"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Maureen Dowd went to a pot dispensary in Colorado, perhaps on the New York Times’ dime, then ate a square of marijuana-infused chocolate. Nothing happened within the next minute or so, so she ate more. Even Viagra, or any drug in a capsule form, as much as its manufacturers might like it to work immediately, takes a bit for the capsule’s coating to be dissolved by stomach acids. The contents then need to move along the digestive system, be broken down into their component parts, and be absorbed into the bloodstream. A chocolate marijuana edible contains fat, which will slow it even further.
In about an hour, this happened:
But then I felt a scary shudder go through my body and brain. I barely made it from the desk to the bed, where I lay curled up in a hallucinatory state for the next eight hours….touching my green corduroy jeans and staring at the exposed-brick wall
“Not a regular marijuana smoker,” she ate too much and had an intense high, i.e., exactly what should have happened.
But at least, unlike overdosing on any other kind of drugs (fatal Tylenol ODs are not uncommon), she could rest easy knowing the effects of the pot would wear off, which it did, although not as quickly as she would have liked. Instead of being chastened for her miscalculation, however, in the New York Times’ op-ed page, she emerged on fire about the dangers of pot.
She railed that her candy bar should have been cut into smaller pieces for “novices” like her, and goes on to cite a chilling Reefer Madness-type scenario of a Denver man who “ate pot-infused Karma Kandy and…then retrieved a handgun from a safe and killed his wife” — despite that cannabis is generally not associated with violence and more often with its opposite, the kind of lethargy (“couch lock”) that Dowd herself described. And conveniently, she also didn’t mention a possible other factor in the murder (besides Colorado’s loose gun laws, see Columbine, Aurora, and Arapahoe), that the killer had also taken prescription pain meds.
Lester Grinspoon, M.D., Harvard Medical School professor emeritus and author of (among others) “Marihuana, The Forbidden Medicine” (1993), volunteered much of his time and medical expertise when I was initially considering cannabis for my son. Along the way, Dr. Grinspoon was enthusiastic about the potential for pot as a life enhancer; he also encouraged me to explore the recreational side of it, especially because it might make me more creative, like his friend Carl Sagan. Sagan was such a pothead, Grinspoon said, that he originally started his cannabis research in an attempt to warn his friend how much he was endangering his health–then pivoted the other way when he came to realized how, even as a Harvard physician, he’d been thoroughly brainwashed by unscientific anti-pot propaganda.
Thus, when on the way to an artist’s residency in the wilds of Wyoming, when the tiny commuter flight I was supposed to take from Denver was cancelled, as well as the next two flights, which meant I was stuck for the duration, I caught a cab from the airport headed to Medicine Man. It’s the cannabis dispensary closest to the airport, and I was curious to see what kind of stoner mayhem I’d find. As Dowd wrote, “the state is also coming to grips with the darker side of unleashing a drug as potent as marijuana on a horde of tourists.” (Given that I had all my luggage with me, I must have looked particularly eager.)
The taxi dropped me off at an unassuming storefront in a suburban area. It had bars on the windows like a pawn shop and looked slightly forbidding from the outside. Medicine Man services both the medical and recreational crowd, but you need a state medical ID to enter the medicinal area. Before I could enter the dispensary at all, a cordial guard checked my ID to make sure I was over 21.
Inside, there must have been some kind of massive air filtration system, because despite the baskets of bud, the trays of plants, there was no telltale odor; when our son’s grower used to bring him his medicine, the house would smell like a pot factory hours after he left.
After getting over the novelty of what was being sold, I saw I was in merely a clean well-lit space, there was an orderly line flanked by a display of Medicine Man apparel, a window into one of their grow rooms, and a daily menu board of what was “fresh” as if at some new hipster restaurant in Brooklyn.
While in line, I chatted with the various consumers (the medical dispensary is in an entirely separate area off-limits to the retail buyers). The guy with the gray ponytail was on vacation and stopping here en route to Oklahoma. He planned to smoke nights to relax after driving. A well-dressed middle aged man said his medical license had expired, so he was using recreation mj to tide him over. Another person was a local who just like to smoke. Ahead of me, there were a bunch of jockish male college students, about the most animated of all the buyers, who’d flown in. Everyone was relaxed. I was given permission to take pictures, a few of the consumers willingly, if not happily, posed. The staff seemed very proud of what they were doing.
You waited until your name was called, and, like at a Chase Bank, you walked up to your teller. Thanks to my son, I know my way around indicas and sativas. But I was curious about the expertise of the workers and asked what I should get. I wanted an edible for the evening to relax with. My clerk had several piercings, including a dramatic septum piercing, multiple tattoos, and a grave and professional mien. The shelves were dizzyingly full of products: open baskets of bud, edibles, tinctures, capsules, as well as accessories such as vaporizers. On the menu they also had a number of quotidian products that utilize cannabis’ various healing and antioxidant properties, including a shea butter massage balm that has no THC, that the clerk said was great for sore muscles. I was tempted, but saw the container was too large for TSA standards, which also reminded me that even in this friendly suburban retail outlet, cannabis was still considered to be a controlled substance by the federal government.
