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In our series, "HiTunes," we investigate various marijuana lore throughout music history, debunking myths and sifting through hazy rumors for the blunt truth. Why have multiple artists written songs warning others about smoking with Willie Nelson? Why do so many songs about weed reference Humphrey Bogart? What albums required the most weed to make? We'll explore these urban legends and more.
Tracking The Beatles’ substance intake provides a something of barometer for ‘60s rock as a whole. Jittery, amphetamine-aided R&B/teeny-bop pop gave way to mellower, blunted folk rock (Help!, Rubber Soul), then to head-blown psychedelia (Revolver, Sgt. Pepper), and finally to coked-up eclecticism (The White Album, Let It Be). While the band’s well-publicized popularization of LSD might have been the bigger overall contribution to drug culture, the Fab Four also clearly loved to smoke herb.
As such, their tenure as a band is filled with charming, often hilarious anecdotes about toking up. It all started in The Beatles’ infancy around the time they were cutting their teeth in German clubs, and as is the case for many first-timers, their first smoking experience wasn’t all that successful. Wrote George Harrison in his 1992 memoir, Anthology:
We first got marijuana from an older drummer with another group in Liverpool. We didn't actually try it until after we'd been to Hamburg. I remember we smoked it in the band room in a gig in Southport and we all learnt to do the Twist that night, which was popular at the time. We were all seeing if we could do it. Everybody was saying, 'This stuff isn't doing anything.' It was like that old joke where a party is going on and two hippies are up floating on the ceiling, and one is saying to the other, 'This stuff doesn't work, man.'
The band’s true cannabis awakening occurred four years later. At New York’s Delmonico Hotel in 1964, they met Bob Dylan for the first time, and when unable to fulfill the folk singer’s request for “cheap wine,” he suggested they blaze up. After Beatles manager Brian Epstein claimed the band had never tried weed, Dylan was a little shocked, having misheard the “I can’t hide” refrain in “I Want to Hold Your Hand” as “I get high!” So they lit up, and the rest is history.
By the time they were filming Help! a year later, the band was so fond of pot that they had difficulty focusing on set. Recalling the shoot in his final interview, John Lennon said:
The Beatles had gone beyond comprehension. We were smoking marijuana for breakfast. We were well into marijuana and nobody could communicate with us, because we were just glazed eyes, giggling all the time.
Some tales of The Beatles’ stoner phase are apocryphal, such as the claim that they blazed a joint in a Buckingham Palace bathroom directly before being knighted in 1965 (Harrison said it was just a cigarette). But less publicized was the band’s advocacy for legalization. In 1967, all four Beatles and Epstein appeared in an ad in British paper The Times that called for cannabis legalization, medical research, and justice for small-time drug offenders. For a few members of the band, this was just the start of their advocacy.
While The Beatles were an intact unit, the members were so closely linked that it was often difficult to tell whose lyrics were whose, whose philosophies made their way into the music, and whose fondness for specific drugs outshone the others’. Once they broke up though, the individual members’ personalities became more well-defined on their own. This holds true for the musicians’ affinity for marijuana, as well.
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Today we ask the question: which Beatle smoked the most pot? Like the prior HiTunes question of albums whose sessions involved the most pot-smoking, this one’s impossible to quantifiably prove, so we’ve got to work off of the anecdotal evidence that exists. Here are our guesses as to each Beatle’s level of consumption, ranked lowest to highest.
4. Ringo Starr
Despite an auspicious start to his stoner career, Ringo seemed to taper off his consumption more quickly than any of his bandmates. He was undoubtedly the MVP of the inaugural sesh with Bob Dylan, though. According to a story that’s been recounted in multiple books, and most recently, on air with Conan O’Brien, he not only took the first hit, but smoked the entire first joint to himself, not knowing proper puff-puff-pass etiquette at the time. “We got high and laughed our asses off,” he told Conan in 2012. “I went first. The drummers always go first. That’s just how it was.”
After this debut performance, there’s a sharp drop-off in Ringo stoner tales. All the evidence we have of him continuing to smoke after The Beatles broke up is his cover of Hoyt Axton and David Jackson’s “The No No Song” in 1974. In it, he sings about being offered Colombian weed (along with cocaine and whiskey, later on in the song), but he turns it down. It was the early ‘70s though, so name-dropping marijuana in a song — even if you eventually turn it down — was still somewhat of a sign of being down with the doja.
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The most definitive word on Ringo comes from a 2015 Rolling Stone interview with Tommy Chong, which will be cited on multiple occasions throughout this list. After all, who better to hand down stoner rankings than Chong himself? When asked if he’d ever smoked with the Beatles drummer, Chong said he’d only ever smoked near Ringo, not with him, per se:
Well, Ringo was always trying to get over alcohol. He was always on some kind of wagon. He was so sweet. He’d always give you big hugs and kisses. He was kind of weird, but again, I got high with him and Keith Moon. I think Keith Moon was there and Ringo, but Ringo turned it down because he was on the wagon. So again, I smoked in his presence.
There you have it. Ringo: not big on pot.
3. John Lennon
The #2 and #3 rankings on this list are basically neck-in-neck. #3 has a whole lot of evidence to suggest a love of pot, but also a ton of evidence against it. #2 simply has a few pot anecdotes in its favor, and nothing on the opposing side. But with the evidence at hand, John Lennon seems to land in the bottom half of The Beatles’ stoner rankings.
The evidence for John being a massive pothead is pretty staggering. In 1968, he an Yoko Ono were arrested after some 200 grams (!!) of hash was found in their home. The next year, he went further than any other Beatle in terms of political action for cannabis legalization, testifying before the Le Dain Commission, a federal task force assigned to drug law reform, in Canada. Speaking to the commission about his fight for legalization, he said:
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The only real help we've had, and the only people like you that we've ever been approached by or the only people we've heard of that are doing anything like this, is going on in Canada, and Canada is America without being American, without that, ‘we are the mighty whatever’ scene… This is the opportunity for Canada to lead the world… America is too paranoiac to do anything.
