Marijuana in the Lives of Americans
by William Novak. An Overview of Marijuana. Suddenly you’re through the looking glass.
It’s your bedroom or living room all right, and everything is exactly the same, but everything is exactly different than it ever was before you were stoned.
And suddenly you don’t care about your arthritis, or that you have to appear in court the next day because of a speeding ticket, or that you’ve got a mid-term paper due in two days, or that you’ve only got one ear.
A Child’s Garden of Grass – General Effects – Only two effects of marijuana on the human body have been established without question: a reddening of the eyes (conjunctival vascular congestion) and a temporary increase in the rate of heartbeat (tachycardia) Marijuana also appears to dry up the mouth and the tear ducts.
Although marijuana is not new to American life, and although its recorded history goes back several thousand years, it was not until 1968 that these basic facts were established. In a study conducted at Boston University, Dr. Norman E. Zinberg of the Harvard Medical School and Andrew Weil, then a medical student at the same institution, conducted a series of pilot experiments in an effort to learn about the effects of marijuana intoxication on human beings. What made the experiments notable was that this was the first study of cannabis to be conducted in a double-blind fashion, with neither the subjects nor the administrators of the experiments aware during the study of who was smoking marijuana and who was smoking a well-designed placebo.
Among other findings, the Zinberg and Weil study disproved the commonly held notion that marijuana causes a dilation of the pupils This “fact” had been so prominently believed by the general public that it was often used by the police as a cause for searching a residence for illicit drugs. Some drugs do cause a dilation of the pupils, but marijuana Is not one of them. This basic error is typical of the state of marijuana “research” until the 1960s, before which, apparently, nobody had thought to study the drug scientifically. The misconception about dilated pupils arose in the first place, Zinberg and Weil speculated, because smokers were using marijuana in darkened rooms; that, and not the drug, accounted for the change.
Subsequent studies and surveys have revealed other basic effects of marijuana.4 Users commonly report an increased ability to concentrate on whatever it is they are doing or thinking about; for many, marijuana leads to a general increase in the intensity of most aspects of life. Another very common effect is a heightening of sensual excitation: listening to music, viewing a film or work of art, making love, eatingÑall are commonly reported to be enhanced by marijuana. Often, when a user is high, one of his senses will work cooperatively with another in a process known as synesthesia: for example, a smoker may have the sensation of being able to “see” the music he is listening to. In addition, many users find that abstract ideas and sensations become more concrete, and more visual as well. Under the influence of marijuana, time appears to pass more slowly, short-term memory seems to be impaired, and smokers often find themselves feeling relaxed, free, creative, and outside the normal restraints of time, space, and, sometimes, social amenities. Users speak of a sense of “well-being” and commonly feel peaceful and content. They tend to feel happy, as well. “When I’m high,” says a day-care worker, “my mouth starts to hurt from smiling so much.”
The high normally reaches its peak within about half an hour after smoking; after another hour, it often gives way to a slight lethargy or tiredness. Conversation and general awareness, after being stimulated during the first hour, will often fade a little in the second. This process is known as “coming down,” and for some smokers it is slightly unpleasant, resulting in a headache or in a “cloudy” or “foggy” mental state. The effects of coming down may be delayed by a second or third round of smoking or by going to sleep. The most common aftereffect is tiredness, which, for a few smokers, extends into a kind of hangover the following day. Although different kinds of marijuana appear to have somewhat different effects, the determining factors reside in the individual rather than in the drug.
Marijuana’s most common effects occur in the mind of the user. Ideas may flow more quickly (“like throwing gasoline on a fire,” observes a scientist), and the smoker may find himself thinking more imaginatively and perhaps gaining a new perspective on a familiar scene or problem. The new perspective sometimes renders events transcendent; at other times, it illuminates the mundane; occasionally, the user may have trouble knowing the difference.
