How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Legalized Weed
Gary Kamiya | Photo: Jason Madara | December 28, 2016
A longtime user ponders the pros and cons of a world in which it’s all right to get high. OK, there aren’t any cons.
(1 of 8)
A collection of cannabis users photographed after adult use was legalized.
(2 of 8)
(3 of 8)
(4 of 8)
(5 of 8)
(6 of 8)
(7 of 8)
(8 of 8)
I first smoked weed in 1969 with my older brother, in my father’s apartment in Dolores Heights. It was your typical furtive first-time-trying-marijuana experience: fraught with excitement, nervousness, and an utter failure to get high. If you had told me then that 47 years later, I would be sitting in the nicely furnished back room of a Richmond district cannabis dispensary whose retail display area in front could be mistaken for an optician’s office, with nary an Indian bedspread in sight, listening to a well-spoken cannabis merchant hold a seminar about the various artisanal marijuana strains that he was hoping would soon be sold to the store’s deeply normal-looking adult customers, I would have said you were smoking something.
But that’s exactly where I found myself one afternoon this fall, just a few weeks before California’s voters officially legalized recreational cannabis consumption for the masses. I was listening to Jeff Jones, creator of a brand-new cannabis line called PremaFlora, hold forth in front of seven employees of the Geary Boulevard dispensary Harvest on the theme “Appreciating Cannabis Through Tasting and Terroir.” If you tried to dream up a cannabis business that would epitomize every green, organic, sustainable, artisanal, collaborative California cliché, you couldn’t do better than Red Wheelbarrow, the nonprofit that created PremaFlora. Red Wheelbarrow is a tiny middleman/packaging startup whose mission, according to its marketing copy, is to “provide access to high-quality cannabis flowers produced sustainably by small farms,” including three women-owned farms, another that uses “organic, plant-intuitive practices,” and yet another that is “emerging from a Northern Mendocino cannabis culture where farmers collaborate and share ideas.”
Combining adjective-laden descriptions that could have been lifted from a high-end wine label (“this Cuvée [is] a velvety, heavy-bodied smoke with a complex palate of lemon rind, chocolate spice, and aromatic pine needle”) with helpful information about the types of highs the customer can expect from different strains (“a great daytime option,” “perfect for summoning your creative muse”), PremaFlora is treating marijuana as what it now is: a high-end consumer commodity.
Somewhere in the middle of Jones’s dog and pony show—which, just to further boggle my already boggled mind, also featured a presentation by a self-described “cannabis critic”—a vision of our marijuana future Mad Men-ed its way into my brain. The vision was a surreal mash-up of old cigarette ads and one of those millennial-targeting Axe Body Spray bits. Happy young Americans in J.Crew sweaters passed a joint around in the backseat of a vintage convertible, with the words “Blue Dream™—Take a Puff and It’s Springtime!” splashed across the page. An earnest doctor in scrubs, stethoscope hanging around his neck, held up a pipe with the caption “Your doctor knows—only Sour Diesel™ soothes your ‘T-Zone.’” A young couple looked dreamily at each other, a vaporizer on a nearby table, above the words “Pineapple Express™—making all the special moments in your life more special.”
Yes, the brave new cannabis world has arrived, and one of the monumental cultural shifts in American history is taking place before our very eyes. A substance that the authorities told us was dangerous and addictive for 80 years is now as acceptable as cabernet sauvignon—and subject to the same marketing copy. The beginning of the end of America’s reefer madness (if not the beginning of the end of America itself, but that’s a different story) was announced on November 8, when voters in California, Massachusetts, Maine, and Nevada opted to legalize adult use of marijuana, joining the citizens of Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, D.C. This means a fifth of the people in the country now live in states where recreational use of cannabis is legal, including the entire West Coast. What’s more, 28 states have now legalized medical marijuana. Barring a renewal of antidrug hysteria fueled by the likes of president-elect Trump and attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions (and considering that Sessions has said that “good people don’t smoke marijuana,” that cannot be ruled out), it’s only a matter of time before marijuana is legal in every state in the country.
