During a town hall-style campaign appearance in Concord, N.H., Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich defended his strong anti-drug stance, invoking a little help from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
When an attendee suggested founding era politicians took a much more lenient stance on marijuana, Gingrich disagreed.
“I think Jefferson or George Washington would have rather strongly discouraged you from growing marijuana, and their techniques with dealing with it would have been rather more violent than our current government,” Gingrich said.
In fact, both Washington and Jefferson grew hemp. In a memo dated Sept. 23, 1789, Jefferson wrote to Monticello overseer Manoah Clarkson, “Tend the next year two acres of hemp on east side the river, and 1000 cotton hills for every working hand.”
Of course, Washington and Jefferson grew hemp for industrial purposes, primarily for making clothing, and no evidence exists that either smoked it. But as the DEA notes in its 2001 clarification of the status of hemp in the federal register, “DEA Administrator Asa Hutchinson stated that ‘many Americans do not know that hemp and marijuana are both parts of the same plant and that hemp cannot be produced without producing marijuana.’” Since 1970, the federal Controlled Substances Act’s inclusion of industrial hemp in the schedule one definition of marijuana has prohibited farmers in the U.S. from growing industrial hemp.
So to put it simply, Jefferson and Washington grew marijuana.
Let’s give Newt the benefit of the doubt, consider the context and assume he was only asserting the founders would have violently opposed marijuana grown for its use as a drug. Bottom line, we don’t really know. Marijuana smoking wasn’t an issue in the late 1700s. But we can say for certain that the framers would have opposed the type of federal regulation of marijuana and other drugs Gingrich supports, because no constitutional power exists for the federal government to wage a war on drugs. And Jefferson was a stickler for adhering to the Constitution.
“In questions of power, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.”
Marijuana wasn’t an issue during the early years of the Republic, but opium addiction was. How did the federal government handle that contemporary drug problem?
According to the National Alliance of Advocates for Buprenorphine Treatment, “Prior to 1890, laws concerning opiates were strictly imposed on a local city or state-by-state basis. One of the first was in San Francisco in 1875 where it became illegal to smoke opium only in opium dens. It did not ban the sale, import or use otherwise. In the next 25 years different states enacted opium laws ranging from outlawing opium dens altogether to making possession of opium, morphine and heroin without a physician’s prescription illegal.”
And consider another intoxicating drug –alcohol. It took an amendment to the Constitution to authorize federal regulation of booze.
James Madison said state power would “extend to all objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement and prosperity of the State.” Clearly, drug laws fall under that definition and the current federal drug policy stands as blatantly unconstitutional.
We can engage in a reasonable debate as to whether Gingrich holds a valid position when he advocates for harsh legal action against drug users and suppliers. We can argue the merits of prohibition or a more lax approach to mind altering drug use. But when Newt advances a federal solution to the drug problem, he stands a universe away from the position of Jefferson and Washington.
On this exam, the history professor earns an F.
EDITOR’S NOTE: See the TAC’s Hemp Freedom Act HERE.