Thursday, October 15, 2009

Reefer madness, revisited

Marijuana, like homosexuality, strikes many conservative cultural warriors as a late 20th

century phenomenon. Just as there were no gay people until the Supreme Court outlawed state-sponsored school prayer in the early 1960s (and yes, there are people who really do subscribe to this view), marijuana use is often portrayed as an unfortunate consequence of the Beatles transition from lovable moptops screaming "yeah, yeah, yeah" to sweater clad pre-teen girls to psychadelic pseudo-druggies no longer fit for anyone's daughter who made mysterious references to "tangerine dreams and marmalade skies."

"Someone was smoking something when they wrote those songs," my friend Michael's mother used to tell us when she would hear us listening to Abbey Road, usually the side 2 medley. It definitely wasn't what she was smoking, which was usually a Salem Menthol cigarette. "And it was him," she would say, pointing to a picture of John Lennon that Michael kept over his dresser. "I don't think the other ones wanted to do it. He was the bad influence."

How did she know someone was smoking "something" if she had never smoked marijuana herself? That was always the question we wanted to ask and never did. And she was wrong about John introducing marijuana to the Beatles. It was Paul; John introduced the Beatles to LSD. But at 12 or 13 years old, it's best to hold that information close to the vest.

By the time I started high school in 1975, marijuana was easier to find than beer, even though the drinking age in Georgia was 18. Like now, people who used marijuana operated under code terms. They "partied or "partook," were "cool," or were "into expanding their horizons." The common refrain when discussing a pot smokers went something like this:

"Hey, do you guys know anything about that new kid who just moved in down the street," someone would ask.

"Not much, but I did notice he was wearing an (Pink Floyd) Animals concert t-shirt the other day, so he must be 'cool.'"

So, in other words, he probably smoked pot. No word on whether he drank beer or mixed liquor with coke, sprite or some other soft drink to mask the taste. But, in my high school, drinking was assumed of everyone, with maybe the exception of the National Honor Society or Math Club members, until proven otherwise. Marijuana smokers, on the other hand, consituted a completely different class of people. High school high society-types -- jocks, cheerleaders, yearbook editors, student government geeks, the president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes -- always made it a point to let you know that they did not smoke dope.

"No fucking way I would get near that shit," I remember our star soccer player saying to me, breathing the remnants of Jack Daniels and Coke into my face before heading into the stands for a football game. "Do you know that you can kill, like, thousands of brain cells every time you take a hit? Do you think I want to end up in shop class making bongs like the rest of the freaks?"

And, of course, as soon as the coast was clear, the same lunkhead would seek me out behind the concession stand. "Ivers, do you know where I could buy a joint?"

"Why would you ask me?"

"You seem like the partying type, you know, since you're into Yes, Pink Floyd and Genesis. Aren't you friends with that guitar player?" A concert t-shirt does indeed make the man. And, by the way, my friend the great guitar player did not smoke dope.

"Can't help you," I'd say. "Dry myself."

"All right, but don't tell anyone we had this conversation," like we were Cold War spies floating a prisoner swap out of official view.

For as long as marijuana has been around, which is a lot longer than the last 39 years (Sgt. Pepper was released on June 1, 1967), it has carried a negative reputation. Marijuana, depending upon the era, has been the choice of Communists, 20s swingers, early porn merchants, African-American jazz musicians, white beatniks, 60s pop celebrities, misguided professional athletes, contemporary rock stars and other undesirables. Cool, smart, together, fun, attractive people do not smoke pot.

They drink. And drink. And drink. And drink.

Doctors tell us and the wine industry reminds us that red wine is good for your cholesterol . . . and your heart . . . and stress . . . and will make you incredibly hot and desirable, especially after you kick your Jimmy Choos off in your $65,000 kitchen and hop up on the buffet counter holding your Reidel glass. Scotch is the choice of the sophisticated, affluent professional. Who doesn't want to sip Johnny Walker Red sitting in an Adirondack Chair in the front lawn of a glorious Tudor home, while a fleet of Mercedes sit gleaming in the circular driveway? Laugh, smile and frolic by the beach while enjoying a glass of Italian Pinot Grigio?