At a time of enormous political trauma, this is a great moment, one worthy of celebration for many reasons—not least the fact that it sounds the death knell for the era of mass incarceration that has seen wildly disproportionate numbers of African Americans locked up for marijuana offenses. But it’s also a cultural earthquake. Any societal transformation this tectonic will have unexpected effects, some not immediately apparent, many of them deeply personal. As one longtime cannabis grower tells me, “It’s a whole new universe. Everything we thought we knew is wrong, and all of the behavior we’ve engaged in for our whole lives doesn’t make sense anymore.” Generations of pot-smoking Americans had their lives shaped and twisted like bonsai trees by the iron clamps of the law. And when you’ve been forced to feel like a criminal for much of your adult life, you develop a whole interior architecture around not just acts of legal evasion but the very experience of getting high.
I had to come to terms with this sea change as November 8 approached. In my mind, I knew that smoking a joint was destined to be no more stigmatizing than drinking a glass of wine. But in my gut, I was still that outlaw walking around with a joint hidden inside his guitar case, still that 19-year-old Yale dropout for whom getting high was something almost holy, mysterious, and a little scary. A formerly renegade activity associated with the coolest and most disreputable members of society—hippies, artists, jazz musicians, various unclassifiable eggheads and oddballs—is now big business, with accountants and PR flaks and ad men. A pillar of the counterculture has just been appropriated by the Man.
But now that the Man has gotten his ravenous fingers on Mary Jane, what in the hell will he do with her?
To wrap your arms around the new marijuana reality, the first thing you need to do is remind yourself of the old reality. For me—as, I suspect, for anyone of my generation who has been at least a semi-regular user—that illegal reality has been so deeply embedded that it’s hard to isolate it from the entirety of my life. To reach into the bag of marijuana memories is to conjure up a vast treasure trove of Proustian madeleines—of good times, not such good times, and a whole lot of indeterminately intense times in between. For example…in the summer of 1970, I was hitchhiking to Amsterdam with a little chunk of hash in a film canister in my pocket and got picked up by a VW van full of young Germans. As we approached the Dutch-German border, I made the mistake of confessing that I was holding. Naturally, the Germans told me I had to get rid of the shit. So I ate it.
The inner explosion went off just after I got out of the van. For several centuries after that, I found myself on an involuntary extraterrestrial mystery tour of the Red Light District, going around and around the canals in insane rat-in-a-maze circles, passing the same scary, painted women in their tiny subterranean rooms, all striking frozen Jean Genet poses on their terrifying beds. For a practically virginal 17-year-old who was already on the edge of losing it, this was not an erotic experience. I didn’t make it back to earth until dawn.
Flash forward several decades, and this once-nightmarish memory has become just another gargoyle on the decrepit, unfinished cathedral of my life. And frankly, I don’t want those Watts Towers to be demolished and replaced by the cannabis version of a Walmart. Fortunately, at least for my sense of tradition, everything indicates that the weed trade isn’t likely to get buttoned-up anytime soon. Ever since California legalized medical cannabis in 1996, placing state law into direct conflict with the medieval marijuana-equals-heroin law of the feds, the pot industry has been a gray-market Twilight Zone, submitted for your consideration by a joint-smoking Rod Serling—the weirdest, most illogical, paradoxical, corrupt, unfair, and generally nutty concern in American business. And while legalization is going to change much about the business and culture of pot, the universe of cannabis is still going to be a very strange one.
No one knows what’s going to happen after January 1, 2018, when the sale of recreational marijuana becomes legal in California. There are too many “known unknowns and unknown unknowns,” in the words of probable non–cannabis consumer Donald Rumsfeld. “It’s been a total Wild West,” one knowledgeable source tells me. “And under legalization, it’s still going to be one. It’ll just be a Wild West with regulations.” But after interviews with a couple dozen dispensary owners, growers, middlemen, consultants, medical marijuana experts, PR people, advocates, former dealers, cannabis critics, trimmers, budtenders, and other assorted members of the weed scene (many of whom wanted to remain anonymous, a fact that points up how anomalous this business still is), the following predictions seem worth venturing.
1. Demand is sure to soar. “Business is going to go up by a factor of 5 to 10,” says Tariq Alazraie, president of Basa Collective, which operates a Western Addition dispensary. This prediction is supported by a 2014 study showing that Colorado’s medical marijuana users made up just 16 percent of its estimated 686,000 marijuana users.
