Smoking for Solace: How Our Soldiers Turned to Marijuana During the Vietnam War

War is hell, and those who fought in the Vietnam War know this better than most. It was a conflict between North and South Vietnam that quickly escalated as the world’s two superpowers at the time entered the fight. The war began in November 1955 and ended with the Fall of Saigon in April 1975. The United States ‘officially’ joined the fight on March 8, 1965, on the side of South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese were able to call on the support of China, the Soviet Union, and others.

For the U.S., the campaign was a disaster. More than 58,000 American troops died in the war, and over 303,000 were injured. The Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, marked the end of the conflict, as America and South Vietnam were defeated. The People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong claimed victory. It was the beginning of a transition into the Socialist Republic of Vietnam under the leadership of Le Duan.

For the American troops stationed in Vietnam during the war, it was a little different than today. Now, the nation’s military receives the overwhelming support of the public. Returning soldiers are well-received. Although, one can argue that the government doesn’t do enough for the troops after they experience the horrors of war.

Back in the 1960s and early 1970s, soldiers often faced hostility. A high percentage of Americans ultimately supported the nation’s withdrawal of soldiers from Vietnam. The lack of support from home, and the awful conditions faced abroad, certainly contributed to increased drug use amongst troops. As it happened, soldiers in Vietnam turned to marijuana, with surprising results.

Drug Use in the Military Is Nothing New

Marijuana use is strictly prohibited in the American military. However, our troops have a long history of using weed and other drugs. Back in 1909, a military manual recommended the use of cannabis indica to treat abdominal pain in horses. Within a decade, military physicians began supporting the use of cannabis indica tablets to soldiers. They believed that marijuana could help World War I fighters with cramps, insomnia, and headaches.

There were reports of recreational marijuana use in the military in 1916. Troops serving in the Panama Canal Zone imbibed at that time. In the same year, thousands of soldiers involved in the expedition against Pancho Villa also used the herb. Interestingly, a 1933 report found that cannabis was less harmful to soldiers than alcohol and was not addictive. This was an incredible finding since the nation was entering the height of anti-cannabis hysteria.

The Edgewood Arsenal human experiments lasted from the 1950s to the 1970s. They tested the effects of cannabis and its derivatives on people. One of the studies indicated “no loss of motivation or performance after two years of heavy (military sponsored) smoking of marihuana.”

Therefore, it is no surprise to learn that American soldiers stationed in Vietnam used the herb to help them relax. Indeed, marijuana was the second-most commonly used drug by troops in the conflict, after alcohol. Estimates vary as to the extent of usage. A 1976 study suggested that 34% of soldiers in Vietnam used marijuana from 1967-71. However, other estimates indicate that up to 51% used Mary Jane at some stage.

Cannabis and Coping with Stress

The reasons for using drugs were obvious. Imagine getting shipped to an entirely new country. In those unfamiliar surroundings, you are shot at by hidden enemies. Add in the intense heat and awful living conditions, and you have a recipe for low morale. The soldiers ultimately used every means of ‘escape’ they could, from alcohol to cannabis and heroin.

Commanding officers knew that strictly prohibiting marijuana would almost certainly result in a downturn in morale. Ironically, anti-drug campaigners believed that weed would lead to a loss of discipline in the Army. Ultimately, it had the opposite effect! One anecdote sums up the attachment the soldiers had to Mary Jane.

In 1970, Bob Hope arrived to entertain the fighters. He made the following joke: “Instead of taking marijuana away from the soldiers, we ought to be giving it to the negotiators in Paris.” Of all of Hope’s quips, that was the one which drew the most applause and laughter.

What’s bizarre is that while weed was ‘illegal,’ the use of dangerous amphetamines was encouraged. Indeed, the U.S. government sent over Dexedrine! Commanding officers gave the drug to troops to help them remain energetic and vigilant. When engaging in a lengthy expedition, soldiers used the amphetamines and also received a steroid injection. The belief was that this cocktail would improve alertness and reaction times.

However, the men became aggressive, angry, and anxious when the drugs wore off. The government also issued antipsychotics such as Thorazine to combat these side effects. In 1970, American troops widely used the heroin that came into Vietnam from Cambodia. For all the furor about cannabis, our soldiers were using far more damaging drugs after all!

Fun Times with Cannabis

Approximately three million men and women served in Vietnam. If we use the 34% estimate, it means over one million of them used marijuana! During the early years of American involvement, the Army turned a blind eye to the drug use issue. It was only when the public gained knowledge of marijuana and heroin usage that it became a PR issue.

The troops conjured some creative ways to use cannabis. Do you remember the famous scene from Platoon where Charlie Sheen’s character smokes weed from a shotgun? That is based on a real soldier. In November 1970, a documentary crew filmed American soldiers relaxing at Aries, a base 50 miles northeast of Saigon. Vito, the 20-year old squad leader, demonstrated how to smoke weed from a 12-gauge shotgun!

The crew was probably stunned by what happened next. Vito ejected shells from the gun. Next, he placed a bowl of cannabis in the chamber and started offering drags to his men. They subsequently started inhaling through the barrel! After the war, many veterans explained that cannabis helped them cope during and after the conflict.

Marijuana use also transcended segregation in Vietnam. African-American troops usually sat by themselves at tables and went to different bars from their white comrades. However, when it was cannabis-using time, everyone joined together.

Where Did They Get the Drugs?