There are physical effects as well, and smokers sometimes talk of such responses as a tingling sensation in their limbs, a drop in body temperature, and various other subtle changes. But it is not clear whether these changes are real or merely imagined As sociologist Howard Becker explains it, “There are all kinds of physical and even psychological events going on in your body all the time. Most of them you’ve learned to ignore, like momentary tics of a muscle, or quivers, or other things of that kind. Ordinarily, you feel it happening and you say, ‘Oh, that.’ When you’re a child, you tell your mother and she tells you not to worry about it. And the next time it happens, you ignore it. On marijuana, however, you might not ignore it, especially if you’re nervous about using the drug. But if you just sit and pay serious attention to your body for a few minutes, whether or not you’re stoned, you’ll discover all sorts of things going on, things you would normally ignore, things which are capable of being interpreted if you’re so inclined.” Many smokers speak of an increased awareness of their bodies in positive terms. “I can almost feel the blood rushing through my veins,” says one man, “and the boom boom boom of my heart.”
How Marijuana Works The agent in marijuana that is thought to be responsible for most of the drug’s effects is a psychoactive chemical called delta-g-tetrahydrocannabinol, commonly known as THC. Generally speaking, THC is found in greater quantities in marijuana plants grown in tropical climates, although the determining factor is not environment but heredity. While potency is generally measured in terms of the THC content, marijuana also contains dozens of related chemicals known as cannabinoids, which are unique to the cannabis plant. Research on the effects of these other chemicals is still in the early stages.5 Much of the THC in the marijuana plant is concentrated in the sticky resin exuded from its flowering tops when it reaches maturity. These flower tops, together with the upper leaves of the plant, are dried, crushed, and shipped from their country of origin to marijuana smokers in the United States and elsewhere.
(Hashish is generally made from the resin alone, although contrary to popular belief, it is not a standard substance; like stew, hashish is made differently in different societies. According to folklore, hashish used to be made by having laborers run naked through fields of cannabis. The resin that stuck to their bodies was scraped off with a special blunt knife, and was then treated and dried and pressed into hashish.)
Whether or not a person will feel high after smoking marijuana depends on a number of factors. An obvious consideration is the quality of the marijuana that is being smoked, which is generally measured in terms of potency, or THC content. Quantity is important too, but only up to a point. Most smokers agree that while there is a significant difference between a single toke and smoking an entire joint, there is little difference between, say, two joints and three other than the increased likelihood of fatigue and headache. There is, apparently, a law of diminishing returns after the first joint.
In addition to the quality and quantity of the marijuana that is smoked, the nature and extent of the high will also depend on such factors as the freshness of the marijuana, the origin of the plant, and which part of the plant is being smoked. However, without the use of a laboratory or of rather technical machinery, there is no way for the smoker to know for certain the strength of a particular sample before smoking it. Indeed, it is not always easy for the smoker to assess the potency of the marijuana even after smoking it, but that is another discussion (see chapter 11) Until legalization occurs, there can be no equivalent other than hearsay and an educated guess as to the tar levels indicated on a package of cigarettes or, perhaps more accurately, to the proof markings on a bottle of wine or whiskey.
Until a few years ago, drug researchers believed that most of the effects of marijuana were determined by the drug itself. But the more marijuana is studied, the more it appears that the marijuana experience depends on a host of other factors. For the sake of convenience, these are frequently grouped together by researchers under the rather formal phrase “set and setting.” “Set” has to do with a series of factors relating to the smoker, including his personality, history, mood at the time of smoking, life-style, outlook on life, past drug experiences, and especially his expectations of the drug’s probable effects at the time of its use.
“Setting,” on the other hand, has to do with factors relating to the smoker’s external environment, as described in physical, social, and even cultural terms. In his study of marijuana smokers, psychologist Charles Tart described set and setting in this way: “The particular effects of a drug are primarily a function of a particular person taking a particular drug in a particular way under particular conditions at a particular time.”
Although most researchers at least pay lip service to the importance of set and setting, they often describe the effects of marijuana as though they were the same for everybody. Even smokers are often convinced that other smokers experience the same results they do. But the facts indicate otherwise. It makes little sense to discuss the effects of marijuana in general, because people do not smoke marijuana in general. Marijuana smokers are individuals who differ from each other in many ways and who use the drug with different degrees of frequency, at different times, and for different reasons.