2. The number of licensed dispensaries will be inadequate to handle the demand. “Is San Francisco ready? No, we’re not,” says Alazraie. “The impact it will have on our neighborhoods, the lines of people out the door, it will be very disrupting. All over the state, we’re not ready for this.” As Ryan Hudson, co-owner of the Apothecarium, a dispensary on Market Street, points out, “San Francisco has 36 dispensaries. The city of Denver alone has 213.” Hudson believes that the city will approve more, but thanks to an onerous permitting process, San Francisco will not be the cannabis candy store people think it will be.
3. One of the purposes of Proposition 64 was to get rid of the illegal cannabis trade, but it most likely won’t work, at least not for a long time. “There will always be a black market,” one grower tells me smugly, and everything suggests he’s right. Because of high demand, insufficient numbers of dispensaries, taxes on legal marijuana (which will make prices for illegal weed competitive), and high-volume sales to the East Coast, the black market probably isn’t going away for the foreseeable future. Consider the situation of another grower I speak to, who says that a large dispensary his partner had a connection to agreed to take their entire crop—estimated at between 500 and 750 pounds—at $1,750 a pound, buying two pounds of each of their 25 varietals every week. Dispensaries don’t always make good on such promises, and if they don’t buy the entire crop, he says, he’ll sell whatever is left for $1,000 a pound on the black market. Obviously he would prefer to sell to another dispensary at a higher price, but he might not be able to find one. A crucial, market-distorting reality of the cannabis trade is that many growers don’t have dispensary deals. Several insiders tell me that most growers have a hard time even getting in the door at dispensaries, and the deals they do get are often for small quantities like a half pound (and they get paid only after the product is sold). And under Prop. 64, any city or county can ban cannabis sales altogether. Under these conditions, many growers will turn to the black market—especially because penalties for selling cannabis illegally have been drastically reduced, with the first two offenses now treated as misdemeanors. If the authorities are able to track legally grown cannabis “seed to sale,” as they want to, they’ll be able to crack down on off-the-books transactions. But many growers are dubious about the government’s ability to really pull that off.
4. Despite the very active black market, prices for legal pot probably won’t drop much, and may in fact go up. (Currently, the lowest dispensary price for the most common quantity sold, an eighth of an ounce, is about $25.) Citing Colorado’s experience, Alazraie says, “I think prices will go down between now and the actual implementation in 2018, but then once it’s implemented, they’ll go back up.” A grower concurs, saying that because of increased demand and new taxes (California will get 15 percent, and local authorities can also impose taxes), legal prices won’t drop. The dispensaries currently enjoy a de facto monopoly and have no reason to cut prices.
5. Despite the fears of many small growers, Big Tobacco and other mega-corporations won’t become a real factor in the business for a number of years. And they’ll probably never drive all the small growers out of business completely. This is thanks partially to the language of the legislation itself: “There’s a five-year ban on any [indoor] operation whose growing area is larger than 22,000 square feet,” says Lynne Lyman, California director of the advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance, which helped craft Prop. 64. A 22,000-square-foot grow area can produce several thousand pounds of cannabis—a lot, but not market-flooding numbers. But even if the likes of R.J. Reynolds muscle in later, many observers believe that well-run boutique farms like the ones repped by PremaFlora will still find a market, simply because enough consumers and distributors will prefer their handcrafted product. The most apt comparison, once again, is to wine: There will be room for both Gallo and Ridge (which, of course, does not mean that the Gallos of the cannabis world won’t try to buy out the Ridges).
6. In 10 years, marijuana will probably be legal in every state. And the reason for that is, simply, money. California stands to take in an estimated $1 billion a year in taxes on cannabis. Colorado took in $135 million in taxes last year. With the social stigma gone, every state will eventually want in. Though there may still be some reactionaries who will resist, they will increasingly resemble Carrie Nation–esque fanatics shrieking about Demon Rum at a midtown Manhattan cocktail bar.
Like everyone else who has ever smoked pot (a reported 43 percent of the adult American population), I have my own unique attitude toward it—especially as it compares to alcohol. For me, a pot high has always been more challenging, more intriguing, more self-revelatory, than a booze buzz. Whereas dear old alcohol is as comfortable, easy, and predictable as a good fire and a warm dog, weed is more like spinning a mental roulette wheel. I don’t know what part of myself it will illuminate. It turns over my mental soil and cranks up different parts of my brain. It makes me, in a certain playful way, work.
