High In High Places
Photo by Christopher Gardner
Aren't there other people besides tie-dyed hemp advocates who smoke pot? Where are all the baby boomers who inhaled? And why don't they speak out?
By Ami Chen Mills
Dope has the dopiest advocates--not dopey in a dumb way, but dopey as in dope avatars, human incarnations of the plant itself--folks who run around wearing dreadlocks and loose-fitting purple or green hemp clothing weighted with clusters of pro-pot buttons. They smell like patchouli and dispense poorly copied fliers suggesting that marijuana, or hemp, can save the world.
One of the seminal works advocating hemp, The Emperor Wears No Clothes, can hardly inspire confidence in mainstream Americans. One look at the book conjures an image of author Jack Herer sitting on his floor in a cloud of smoke with a pile of magazines, a pair of scissors and a glue stick. It's a fine work--don't get me wrong--but a book that asks you to "use a magnifying glass" to read its fine print is asking too much from middle America.
There's nothing wrong with embodying the spirit of weed. But why do hemp activists always have to be so, well, hempish? Where are all the clean-cut, briefcase-toting dope smokers?
We know they're out there. Twenty-five years after the giddy and widespread inauguration of marijuana onto U.S. college campuses, there are millions of people who have smoked pot quietly for decades with little ill effect. Twelve-steppers call them "normies," people who use drugs in moderation, without hampering their personal or professional lives. Many are baby boomers who, 20 years ago, lit up America with a transcontinental parade of burning joints. As they've gotten older and more established, their silence on the issue has become deafening.
Raising the Lid on Pot
Before the 1960s, marijuana use for intoxication in the U.S. was largely confined to the hep world of jazz and urban underclass neighborhoods. White men in the form of beatniks caught on and turned on in the late 1940s as part of a general effort to "get kicks" and forswear the rigidity of postwar, Atomic Era America.
But the beats were small in number and it would not be until the 1960s that the boomers, as hippies, would make the bong a permanent fixture in college dorms. Even Newt Gingrich admits to having puffed out in his university years. President Bill Clinton at least held a joint to his lips at one time, and U.S. nominees for the Supreme Court have admitted they, too, smoked dope.
In the 1994 sheriff's electoral race in Santa Cruz County, both candidates, including the future winner and current sheriff, Mark Tracy, admitted with aplomb during a radio forum that they had, indeed, inhaled.
Santa Cruz County, state leader in arrests for marijuana cultivation and sales, has witnessed an embarrassing series of dope-related scandals in the last year. Republican Assemblyman Bruce McPherson's former campaign coordinator, Gordon Poole, suffered paralysis after a fall while ostensibly attempting to steal marijuana from a neighbor. And in October one of Santa Cruz's top city officials, 52-year-old former Planning Director Pete Katzlberger, resigned from city government facing felony charges after 20 marijuana plants were found growing in his Felton back yard.
At the same time, the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting helicopters chop noisily over California's back yards. The budget for the Nixon-inspired War on Drugs has expanded from $1.5 billion in 1981 to a requested $14.6 billion for 1996, and threatens to turn the nation into one massive penitentiary. In 1993, former San Jose police chief Joseph McNamara co-authored a statement with University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman appealing for an end to the madness, declaring the drug war, in effect, a "race war."
War on Drugs?: Two decades later, prisons are filled, the deficit is ballooning and people still do drugs.
Studies on the effects of marijuana, from the Nixon commission report to a comprehensive review of pot literature by Drug Enforcement Agency Judge Francis Young continue to assert that marijuana is less harmful to the human body--even for heavy users--than alcohol or cigarettes. "The most striking thing that can be said about the physiological effects of marijuana on humans," writes UC Professor Charles Tart in one study, "is that there are practically no observable effects of consequence."
Yet those adults who through their own firsthand experience with pot could have confirmed all this have yet to speak out en masse. At the South Bay club San Jose Live! last year, a visiting comedian asked "stoners" in the house to raise their hands. The club, filled with co-workers from Hewlett-Packard and some other Silicon Valley companies where pre-employment drug screening is practiced, fell eerily silent. According to one woman in the audience who does smoke pot, but did not raise her hand, "The chill in that room could have been cut by a knife. The atmosphere just turned poisonous."