Just as the bored housewife who drinks compulsively at home in the afternoons has little in common with the priest who sips wine at communion, other than that they are both consuming an alcoholic beverage, so, too, marijuana smokers are a diverse group who use the drug in a variety of ways. There are smokers who use marijuana only for special occasions, others who smoke on weekends, and still others who use it habitually, like cigarettes. Some people smoke it for fun, or to stimulate thinking, or for sex, or for relaxing; others smoke because they hope to be stimulated verbally, sensually, emotionally or creatively. Still others use marijuana as a medicine or a sleeping aid, or to work or to escape from work. Invariably, these differences have little to do with the drug, and everything to do with its users.
The point seems simple enough, but it needs reinforcement; almost everything that most people have been taught about drugs is negated by the idea of set and setting. An analogy from religion may be helpful here. The Buddhist or Hindu mystic who has a religious vision is unlikely to witness an appearance by Elijah or Jesus; such a possibility lies outside his set and setting. Or, in the words of Thomas De Quincey, the English writer who described the effects of opium to an eager public, “if a man whose ‘talk is of oxen’ should become an opium eater, the probability is, that (if he is not too dull to dream at all) Ñhe will dream about oxen.”
That is an example of set. Setting refers to a complex of variables outside the individual using the drug. In our own time, a particularly important aspect of setting is the attitudes of our society toward various illicit drugs. For example, in the 1960S American smokers commonly described feelings of “paranoia,” but these feelings have been declining steadily over the past few years. In some other cultures, where marijuana is more generally accepted, they do not occur at all. Similarly, volunteers in experiments who are asked to smoke marijuana in sterile laboratories under rigorously controlled conditions of neutrality do not normally have the same experiences as they do smoking at home with their friends. The point would seem obvious, but it is routinely overlooked by drug researchers.
“Our normal waking consciousness,” wrote William James, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness….
While William James was interested in drugs, he was not thinking of marijuana when he wrote these words. Still, his observation sounds familiar to contemporary marijuana users, for whom the drug’s effects represent what is commonly referred to as an altered state of consciousness. As marijuana smokers are well aware, contemporary Western society operates under a common and convenient myth that holds that there is only one real and operative form of consciousness, variously known as the ego state, rationality, or logic. This, we are told in many ways, is what is known as “reality,” while other forms, other states of consciousness, be they dreams, physical sensations, drug-induced states, hypnosis, precognition, or intuition, have beenÑand for the most part still areÑconsidered to be distortions and aberrations.
Many marijuana users find it difficult to adhere to these beliefs of what constitutes reality. Indeed, for some, marijuana has served as a teacher whose principal lesson has been that life holds multiple forms of reality. “Marijuana has helped me to see the phenomenal power of plural” is how one man puts it, continuing: “There is more than one way to look at something, and marijuana has made me aware that perception and consciousness can come in more than one kind of package.” A computer programmer speaks of “getting into another realm, and, when that isn’t possible, at least accepting that there is another realm.”
It is only in recent years that social scientists and others have begun to pay serious attention to altered states of consciousness, which include such diverse phenomena as parapsychological manifestations, meditation, and prayer. Of those who have investigated states of consciousness resulting from marijuana and other drugs, Andrew Weil has made an especially significant contribution. After completing work on the 1968 marijuana study in Boston, Weil went on to write a book about states of consciousness, with and without drugs. The Natural Mind was published in 1972, and it is something of a classic among marijuana users, being a lively and imaginative theoretical treatment of the marijuana experience.
Weil believes that all people are high all of the time on some level, and that the point of using drugs is not so much getting high as connecting with a high that is already there. And so for most users, Weil writes, smoking marijuana becomes an opportunity, and sometimes an excuse, to experience a mode of consciousness that is actually available to everyone all the time without drugs, even though most people do not know how to get there in other ways. Drugs, Weil insists, do not contain highs; highs are latent in the human nervous system, waiting to be triggered or released by various mechanisms. This is a message that marijuana users hear all the time from opponents of drug use, but coming from Andrew Weil, it carries more credibility and seems far less of a moral prejudice.
In one way or another, many of the people I interviewed for this book made a similar point: “I don’t think marijuana really adds anything that isn’t there in the first place,” I was told repeatedly. “It just enhances and brings out what’s inside of you.” Again and again, smokers described variations on this basic theme, not casually but thoughtfully, and often after a decade or more of smoking marijuana. Although these various articulations of the same idea mean that it has become part of the conventional wisdom about marijuana, it is interesting that each person came to this realization individually, and nobody seemed aware that many other marijuana users had come to believe the same thing.
