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Smoking In the Trenches: Cannabis Use in Vietnam

smoking in the trenches
Written by Sarah Friedman
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Memorial Day is upon us again and that means remembering the plight of our fallen soldiers, and celebrating their impact on our country. Many men had to leave their homes to fight in wars like Vietnam, and we don’t often think about the horrors they faced, or how they dealt with it. So this year, let’s examine some stories of smoking in the trenches, and what cannabis meant for soldiers during the Vietnam war.

Smoking in the trenches of war isn’t allowed, but it’s certainly done. Vietnam was a major starting point for weed use in the military, which has been a staple for soldiers since that time. This independent publication specializes in cannabis and psychedelics reporting, which you can keep pace with by signing up for the THC Weekly Newsletter. We also offer deals on cannabinoid products like HHC-O, Delta 8Delta 9 THCDelta-10 THCTHCOTHCVTHCPHHC. Head over to our “Best-of” lists to get these deals, and remember to enjoy responsibly!


Legal weed and the army

The US isn’t the oldest country, and only began as its own thing in 1776 as a result of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. At that time, hemp was a staple crop, having already been instituted as a forced crop for farmers in places like Jamestown, Virginia. This was on account of the many useful purposes of hemp for the military, like making sales, or uniforms for soldiers.

In fact, the last military hemp producer to close down was called Rens Hemp Company out of Wisconsin. In 1958 it shut its doors, ending its long rein as the main provider of hemp rope for the US Navy.

In that sense, the US military had been supporting hemp for as long as America was America; at least until prohibition came along. Prohibition obviously changed things, though prior to that time, cannabis wasn’t a drug for smoking in the trenches at all. In fact, it was barely smoked for recreational use. Apart from its use in industrial products, it was generally used as a medicine, for both people and animals.

smoking cannabis military

As far back as WWI, doctors made recommendations for the American Expeditionary Forces to carry tablets of cannabis indica for the likes of insomnia, headaches, and cramps. Cannabis indica was also recommended for treating abdominal pain in horses, as per a 1909 military manual from Fort Riley’s Mounted Service School.

Cannabis was one of the subjects of the military’s Edgewood Arsenal Human Experiments. Incidentally, these experiments were the birthplace, or at least primary testing place, for THC analogue THC-O, which is now part of the cannabinoids market, led by delta-8 THC. These experiments took place from the 50’s-70’s, and only ended when Congress finally started asking questions. No formal investigation was done outside of the military, which decided it hadn’t perpetrated any crimes (big surprise).

In one study mentioned during that time, it was said that two years of heavy smoking did not dampen the performance or motivation of soldiers.

Smoking weed in the military blossomed out during the Vietnam war, when soldiers both drank and smoked to erase the pain of reality. Cannabis was the second most used drug by soldiers at that time. Though when initially sent out for combat the rate of smoking was 29%, a study found that by 1967, the rate had gone up to 34% among active combat soldiers. It did settle back down to 18% eventually, but not during this time. Those who did not get deployed stayed at an 8% smoking rate.

Stories of smoking in the trenches

Regardless of whether it was legal or not, it definitely happened. Though many stories are lost to us, from premature military deaths, as well as natural ones of veterans, plenty still remain. Some as little tidbits in anonymous form, which have been carried down through the years. The following thoughts and video are straight from soldiers’ mouths about their experiences of smoking in the trenches of the Vietnam war.

During Vietnam, an interesting practice started which we carry on today. The oft seen visual in movies and television shows that prevails still, is of a person smoking weed out of a gun. This video shows soldiers passing a gun around like we’d pass a pipe, and this is where the term ‘shotgunning’ weed comes from, as it can be seen in the video that the men use the gun to blow smoke into each other’s mouths. ‘Shotgunning’ without a gun means taking a hit and blowing the smoke directly into another person’s mouth.

US military cannabis

According to a Guardian article by Ian Wright reporting from Vietnam in 1970, there was no shortage of pot use by military personnel. As said by one lieutenant to Wright, “My platoon averaged 23 men of whom maybe three did not use grass. Most of the fellows wouldn’t allow anyone to smoke in the field.”

This idea was confirmed a few years earlier by an infantry captain who told the same reporter, “In the field we had no problem. What I mean is I never noticed that any of my guys were stoned. It did not get in the way of what they had to do. I’m neutral as far as pot is concerned. You can have just as much trouble from alcohol.”