Seeking Professional Pot Smokers
Despite the self-conscious silence, evidence indicates many middle-aged adults do continue to smoke dope. In the latest National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, 72 million people--roughly 30 percent of the U.S. population--reported having once tried marijuana. Some 18 million smoked in the last year, and 5 million were "regular" smokers, age 35 or older.
While college-age kids continue to smoke most and most often, the baby boomers have had an elephant-in-a-snake effect on marijuana-use numbers. "Every year we do the survey, we get an older population of users, as the baby boomers move through the age groups," survey director Joe Gfroerer says.
Where are these invisible dopers? I placed an ad in this paper to see if smokers might respond, guessing that no one would. The ad, seeking "professional" pot smokers for anonymous interviews, ran for four weeks, until my voice-mailbox was jammed with lengthy messages.
I got calls from people who work in law enforcement, elementary school teachers, professors, physicians, geologists, artists, dentists, publicists, systems administrators, nurses, stock-option traders, business owners, scientists, engineers and computer programmers. They claimed to know lawyers, police officers and congressional representatives who smoke. (I also got calls from people who apparently thought "professional" meant professional at pot smoking.) Annual salaries ranged from zero to well over $100,000. I received 77 calls, eight email messages, five letters and one poem.
The majority were clearly in support of marijuana smoking, mostly for recreational use. These people say, simply, they enjoy marijuana and use it to relax. They offer parallels to having a drink after work. A few believe the drug inhibits productivity. But most respondents seemed to feel that marijuana contributes to their lives, either to their creativity, their productivity or their post-productive leisure time.
Beyond Timothy Leary
Frederick* is a leading bioscientist for an East Bay-based biotechnology firm. A fitness-minded family man in his mid-40s, he pulls in more than $100,000 a year, plus stock in the firm. Because he will not discuss his habit over the phone, we meet at a downtown San Jose coffee shop. Tall, brainy and athletic, the scientist has been described by some as "intimidating." Frederick says has been smoking marijuana for the last 18 years. He smokes marijuana about four times a week and dabbles in psychedelic drugs like mushrooms and LSD.
According to Frederick, use of marijuana and psychedelics has contributed to his enviable position at the leading edge of biotechnology today, and he says this is true for many of his colleagues. "I go to scientific meetings and I see leading neuroscientists giving presentations who were selling drugs in the '60s and '70s--the ideas we're working on now were germinal then amongst pot smokers. There are people in the background who did not end up like Timothy Leary who are being very creative and coming up with theories about how the world works today."
Although he is rarely stoned at work, Frederick says pot smoking contributes to his research. His use of marijuana, he says, "comes from my understanding of consciousness: Humans learn through repetition, and repetition builds patterns of thinking. THC is a factor in the process of relaxing those patterns, and it gives you a new way of looking at things. You break this barrier to pure, flowing creativity--and that's where I love to be."
When he smokes, he plays music, exercises or sits with a notebook, jotting down thoughts. "I think about work all the time. Sometimes I'll go without smoking for two weeks or so, and then I'll smoke and see new ways around problems. With the correct perspective, it's a very powerful addition to your life."
Other smokers also experience inspiration from the wacky weed. One elementary school teacher says marijuana induces in him "a calmer, more objective and philosophical perspective. Some of my most creative ideas for curriculum and practical problem-solving come to me while stoned."
Nick Herbert, a 59-year-old Boulder Creek resident and author of Quantum Reality, says that although he finds it impossible to write when he's stoned, he does consider marijuana a "channel to the muse. I go to the beach and smoke marijuana, look at the ocean and get in touch with that space [where] there's less censorship of my thoughts. A lot of my best ideas have come from that experience."
Other adult pot smokers, including a controller for a Silicon Valley computer company, an ad designer and a technical assistant, claim that marijuana can increase their productivity at work--especially for rote tasks. "I'm more able to talk to people, to train people. I'm able to go with the flow," says Rose, 37. Compared to an average production output on her assembly line of 99 percent, Rose says that when stoned she's "able to perform 110 percent yield, even as high as 125 percent."
