation of a former pristine land of endless wilderness into arguably the most powerful nation in human history.
And true, it’s hardly politically correct to assert Columbus “discovered” the land we now call the USA, yet he personifies the European migration to this country that laid the foundation for the nation’s formation in the 18th century.
Although it cannot be empirically verified beyond all doubt, it’s highly probable Columbus brought pot seeds to North America from Spain—the nation that sponsored his voyage—where hemp was grown for great use. As reasoned by PROHBTD, while there is no 500-year old documentation confirming Columbus brought cannabis to the New World, the record does suggest seeds aplenty for harvesting crops were exported to America. Given hemp’s prolific use in the Old World, it seems highly logical that hemp seeds would have been part of the planned plantings in the New World. And there is no doubt that hemp materials were used for the sails and ropes of the most famous armada of ships in history—the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria.
While there is ample evidence to suggest that Native American tribes used cannabis hemp prior to European colonization, per Sensi Seeds, it was Columbus and other explorers’, and later the pilgrims’, familiarity with the cannabis plant that lead to its transport, acceptance and widespread use by the colonies that would eventually revolt against Great Britain and become the United States.
In fact, cannabis was so vital to the pre-U.S. colonies that in 1619, the Virginia Company—King James I’s corporate entity to conduct the business of settling America—ordered every farmer in colonial Jamestown to grow 100 hemp plants, while the colony’s governor had to grow 5,000. All the freshly harvested hemp was necessary to compensate for so many New World farmers turning to tobacco to become rich, per Drug Library.
By the 17th century, cannabis was “pot and parcel” of everyday life in the colonies and would also play a role in the coming revolution, as well as one of its greatest leaders…
2. GEORGE WASHINGTON
Represents: The birth of America, Planting hemp in America
With our next entry, there is no disputing the central argument that Washington, the “father of our country” and the first President of the United States (POTUS), not only grew hemp, he even promoted it in his writings.
Further, Washington was sophisticated enough in his growing to know that the sex of the cannabis plant determined its fate. Per LC Web, a document exists online that confirms on August 7, 1765, in his pre-Revolutionary War days as a Virginia farmer, (line 7) Washington wrote that he “began to separate the male from the female hemp.”
This entry indicates Washington may have been well aware of the intoxicating effects of the flowers created by female cannabis plants, and while there’s no evidence that he did smoke weed to get stoned or possibly inspired the revolt against British tyranny, there’s no evidence that Washington did not smoke pot, either.
Regardless, it’s highly fitting that both the U.S. state and the nation’s capital named in his honor have legalized recreational weed. Speaking to the power of cannabis in early American history, Washington was not the last POTUS to grow and promote hemp…
3. JAMES MADISON
Represents: Liberty and law in America, Cannabis hemp helping to form America
Madison, the “father of the Constitution” and the fourth U.S. president, also raised hemp and may possibly have smoked pot for history-making inspiration (keep reading). Needless to say, Madison would be appalled at the betrayal of the law of the land he composed, in the name of the War on Drugs, and specifically the ongoing federal war on weed—even as state after state legalizes its use, growth and sale.
Per Weed News, Madison’s oft-quoted comment, that, “hemp gave him the insight to create a new democratic nation,” may not necessarily have been a reference to smoking the flowers to come up with ideas, but could be more reasonably interpreted as Madison referring to hemp’s varied industrial applications being so instrumental in colonial development and that those benefits of cannabis could serve a unified nation as well.
But regardless of his intent, whether or not he was actually smoking pot or just using it for the paper where he jotted down his writings, Madison’s remark that hemp was instrumental in conceiving democratic America has to rank right up there with the Bible, quoting God in Genesis, “I give you (humanity) every seed-bearing plant,” in terms of monumental marijuana quotes!
With hemp now covering the American landscape in the 1800s, it was time for its fun flower to share her magic, too…
4. MARK TWAIN
Represents: Unbridled individualism in America, Recreational use of cannabis in America
Does any one person exemplify the USA more than Mark Twain? The man who was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in 1835 is certainly in the discussion; having lived all over the U.S. and penning the quintessential “Great American Novel” with 1885’s Huckleberry Finn.
In a sense, Clemens, who began calling himself “Mark Twain” in 1863, predated 1967’s Summer of Love “hippie” (now “hipster”) qualities, from his questioning attitude to his facial hair. And that behavior included getting stoned in San Francisco, presently hipster central in California.
In 2011, SF Gate recalled Twain’s “hasheesh” experience in the City by the Bay, as reported on September 18, 1865, by the then San Francisco Dramatic Chronicle—today known as the San Francisco Chronicle.
The account reads: “It appears that a ‘Hasheesh’ mania has broken out among our Bohemians. Yesterday, Mark Twain and the ‘Mouse-Trap’ man (a reference to a local literary columnist) were seen walking up Clay Street under the influence of the drug, followed by a ‘star’ (a police officer) who was evidently laboring under a misapprehension as to what was the matter with them.”