Objectivity, or Double Consciousness
One of the least understood aspects of marijuana intoxication on the part of the nonusing public is the process of “double consciousness,” whereby the smoker, despite being affected by the high, is nonetheless able to reflect upon it with almost complete objectivity while it is taking place, and is able, if the need arises, to “come down” from the high almost at will. “Every time I get stoned,” says an Oregon woman, “I have the feeling that I’m watching myself” Her daughter describes a similar feeling:
My body’s there, but my mind is up higher, watching me. Once I got high in school, and we were playing volleyball. I was watching the ball going back and forth, and I realized how stupid the whole thing must have looked. Here we were, a bunch of teenagers lunging out to hit a ball over a net, for no real reason. It looked so funny that I started laughing in the middle of the game.
Other smokers refer to this phenomenon as “detachment,” or “disassociation.” For a Chicago man, double consciousness feels like being in a bubble, where he is part of what is going on but also removed from it. Smokers who experience this phenomenonÑand it is very commonÑdo not regard it as a detriment to their enjoyment of the high. On the contrary; for most users it actually increases the pleasure. Lenny, a New England businessman, explains that the sense of being grounded provides “something concrete to stand on while the rest of me can drift off.” He elaborates:
Because marijuana is a stimulant, you’re aware that you’re stoned. You’re aware that you’re not functioning or perceiving things entirely normally. But your judgment remains more or less the same, so you can usually tell how stoned you are. With a depressant, like alcohol, your judgment is affected, so you’re not always aware that you’re not aware. That’s a crucial difference: on marijuana, you know that something has changed; on alcohol, you might not even realize it.
The sensation of double consciousness is so common a part of the marijuana experience that many smokers are often not even aware of it. An interesting exception is this Atlanta secretary, who feels it to an unusual degree:
When I’m very stoned, I find myself switching constantly between two or more frames of mind. In both of them I am aware of being stoned, but they differ in their effects.
One frame of mind, which I call A, allows me to really get into being stoned. I have insights and revelations, I feel good, let my imagination run free, and generally have a good time. In A, reality is secondary and I rely on instinct to deal with real situations.
In B, the other frame of mind, I deal more directly with reality, and am more aware of the world around me. I can get into a conversation or a piece of music, or if I’m driving, I can concentrate on that. The neat thing about all of this is the way I can switch from one frame of mind to the other. It can happen, initially, as often as every few seconds, and once I figure out what triggers the switch, I can do the switching at will. For example, it might have something to do with whether my eyes are open or shut. Sometimes just changing the direction of my gaze can cause the jump from A to B or back again, or it could be something as simple as changing positions in my chair.
And if I have started a nice fantasy in A, I can switch to B temporarily, and then jump right back to A and pick it up right where I left off.
Related to double consciousness is the ability of most smokers to “come down” or “turn off” the marijuana high when it becomes inappropriate or interfering. Typically, this occurs when the user is pleasantly stoned at home in the evening. The phone rings with an urgent business matter, or bad news, or somebody the person doesn’t care to speak with while stoned. Most experienced smokers can handle this situation easily, although this usually involves some kind of sacrifice or payment, a using up of part of the energy of the high, in order to deal properly with the problem or person at hand. Novice smokers routinely find themselves undergoing a kind of on-the-spot training, in which they must suddenly cope with a minor emergency when they are stoned. Usually, to their surprise, they function perfectly well, and this in turn provides reassurance and confidence for the future. Often, there is a sense of mastery and pride that the user feels after meeting such a challenge, and a sense of control that contributes to the enjoyment.
Why People Smoke
People use marijuana for a variety of reasons. The most famous, peer pressure, is indeed one of them, but it is actually far down on the list, and is much less prominent a reason than the public apparently believes. The most important reason that people try marijuana is out of curiosity; they stay with it if the experience is fun or enjoyable or stimulating.