These are eyebrow-raising claims to anyone who has never smoked marijuana, or who has smoked with less stellar results. These smokers belie the commonly held notion that marijuana packs some kind of an inevitable, destructive punch.
Ours is a society that is uncomfortable with the notion that something can be gotten for nothing--that a self-indulgent pleasure can be had without penance. According to Hoover Institution fellow McNamara--whose doctoral dissertation at Harvard traced the origins of the drug war--marijuana is viewed by much of the public as "sinful" or "evil." "It goes back to our puritanical roots in England. I have heard one promoter of the drug war--which began as a religious war--say that if you do drugs [like marijuana] you'll lose your soul," he says. Yet the same society tolerates an alcohol-consumption level nearly tenfold that of marijuana, a fact that McNamara bemoans as "sheer hypocrisy. ... Millions and millions of Americans drink alcohol, including myself, and we get high, we get, er, 'pleasant.' "
Steve Dnistrian, vice president of Partnership for a Drug Free America, says that staff members at Partnership drink alcohol--so, apparently, some degree of intoxication is permissible, as long as it is "responsible." Long-term, working pot smokers raise the uncomfortable proposition that marijuana use can be responsible. You can smoke the stuff and still hang on to your soul. "Certainly marijuana is far less harmful than alcohol or cigarettes. Almost any physician can tell you that," McNamara asserts.
Certainly, some would testify that pot smoking is not universally innocuous. At a recent Marijuana Anonymous meeting in the basement of a Saratoga church, a group of about 20 men and women ranging in age from 15 to over 50 is cast about on saggy couches and mismatched chairs. This is one of seven MA groups that gather every week in Santa Clara County. There are even three groups that meet each week in Santa Cruz County--Hempland, U.S.A.
It's clear that these people have not had good experiences with marijuana and that many have become at least emotionally addicted. The young man who opens group discussion on this foggy Friday night claims he used to buy an eighth of an ounce of pot a day--about a month's supply for more moderate users. "I couldn't do anything without smoking dope. I was a slave to the substance," he says, adding that his math and analytical skills eroded when he smoked. "It wasn't until I stopped using and the fog cleared that I noticed changes. I'm doing better now."
Reformed addicts tend to eye current users with some suspicion. "The recovery people seem to feel there is no place for this in anyone's life and if you enjoy this you must have some unsettled problems," writes a general contractor and busted pot grower assigned by the courts to a "recovery program."
Yet the ostensible purpose of 12-step programs like MA is to help people who have addictions. One thing that draws addicts to this group is a collective strength and camaraderie some have not found elsewhere. The meeting seems to compensate for the loss of the drug's former comfort and companionship. Listen to David, in a radio interview: "When I went to my first meeting at MA, I fell in love with it. When I went to MA, I knew I was home. I've been a regular every since."
MA groups cater to those for whom drug use "causes problems in their lives," says MA member Kevin during a phone interview. Reflecting on this, he says, "I do think there are people out there who can use it okay, and it doesn't interfere with their lives. We call them 'normies.' Those people are not addicts."
When the Saratoga meeting breaks up, some in the group ask who else I've interviewed. "I guess there are people who can smoke marijuana and handle it, healthy smokers," says one young man. "I envy them."
Marijuana is perhaps as susceptible to abuse as to responsible use, like most drugs--and, as one smoker points out, even food or sex. Rowan Robinson writes in The Great Book of Hemp that "Cannabis ... tends to amplify qualities that were already present in the user." In his study On Being Stoned, which recorded in exhaustive detail the effects of marijuana on 150 regular smokers, author Tart writes: "With a psychoactive drug like marijuana the variability across subjects is very high." If a user is upset when she smokes, she might become more upset. And, similarly, if a user is a highly motivated person, marijuana use and its effects will play into a pattern of achievement.
The professionals I spoke with confirm this dynamic. Bioscientist Frederick, for example, is highly driven, athletic and intelligent; his use of marijuana conforms to these traits. Tart's findings also support the claims of working marijuana smokers who claim pot improves their productivity. One very common effect of marijuana, he found, is that stoned people become more absorbed in "ordinary" tasks.