During that period in U.S. history when drugs—including all forms of medicinal and recreational weed—were mundanely legal, cannabis concentrates like “hasheesh candy” were sold at local drug stores, such as Richards & Co, on the corner of the aforementioned Clay St. and Sansome St. in downtown San Francisco.
America was changing in the time of Twain, from hard manual labor to the takeover of technology. But cannabis hemp still had a role to play…
5. HENRY FORD
Represents: The Industrial Revolution in America, Use of industrial hemp in America
The automotive innovator Ford foresaw the potentiality of hemp as an industrial resource long before our modern day “hempcrete,” now being utilized to construct buildings and vehicles. Per the December 1941 edition of Popular Mechanics, reprinted by UKCIA, Ford experimented with building cars out of hemp plastic. He labored 12 years to create a vehicle that weighed a half-ton less than a conventional car, yet could withstand a blow 10 times stronger than mighty steel.
Unfortunately, Ford was thwarted in his dank designs by the 1937 prohibition of cannabis—which also included the banishment of hemp. This no doubt fueled the right-wing—some would charge fascist—Ford to resent President Franklin Delano Roosevelt even more, as FDR was the U.S. president who presided over pot prohibition.
Per True Democracy Party, Ford was “green” long before the concept of being eco-conscious was established, envisioning cars and other vehicles running on ethanol and other hemp-based fuels. Given the era he lived in, Ford was truly ahead of time in regard to seeing the big picture of utilizing natural resources and having environmental sensitivity—and that cannabis could play a pivotal role when it comes to both factors.
With the advent of America’s high standard of living, the country began to focus on other issues, exemplified as well as anyone by…
6. MAYA ANGELOU
Represents: Women’s and civil rights in America, Creative and experiential use of weed in America
Here is the list’s first entry who openly praised the use of pot as an intoxicant—African-American poet and activist Maya Angelou. Angelou sadly passed away in 2014 at age 86, still at the height of her mental acuity and maintaining her artistic and creative prowess.
In 1969, Angelou released her breakthrough book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a profound recollection of her tumultuous life up until age 17. Indeed Angelou’s life almost encapsulates the black experience in America within one person; including her involvement with Martin Luther King and working towards establishing civil rights for blacks and other minority groups in America.
As noted by Northwest Leaf, in her inimitable style, in the 1974 sequel to Caged Bird, entitled Gather Together in My Name, Angelou wrote, “Smoking grass eased the strain for me. I made a connection at a restaurant nearby. People called it Mary Jane, hash, grass, gauge, weed, pot, and I had absolutely no fear of using it.”
“From a natural stiffness I melted into a grinning tolerance,” she continued. “Walking on the streets became high adventure, eating my mother’s huge dinners an opulent entertainment, and playing with my son was side-cracking hilarity. For the first time, life amused me.”
Angelou’s attitude towards pot reflected the times she lived in, and now the struggle to liberate its legal status was underway…
7. TIMOTHY LEARY
Represents: The counterculture in America, Fighting for legalization in America
Even though he passed away over two decades ago in 1996, most stoners are aware of Timothy Leary, the Harvard psychology professor turned LSD icon who influenced songs by The Beatles and The Moody Blues.
But did you know that he got the aforementioned 1937 pot prohibition law declared unconstitutional?
As recalled by Inverse, Leary was busted by customs cops on March 13, 1966 at the U.S.-Mexico border in Laredo, Texas. With his two teenage kids in the car, Leary was denied entry back into America, then customs officials discovered five ounces of weed along with seeds scattered on the acid guru’s car floor.
Leary welcomed the arrest because he sought to generate a national debate on the hypocrisy of cannabis criminalization and to challenge the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act. Leary got the legal showdown he sought in ’69, when his case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court lived up to their name by ruling in Leary’s favor, accepting his argument that the Tax Act violated the Fifth Amendment because, though Leary was arrested under the Tax Act, it was also illegal under Texas law—meaning Leary would have provided self-incriminating evidence.
Thus, the Supreme Court ruled the Tax Act unconstitutional and shattered its legal standing. It was repealed in 1970 as Congress passed the Nixon administration-based Controlled Substances Act.
Some could argue Leary alienated the middle class towards marijuana, along with hastening the federal government’s officially classifying cannabis as being as dangerous as heroin with the CSA. However, it was Leary who brought pot out of the shadows of illicit drugs and put it on a pedestal for the entire nation to consider whether or not its criminal status was legit.
With pot use now a part of everyday American youth culture, it was time to discover other applications of cannabis…
8. DENNIS PERON
Represents: The struggles of LGBTQ in America, Rise of medical marijuana in America
Originally from a traditional Italian family in the Bronx, Dennis Peron began his days in San Francisco as a gay pot dealer in the late ’60’s, arriving from a stint in Vietnam loaded with two pounds of Asian weed in his duffel bag. He dealt out of his colorful Castro-neighborhood flat, the pot supermarket affectionately dubbed the “The Big Top,” until an SFPD raid—by an undercover drug squad all wearing Hawaiian shirts—resulted in Peron being shot in the thigh.
