When Should a Man Stop Smoking Weed?
In the course of my travels, marijuana has served as a great equalizer, a frequent teacher and a pleasant companion, leading me places I would never have otherwise gone. When should a man stop smoking weed? Maybe never.
I am nosing my car into a parking space in a mini–strip mall, as directed by the text message I’d received earlier, when a car pulls up behind me, blocking my retreat.
I’d taken the specified exit off the 55 Freeway in Santa Ana, California, the second-most populous city in Orange County. Erase from your internal screen for a moment the glamorous OC you see on television. This part of the province is landlocked, sunbaked, graffitied, and nearly 80 percent Hispanic; the annual per capita income is about $12,000. It is high noon. There is plenty of traffic but strangely nobody on foot. I’ve been here only once before, to check out the hook spot where football’s fallen Robo Quarterback, Todd Marinovich, liked to score his black tar heroin, known in these parts as chiva, Spanish for goat.
The car behind me is low-slung and midnight blue. It idles with a throaty purr, an expensive toy that has seen better days and could certainly use a wash. I open the passenger door. Inside is a sandy-haired thirty-something; he looks like a typical marketing guy in a white dress shirt. He thanks me for driving all this way.
I get inside. He hands me a chilled bottle of Smartwater and a blindfold.
“It isn’t far,” he says, pulling away.
I smoked pot for the first time in 1968, when I was twelve years old, and smoking pot was as much of a political act as a means of getting high—I didn’t even know what being high was about at the time, it was an abstract concept, kind of like sex. I knew it would be good, but really, I had no idea.
I bought my first dime bag inside a wooden stall decorated with predictable penknife etchings in the boys’ bathroom on the second floor of my mid-week Hebrew school in Baltimore, Maryland. I actually talked to the guy recently on Facebook. He was considered a big stoner in those days, but now he posts endless pictures of his handsome children and adorable pugs. We had a good laugh about the bathroom stall, how far we’d both come in fifty years or so. I didn’t have the heart to ask him if what he’d actually sold me, in a small manila envelope for ten bucks, was not weed but oregano.
At the time, I’d never been drunk, though I’d been allowed, liberally, to sip my parents’ wine or scotch or crème de menthe. My parents were sober people who worked anxiously to maintain control in every aspect of life. My dad’s big college drinking story involved a showdown with a rival frat president. My dad won the contest by discreetly pouring his drinks into a potted plant when nobody was looking.
For me, getting high that first time wasn’t about something negative, not in the way popular culture thinks of it today. It wasn’t abuse. It was use. I wasn’t trying to escape my desperate circumstances. I wasn’t chasing sensual or thought-expanding experiences—though that may have become more of a goal at a later date. I wasn’t trying to forget my problems; I didn’t really have any. And I wasn’t particularly trying to rebel against my parents, who were very good to me, though rebellion was a big part of the youth culture that was reshaping the landscape all around me.
It was the time of the Tet offensive in Vietnam; it was clear the war was becoming a lost cause. The anti-war, civil rights, and women’s movements had begun to roil; President Lyndon Johnson had already delivered his surrender speech to the counterculture and the coming new age, announcing that he wouldn’t run for a second term. Hey, hey LBJ: how many kids did you kill today? The status quo of the old white men was beginning to give way to the feelings and needs of the young, the female, those of color, and the disenfranchised.
At age twelve, deciding to smoke pot—and going to some considerable effort to find some, and to figure out how to smoke it (because that shit I got at Hebrew school definitely did not get me high at all, so I had to try several more times before succeeding in actually finding some pot)—was about two things. First, it signified I had joined the revolution my slightly older comrades, the baby boomers, had started. You grew your hair, starting with the forelock. You smoked pot. You bought your first pair of jeans, which weren’t even allowed in school; in junior high we had a vitriolic protest to force the administration to legalize dungarees.
I smoked for the first time with my friend Boots Friedman and this weird kid he knew named Milton, whose parents, I could swear, were acting like Soviet spies. We sat outside behind the garage. It was summer in Baltimore, hot and sticky, the night songs of the cicadas in full chorus. I remember the sense that my perspective had changed. And that my head was floating. I felt like my face was on a balloon floating above my body, tethered by a string.
All across the country, similar initiation ceremonies were being carried out in groups of two and three, at camp sites, in basements, in Volkswagen Beetles with all the windows closed so as not to waste any smoke. “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” advised the acid pioneer Timothy Leary at the Human Be-In, a gathering of 30,000 hippies in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in 1967. Later it was learned that phrase had been coined for him by philosopher Marshall McLuhan, the same guy who said, “the medium is the message.” Whoever was responsible, we young folk were hearing loud and clear. We were being urged to detach ourselves from existing conventions. To have sex, do drugs, be free. (Birth control pills were another wonderful new drug of this era.) You have to remember: the draft was hanging over every boy’s head. Each night on the news, the war came to everyone’s living room. Before it was over, in 1975, some 211,000 Americans were killed or wounded in Vietnam. They were all somebody’s brother, the kid from down the street. My next-door neighbor, with whom I played catch, tried to flee to Canada.
