Flashback Friday: Drugs In The White House

How our heads of state who lived in the White House got high.
High Times Greats: Drugs In The White House
High Times

From the April, 1980 issue of High Times comes Jeff Goldberg’s brief survey of drug-using, White House-living, American presidents.

May 12-13: sowed hemp at muddy hole by swamp.
August 7: began to separate the male from the female hemp—rather too late.

While it is unlikely that George Washington, who penned these diary notes 200 years ago. smoked any of the scraggly rope-dope he was growing on his Mount Vernon plantation, he certainly dreamed of hemp as a cash crop. After all, it had a solid foreign market and was perfect for cottage industry, basket-making and such. He won over Thomas Jefferson, who began importing hemp seeds to Monticello, but failed to win the support of early American farmers, who favored tobacco cultivation. If, by some historical quirk, they had instead followed Washington’s advice, early U.S. history might have been considerably headier.

As it turned out not until the 19th century did Americans—including presidents—really turn on. The patent-medicine boom in the mid 1800s was largely responsible: Virtually everyone sampled various opium-, cannabis- and cocaine-based remedies and elixirs. If the president had the flu, a stomach ache, piles or a hangover, the prescribed remedy was tincture of opium: laudanum. Also prescribed for all manner of “female complaints,” laudanum found its way into first ladies’ medicine chests too. A century before Betty Ford got strung out on Valium and vodka, Mary Todd Lincoln was portrayed by presidential biographer William H. Herdon as a virtual patent-medicine junkie.

On the whole, however, records of bummers on these 19th-century elixirs are far outweighed by the good trips. Ulysses S. Grant, burned out by years of boozing, was miraculously revitalized near the end of his life by daily doses of Mariani tea, one of chemist Angelo Mariani’s delightful cocaine-based products. It so bolstered the aging ex-president that he was able to put in hours of work a day on his memoirs, valued as one of the finest accounts of the Civil War.

During the 1880s, coca wine, another Mariani tonic, enjoyed unsurpassed popularity on the patent-medicine market. The enterprising Mariani eventually rounded up glowing endorsements from the prince of Wales, the czar and czarina of Russia, the kings of Norway and Sweden, and Pope Leo XIII. In the United States, Pres. William McKinley’s secretary noted that a case of Vin Mariani had received an enthusiastic reception from the president.

Anti-Drug Propaganda Directly from the White House

All this came to an end—sort of—with the election of Theodore Roosevelt in 1901, under whose “progressive” administration the first federal controls on what people drank, swallowed and smoked were instituted and the stage was set for Prohibition. Still, the rough-riding, trust-busting Teddy may not have been the straight arrow he claimed to be.

One day in 1912, according to the account of one Herford Cowling, a 91-year-old retired newsreel cameraman, the retired president halted a motorcade on its way to the Roosevelt Dam when he spotted a stand of “cactus fruits” growing in the middle of the Arizona desert. According to Cowling, reporters watched bewildered as he rushed to the site and commenced “pulling off the little green bulbs and eating them.”

Still, by the time Teddy Roosevelt left office in 1909, the nation’s first antidrug campaign was really rolling. First came the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914, prohibiting over-the-counter sales of opiates and cocaine. However high-minded their pitch to save children from Mother Baily’s Soothing Syrup and other kiddie narcotics, and to regulate the quality of medicine, some of the prohibitionists concealed darker motives.

This country’s first official drug policy was instituted against a background of Hearst-syndicate “yellow peril” journalism, portraying Chinese as shifty, no-good dope fiends. The hidden objective was racial and financial: to halt the flood of Chinese immigrants into the U.S. labor pool. Racism also underscored cocaine prohibition, as characterized by Dr. Christopher Koch’s statement before Congress in 1910 that “most attacks upon white women in the South are the direct result of a cocaine-crazed Negro brain.”

Hysteria and hypocrisy have all too often characterized drug policy since then. The Volstead Act (passed 1919, repealed 1933) banned alcohol, but didn’t prevent Pres. Warren Harding from hosting regular booze parties. And 50 years later, Richard Nixon launched his “war on drugs” while the CIA was actually running shotgun for opium traders in Southeast Asia to prevent the well-armed opium dealers from supporting the Communists. There was a reassuring note of cosmic justice as the curtain fell on Tricky Dick, stoned on downs, talking to the presidential portraits in the White House. Even his spiritual adviser, Billy Graham, had to lament that it was “sleeping pills and demons” that caused Nixon’s decline and fall in 1974.

Among other recent presidents, chemical preferences have been varied. According to William Burroughs, Dwight Eisenhower swore by the rejuvenative qualities of placenta serum, a compound “rich in endorphins (natural body opiates) derived from the placentas of sheep.

John Kennedy’s favorite tonics are by now widely documented. He received regular injections of megavitamins and amphetamines from Dr. Max Jacobson (“Dr. Jake”), who has since—many ex-patients feel, unfairly—been barred from practice. According to other accounts, JFK was also fond of the procaine-novocaine derivative “gerovital” (CH3), which advocates tout as a dandy antidepressant, libido stimulator and longevity drug. (The Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve it for general use.) And in 1962, according to Judith Exner’s account, he became the first president to smoke dope in the White House.

No less enlightened was brother Bobby. Psychedelic pioneer Dr. John Beresford (writing in the introduction to Peter Stafford’s Psychedelic Encyclopedia) notes that in the spring of 1963, Bobby was known to be taking LSD or psilocybin and providing psychedelic entertainment for foreign dignitaries. This at a time when the CIA was organizing its own secret acid tests.

Once upon a time none of this would have been considered at all shocking. Among primitive peoples, the heads—shamanic healers and prophets—have always been among the most highly regarded tribal members. The pharaohs revered opium so much they took jarfuls of it with them on their journeys to the land of the dead.

Not only were the leaders in ancient Greece familiar with the many healing and mind-expanding properties of drugs, their gods and goddesses turned on too: According to Greek myth. Demeter was the first opium eater. And in the 11th century, Hasan-i-Sabah, the Old Man of the Mountain, rose to lead the Moslem faithful against the Crusaders. According to legend, his fabled Assassins (Hashashans) topped off their battle-weary days by smoking hashish in lovely pleasure gardens. So why not presidents?

The point is simply this: While attitudes regarding specific highs may change, the turn-on goes on, right on up to the top.

  1. Why didn’t you mention the fact that none other than Snoop Dogg has claimed to have smoked cannabis with President Obama in the White House? You also forgot to mention that Obama used to be a Choom Boy who dealt the stuff.

  2. What about the Jimmy Carter photo pasted in front of the White House?
    Are you insinuating that Carter was doing drugs while in office?
    Or what?
    Tell us more.

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