Finding cannabis in Vietnam was about as tricky as finding coffee at Starbucks. The herb grew wild in Vietnam, so troops had no problem locating it. In most cases, they purchased cannabis in villages for a meager price. Back home, many young middle-class Americans had their first experience of weed that was brought back from the war. Most of the pot grew in the Golden Triangle region held by the enemy North Vietnamese Army.

The soldiers in Vietnam quickly discovered that the herb they used was incredibly potent. In the main, it was premium-grade landrace buds and 100% sativa. The THC level was far above what people in America were used to at the time. Despite the potency, the troops probably developed a tolerance relatively quickly. Commanding officers believed the use of the herb helped keep the fighters calm and relaxed.

One myth attributed to marijuana and Vietnam suggests that the troops were high in battle. One veteran said that in his unit, at least, soldiers didn’t use cannabis at the front line. He noted that most usages occurred amongst off-duty troops or by those who were not directly involved in the action.

A report from the New York Times in March 1970 stated as much. The article outlined the ease of finding weed. It wrote: “A joint can be bought for pennies on every major street corner and at every major crossroads.” It went on to say that the exception to cannabis use is when the men expect an attack or else, they go into the field. Crucially, the article says the following: “There are almost no reports of American troops riding a high into combat.”

The Army Cracked Down & Made Things Worse

For several years, troops were free to use marijuana in Vietnam. It was only when media reports of the practice hit the headlines that the Army decided to react. The anti-weed propaganda reared its ugly head again. Reports at the time claimed that drug abuse led to a collapse in military discipline. Even worse, there was a suggestion that cannabis was a significant factor in war atrocities.

The New York Times article referenced the My Lai Massacre, also known as the massacre at Songmy. It occurred on March 16, 1968. Twenty-six Americans soldiers murdered between 400 and 500 unarmed Vietnamese citizens. Only one of the troops was convicted, and his punishment was ultimately 3.5 years under house arrest. As some of the soldiers involved doubtless used marijuana, some people blamed the herb for the atrocity.

In response to the outcry, the Army arrested up to 1,000 G.I.s each week at the height of the crackdown. The punishment was seldom severe. In most cases, commanding officers didn’t include a citation on a culprit’s personal file. The majority of discipline was meted out at company level.

However, the actions of the Army resulted in troops switching to heroin. It was easy to find, and sniffer dogs had a harder time detecting the drug because of its lack of odor. According to the Pentagon, up to 20% of soldiers became habitual heroin users by 1973!

Did Drug Use ‘Cost’ America the Vietnam War?

When Richard Nixon became president in 1969, public opinion on the Vietnam War was bitterly divided. However, most of the public shared the view that drugs were evil. As a result, public officials from left and right blamed heroin and cannabis for the Army’s failures abroad.

A Democratic Senator, Thomas J. Dodd, even claimed that weed was responsible for the My Lai Massacre. He falsely stated that tens of thousands of troops went into battle high on drugs. In reality, there was little evidence of this or that weed impacted performance. A 1968 survey of unit commanders stated that hard drugs (including cannabis) did not degrade the combat effectiveness of the military.

Perhaps the ‘problem’ was that marijuana use helped open the eyes of soldiers to the futility of the war. Rather than being the mindless drones the Army wanted, the G.I.s finally understood what was happening. Increased cannabis usage led to heightened pacifism and anti-war sentiment amongst the troops themselves. By the end of 1969, up to 37% of soldiers in Vietnam were against the conflict.

One of the most famous examples of this feeling occurred on July 4, 1971. Over 1,000 troops congregated on Chu Lai Beach to protest against the war. It was one of the few anti-war demonstrations that have ever happened in the Army. The recruits lit their joints and listened to music from artists like Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix. Some painted slogans such as F**k the Army on their helmets!

By the end of the 1960s, the number of acts of insubordination and desertions reached record levels. Some refused to go into battle and argued that they didn’t want any part of an unjust conflict.

Were Soldiers Addicted When They Returned Home?

There was grave concern that troops would continue to abuse drugs once they arrived back on American shores. Indeed, a considerable amount of Vietnamese weed made the trip to the United States during the war.

The Nixon Administration implemented ‘Operation Golden Flow.’ It involved forcing all servicemen to piss into a cup before boarding planes to the United States. Those who failed had to remain in Vietnam until they tested ‘clean.’

One could argue that Golden Flow was a success as usage and addiction rates returned to pre-war levels. However, it is a shame that the government did nothing about heroin addicts! There were also many more problems to contend with, and once again, the powers that be did little to help.

An estimated 31% of those involved in Vietnam had PTSD. The trauma of the conflict stayed with them forever. Some of these soldiers continued to use cannabis to help them cope with the nightmares. However, they had to go to the black market and risk arrest and imprisonment.

Little has changed in almost half a decade since the end of the war. Today, an average of 20 veterans commit suicide each day. Even though cannabis could help with PTSD and associated conditions, its use remains illegal in the military.

Final Thoughts on Marijuana & the Vietnam War

There is no question that drug use amongst G.I.s in the Vietnam War was rampant. However, the fears about addiction were significantly overblown. Also, suggestions that the herb impacted battle performance and caused war crimes are nonsense. First-hand accounts of soldiers outline that they hardly ever used cannabis in a combat situation. It was mainly used to unwind when far away from the action.

It is also laughable to suggest that pot ‘cost’ America the Vietnam War. What happened was that after using weed, many soldiers no longer wanted to become the cold-hearted killing machines the Army desired. If this is a ‘problem,’ then society is in even greater trouble than we all feared.