Other cross-cultural studies report that hard laborers in some countries like Jamaica smoke marijuana to alleviate the burdensome nature of their work. Those people I spoke with whose jobs involved frequent contact with colleagues and self-initiated projects use marijuana less than those with more physical jobs, and are more careful about the conditions surrounding their use.
Those "normies" I interviewed who seem to have a healthy relationship with the drug share the opinion that there are others who most definitely do not. "If you get high three or four times a day, you're not breaking any patterns," Frederick says. "You're just creating a new one."
Author Herbert admits, "I have a kind of contempt for people who smoke every day. To me, that implies a lack of respect for the drug." Another user writes: "Moderation is the key. Whether wine tasting, beer-after-working [or] vegging before the TV, any behavior when taken to the extreme can interfere with our primary tasks of survival, procreation and seeking enlightenment."
Photo by Christopher Gardner
Puff Peace: Many smokers express a contemplative sense of reverence about the herb.
Most adult pot smokers with whom I spoke say that marijuana enhances aspects of their lives. They use marijuana thoughtfully and with regard for its effects. While many compare smoking a joint to drinking wine, they cite many distinctions between alcohol and marijuana. Many say they enjoy smoking more than drinking. "I don't drink much," says Mickey, a 35-year-old account executive for a Bay Area radio station. "Pot hasn't made us boomers into alcoholics, drug dealers or child beaters."
Many adult dope-smokers express a sober, contemplative reverence for the herb, often describing it as natural and unadulterated, a gift from God. They do not share these feelings about alcohol. Frederick, for example, refers to marijuana as "a holy substance," the proper use of which is "dependent on respect." One woman who says she's been smoking for 35 years asserts that "toking has created quite a bit of power in my life. ... It's contributed a tremendous amount to my consciousness."
"For more than 30 years," author Herbert asserts, "I have used marijuana for inspiration and connection with people, nature and the Holy Spirit. ... I suppose alcohol can also put you in touch with that place, but usually it doesn't."
Marijuana has been used in religion and spiritual practice for thousands of years, in dozens of religious traditions. In the Taoist text The Secret of the Golden Flower, references to "incense" contain this potent advice: "If there is time in the morning, one may sit during the burning of the incense stick, that is the best. In the afternoon, human affairs interfere and one can easily fall into indolence." Author Robinson observes that while many spiritual traditions include the use of marijuana, all do so with caution. "While substances [like marijuana] may introduce some seekers to the possibilities of higher consciousness, they can't deliver enlightenment itself."
Many users I interviewed shared this perspective. Pot is a means to an end for them, not the end itself. In any event, it is not a substance to be taken lightly, if it is taken at all.
One significant effect of the baby-boom generation on pot smoking today is reflected in their children, many of whom have by now reached or surpassed the age when their parents began experimenting with legal and illegal drugs.
After a decade of declining teenage use, marijuana smoking is on the rise again in the teenage population. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports a near doubling of marijuana use among eighth- and 10th-graders in two years. Anti-drug pundits like Steve Dnistrian believe the increase may be due to the maturation of bong-hitting boomers. They further attribute the increase to silence on the part of pot-smoking parents. "It's the baby-boomer conflict," Dnistrian says. "They wonder, 'How am I going to talk to my child about drugs if I did them?'" A flurry of recent articles on the subject echo this refrain: Parents cannot talk about marijuana with their children because they are "conflicted" about its use.
But the anti-drug crowd's analysis of increased teenage use contrasts starkly with stories of pot-smoking parents I interviewed, most of whom feel comfortable discussing marijuana use with their children--some of whom have introduced the drug to their children in the same way a parent might allow a kid to drink a little beer. Indeed, young people may be smoking more not because their parents are ashamed, but because their parents don't think it's such a big deal. Reports showing increased marijuana use in teenagers show a corresponding increase in the number of teenagers who believe marijuana is relatively harmless. One 21-year-old writes, "I've smoked pot for over seven years. My mother shared it with me at a very young age."
This woman's case and another of a mother who smoked marijuana around her young children to calm them down are extreme. Most responding parents say they conceal their use when their children are young, smoking outdoors or in the garage, waiting until their kids are old enough to understand what the drug is for and why they use it. Some fear anti-drug propaganda promoted in schools might turn their children against them. Others smoke in front of their children, but with cautions. One woman says she treats grass in her home much like wine, advising her children that there's a place and time to partake.
