Queen Victoria to Barack Obama: a potted history of famous stoners

As the debate about legalising marijuana rages around the world, dagga advocates often cite examples of these illustrious weed smokers

24 March 2019 - 00:02 By andrea nagel
Former President of the US, Barack Obama, admitted to having used dagga in high school.
Former President of the US, Barack Obama, admitted to having used dagga in high school.
Image: Jussi Nukari/Lehtikuva/via Reuters

I'm not a big weed smoker, but of course I've tried it. Who hasn't? Like Bill Clinton, though, I didn't actually inhale. Smoking marijuana feels to me like getting a migraine, so I've never been able to make it a habit. Still, I wondered when I started writing the opening sentence, whether I could admit, in writing, to having smoked marijuana.

Then I remembered that Barack Obama openly admitted to having been a member of the "Choom Gang" when he was at school in Hawaii - a group of boys who played basketball and smoked dope, or choomed - and boy, did he inhale.

In fact, according to a biography by David Maraniss, "When a joint was making the rounds, he often elbowed his way in, out of turn, shouted 'intercepted!', and took an extra hit." The admission doesn't seemed to have damaged his reputation.

Comedian and philosopher Russell Brand, once a smoker of the green stuff as well as a partaker of many other narcotic concoctions, but now reportedly off drugs completely, wrote in his memoir My Booky Wook: "We all need something to help us unwind at the end of the day. You might have a glass of wine, or a joint, to silence your silly brainbox of its witterings but there has to be some form of punctuation, or life just seems utterly relentless."

And the relentlessness of life is getting more and more intense, it would seem - though the history books, too, are littered with examples of famous people who needed the relief drugs can provide.

In a book called Tokin' Women: A 4,000-year Herstory of Women and Marijuana, Ellen Komp claims that a number of famous and powerful women were avid lovers of the herb. Queen Victoria was one.

An icon of English prudity and conservatism to many, she regularly partook of cannabis, claims Komp. It was prescribed, on record, by her doctor Sir J Russell Reynolds to relieve her menstrual cramps. In fact, the good doctor wrote in 1890 that "when pure and administered carefully, [cannabis] is one of the most valuable medicines we possess".

There are claims that Joan of Arc smoked weed and that this could be the explanation behind her visions, though the evidence is unsubstantiated, despite the fact that her village was apparently well-known for its medicinal herbs.

Queen Elizabeth I fined landowners who didn't set aside part of their land to grow cannabis. She made it the law in 1563 under the auspices of needing hemp to make rope and sailcloth for her navy, though many sources say that she kept a large stash of marijuana at the palace for parties.

The stresses of being in charge clearly drove many leaders to more than drink.

The internet is littered with info about US presidents who took the odd recreational drug. Brian Abrams, author of Party Like a President: True Tales of Inebriation, Lechery and Mischief from the Oval Office, writes that at the height of the Cold War, John F Kennedy smoked marijuana cigarettes with his mistress, but limited the number to three. When offered a fourth, Kennedy apparently declined, saying, "Suppose the Russians did something now?"

George Washington openly grew hemp on a piece of land called Muddy Hole and was said to believe strongly in its medicinal purposes. Entries in his diary suggest that he was perhaps the most vocal and knowledgeable weed advocate in history.

The opiate laudanum was, however, his drug of choice. "His painful, ill-fitting denture made Washington's mouth bulge out and he clamped his lips to hold them in," according to the Smithsonian. "Supposedly he lost his teeth by cracking Brazil nuts between his jaws and 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."

George W Bush was suspiciously evasive when asked whether he smoked the herb. Abrams writes that while Bush was living in an apartment in Houston in the '70s, he drank and did cocaine at a nightspot called the Mileau, but "wouldn't answer the marijuana question" because he didn't want to have a kid say, "President Bush tried marijuana, I think I will."

Weed smokers clearly abound through the ages. William Shakespeare is said to have been one, as were Alexander Dumas, Christopher Columbus, Chinese scholar Hua Tuo from the Han Dynasty (circa 200 AD) and many more. As the debate about legalising marijuana rages around the world, with excellent arguments on both sides, the proponents of legalising the herb often cite examples of these famous weed smokers.

Whether that argument makes any sense is a moot point, but there's no doubt that the story of humankind is a potted history.