But precisely because it presents less of a La-Z-Boy recliner and more of a journey into the unknown, and also because my middle-aged life has been filled with middle-aged responsibilities, I haven’t been a regular (sometimes not even a monthly) smoker for a number of years. However, I’m firmly convinced that I would be a better person if I smoked more and drank less—and what’s true for me is doubtless true for a lot of people. It’s long past time that we as a culture admit that weed doesn’t have to be a veg-out-on-the-couch substance. For me, as a writer, it reshuffles the neurons in a way that lets me put fresh eyes on whatever I’m working on. I usually play music better on pot. Back when I played a lot of sports, especially football, I sometimes enjoyed competing high, and it didn’t affect my game. Of course, being stoned can have its drawbacks: It can produce anxiety or, more commonly for me, make you completely forget what you were talking about five seconds ago. But these negatives are greatly outweighed by the positives.
The paragraph I just wrote still feels slightly taboo, like the time I was lying naked on the sand at Baker Beach and suddenly encountered a fully dressed friend from work. For the last 50 years, there has been a wall of silence around what it actually feels like to be high. To publicly admit that you smoked dope—or, worse, liked it—was to invite derision and risk being unceremoniously dumped into the basket of California deplorables. This has been especially true of the terminally uptight “elite” media on the East Coast, who have always treated weed smokers as a combination of Tommy Chong and Kato Kaelin. The end of this timorous, ignorant self-censorship about cannabis is a victory for, well, reality.
In fact, the newly acceptable analytical attitude toward the experience of being stoned, exemplified by the cannabis critic I met at the PremaFlora demo, Caitlin Podiak, could open a fascinating new era of non-furtive self-exploration. Podiak explained to the attendees that she reviews cannabis strains in a controlled way, trying to keep her mental state and environment consistent and smoking a tiny bit at a time. (In her deathless words, “You can always get more high, but you can’t get less high.”) Inspired by Podiak’s example, I got PremaFlora to send me their sampler and tried several strains. I cannot say that my little experiment bore much empirical fruit, which isn’t that surprising: Podiak is an expert and has a clean young brain, while I’m a total cannabis ignoramus (until I began reporting this story, I had never known anything about any marijuana I had ever smoked) and my brain long ago lost its showroom shine. Nonetheless, here are the results of my less than rigorous research.
The first strain I tried was called Casey Quantum. I chose it mostly because the label said it was “focused,” and since I was trying to work, I figured that would be better than one labeled “dreamy.” After taking four hits of Casey Quantum off a small joint, I had a really great, long phone conversation with a source, in which being high opened me up and helped me to ask both wider and deeper questions than I would otherwise have asked. During the course of it, I also completely forgot what I had just been talking about twice. Is that “focused”? Who knows?
My second foray through the magic-mirror world of stoned self-observation was inspired by the photo shoot for this story, which required me, O frabjous day, to smoke a joint. I decided to try a hybrid with a much lower THC content than Casey Quantum, a strain called Silver Berry that was billed as “social.” At the shoot I did feel fairly functional, and I guess “social,” but the experiment was hopelessly compromised when my joint kept going out and I was forced to smoke a hash-and-tobacco blunt an earlier subject had left in the ashtray. Conclusion: Experiment needs further study. To be honest, with the potency of today’s weed and the inherent difficulties raised by the fact that humans’ moods change every day, I’m a bit skeptical about whether anyone can meaningfully compare the highs produced by different strains. But I’d love to be proven wrong.
What about the new weed world’s potential downsides? One obvious one is overcommercialization. As foreshadowed by my semi-dystopian fantasy at Harvest, pot will now be a normal consumer item, a commodity, and will be marketed as such. A PremaFlora press release titled “Writing a New Cannabis Story” says, “Our branding, messaging and packaging is designed to appeal to patient consumer categories poised for growth, including Women, ‘Whole Foods Shoppers,’ and Seniors.” Branding has come to the weed world! There are some drawbacks to this, but they’re hardly worth breaking your bong over. I still like watching pro football games despite the fact that they have become advertorials for the armed forces. And some aspects of the new marketing age could be fun. In 2004, strolling among the marijuana sales huts in Copenhagen’s fabled drug-friendly enclave Christiania, I cracked up to find a strain called Taliban Skunk. America’s copywriters, match that! Besides, some of the marketing may actually be informative. The one-word descriptions on PremaFlora’s nine sampler jars—“focused,” “dreamy,” “stimulating” (twice), “active,” “cerebral,” “relaxed,” “creative,” and “social”—may have all the descriptive accuracy of a fortune cookie, but they might also be on target.