Ted, the 45-year-old co-chair of a successful Silicon Valley company, says he introduced the topic to his teenage son: "I told him if he ever wanted to know, I knew a lot about it. I said I would tell him what I knew and let him try it. His response was, he didn't want to hear about it--sort of, 'Thanks, Dad, but no thanks,' " Ted chuckles.
Some pot-smoking parents express concern that young people not ingest any sort of drug. "Why terrorize your body when you're still young?" Frederick asks. "I told my son I didn't want him to get high until he was an adult. I don't think it's a good idea for young people to escape when nothing has been built up first."
Other parents have told children they would rather they smoke marijuana than drink alcohol--and some studies show that teens drink less when they smoke marijuana. One woman says when her teenage son threw a party at her house she gave him a bag of weed and said no alcohol allowed. "I would rather have a house full of quiet, laughing, stoned kids than rowdy, drunk kids breaking things," she says.
Another woman, 40, writes: "When my children were younger I taught them about the laws against pot smoking and how wrong the laws were. When my children got older, in their teens, we discussed pot smoking. I told them I would rather they smoke pot than drink alcohol and that I wanted them to do it at home. Both my son and daughter smoke pot. My son is in the Navy and my daughter is going to college."
Photo by Christopher Gardner
Pipe Down: Some pot smokers claim that marijuana can increase their productivity at work--especially for rote tasks. But that doesn't mean they want co-workers to know about their habit.
Partly because of their reverence for pot and partly because they believe they use marijuana responsibly, many adult pot smokers feel they suffer unfair persecution and are outraged at what they consider the ridiculousness--and, for some, harmfulness--of government policy. "I think that it is criminal what our government is doing to hemp smokers," Herbert asserts.
Randy, 35, a self-described "weekend dabbler" with marijuana and software writer for a Silicon Valley company, asserts, "It's not as strong as alcohol, it doesn't cause violent or anti-social behavior. The government has no place legislating it. Hell, I don't even drink. I just have one vice and that's smoking pot."
Feelings of unjust persecution have lead some users to speculate on the origins of the current pot prohibition: "The government in combination with the Mafia and the alcohol lobby will never permit legalization of marijuana and it's a damn shame," writes one 49-year-old mother of four.
Outrage increases when users have experienced what they consider marijuana's medical benefits. Because they use recreationally, medical benefits are often discovered as a side effect, sort of an extra-added bonus. In some cases, users have introduced parents and spouses suffering from cancer and other illnesses to pot, and to their amusement now find themselves supplying their 80-year-old mothers with the occasional bag. "My father would die if he found out," says Rose, who gives marijuana to her bed-bound mother. Rose also uses marijuana to control her own asthma.
One young woman says she smokes to forestall "very bad menstrual cramps. It works like a dream. And I think it should be legalized." Eric Harlow, 61, introduced his wife to marijuana. Suffering from kidney cancer, she uses marijuana to control the discomfort of radiation treatment. "She has found relief in the prevention of vomiting, in increase of appetite and pain reduction. Physicians can't prescribe marijuana," Harlow says, "and that's a crime."
Getting High Gets No Respect
Marijuana, as currently defined in hemp debates, is confined to three categories: hemp for industry, marijuana for medicine, and pot for recreational use--the last of which is considered least useful in arguments for reform of marijuana laws. Yet some argue that if the rational, responsible use of marijuana were addressed, the hemp advocacy movement in general would bound forward.
Lester Grinspoon, a psychiatrist at the Harvard School of Medicine, is the latest high-status professional to turn pro-pot, much to the horror of the anti-drug crowd, which prefers to paint the marijuana reform movement as composed primarily of hippies. Grinspoon, once a detractor of pot, has become a major proponent of marijuana-law reform. He is author of the landmark tome Marihuana Reconsidered and has recently co-authored with attorney and Harvard lecturer James Bakalar Marihuana: The Forbidden Medicine and an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association pleading for fellow physicians to speak out in favor of medical marijuana use.
