Reefer Redux: Why Pot Is Hot
June 22, 1993
Did you know we’re at the tail end of a drug epidemic? So says Dr. David Musto, America’s leading historian of what has come to be called “substance abuse.” (What a marvelous euphemism, suggesting that anything of substance can be dangerous.) From his perch at Yale, Musto has identified two drug epidemics in American history: one at the turn of the century, when opiates and cocaine were devoured by millions until government regulators stepped in; and a second in the ’60s, when, as we all know, the culture of narcissism, the death of God, and the breakdown of the family led to reefer madness, blotter burnout, and a lot of rolling around in mud. In both eras, Musto reports, dangerous drugs carried a mystique as harmless catalysts of pleasure and intensity. In both cases, an adept combination of enforcement and education rescued America from its illusions. Never mind the inebriating properties of alcohol, tobacco, and even coffee, powerful drugs that are built into our economy. Never mind the signs that a new drug culture is rising from the ashes of Just Say No.
The New York Times tells us that marijuana and its technodelic cousin Ecstasy are now an Official Trend. Billboard documents the chart-busting properties of bands that advocate pot smoking. There’s a new suburban scene, and its signature is the dance-and-trance rite known as the rave. Here, the sound is fast and heady — all the better to blitz out on X — but for a more reflective buzz, there’s a new pot music in the air. Dr. Dre sees the cannabis leaf as a symbol of resistance to vast ganja-phobic conspiracy; for the Lemonheads, it conjures up wry, plaintive ballads that recall the brief moment between folk- and acid rock.
This is a sensibility without a lot of iconic baggage, a movement that wants to reinvent the psychedelic experience. And its insignia is the bright green cannabis leaf several bands — and countless teens — are daring to display. In its wacky, saw-toothed splendor, this is the perfect emblem of the New Pothead: hopeful, wary, and fragile, like a shoot.
Professor Musto hasn’t offered any comment on “My Drug Buddy” by the Lemonheads. But you’ll be glad to know that the end of a drug epidemic takes many years: according to his calculation, the ’60s plague won’t fully abate until early in the next century. By then, of course, we may be talking about virtual possession with intent to sell. But my hunch is that no technology will replace the appeal of getting stoned on a sunny day, and that every generation will find its way to chemicals that produce a roller-coaster ride of consciousness. Professorial paradigms come and go, but it’s in the schema of being human to get high.
Perhaps the problem is in calling something so profoundly cultural an epidemic. We use drugs — and choose which drugs we do — for a wide variety of reasons, and the patterns our choices make are far more difficult to read than the progress of a germ. Reflecting this distinction, society deals very differently with disease and dependence. Consider what has happened to sex in the age of AIDS: the mad dash for “safe” behaviors, the Hollywood fantasy shift from free love to fatal attraction, the sublimation of promiscuity into politics. Now consider how drug chic has ebbed and flowed with the political tide, suggesting that our need to get high is somehow related to our enthusiasm for social change. Look closer and you’ll see a correspondence between the chic drug and the prevailing ideology.
The Reagan years, for all their pious remonstrances to the contrary, prompted massive cocaine use by yuppies who owed their status to the precariousness of a boom economy. Coke is the perfect accompaniment to culture that promotes quick killings and easy military victories — sadism and spectacle in the name of freedom and tradition. One look at William Bennett’s barbed-wire grimace and anyone would be driven to toot. By this measure, it was almost inevitable that the election of Bill Clinton would fuel interest in a very different class of drugs. Driven by a need to touch and hug; mellow, almost to the point of bemusement; saddled with the image of a head, even as he insists he’s never inhaled — this president is sending out stoner vibes. And the nation that elected Clinton did so in part because it wanted those vibes. After 12 years of coke-and-junk-bond consciousness, we’re ready for a return to contemplation and connection.
The young, especially, have been shaped by an era that taught them all about competing; they’ve learned to clique up like dolphins and swim in perfectly synchronized strokes. But they’ve been denied the tribal sensation. They’re all connected by a hookah of technology, but that’s a very different kind of bond. And so is the solidarity of race, gender, sexuality. Useful as these categories have been in hard times, they’ve kept a generation from discovering its commonality. Marijuana can facilitate this experience in a way that alcohol and cocaine cannot. Booze turns a tribe into a mob; coke, into a hive of networking killer bees. But pot uncorks the genie of communion.