When I’d asked one of the people in line about edibles versus smoking, the gray ponytailed guy explained that edibles give you a more sustained “body buzz,” which makes it handy for, say, camping. It’s also cheaper, as you’re not literally burning up our stash. The other recreationalists mentioned that pot, smoked or not, makes food taste better, helps you enjoy music, maybe that creativity thing was true. Dr. Grinspoon also always unabashedly told me “it makes everything better, sex, you name it.”
It also seems to make budget deficits better. Colorado is raking in the revenue, and I can see why. Regulated pot is expensive. Some of the candy-like edibles were the cheapest, and in a fit of nostalgia I went for a grape-flavored pixie stick. While ringing me up, my guide carefully explained the laws on using and driving, and I had to purchase a $2 sleeve that was like a Ziploc bag with a pin on it, proof of, basically, a “closed container” as well as childproofing my edible, which was packaged in a straw.
The vibe in the dispensary was upbeat, professional, quiet. No hallucinators or obvious paranoiacs. Everything was neat. There was no Bob Marley playing. With all the coming and going, the line stayed more or less at capacity, but orderly. There were a lot more sleeve tattoos than at, say, a Starbucks, but the employees worked diligently at their posts, I wasn’t in some hippy-dippy pot Shangri-la, but in a well-run business that accepts credit cards. In terms of admonitory guidance, I had been considering buying a few cannabis capsules to try, my guide did indeed point out that since I wasn’t a regular user, I should probably start with a fraction of a capsule, and that the edibles might be a better and more economical way to go. In the end, I forewent the capsules–if my flight did indeed get out of Denver the next day, I’d have to dump this expensive purchase into the “Weed Amnesty” box at the airport before going through TSA.
That evening, the airline sent us sad, delayed travelers to a similarly sad Red Lion, without the room service and chardonnay of Maureen Dowd’s abode, where any exposed brick (they were indeed under construction) was not intentionally done. I took care not to down my entire pixie stick at once. It tasted quite good and I believe used organic sugar. My son’s mj strains are bred for pain and anxiety, and I generally feel nice on it, but not any nicer than, say, a walk outside. At that particular time, there was no outside, no sidewalks in the industrial tundra the Denver Red Lion is in, only freeway and parking lot.
I had some anxiety that I’d be stuck in Denver forever (I was on my third cancelled flight) and possibly missing my residency. The recreational marijuana was a nice enough, smokeless way to send me off to sleep in a room continually being infiltrated by headlights from the freeway, the endless dinging of the elevator, the crunchy pillow. I did experience a nice little buzz, for which I was grateful, and by the morning, it was gone. If I’d at any point felt over-buzzed, I would have taken out one of my charcoal capsules, which I always carry because I have celiac disease, and charcoal basically absorbs anything you eat, whether gluten infraction or too much pot. During our son’s medical marijuana adventure, I would often test his products because he can’t articulate his experience–and I know from experience, charcoal directly counteracts the high.
I eschewed ineffectual and dangerous prescription drugs for cannabis for my child because it is one of the safest substances on the planet (safer than alcohol, caffeine, water from a toxicity standpoint), but it indeed can have temporary unpleasant side effects including altered perception. I wouldn’t make fun of anyone who had a freakout, I empathize with the obviously frightening experience Dowd had. But I object to her making a bogeyman out of the marijuana and Colorado’s legalization of it as responsible for her bad experience.
She ends the column with an interview with Bob Eschino, an edibles maker, who incredibly, to her mind, doesn’t see anything wrong with delicious pot products, and therefore doesn’t wish to follow the suggestion that he should make edibles unappealing to combat overconsumption.
In this I cannot help but recall my friend “Gene” (my all-purpose male pseudonym) and his pita chip problem. Gene once came to a party very, very hungry, and began decimating a nearby bowl of pita chips. He ate many more pita chips than would be deemed sensible for someone of his weight, gender, and age. But it is, however, a free country. He subsequently threw up pita chips in an hours’-long fit of regurgitation that sounded like a moose was being flogged to death; in fact, a few times during this, Gene said death was looking quite appealing. Even now, just looking at pita chips brings back the PTSD of that day. Gene has, indeed, shown us the dark side of pita chips. But heroically, in order that others (possibly more moderate in temperament) can continue to enjoy pita chips, especially because they’re so great for scooping up hummus and even guacamole, he does not call for them to be prohibited or regulated or even labeled in any way: CAUTION: overconsumption may cause uncontrollable vomiting.
“Why should the whole industry suffer just because less than five percent of people are having problems with the correct dosing?” Eschino says, sensibly, of pot–or pita chips.
Ironically, Dowd ends her piece by commenting, “Does he sound a little paranoid?”
Marie Myung-Ok Lee's novel about the future of medicine will be published in 2015 with Simon & Schuster. She teaches creative writing at Columbia University, where she is the Our Word Writer-in-Residence. Find her on Twitter @MarieMyungOkLee and on Facebook.More Marie Myung-Ok Lee.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)