Our society finds it profoundly difficult to accept the notion that some people use marijuana and other nonmedical drugs primarily because they lead to experiences that are fun, or meaningful, or both. Built upon formidable Puritan roots, American culture retains the lingering legacy of, in Mencken’s famous phrase, “the haunting fear that someone somewhere may be happy.” That a rational and responsible person might deliberately perform an act that may not be socially useful or in any way related to the work ethic is a difficult notionÑunless, of course, that person needs to use drugs. And so, in each decade of the twentieth century, society has invented various reasons to explain the increased use of alcohol, cannabis, and other drugs, including Prohibition, the end of Prohibition, economic depression, war, social tensions, political alienation, conformity, nonconformity, and most recently, the youthful rebellion and the “me decade.” By now it should be clear that while such “reasons” come and go with the years, the use of drugs continues to escalate without regard to the explanations.
In the 1960s, social generalizations about drug use did make some sense. In that era, marijuana smoking was something more than a personal decision; it constituted an act of belonging to a specific subculture or community, with its own norms and values. These days, however, marijuana smokers belong to the same society as everybody else; one result of this change is that even those smokers who appear to use the drug casually have often given serious thought to their reasons for smoking. For some, this reflection may be due to their discomfort in performing an illegal act; for those who find themselves sharing most of society’s values and norms, marijuana smoking constitutes an act of defiance they feel they must explain, if only to themselves.
When marijuana users talk about what they find attractive in marijuana, they often mention its effect of allowing the mind to wander almost effortlessly, visiting new places and returning to familiar ones, and focusing in on issues and objects that often lie beyond the normal range of concerns. The focus may be on the secrets of the universe, or a sudden preoccupation with the colors or the pattern of the living room rug; marijuana generally does not respect the operative boundaries that separate the ridiculous from the sublime. When one’s normal range of concerns becomes fixed on depressing, trivial or unproductive topics, marijuana may help the user get unstuck, as this research scientist explains:
I smoke pot because I enjoy the idea that one minute my mind and body are tired, confused and depressed, and the next minute it doesn’t matter. The high has built up unknowingly while I’ve been smoking, and the doors of my mind have been opened. My problems and frustrations don’t go floating away, but rather, they are no longer important for a while. I can still conjure them up if I want there are, after all, still bills to pay, doctors to visit, relatives to deal with. But where does such worrying get you?
Often, marijuana allows its users to shift their minds away from their own problems and to focus instead on the world immediately around them. And that world, the smokers report, is suddenly more interesting, more alive, more rich with details and possibilities. A retired professor mentions that he smokes whenever he wants to enjoy what he is doing even more. “Life is beautiful,” he says, “why not make it transcendent?” Many smokers find that when they are stoned, they appreciate ordinary things more deeply and become more intensely involved in routine experiences.
This is in sharp contradiction to the popular view that smokers use marijuana to “escape” or to avoid coping with “reality.” Indeed, both of these uses are possible and, particularly in the case of younger smokers, not uncommon. But most adult smokers find it difficult to use marijuana as an escape, because it simply doesn’t work well in that capacity. As a law student put it, “If I smoke to forget some important problem, I’ll usually end up thinking about it all the harder. Very often, in fact, I’ll be able to solve it, or at least to understand why I have it.”
Some smokers argue, with respect to those who do use marijuana to escape, that it is unfair that such people are judged more harshly than their friends and colleagues who escape in other ways, through television, for example, or music, movies, friends, sleeping, work, or a dozen other routes. Every recreational activity has the potential of being used both well and poorly, and marijuana is no exception. As one smoker puts it, “If something you do for pleasure gets in the way of your life, then it’s escape. Otherwise, it’s play.”
Besides, argue some smokers, a certain amount of escape is both necessary and desirable. A Detroit family described the role played by marijuana in the recuperation of their daughter, a high school student who had been bedridden for months by back surgery. During this period, she used marijuana daily to cope with the pain and the boredom. She regards her own use as escape, but defends it as being essential to her mental health and happiness during an otherwise miserable winter.
But for most smokers, escape is simply not a real issue. On the contrary; for many, marijuana leads to a greater sense of involvement that may, paradoxically, be experienced in terms of detachment or separation. In such cases, marijuana may help the user isolate a particular problem, task, or experience, acting as a kind of chemical coloring agent that shows component parts in relief from the whole that surrounds them. A man who works for an insurance company describes how this process works for him:
Smoking marijuana helps me see my life as a continuous whole. It allows me to step back from my daily concerns and see the direction in which I am headed. If I then feel I should make adjustments, marijuana helps me decide how to proceed. By removing myself temporarily from my daily concerns, I can see how certain little thingsÑan argument I may have had, for exampleÑare just not as important as I had once thought. Not only that, but it also makes me feel that the only way to get past such a problem is by constructive action, rather than mournful brooding.