There’s a ’60s sci-fi word for this intense, undifferentiated empathy: grokking. If I’m right, the abrupt use in the number of young people experimenting with marijuana (and willing to tell a pollster about it) is a sign of the need to grok. So is the effulgence of pot leaves on shirts, shorts, and caps. Quite a shift from last year’s official fashion-rebel logo, the X, with its aura of intifada and its salute to race pride. The X is a sign of self-definition, but the pot leaf stands for a more anarchic consciousness. It points away from dogma and toward impulse, away from mobilization and toward beatitude. And it suggests a more essential basis for communion than the circumstances of caste. By rescuing the ’60s ideal that getting high is a tribal rite from the ’80s conviction that the purpose of drugs is to help you achieve, the pot leaf signifies the difference between networking and grokking: it tells the denizens of Generation X that the sum of all those dead-end kids in empty malls is not slackerhood but community.
I suppose every generation must invent its own name for a drug that is as timeless, ubiquitous, and malleable as cannabis. So welcome to the wonderful world of hemp, as marijuana is currently called by discerning stoners. Hemp is a word for cannabis from the days before dealers realized that the plant could be smoked. In temperate climates, it was widely grown and used for rope, paper, fabric, analgesics, and even birdseed. The word hemp has returned as a way to place marijuana in a naturalist context, evoking a world of products and pleasures that could be derived from its unfettered cultivation. This strikes me as a sounder utopian vision than the idea that soldiers wouldn’t kill if they got stoned. We were thoroughly disabused of that notion in Vietnam.
In the ’60s, we called it grass, herb, or weed to signify the fact that we were smoking a hearty, ordinary plant. We spoke of boo to connote the funhouse scariness of getting high; dope when we wanted to send up the idea that marijuana was a dangerous drug; or reefer when we wanted to tap its jazz-age roots. Back in the ’30s, a joint was also called a mezz (for Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow, the jazz musician, who once fancied lending his name to a legal brand of marijuana cigarette). Still further back, at the turn of the century, marijuana entered American culture as an emblem of negritude, replete with exotic Creole names like mootah. Once this racialist mystique was in place, the drug attained an overlay of evil: Moocher, viper, even fiend all once referred to pot smokers. My generation preferred the sobriquet head, with its image of the user as a devotee, rather than an addict: no one ever spoke of having a pot habit, since that concept was reserved for narcotics, a class of drugs we abhorred almost as much as alcohol.
When the counterculture collapsed, so did the tribal rationale for getting high. It didn’t take long for these finely honed distinctions between good and bad drugs to break down. Many of us returned to the bottle — which was readily available and not so demanding on the ego — and some of us took to the needle. The result has been a proliferation of 12-step programs, spurred, I suspect, not just by the growing problem of dependence but by the need for some institution to replace the commune and the tribe. Others simply absorbed the psychedelic experience into their identities, with no particular desire to keep on getting high. But for millions more, smoking a joint became part of a routine; something done in private, with a few close friends, or in the intimate setting of sex. The more successful pot smokers became, the less likely they were to admit it, even to a pollster; and so, I’m convinced, millions of casual users eluded the statistics, and much of what passed for success in the war on drugs was simply the silence of those who can function on drugs.
I belong to this latter category. My relationship with marijuana is a long-term, stable one, and more or less monogamous — which is to say, I’m not drawn to other drugs, rarely drink, and don’t smoke tobacco. My habit (which I guess it is) seems to regulate itself; a few tokes in the evening and the day’s tensions dissolve. I suppose I could get the same effect from a cocktail or two, but without those flights of intellectual intensity, those moments of joyous immersion in music, moonlight, and dinner. Not to mention that feeling of being susceptible to the touch of a significant other. As a bonus of sorts, I usually sleep quite soundly, making sedatives unnecessary. And if I smoke too much or too often, the grogginess and irritability are unpleasant enough to make me regret it. Am I drug dependent? I guess so, but as habits go, grass is a pet jones. I walk it; it doesn’t walk me.
I make this confession because our drug policy won’t change until everyone who uses marijuana comes out and says so. Only when accountants and schoolteachers, baseball players and astronauts, report exactly what they feel when stoned and how they function when they aren’t will the killer-weed mystique be shattered. And only when ordinary citizens march on legislatures and precinct houses will the spurious basis for classifying marijuana as a dangerous drug and filling the prisons with small-time dealers, be apparent.
The government’s case against pot is so absurd when placed against most word-of-mouth accounts that it’s tempting to extol the drug’s virtues, if only to strike a blow against unjust authority. The result has been a tradition of lyrical odes to cannabis, from Baudelaire’s lushly documented hallucinations (probably induced by hashish) to Mezzrow’s contention that reefer made him able to “hear my saxophone as though it was inside my head” to Allen Ginsberg’s simple claim that marijuana is a “useful” tool for aesthetic perception. That it surely is. But if I’ve demanded that every head come out, then it’s also incumbent on me to own up to my disappointments with the drug. The problem for me isn’t reefer madness, but reefer mundanity.
