A Brief History of Pot’s Place in Culture, from the inside

It started out as a “cool” thing to do.  By 1970, when I left high school and home, pot had been underground for generations.  Jazz musicians and their cohorts had been smoking for 50 years and more, when I joined the tribe – and pot smokers have always been a tribe unto themselves.  Pot smoking, even when done in solitude, is a communal, a community thing; when you shared a joint, you knew you were with a like-minded person, if not about everything.   “Cool” is king; consensus is secondary, if not completely irrelevant.  That’s the part that bothers the Righteous Authoritarians, as John W. Dean calls them – our lack of unity, of consensus.

Of course, the first and foremost thing that early pot-smoking did was to blow smoke in the face of conformity itself.  Those on one side treasured this; those on the other abhorred it, and it’s “perpetraitors”, for to the righteous and authoritarian, traitors to their way of life is what we are!   “Live and let live” versus “My way or the highway, buddy”.  I think Jack Kerouac gave answer to that conflict.

Bohemia itself has a long and celebrated history, we were part of a tradition, part of a historical trend.  If we were rebels, we were not isolated either historically or internationally, in our rebellion.  The bohemians of previous generations had maintained and developed the tradition of smoking ‘the weed’, for that’s the irony of it all – not only is it a naturally occurring plant, with little or no preparation needed to imbibe it, it is, after all, a weed, perfectly adapted to grow both on its own, when provided proper conditions, but also in cultivation, to be harvested and developed into strains and strengths.  You gotta love it.

The historical act of rebellion, for us, became an act of civil disobedience, and thus an act of conscience.  The wider acceptance of pot smoke had as much to do with the Culture War as did the VietNam War, or civil rights, or the burgeoning gay rights movement; we were all “perpetraitors”, and going unpunished – even rewarded – called for ever- higher stakes in the Culture War.  I’ve stated elsewhere that the Culture War has been a second American Civil War that dates, most specifically, from the Chicago Riots and the arrest and trial of the Chicago 8.  Until now, I never really saw the connection before; now it’s not only perfectly clear, but also perfectly obvious.

Peer pressure came later; when I left high school, pot was ‘known’, but unknown; only one kid in my graduating class, and his older brother were known to have actually smoked real pot.  Our peer pressure was to conform, our rebellions still in the 1950s mold.  All hell would break loose within a year – the next year, they performed a mock-crucifixion on the football field – but the Beatles had done more to illuminate the allure of pot than our peers had.  And imagine it this way – if there were ‘peer pressure’ to ‘try’ pot, our peers were the Beatles, what we dreamed of being was what they were.

I started to smoke pot six days after being dropped off for college (On the seventh day, G∞D (G∞D is a concept, as John Lennon taught us, one with infinity inside) said, “Wow!”), and over that first semester of college, it went from ‘cool’ to becoming part of the process of self-discovery and separation from the parental units.  Simply put, their advice didn’t match our experience; there was no ‘gateway’, I always went exactly as far as I wanted, and stopped there.  The War on Drugs, like the domestic aspect on the War on VietNam, was all propaganda; we’d read ANIMAL FARM, 1984 and BRAVE NEW WORLD in high school, mostly as part of a cirriculum of critical thinking, so the propaganda aspect of “this is what we want you to think” stood out most brazenly when it obviously relfected thinking that had no relation to our own, or to the experience that most influenced our thinking in the decades of the ‘60s and the ‘70s (and yes, the ‘80s were different!).                                                 698