But nothing says "U.S.A." like beer, the choice of the slacker, dumb guy sports nut who just wants to hang out with his buddies, wear his jersey, eat potato chips and pump his fists, except, in the case of "upscale" brews, when it's the choice of an impossibly good-looking, single, and presumably white collar professional man. A martian who sat through an hour of any televised sports event in the United States (with the exception of golf, which turns its nose up at such debauchery, preferring to bombard you with hedge fund and luxury car ads) could come to no other conclusion that the average viewer is a male alcoholic who suffers from erectile dysfunction. Drinking beer, and lots of it, holds the keys to the promised land for the demographic target -- the male loser who is crashing on someone's couch or still living in his parents' basement. Drink beer and women will dig you. Bring designer beer to a party and women will not only dig you, they will demand a turn with you right then and there.

Pot smokers are not so lucky. Advertisements directed towards them are not intended to glorify their lifestyles. No, not at all. The point of national drug control policy is to persuade pot smokers and anyone thinking of taking a hit off an herbal jazz cigarette not to do it -- at all. The little, bitty language at the bottom of beer ads on television and in magazines encourages people to drink responsibly, not to drink and drive and so on. But you can rest assured that no one is paying attention. If you can swig a few Heinekens and have a shot at Heidi Klum, what good is moderation?

Our national anti-marijuana policy assumes that anyone who smokes pot is incapable of moderation. Even the best of the anti-marijuana ads produced for the Office of National Drug Control Policy refuse to concede this possibility. I've seen two so far: Pete's Couch and Whatever (click here to see them). Give the ads credit for laying off the "if you smoke marijuana now and then, pretty soon you'll be dropping acide and craving heroin" approach. The prohibitionists seem to accept the medical evidence and pyschological research that rejects the idea of marijuana as a gateway drug to more evil doings. But they perpetrate the stereotype of marijuana smokers as chronically stupid, lazy and incoherent because they are always and without exception stoned to the hilt. In Pete's Couch, a high school age boy talks about his experience smoking pot. No, he didn't kill anybody or think about using heroin. Like his friends who did not get off the couch for the entire commercial, the boy just didn't want to do anything but just sit there and presumably stare into space. Perhaps his parents were lucky enough to have surround sound, and they broke out the 5.1 SACD version of "Dark Side of the Moon." Our hero learns his lesson: he doesn't want to be lazy. He wants to be a productive member of society, meet girls and ride his bike. Someone should have warned him to shy away from any hacky sack games in his new found enthusiasm for exercise. We all know where that would lead -- back to Pete's Couch. In Whatever, the good guy is a street-smart, clean cut African-American teenager who tells the camera that he has ambition for a real life -- college, a good job . . . the works. Unlike his stoner friends in the bag, who appear not to know where they are, our hero in this ad lets the world know that once he's gone his buddies won't have anyone to drive them around and get them through the day. Let his friends toke it up . . . he's moving on.

Okay, let's, for a moment, suspend our sense of disbelief and imagine a beer commercial that portrays drinkers as drunks, sans the occasional designated driver. A camera beams in on a group of guys at a baseball or football game. They're drunk as hell, courtesy of the vendors who have no problem selling them beer after beer as long as the cash keeps flowing. One is cursing up a storm while grabbing his genitals, oblivious to the little kids who are sitting in front of him. Another, having neglected to establish his food "base" before the game, is throwing up on the seat in front of him, while screaming at the hapless usher to "let me enjoy the fucking game you goddamn rent-a-cop" (I saw this once at Camden Yards). A third guy has stripped to the waist. And despite having failed his unsolicited audition for America's Hottest Bachleor, he demands that every woman around him "show me your tits." Then the camera isolates the responsible member of the group who says, "These losers can keep on truckin' after I leave for medical school next year. Let somebody else put them in a shopping cart and wheel them home after a night on the town."

Uh, no, that's not happening anytime soon.

There is something strange about criminalizing a drug that, when used in moderation, has never been shown to carry the health risks and social consequences (alcoholism and related illnesses; spousal and child abuse; chronic fatigue, to name just a few) of excessive drinking. And cigarettes? It's the only product on the market that, when used as directed, will either kill you or make you really sick.

People who smoke too much dope will turn to mush, no doubt. But there are millions of people making good grades, planning a future, paying taxes, mowing their lawns, staying involved in their communities, raising families, and living a productive life who prefer marijuana to alcohol as the relaxant of choice. They're no threat to anyone or themselves. In our current culture, it's perfectly fine to tell a friend at the office that you're looking forward to unwinding with a glass of wine or stopping off for a "pop" to brush back the day. You can't say in polite company that you're looking forward to sitting on your porch and taking a hit off a joint to take the edge off. Of course, if you did, your friend might well want to join you -- that is, unless the cool kids were looking.

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