I get high to suspend the rules of consciousness imposed by my environment and my housebroken ego. But in getting high, I also lower my capacity for exhilaration at other times. Sex, music, even ordinary relaxation seems vaguely dull without the company of cannabis. Over time, my feelings correspond to the rhythm of getting stoned. Life itself becomes a space to be occupied by activities that prevent or distract me from that catalytic experience. As for the ultimate trip, dreaming: when I go to bed stoned, I don’t dream, at least as far as I can remember. This loss of intrapsychic connection produces a subtle numbness, sort of like living without weather. It may be a small price to pay for those perceptual goodies Ginsberg speaks about, but it belies the reason I get stoned, which is to put me in closer touch with my subconscious.
As for grokking: did you ever try to walk down a New York street in a state of red-eyed empathy? Most of your energy is spent trying to act like you aren’t stoned. Times have changed since euphoria felt safe.
Let me tell you about the first time I got high. It was 1966, and I was a young reporter convinced the music coming out of San Francisco would usher in the revolution. One day, a company freak — which is what we called hippies who worked for record labels — urged me to meet two unknown local bands he was about to sign. We drove to a house in a tract development on the edge of the city. There, sitting on the floor of an unfurnished living room, were Creedence Clearwater Revival and Big Brother and the Holding Company. I remember being introduced to Janis Joplin, who was holding a baby to her bare breast. A huge spliff was passed around. I had learned by then that toking up was a test of credibility, especially for a journalist, so I always took a few puffs, though it never did much for me. But this time the setting, and maybe the shit, were just right. My body felt suffused with warmth; the eyes of the people around me glistened and their faces seemed full of feeling. We sat there talking for perhaps an hour, and then it was time to go. They piled into a Day-Glo van, which coasted down an impossibly steep hill, long hair flying in every direction. “We shouldn’t be doing interviews,” I shouted after them. “We should be friends.”
I was thinking about that the other day when I lit up preparatory to attending a Ravi Shankar concert at Carnegie Hall. I’d skulked through Central Park in search of a refuge for this by no means decriminalized act, and ended up in a deserted close, where I could easily have been mugged. Then, when the drug kicked in, I tried to navigate the dinner-hour madness in the streets, circumventing heavy traffic and voluble crazies. Seized by the munchies, I searched desperately for a greengrocer in that touristy milieu, and finally succeeded in buying an overpriced brownie, which I devoured on the run. Now I was ready to battle the box office and the crowds in a tiny lobby, maneuvering with great effort into my seat. Intensely aware of how cramped it was, and suddenly hungry again, I sat there in a stew of misfiring neurons as the Master appeared. By the time he settled into place, tuned up, made an explanatory speech, and began to play, the drug was taking me on a long, slow slide. I knew this feeling well enough to be patient about it, but I also knew it would prevent me from following a complex 40-minute raga, even as it made the first few cycles of notes sound like a rush of summer wind coming up from behind my neck.
It’s my own fault, I suppose, for getting caught in a time warp. Turning on at a Ravi Shankar concert has become archaic — and for that matter, getting stoned anywhere is an act of psychic sedition. It requires that you work in a profession where your urine is your own, and that you keep a very low profile. (I always douse my stash in cologne when traveling, on the theory that drug-sniffing dogs will mistake it for a copy of Vanity Fair.) Over the years, I’ve located nooks and crannies for dope smoking in the vicinity of every major concert hall. But there’s no doubt that this stealth operation affects the quality of my high.
Which is why the new satori-seekers have found it necessary to reinvent the scene. Whether it’s called a Be-In or a rave, the only way to create a safe space for getting stoned in public is to gather together in numbers so great that the law must be suspended. And there’s an ancillary benefit to making pot part of a social ritual. You’re less likely to let the drug run your life if you go someplace to use it, and more likely to have a mellow time if you don’t get high alone.
This is the rationale for the Dutch approach to drug control. In Amsterdam, you can saunter down to a café and toke up in the company of friends. But back in the U.S.A. the strategy is to force users into a solipsistic relationship with their drugs. The aim is to assure that the worst-case scenario comes to pass: that pot leads to paralysis rather than growth, and that managing its effects is as difficult as possible. The actual result of this strategy is to preserve the marijuana mystique, and to assure that every generation will see this pesky weed as an emblem of rebellion.
To break this cycle, tell the truth: intoxication transcends the ordinary only when it isn’t ordinary. With marijuana — as with alcohol, tobacco, and even coffee — the less you use, the higher you get. Taken rarely, it can expand, relax, and stimulate. But taken regularly, even in small doses, cannabis loses its capacity to produce wonder, and the very act of assimilating its intensity ends up depressing the desired effect. The key to preserving what North Africans call al kief — “the blessed state” — is preventing the drug from becoming mundane. So, by all means, keep dope alive — but overuse it and you’ll lose it.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 20, 2020