Claire, a radio announcer who studied philosophy in college, makes a similar point about the relationship between detachment and involvement:
Plato believed that the true philosopher had to step back from the everyday worldÑthe Agora, the marketplace, he called it; there, men are too busy with the mundane details of life: buying and selling, eating and sleeping, taking care of business. To find truth and beauty, Plato said, a man has to remove himself from the business of the everyday world.
For me, marijuana serves such a function. It is a way of stepping out of the routine, and gaining a fresh perspective. It allows me to take the time to simply enjoy and appreciate what is going on, to see beauty in everyday things that I would otherwise never notice.
How Smokers Know They Are High
For some people, the change from “straight” to stoned comes gradually, and there is no distinct point where one sensibility yields to another. Other smokers find that marijuana hits them all at once: “Five brains open up in my head.”
An Ohio woman notices that every time she smokes marijuana from a batch with which she is unfamiliar, she experiences a period of waiting and wondering, not knowing what exactly is going to happen, or even whether she is going to feel stoned. Smokers who have been high hundreds of times sometimes have a similar experience. David, a journalist for a Jewish magazine, describes smoking as involving a “leap of faith” and compares the process to that of climbing a ladder whose top step is missing. “You have to take a bit of a jump,” he explains, “and if you don’t make the effort, you won’t get high. There’s no free ride.”
Judy, a psychotherapist, often finds herself concerned that she won’t get high after smoking; to compensate, she will have what she calls “an insurance toke.” For example, if she has smoked with friends before going out to dinner, she may, upon arriving at the restaurant, remain in the car an extra moment for the insurance toke, to make sure she will remain high through the meal. The insurance toke serves another purpose; generally, the most interesting and energetic parts of the high occur within a few minutes of smoking, and to achieve the best results, some users prefer to smoke smaller quantities of marijuana spread over several hours, rather than a larger amount all at once.
One way that smokers know they are stoned is that they begin to experience a certain distance between themselves and the rest of the world, which they often describe as similar to the relationship between a film or a play and its audience. Some smokers report that they see themselves as the audience; others feel like the actors. “I find myself making dramatic gestures as though somebody’s watching me, even though nobody is” is how one woman describes it.
Similarly, many smokers experience the world around them in staged or dramatic terms. One person calls it “the capital letters syndrome,” explaining, “When I’m high, the person I’m with is not just standing around the kitchen making cookies, but is instead Standing Around the Kitchen Making Cookies. The actions seem more important, more deliberate, and more meaningful.” David makes a similar point, saying that when he is stoned, he notices that his friends become an exaggerated extension of themselves:
It’s very different from the effects of alcohol, which seems to change people in a different way. On marijuana, sloppy people get sloppier, tidy people are continually emptying ashtrays, witty people become even more clever, and funny people are a riot. Unfortunately, boring people become excruciatingly boring, although they are often easier to tolerate because I too am stoned, and I’m usually more flexible and less uptight.
My friends become so very much more themselves, almost to the point of being self-parodies. I think to myself: here is Joel becoming so Joel, Eva being the essential Eva, and Leora as a caricature of herself.
Some smokers feel this way about themselves, as well. Laurence McKinney, a Boston writer and educator, explains why:
There are parts of youÑin fact, 95 percent of youÑthat are like everybody else. Physically, you’re almost exactly like everybody else. But your personality is different. How you view things, your likes and dislikes, the various elements which make up who you are, these are different as well. This has to do with the higher cortical centers in your brain. Now here comes marijuana, which is suddenly going to speed up the entire operation, like pouring grease onto a fire. So for about an hour and a half, you are going to be very much yourself. Every person becomes much more themselves. And the things that particularly interest you normally will become fascinating when you’re stoned.