Grinspoon had planned another work, on the use of pot by artists and professionals, but says he's been busy with the release of Forbidden Medicine. He did, however, conduct some related interviews. One problem, Grinspoon says, is that "recreational use is too general a term" for what people do with marijuana. "There are people who write, and musicians who find it terribly important to their work, people who believe that some of their best ideas come from smoking marijuana. It's difficult because we're pigeonholed into the terms 'recreational' use and 'medical' use."
As a physician, however, Grinspoon worries that a shift in the terms of debate from medical use to recreational or other use might be premature. "I'd be a little concerned about that," he admits, adding that his main concern is getting marijuana into the hands of patients.
But it may be too late to restrict the marijuana debate to pot's puritanical uses. Anti-drug warriors have already raised suspicion about the motives of medical marijuana activists. The highly visible Michigan Office of Drug Control Policy published in a paper titled "The Marijuana as Medicine Scam" that "the marijuana as medicine issue is a carefully orchestrated campaign by an organized and well-financed pro-drug culture lobby, primarily supported by aging hippies, lawyers and marijuana users who are imposing a cruel hoax on sick and dying people to gain support for their drug of choice for selfish personal use."
Some believe the smoke might clear if those who smoked marijuana to get stoned fought as actively for the reform of marijuana laws as those who claim hemp will save the world. Americans who think pot smokers are mostly "aging hippies" might change their minds if they knew that their bosses, co-workers, dentists, stockbrokers and attorneys smoke pot, and do fine.
"I think there's a parallel there to homosexuality," Grinspoon notes of stereotypes surrounding marijuana users. Being gay, he observes, became much more acceptable "when professional, working people came out of the closet. They demonstrated that people can be gay and be perfectly respectable citizens. That corrected the old, abused stereotype. Until people are really ready to stand up and be counted, marijuana will continue to have a stigma."
Ironically, it is this stigma that stymies the efforts of those who push hemp for paper, hemp for clothing, hemp for fuel and hemp for medicine. Dr. Eric Voth, anti-drug crusader for the International Drug Strategy Institute, penned a letter to Dr. Grinspoon in 1994 attacking his efforts on behalf of medical marijuana. The letter closed with: "I have often mused about whether you actually smoke marijuana, how long you have smoked marijuana, and how much you smoke. I am quite interested in the answer to this question." Voth implies that if Grinspoon were a marijuana user his work and stature on the subject would go up in a cloud of smoke.
Some argue that one step in the hemp advocacy movement is to overcome the countercultural stigma associated with marijuana by initiating a wave of "outings." Americans don't have to be afraid that marijuana will permeate our society, they say. It already has.
Smoking Out Back
The obvious drawback to confessing marijuana use is admission of criminality--although penalties for casual use in California are mild. Possession of an ounce or less of pot is a misdemeanor. Growers face felony charges, and some of the smokers I spoke with do grow their own. Still, California courts are funneling busted dope-growers into diversion programs which offer pot criminals drug-counseling classes in exchange for cleared records.
Despite their enthusiasm to have their say in this article, however, most professional pot smokers I interviewed were adamant that they retain their anonymity. They report that co-workers and associates are not aware of--and in some cases would condemn--their marijuana use. They fear social stigma, the government and losing their jobs. "I would be mortified if confidentiality is not absolutely insured," wrote one manager in an email from a Sunnyvale corporation.
The extremely cautious will only call from pay phones and Frederick insisted we meet in person. Concerns are expressed about email messages that might be seen by superiors. Some mention their company's drug-testing programs: "My company now enforces urine testing for new hires. Though there's no current implications for existing personnel, I'd just as soon keep my name and company out of this."
People fear they might be stigmatized as flaky. "You think, 'Well, I don't care.' But ad clients are generally conservative and if I forgot something, they might think it's because I get stoned," says Mickey, who volunteers after hours for the medical marijuana movement.
Baby boomers apparently learned more from the '60s than how to roll joints. Many harbor a profound distrust of the government and police agencies. Mickey says when she's petitioning, she notices some people, "always in my age group," agree with the cause but won't sign up. "The baby boomers are real suspicious about where their names will end up," she says.