With possession of a superhuman amount of hash and noted attempts at political activism on his record, Lennon seems like a grade-A stoner. But dig a little deeper and it doesn’t seem quite as clear-cut. London police sergeant Norman Pilcher, Lennon and Ono’s arresting officer in the 1968 possession case, was constantly suspected of planting drugs on targets, especially celebrities. Eventually, in 1973, he was sentenced to four years in prison for “perverting the court of justice,” specifically by “fabricating evidence.” Couple that with Ono later saying that she always “hated” marijuana, and Lennon’s arrest seems a little less damning.
Then you have that aforementioned quote about the Help! film set from Lennon, where he said that grass had the band “beyond comprehension” to the point where “nobody could communicate with us.” That hardly sounds like a glowing endorsement of the drug. But again, we’ll leave the final word to Tommy Chong, who also told a Lennon story during that 2015 interview:
Tommy Chong: With John Lennon, that was weird. We were at a party at [record producer] Lou Adler’s house, and all the hippies were there, the Stones, Mick Jagger and the boys, and John Lennon, Rod Stewart. I was looking for a place to get high, and Lou said, “Use the bedroom.” So I went in there and lit up this big, old, smelly joint — the real stinky kind — and something caught my eye. There was a guy sitting on the floor by the bed, and it was John Lennon. So I walked over and I offered him a toke, and he refused because of his immigration problems. So he was sitting there in a bit of a funk, but on the floor. It was pretty funny. Then I turn around and Rod Stewart walks in and was looking in the mirror, fluffing his hair up, so I offered Rod Stewart a toke and he turned it down because of his throat. “I’ve got to watch my voice.” So, even though John never smoked any, I always tell people that I got high with John, because I did get high.
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Again, if you turn down a chance to smoke with Tommy Chong, you’re probably not that big of a stoner.
2. George Harrison
The most private Beatle, George Harrison, didn’t leave a ton of weed stories in his wake, but what we have suggests a fondness for grass. For starters, he and his wife Linda were arrested for possession in 1969. Now, it was the notorious cop Norman Pilcher who busted them, too, but the amount of hash was allegedly far less than what was found in Lennon and Ono’s house, so it seems a little less likely to have been planted.
Then, we’ve got this snippet of a later interview with Harrison (source unknown) in which he waxes a little poetically about pot’s connection to music. It’s light on hard evidence, but watch it and tell me this guy didn’t love the herb:
But most importantly, what’s Tommy Chong got to say about George? Harrison was the last Beatle for whom he provided stoner info, but far from the least prodigious:
Tommy Chong: George and I smoked up a bunch of times. I met George at this hippie party way out in Malibu. It was really funny because, remember Tony Dow from “Leave It to Beaver”? He was Wally. He was at the party, too. So, I had the joint, I handed it to George, George took a toke, handed it back to me, and I looked and there’s Tony Dow, Wally [laughs]. He’s waiting for me to hand it to him. And I couldn’t resist, I said, “Gee, Wally, does the Beaver know about this?” [Laughs] And he gave me this disgusted look, like, “C’mon man, get off of that shit,” but he smoked up. I got high with George a bunch of times. And George played on a Cheech and Chong record one time, “Basketball Jones.” That whole intro is him. He was a real beautiful guy.
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1. Paul McCartney
Paul doesn’t seem like the biggest stoner in the Beatles. He was the cute, sensitive one in their early years, and today embodies the cool, chill grandpa. But boy, does this guy have a rap sheet. As far as we can tell, he’s never been arrested for anything but pot possession, which he’s been hit with on five different occasions in five different countries.
But first, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that dude also wrote the only Beatles song that’s been revealed to be explicitly about weed. In his memoir Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now, Macca claimed that “Got to Get You Into My Life,” from the album Revolver, was an “ode to pot, like someone else might a write an ode to chocolate or a good claret.” The song’s metaphor is so subtle that we included it on our list of music’s best weed slang and metaphors a few months ago.
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But let’s get to these godlike arrest records. In 1972, McCartney was arrested and fined £1,000 for possession in Sweden. According to various sources, it was a negligible amount of weed, but Sweden’s drug laws were still quite draconian at that point in time. McCartney’s next bust came at his home in Scotland less than a year later, when local police discovered several cannabis plants growing in his farm. This fine, for just £100, was much more reasonable.
Paul’s record actually got him banned from the U.S. for a couple of years, but when he was allowed to return in 1975, lo and behold, he and his wife were busted yet again. Los Angeles police pulled them over after running a red light and smelled some ganj, for which Linda took the fall (probably a smart move, considering Paul was the driver and would’ve faced harsher charges).
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Paul’s pot follies continued into the ‘80s. By far his biggest bust occurred at Tokyo’s Narita Airport in 1980, right at the start of the Wings’ Japanese tour. Customs officials found half a pound of marijuana in his luggage, which Paul assured them was for personal use only. He was held for 10 days, then released and deported without charge. His last bust came in Barbados in ‘84, when he was caught with a small amount and fined $200. His celebrity status and stoner rep might have made McCartney a target, but it clearly took him a while to learn his lesson.
In more recent years, McCartney’s cut pot out of his life. “I don’t do it anymore,” he told The Mirror in 2015, “Why? The truth is I don’t really want to set an example to my kids and grandkids. It’s now a parent thing.” He continued, “Instead of smoking a spliff I’ll now have a glass of red wine or a nice margarita. The last time I smoked was a long time ago.”
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