Then there’s pot’s soon-to-be-lost forbidden-fruit status. While it’s true that illegality gave the drug a little frisson, you’d have to be pretty perverse to mourn the end of prohibition. I’ve had my share of transgressive kicks over the years, like the time my old Brooklyn friend Steve and I brazenly smoked a bright-red bomber in the rear room of the Buena Vista Cafe. But those cheap thrills don’t come close to justifying illegality and its destructive consequences.
Are there more serious arguments against legalization? Some people abuse pot, the same way some people abuse pills, alcohol, and other drugs, but that’s not an argument against it. The scientific evidence against cannabis is far less damning than it is against alcohol. The most emotionally potent argument against legalization, that it endangers children, isn’t compelling either. “We are teaching our kids more and more that living in an altered state is a societal norm,” a spokesperson for the anti–Prop. 64 organization Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana told the New York Times in October. But the truth is that millions of parents already occasionally enjoy altering their mental states, whether with booze, weed, or what have you, and lying to their kids about that fact is doing neither parents nor kids any good.
I avoided smoking in front of my children when they were young. But at a Steely Dan concert I attended with my son, Zachary, when he was about 15, someone offered me a joint. I decided that the time had come and took a couple of hits. This provided the impetus during the drive home to have the Talk About Drugs, which basically consisted of “I obviously think marijuana is OK, and it’s probably a lot less dangerous than alcohol, but you should wait as long as possible to try it and do it in moderation.” (Since I was stoned, we then went on to also have the far more dreaded Talk About Sex, which I guess was equally successful, although at the end of my earnest spiel about responsibility and birth control, Zach’s only comment was “I should be so lucky.”) The fact is that young people know about and can obtain marijuana now, and making the conversation about it honest will simply help them make more informed decisions. Kids can smell out hypocrisy and empty moralizing—like trying to claim that pot is a “drug” and alcohol is not—a mile away.
In the end, the most profound change being wrought by legalization is that America is now a drug-accepting country. For the first time, an unequivocal narcotic has been declared OK. We as a society are finally coming to terms with the fact that we, as a species, like drugs. Human beings have been ingesting substances to alter their reality since Homo first sapien-ed. That’s just how we roll (or vape).
And this particular substance can save lives. A 59-year-old grower named George Montgomery (not his real name) tells me that in 2013 he was diagnosed with advanced squamous cell carcinoma. An operation left him on a feeding tube and unable to speak for months. “The first night when I came home from finishing chemo and radiation, I couldn’t lay down flat to sleep,” Montgomery says. “I was aspirating on my mucus and couldn’t breathe. I felt like I was going to drown. I had my sister take me to the ER. The next day I decided, all right, if my body continues to degrade, I have to plan my exit strategy.”
Montgomery spent the day planning a goodbye party. When he was done, “I said, ‘All right, I’m gonna take four hits off a vaporizer and try to reboot.’ And within 30 seconds I was literally laughing at myself for thinking such dark thoughts. The black cloud was illuminated. There’s not one pharmaceutical on the market that can touch that kind of awareness, that can shift consciousness 180 degrees like that. That’s when I said to myself, ‘I’m gonna grow as much of this stuff as possible to help save other people’s lives.’”
So, yes, the imminent end of America’s second prohibition is in every way a cause for celebration. This deeply uptight country just got a little more European, a little lighter, a little wiser. A natural substance that millions of people have enjoyed and/or been helped by, and that was forbidden and demonized for the better part of a century, has been taken out of the shadows and brought into the light. An ignorant, moralistic crusade is finally ending. The road ahead will have some bumps, but honesty and sanity have prevailed. I’ll take a social, active, relaxed, stimulating, creative, focused, dreamy, cerebral puff to that.
Originally published in the January issue of San Francisco