Regardless of what they allowed themselves to do in the field, there was always plenty of sparking up upon returning to base. The lieutenant quoted earlier, went on that “Usually there’s no beer at a fire support base. Maybe the officers in their tents have a couple of shots of liquor to keep their spirits up. The guys in the dugouts listen to music, smoke grass and get pleasantly high. You can’t blame them.”

Some officers simply didn’t understand the situation of their soldiers and didn’t know what they were up to. Smoking weed was still a new thing, so many weren’t aware it was happening. One soldier explained it this way: “Field-grade officers (majors and colonels) often don’t know what’s happening right under their noses. They don’t know what grass is about. I had one commander who regularly sent his radio operator to the base camp to get mail and things and he used to come back with a knapsack full.”

Apparently, getting weed in Vietnam was pretty easy. One army doctor clarified: “In every camp in the country, I bet you can get a joint within five minutes.” In Vietnam, cannabis was growing wild at the time, which meant an easy way to get high for American soldiers. In the Mekong Delta specifically, farmers started planting cannabis rather than rice as a way to bring in more money.

Said one soldier, “We call it Vietnam’s cottage industry.” He went on to explain how if you asked for the very strong cigarettes from the right vendor in that area, that you’d end up with a pack of Pall Malls with tobacco removed for cannabis.

cannabis in military

And it was cheap! So cheap that it didn’t require any violence to obtain. Another soldier detailed that, “Destruction is pretty pointless in Vietnam. Over the border in Laos best quality cannabis costs even less: at a dollar a kilo it is sold openly and legally in Vientiane.”

The 1970 article highlighted the opposing views on cannabis even then. According to the end of a survey by the 173 Airborne Brigade surgeon, “What we have seen clinically is a majority of rather incapable, frustrated, poorly educated, passive-aggressive personalities complicating the many problems they already have by becoming involved with the use of marijuana.”

On the other hand, a different surgeon for a different brigade somewhat contradicted this sentiment, saying “I regard the use of drugs as just another symptom. In Vietnam all there is for most people to do, is what they don’t want to do. I’ve no doubt that pot aggravates a man’s existing psychotic problems. But if I was five years younger I’d probably be smoking the stuff myself.” Maybe not the ringing endorsement of today, but a view at the beginning of understanding, that the thing being demonized, might not be that bad.

Is smoking in the trenches legal in Canada?

Sure, this is a Memorial Day article, and that only relates to the US. However, looking abroad nets different examples of policy for how cannabis is used by a military. The US has maintained a strict no-weed policy, whether soldiers are on the field or not. This is because the federal government itself still holds the plant as completely illegal, (even as it promotes drugs like Sativex and epidiolex out of the other side of its mouth). But the US doesn’t tend to be the most forward-thinking country when it comes to weed, and in other places, this strict no-weed-for-soldiers policy is changing.

In fact, our neighbors directly north, who have already completely legalized cannabis, are also one-upping the US on military cannabis law. In 2018, upon nationwide legalization, Canada instituted some interesting regulations for its soldiers. Since legalization, soldiers are allowed to smoke weed so long as its eight hours before active duty. If they are set to use weapons, it must stop 24 hours before weapon use begins. For those looking to fly planes, work in hyperbaric conditions, or do skydives, they must wait 28 days after using weed to commence these activities. No other restrictions are put on non-active-duty soldiers.

Funny enough, this new law came out at about the same time as another one allowing military personnel in Canada to grow beards. Yup, an entire law was put in place for this, with some stringent stipulations. Apparently, it’s a no-peach-fuzz-allowed rule, and unsuccessful attempts at growing a beard can be met with removal of whatever is there, via shaving. Plus, beards must be accompanied by a mustache, though this too must be kept within limits. There are also requirements for things like upkeep, keeping the neck and cheekbones shaved, and maximum hair length; two centimeters in bulk. Apparently Canada is now cool with military beards, but doesn’t want any hipsters in the ranks.

Canada military cannabis

Conclusion

When it comes to cannabis and the military, there’s a lot that can be said. Many veterans, for example, rely on the drug as a way to treat their PTSD symptoms. As laws loosen in different states, and in the entirety of the country, perhaps the military will eventually relent, and be more like Canada. Perhaps it won’t be about saying yes to smoking in the trenches, but instead to understanding the desire of soldiers to partake in their free time, without concern.

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About the author

Sarah Friedman

I am a US born writer, travelling the world and doing the digital nomad thing.

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