Maybe more important, at least in my own case, smoking pot was about pushing the boundaries of my sheltered suburban upbringing. With a long history of diaspora and persecution, my people, the Jews, tend to huddle together and create golden ghettos for themselves, which has worked out well in some cases but not so well in others. Moving to Pikesville, Maryland, my parents hoped to escape the persecution of their Southern upbringings. Yet, we transplanted Sagers always felt a sense of otherness, which left me with a keen feeling that there was a lot more waiting to be found somewhere, and which fostered in me apparently an appetite for certain brands of deviant adventure.
Any serious smoker will tell you that marijuana—besides making doughnuts taste better, movies seem cooler, and sex more intense—opens certain doors of perception. After you’ve smoked the first time (or five), you start seeing yourself a little differently, and this in turn makes you see the world a little differently. Maybe it makes you a little more open to things, a gateway in a positive sense.
In the course of my travels as a person and as a journalist, marijuana has served as a great equalizer, a safe and easy common denominator that has put me on the same sofa, log, or grassy knoll as people I’d never have sat down with otherwise.
You could probably substitute the words “drunk alcohol with” and come up with a pretty good story as well, though you might not remember as many of the details. But the point is this: As the ideologues of the Just Say No movement have been fond of trumpeting, marijuana has indeed been a gateway for me.
Smoking pot has opened the doors of my perception. It has led to meetings with new kinds of people outside my home community, ethnicity, religion, or economic station, people of like minds from different places. It has led me to the understanding that a person can find communality with any other human, in any setting, no matter how scary or how different they might seem.
I’ve smoked pot with gangbangers, actors, rap stars, construction workers, bankers, homeless guys, and millionaires. I’ve smoked at fourteen thousand feet in the Nepalese Himalayas with a Sherpa guide; at thirty-six thousand feet in a commercial airliner back in the days when they had smoking sections; at just below sea level on the beach of Marlon Brando’s private atoll with a topless Tahitian translator; in the ruins of a factory in North Philadelphia with a bunch of thirteen-year-olds while watching pit bulls fight to the death—hey, all of those kids worked shifts selling crack and had juvie records a mile long.
I’ve smoked with a Bedouin and a couple of PLO operatives in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip (we used a pipe made out of irrigation tubing); a captain of a sixty-foot catamaran in the British Virgin Islands; a dwarf in Queensland, Australia, who was once famous for being tossed; a television beauty in her Santa Monica apartment; and a pimp in a Lincoln Continental and a hooker on a dark street corner (of course, you never smoke under the lamp). And of course I’ve smoked with Mickey Caesar, aka The Pope of Pot, a cockeyed optimist who lived his convictions even though it resulted in jail time and an early death.
I’ve smoked pot (and other things) with Gil Scott-Heron and Rick James. I once made Snoop Dogg cough with my own preferred strain, which I go to a lot of trouble to get. I smoked with Woody Harrelson in an underground parking lot using a health-conscientious vaporizer (plugged into a USB port in a hybrid car); as we were finishing, his friend David Blaine showed up and started doing card tricks. (Would you believe that Blaine, on regular outings, carries not just cards in his pockets but also a Sharpie to aid with tricks?) I’ve even smoked with my son—but only after he turned eighteen and got his own medical marijuana card.
A number of years ago, I was doing bong hits with the comedian Roseanne after an interview at her house in Lake Arrowhead, California. At one point, after staring for some time into the roaring fire in the big fireplace, she said reflectively: “All hate is just fear. All fear is insecurity.”
This statement floored me, stoned or not. It seemed to sum up all the problems of humanity, the reason for wars since the dawn of time. Ethnic groups, nations, members of the various religious flocks—it is our differing forms and contents that bedevil us. What’s different is always considered bad, scary, or threatening. But why? Only because it is strange to us. And we are afraid to find out more.
I haven’t smoked pot with all the people I’ve interviewed. I didn’t smoke with the white supremacists from the Aryan Nations, for instance, or with the high school boy from Orange County (until years later), or with Angelina Jolie—though I know a guy who used to sell pot to Brad Pitt a long time ago, when he was married to Jennifer Anniston and the couple had quite a penchant for delivery pizza.
But I have smoked with a good many people all over the world, and it has led to a simple conclusion that has informed every bit of the work I’ve done as a journalist: Deep down, people are just people. We are all the same and deserve to be treated with the same respect. Angelina, the six hundred–pound man, the members of a crack gang from Venice, California, even the Nazi-worshipping miscreants from the Aryan Nations.
Drugs have given me that insight.
And I even remembered it the next day.
And all the days that followed.
Sharing a bowl with someone, you take the opportunity to share a part of yourself. Some of it is physical—you’re actually sitting together with this person or persons, handing something back and forth. Some of it is neurochemistry. It’s called disinhibition, one of the effects of THC. Given this time together with someone else, engaged in a mutual pursuit, we unconsciously suspend our disbelief. Suddenly our differences don’t seem as important as our communalities. If you can share your spit on a joint, the possibilities seem limitless, wouldn’t you agree?
At last, the low-slung, midnight blue sports car comes to a stop, and I am allowed to take off my blindfold, which probably hadn’t looked too weird to other drivers once I’d decided to wear my sunglasses over top . . .