There was a documentary shown on KRON4 (a local TV station in the San Francisco area) about, or centered around,  the Death of Hippie.   During my senior semester at Syracuse, I took a class on Utopias, which mostly centered around imagining our own, instead of reading about others.  That was the assignment, anyway, one that I was never to complete (one of my many incompletes in four years of college).  I was busy reading about the Summer of Love.  There was something there, I sensed it, but couldn’t “find” it; it would, after all, take my entire adult life to realize “the hippies were right”, and what we were, ultimately right about.  At the time, all I could do was gather information.  I knew about the Death of Hippie march/parade, but it’s significance escaped me until the KRON4 documentary pointed it out.   After I left college (I wouldn’t earn my actual degree until the end of the decade0, the first place I went was San Francisco; I had to see for myself, become familiar with the terrain, touch down on hallowed ground.  I’d grown up in New York, had been to the Village in New York City years, nearly a decade, before.  This was different; they were both legendary, but The Village was a hang-out, the Haight-Ashbury was history, and like touching the Liberty Bell, being ON Haight Street was an experience all its own.  I arrived in August of 1974; the first place I went after landing at my cousin’s apartment nearby was Haight Street.  It was after sunset by then – I had crossed the Oakland Bay Bridge just as sunset was beginning that evening; the first thing I noticed while waiting for the bus out to my cousin’s was how clean the city streets were, compared to my experience of New York – and after getting to the Haight, my first encounter was with an interracial couple, a black man and a white woman.  I’m walking on Haight Street for the first time in my life, grinning from ear to ear, and he says to me as they pass, “This is Haight Street; we don’t love here, we hate.”  Thankfully, he walks on after he says this.
By the time I’d gotten there, the gates all along the Haight, apartments as well as businesses, dominated that first view.  If there were windows open to the street for the few passersby to look into, I couldn’t point out which ones they might have been today.  Haight Street is nothing now like it was that night in 1974.  Within the next year and a half, the gates would (slowly) begin to come down.  The Free Clinic was still there, the communal grocery was still there, very active and providing fresh healthy food to a grateful and active community.  The Haight was just in the early stages of recovery from the bottom of an ugly addiction cycle of its own.  The community, the neighborhood itself had gone through the liberation, the addiction, the crime and the depravity, and the recovery would complete the cycle.  But I, myself, had to experience the recovery process to recognize the addiction cycle in the Death of Hippie; it would take decades.

At the start, the Summer of Love was about liberation; we weren’t yet “perpetraitors”, we were kids on summer break, who one year converged on San Francisco, everything loose, everybody partying, sharing the jointly-created ‘vibrations’, which essentially contained the essenceessense of the ‘peace and love’ ethos.  Being rebellious bohos, pot became an essential part of the shared experience.  Prior to pot, tension had become the overarching emotional reality for far too many for far too long.  With pot, the tension was released, and a different mode of experience could be had.  (Admittedly, I am here generalizing from personal experience and observation – this is what it looked like, from the inside.)  Then along came the ‘elder brother’ of psychedelics, LSD.  It took the pot experience and magnified it by geometric proportions, it was exciting and new – for certain populations.  There are people prone to introspection and introversion, there are people prone to addiction, there are some people prone to self-exploration, and there are some people prone to self-destruction.  Some populations prospered in the environment of pot and LSD, some people didn’t.
In the new ‘permissive’ environment, people prone to addiction were not satisfied with the gentle high from pot or the depth-diving of LSD experience, and turned to other, more physically-oriented drugs – uppers, downers and intoxicants.  Speed and heroin were ‘always around’; it attracted certain types of people, and with the advanced ‘need’ for replenishing and increasing the dosage along with its frequency, led to issues of money, access, and even power; the rich and successful had the money (and thus, had one problem of the addiction itself removed), the pushers had the access, and thus all the power lay outside the addicted self. 
It was this power differential as well as the economic strain of maintaining access that creates the worst of addiction’s problems.  With ‘hard’ drugs comes money and power struggles – the dealers get the money, and the drug gets the power; the addict is left with nothing but need.  Crime comes out of not being able to provide for the need.
Addiction is, by its nature, a progressive condition.  It only gets worse unless the addict actively works to move away from the power of the addicting substance, activity or thought process.  Addiction truly is like walking up a down escalator – every step gets you one step further, but unless you continue to take every step, you eventually get dragged back down to the bottom.

When the Summer of Love became more about the drug experience than the experience of joy, hippie-dom was done for.  Being addicted to the hard drugs had no relation to liberation – it was the ultimate slavery, and with the advent of the hard drug culture, which had been an unrecognized inevitability due to the nature of addiction – and thus led that winter to the funeral for the Death of Hippie.  What had died was the liberating element of the Summer of Love.  But ultimately, the ‘death’ wasn’t the experience most of us shared.  The addictive were the minority, not the majority – most of us went on happily smoking, or not smoking, pot; for most of us the ‘gateway’ never appeared.  Pot isn’t itself addictive, the conditions it alleviates are progressive, relentless and persistent; the need for relief is what is constant.  Now that I am old enough to experience chronic pain, the need for relief of that bone-deep, nerve-tinged pain is alleviated by pot, and I can no longer consider relinquishing it.
Many of us in this generation can attest to years, even decades without using pot, or particularly feeling ‘the need’; life is just better with it than without it for many of us – and as before, there are as many different reactions as their are people to experience those reactions; they’re all valid and many are mutually exclusive, we have to accept and adjust to that fact.  Some can ‘handle it’, some cannot, some don’t wish to, some wish they could; that is just the way of things.  Again, pot is not addictive, the need for relief is unrelenting.