There appears to be no standard way in which people experience and identify the moment wherein they know for sure that they are stoned, and not all smokers experience that moment consciously. For some, it may be a physical sensation in the body, or a certain familiar mental process. For a Wisconsin teacher, it is a series of perceptual changes that she describes:
Within a few seconds of taking a toke or two, the show gets on the road. If the marijuana is good, I can tell right away. Little visual scenes, like the arrangement of the salt and pepper shakers on the table, or the linoleum patterns, will start to hint at inner meaning. Across the room, the sparkle of an aluminum pot becomes a sly wink. The radio music from the hall starts to manifest itself with a new clarity, as though the radio and I were the last living things in the world.
When I get up, my motions feel exaggerated, goofy, entrancing. Somebody comes into the room and we get into a conversation. All attention is on the subject at hand. At some point I might mention that I’m stoned; the other person says she hasn’t noticed, and I wonder how that could be.
Relating to Marijuana
Almost by definition, committed smokers enjoy a relationship with marijuana. “If I go for a week or two without smoking,” says a Philadelphia clergyman, “I feel like I haven’t been home.” But among smokers there exists a wide range of attitudes toward the drug, depending on such factors as the frequency with which they use it, their age, and the attitudes of the culture around them. There are smokers for whom marijuana is barely a drug at all; they use it habitually and have long ago stopped getting high. At the other end of the spectrum are those who use marijuana as a kind of miracle drug, who ascribe to it an endless string of positive characteristics, sometimes viewing it as a kind of sacrament that must be treated as something special in order for the user to fully enjoy and appreciate its gifts:
Grass gives you time, a very precious gift, to think about what you did today, and what you’re going to do tomorrow, and also what you did yesterday, and why. You learn the reasons for the things you do, and it lets you learn quickly, without wasting much time. All dope is good for the experienced user, but you have to know how to use it instead of lose it, or else it’s wastedÑand so are you. And so is the time you’ve used up without learning anything.
This approach is similar to the quasi-religious attitude of those smokers who view marijuana in terms of a natural product that has been put on earth specifically for the enjoyment and enlightenment of human beings. A college freshman explains:
Like trees, earth and water, pot is truly a gift from heaven. It makes you happy, confident and patient. It makes me truly enjoy people and enjoy living. If you go up to a complete stranger and ask if they want to get high, chances are they will jump at the opportunity. I came within an inch of going to prison once for possession of marijuana, but I’ll never quit getting high. I have never met anyone who regrets that he has started smoking, and I believe that everybody should try it once in his life.
For Judy, this feeling occurs only occasionally, when marijuana appears unexpectedly:
A particularly wonderful thing is to come upon some dope by surprise. Like on a Saturday afternoon: my husband and I have driven around trying to buy furniture, and we’re on each other’s nerves and fighting. We decide to treat ourselves to Chinese food. It sounds like a great idea, we are both thinking, but it’s too bad we don’t have any dope.
Then one of us gets the brilliant notion that there may be a roach in the ashtray, and lo and behold, there is! Actually, there are several, but there is only one just big enough to help erase the cares of the day, and allow us to laugh at them and enhance our dinner.
The “roach in the ashtray” experience occurs infrequently, and it really has to, by definition; it is most authentic and most gratifying if it’s a surprise. For many smokers, there is an inverse relationship between the frequency with which they smoke and the extent to which they value marijuana. Carol is a psychiatric nurse in her mid-thirties who smokes only once or twice a month. Her life by no means revolves around marijuana, and yet it is clearly important to her:
Sometimes I have found myself thinking: this particular high tonight is worth the whole cost of this ounce, even if it’s fifty dollars. Obviously, this is one item in which I’m getting my money’s worth. I really don’t flinch anymore if the ounce is fifty dollars. I know I’ll keep it a long time and get immeasurable pleasure from it.
Part of a smoker’s relationship with marijuana may involve a personal understanding of how it works, of what it means to the smoker. Occasionally, a smoker will explain this in metaphorical terms. Marijuana, says an Oklahoma man, “is truly a weed that turns to a flower in your mind.” David uses a different image:
I think there’s a lot of mythology about how grass works. If you open a window, for example, and see a lovely view, you surely don’t assume that the window caused the view. And yet people are always making that mistake about grass. It doesn’t give you anything new; it gives you access to new things. The results are the same, but the process is different.