Most respondents have not been public advocates for decriminalization, which becomes more true as the smoker's professional status increases. Some feel that if anyone knew they smoked, they might lose their jobs altogether or give ammunition to competing co-workers. "To let some people know would compromise my power structure," Frederick says. "I don't see any reason to materialize the darts in their quarrel."
Bill, a 40-year-old marketing manager who makes $96,000 a year, uses marijuana solely to control his attention-deficit disorder but says it's "unnecessarily risky" to reveal his habit. "There is only the possibility of crippling my career," he notes dryly. Bill adds that he was a political activist in his youth and once had a frightening run-in with the DEA. He asks, "You think I want to stand in front of that express train?"
The irony for pot smokers is that their companies sponsor parties with fully stocked bars, and provide beer and wine at informal gatherings. Then there's the general nonchalance with which co-workers relate their raucous drinking stories. Yet the current unsmoky--if intoxicating--atmosphere makes admission difficult. "We're talking about the most unsanctified speech of our time," says Allen St. Pierre, deputy director at NORML. "The only worse thing you could say is, 'I sodomize young children.' "
The Lone Tokers
But some pot smokers believe the current smoke screen on rational discussion of marijuana use is just that, a smoke screen--and easily waved away. These people have come trooping out of their smoky closets, heads high.
Eric Garris is a desktop publisher for a trade magazine who makes roughly $50,000. He's also a former member of the Republican Central Committee and a full-time, full-tilt advocate for marijuana law reform. He admits that he smokes, and his co-workers know it. He even keeps legalization pamphlets on his desk. "I enjoy it," he asserts as his defense. Garris reports his 73-year-old mother has been smoking for 50 years. "I think they should sell it at the corner pharmacy," he says.
To date, Garris claims he has not suffered the negative backlash imagined by most professionals. "People tend to be judgmental initially. That's why it's important not to hide it, so that people know that someone who is effective, that they look up to and trust, is a pothead. You can hide who you are and hope that people will like you, or you can stand up for who you are and what you believe in and take the heat."
Mara Leveritt, senior editor for the Arkansas Times, took coming out one step further when she wrote an op-ed column for her paper last spring titled "Pot's not so bad":
For the past two decades, I have smoked, on average, about a joint a day. ... If long-term, regular users like myself felt free to articulate their experiences with marijuana, the walking, talking evidence we'd represent could put our marijuana laws to shame. We may not all be intellectual and moral paragons. ... On the other hand, few of us are wild-eyed marauders, genetic mutants, or drooling derelicts from whom society need protect itself. And as we get older, our lives begin to make the lies that have been broadcast about marijuana look even more ridiculous.
When the article came out, local police retaliated symbolically. They raided the home of a local NORML officer and confiscated a pound of marijuana and the NORML membership roster, which was later returned. Other than that?
"I got dozens and dozens of letters of support. Maybe two or three letters in opposition. I think one advertiser stopped advertising for a while, but then started again when nothing else seemed to happen," Leveritt says. She adds that as a court and police reporter for 20 years, she's seen her share of injustices perpetrated by the war on marijuana. "Families have been destroyed. People are going to prison for 20 years for selling marijuana while violent criminals are paroled."
Of Leveritt's letters of support, two came from federal inmates, both of whom pointed out that casual users have less to fear than those who provide the means of their use. "We in prison are paying with our lives for making it possible for responsible, hardworking Americans such as yourself to enjoy a harmless recreational high. If more people had the courage as you have to speak out, many of us could go back to our lives and children. Thanks for returning the favor," one inmate wrote.
"It's the prostitute and the John thing," Leveritt reflects. "They're in prison and here I am getting off. I believe it's incumbent on those people who smoke to do something. ... There were some risks to myself [in coming out] that I was willing to take. If people could assess those risks for themselves, there are probably a lot of people who could come out of the smoky closet. And there is a group of people now who are of a certain age- group and stage of life where they are productive and established. We can show that we're not just zoned out somewhere in a room full of smoke unable to focus our eyes. We can use our reputations and our credibility to make this point for common sense."
* For sources identified by first name only, names and circumstances have been changed to protect anonymity.
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From the Jan. 25-31, 1996 issue of Metro
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