I have a particular friend, we’ll call him “Ned Nickerson” only because I’m perverse, who started smoking at the same time I did, but he was five years younger than I.  Today he is a credentialed professional who needs to remain anonymous to the public eye.  Long-term, he’s emphatically, patently more successful than I, so the pot-or-no-pot issue has been laid aside, for me.  That isn’t what makes the difference, that isn’t what defines success or failure, especially in social terms.  It did, though, once.  I moved to Atlanta in 1976, just in time for the election of Jimmy Carter as President of the United States.  I have, and always will, simply love admire and respect Jimmy Carter, no two ways about it; Atlanta is another story.  For four years, Atlanta thought it was the Center of the Universe, it was at this time the saying was “If you die and go to Hell from anywhere in the South, you had to transfer at Hartsfield Airport.”  Of course, I was a New Yorker, both my grandfather and I worked on Broadway, so I knew the true Center, and Atlanta even at its height was only a poor pretender for the crown.  “Little New York” was a single strip of high-rises along Peachtree Street through downtown, dying off well before North Avenue which demarked, essentially, nothing (snide is my stock in trade).
I was an out gay, pot-smoking New Yorker trying to make a living in the “New” South.  Gays were vilified and marginalized, pot-smokers were criminalized, and I consciously assumed the position of perpetraitor, and marginalized myself.  In fact, being a New Yorker in the New South, you were constantly reminded of your status as illegitimate bastard child of General Sherman (never mind the uncomfortable fact that he was actually born in Ohio), and you know what you did (even if, as mine did, your ancestors came over only the War of Northern Aggression).  I was keenly aware of my status as rebellious renegade in the South, but shared that status with so many natives there that it was easy to carve out an existence, and find a place for yourself, just don’t get noticed, just don’t ask for too much.  Teaching?  Out of the question.  Politics?  Not on your life.

Yet, even in “the enlightened” Northeast, when Ned’s mother was sick with cancer, the subject of medical marijuana was verboten, unspoken and avoided like the plague.  It was the spirit of the age.  I wasn’t about to raise the subject myself, even allowing for the acknowledged efficacy of medical marijuana in AIDS cases, even as early as the ‘80s – pot’s ameliorative effects were common knowledge well before Reagan could bring himself to mention the epidemic that largely exploded while on his watch.  This was also a reflection of the Culture Wars; among ourselves, we discussed pot, its effects and its efficacy freely, but outside the circle of community, we remained mute.  This was true in so many ways during our lifetime; our perspectives were suspect, so any contribution we made was suspect and automatically discounted.

Now, some will say this is an argument largely based on ‘anecdotal’ evidence, which even my lawyer friend will admit is not ‘evidence’ at all.  For my part, I make the claim to representation of an underrepresented group, the largely successful if disaffected people who partake of the weed without apology or justification, and whose public presence is growing.

For forty years we remained underground, living a furtive ‘lifestyle’ enforced by our opponents in the Culture Wars, never surrendering but never confronting the forces opposed to us, either – that, if anything is a cultural side-effect of pot.  We just let things slide.  But we lives as if that marginalization was OK, acceptable to the larger society; “live and let live” was more than a motto, more than a lifestyle, more than a political philosophy.  While we lived, we let live those that were destroying liberty, the economy and the environment.  We escaped in our stone-ness, but what we relinquished was our responsibility to do more than just “let live”.  We lived as if this was acceptable until culturally, we reached a tipping point when pot became acknowledged as acceptable, even helpful, suitable to certain conditions.  We have passed the tipping point, pot has ‘come out of the closet’.

“Where do we go from here?  Chaos, or community?” Prophetic words from the poet.

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One Response to A Brief History of Pot’s Place in Culture, from the inside

  1. While reading this, I remembered my first close encounter with marijuana ( I’ve never gotten used to calling it “weed” and even now the term “pot” would make me feel like I’m a “poseur” or worse, a full scale “user”; so strong are attitudes that were ingrained in us in the late 60s, early 70s). In autumn of 1970, my college roommate’s brothers and sisters came to visit her at our college in New Paltz, NY; they proceeded to smoke some weed ( still feels weird to refer to it so familiarly. Lol) They passed it to me and I sort of pretended to smoke it, but instead a seed fell onto the page of my Norton’s Anthology of English Literature ( you know, that solid book with the splendidly thin and crisp pages ) I got up to get some tape and repair the little burned spot, the little spot that for years thereafter stood as if it was a spot on my very soul. I laugh about how serious this was to me back then. Never did become a pot smoker, but I did get to understand the way we can allow society and media to ntimidate our thinking so deeply. The power of intimidation and misinformation is actually a stronger “addiction” than drugs, it seems.

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