With the 1980’s came AIDS in America—in the pre-medication days, turning every infection into a life-threatening danger. As the AIDS scourge continued to plague San Francisco’s gay community, Peron discovered cannabis stimulated the appetites of those around him suffering from wasting syndrome and greatly improved the quality of life of those battling AIDS-related complications, including his boyfriend, Jonathan West.
At the time, Peron and other fledgling pot activists didn’t know that the cannabinoids contained within the flowers were also providing immune system boosts and reduction of harmful inflammation.
Peron soon realized the medicinal efficacy of cannabis was a way for the shunned plant to reclaim credibility. In 1991, Peron organized and got medical marijuana measure Prop. P passed in San Francisco with 79 percent of the vote. P didn’t legalize medical pot, but it meant the city was in support of its use for the sick and dying.
Peron founded America’s very first medicinal cannabis dispensary, in a flat on SF’s Sanchez Street, also in ’91, and then the following year, the Cannabis Buyer’s Club in the Castro, and later downtown SF, a facility that saw raids and busts by the cops and the federal government, in between saving lives of patients. Peron then helped craft and pass Prop. 215, California’s groundbreaking medical marijuana measure in 1996.
Even though he suffered a stroke a few years back, Peron is still a presence on the pot scene. Counterpart declared Peron, “The Indispensable Leader of the Marijuana Movement” in 2013, as part of acknowledging Peron receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award at that year’s Emerald Cup held in Sonoma County.
With medical pot now legalized in some states, it was time for leaders to emerge to help preserve its new protected status…
9. BARACK OBAMA
Represents: The dawn of 21st century in America, Legal recreational pot in America
America truly ”came of age” when it elected Barack Hussein Obama on November 4, 2008 as the 44th President of the United States. And while Obama’s relationship with reefer wasn’t always perfect, he will go down historically as the president in office when American states began legalizing recreational pot—beginning with Washington and Colorado in 2012—with weed being sold at retail outlets strictly for the sake of getting stoned.
Obama will also be remembered for dismantling some of the most heinous apparatuses of the War on Drugs, such as reducing sentences of offenders, as he did in May 2016, and publicly demanding the end of mandatory minimum sentencing, per CNN.
Eric Holder served as U.S. Attorney General under Obama, and together the two men crafted the “Smart on Crime” sentencing policy in 2013 to end the needless incarceration of low-level drug offenders.
Of course, even before he was first elected as POTUS, “Barry” gained instant cannabis street cred with stoner and marijuana Millennial voters when he boldly admitted to an audience of magazine editors in 2006, “I inhaled… frequently. That was the point.”
Per FOX News, the policies of the current Trump administration’s Department of Justice, led by anti-pot Attorney General Jeff Sessions, seek to reverse Obama’s progress on the drug war, which underscores how vital consistent progressive leadership is…
10. GAVIN NEWSOM
Represents: The hopes and aspirations of Millennials in America, Federal government rescheduling and legalizing cannabis in America
The handsome articulate 49-year-old with the perfect looking family is a bit of a mix of JFK and Obama with a lot of potential as a future American president. Newsom is the current lieutenant governor of California—he’s running for Governor in 2018 and holds a strong lead in April 2017 polling by UC Berkeley, per the L.A. Times
Even though Newsom is a relative newcomer in terms of the scope of this list, he already has played a role in American history, bravely presiding over same-sex marriages in 2004 while mayor of San Francisco, defying the homophobic Prop. 8 ballot measure that banned such unions statewide. Like civil rights activists before him, Newsom was threatening his very own political future by holding those gay marriages, as noted by Newsweek.
While Newsom personally doesn’t smoke weed (America is not quite ready for a puffing president… not yet, anyway), he was one of the faces of support for Prop. 64, per Variety, referring to the ballot initiative that legalized recreational cannabis in California in 2016 as a “thoughtful measure.” Newsom’s support helped lend credibility to the campaign and assured Prop. 64 was victorious with a solid 57 percent of the vote.
Assuming he’s elected California governor next year, Newsom will facilitate and provide ideal conditions for a multi-billion dollar recreational cannabis economy to not merely survive—but blossom. We could see banking regulations change under a president like Newsom, and he could readily stand up to anti-weed forces that may linger post-Trump.
Such progressive leadership is necessary, in order to not only dismantle the remaining vestiges of pot prohibition, but also begin to establish a financial and regulatory infrastructure and framework for the cannabis industry to truly make America great again.
Barring unforeseen circumstances, once Newsom becomes governor next year, that should put him on the fast track to run for POTUS in 2024. With a future President Newsom, we may well run full circle; from the first leaders of the nation, the pro-hemp Founding Fathers, to having a president in the 21st century who is pro-cannabis and sees the economic and greater societal benefits to promoting the growth, sale and use of marijuana and hemp in America.