How I became a pothead

I finally quit weed when I quit alcohol -- but I firmly believe it should be legal

Published June 4, 2010 12:20AM (EDT)

I think pot should be legal.

It's not that I think pot is so great. I just don't think people should be in jail for it.

When I announced in this column that I was going to take on some issues, I got at least one very wise note suggesting that I be wary of diluting what this column does best, which is focus on individual stories and tell personal truths. It would be a shame to lose that. But I have seen the great effect that a group can have when it approaches a problem with a common purpose. I hope to balance the personal and the political, keeping the emphasis on the personal.

So I'll start by just telling my story. That's the best way in situations like this. In fact, if we all started off by just telling our own stories, we might find the common ground we need.

I first started smoking pot because my older brother brought some home from college. I was young. I was too young to start smoking pot. Feelings will arise as we tell this story, feelings of anger and betrayal. But let's just tell it how it is. So my older brother, whom I love dearly, well, one of the little gifts he took to college was a pencil box. These probably don't get used much these days, but at that time it was a useful thing to have. It was a box you put pencils and erasers in, and it had a pencil sharpener in it. It also had a ruler and a compass for doing simple geometry. It was a rectangular plastic box 10 inches long, 4 inches wide and an inch high, hinged on the long side so it opened up to display ... whatever pencils you put in it. Or anything else resembling a pencil. It also had a mechanism: It had a map on the top and two little windows. One showed a state and the other a capital. You turned a dial on the side and as each state dialed by in one window, its corresponding capital city appeared in the other.

It's a little embarrassing to admit now, but we thought the little pencil box was clever and cool.

Anyway, my brother David left for the University of Florida on a track scholarship in the fall of 1967. He took this pencil box to college with him. Shortly after arriving at college he was standing in a phone booth talking on the phone and a long-haired guy walked up to him and handed him a lit joint. This was the first time anyone had handed him a joint. Somehow, he knew instinctively how to smoke the joint — although the guy did pantomime, like, "Hold it in!" He shared the joint with the person and got high in the phone booth and started laughing during the conversation and the person on the other end didn't know what was going on.

That was the beginning for him. And that was the beginning for me and many of my friends of what would be a long, hilarious, frightening and difficult relationship with pot.

Sometimes in recovery we will say things, like, For all the trouble it caused me, this drug or that drug also saved my life. These things we say are sometimes true. We need something at a certain time in life to get us over something or get us to something or through something; we are lost and empty, and some of us would kill ourselves or kill somebody else if we couldn't find something to momentarily give us what we need. So we find these things. We find pot or alcohol or pills. We take it and we feel better. We figure, now we know the answer. Later, because this is only a substitute for an answer, or a temporary answer, our reliance on this thing brings us to grief. But we can understand how these things happen, especially when we are young and don't know anything.

This very thing seemed to happen to an entire generation all at once. All at once, all over the world, many, many of us individually thought we had found the answer. It was a generational moment of agreement. Looking back, perhaps it is fair to say that as every generation shares a certain wound or a certain sickness, so had we all this same ache that pot cured. You could travel to Wisconsin or Missouri or Vermont or Oregon or Texas (even Texas!) and find people your age with the same exact ache and the same exact prescription.

So anyway this guy walks up to my brother while he's in a phone booth and he just knows: He just knows it's time for my brother to smoke a joint. And my brother came home from college a few months later, and when we were alone, with an air of great conspiratorial secrecy he opened up the pencil box and showed me. Inside it where pencils were supposed to be were several little white rolled-up cigarettes. "These are joints," my brother said.

What was it about those few early moments of smoking pot? Well, something passed between us when we smoked pot together, me and my brother and our small band of enthusiasts. Something passed between us in the joint. We passed this joint, we inhaled, we changed together, we apprehended some knowledge together, some understanding. Whatever it was that we lacked, we felt together for an instant that we had it: warmth, excitement, wonder, optimism, togetherness, appreciation for the world. Something came to us that we needed. It seemed to come to us out of the joint that we passed around together. This happened to millions of us at the same time.

I think also our love of pot was an admission of some frailty in us, some shared lack that we could not speak; through this thing we shared, we secretly said to each other, "I, too, feel lonely and afraid and hungry for companionship. I, too, fear going to Vietnam. I, too, fear that this little life we have been offered is not the right life for me." It was a time of great fear and yet great withholding. We did not have the technologies of feeling-sharing that developed in the 1970s.

Anyway, I want to say that pot started out as a beautiful thing. Yet it had to be kept secret because we could be arrested and thrown in jail for what we were doing.

The fact that pot use was illegal had a profound and in my view deleterious effect on us. I would go so far as to say that it made us question the basis on which the state existed.

This in turn led to some extremes of politics to which I submit we might not have gone had we not learned to live as fundamental outlaws because of pot. We were not lawbreakers. We were nice, kind, peaceful, innocent small-town kids. We were not political radicals. And before pot came along, we were not lawbreakers. Yet when, in that very intense moment of the pot high's first rush, rendered in a near-religious state, feeling grand, tender feelings for one another and for the universe, when we would see a policeman and realize that the terrors and horrors of prison might await us if he found us with our stash, when we realized in that moment that everything we had discovered that was so dear to us was anathema to the representatives of state power, well, yes, it introduced in us an altogether unexpectedly radical feeling: There must be something wrong with our whole country.

Let's not reduce everything to pot. Suffice it to say that my long love affair with pot was different from my long love affair with alcohol because pot was illegal. You could drink a beer with a state trooper. Alcohol was a drug of joining with the mainstream, at least at first. Pot was a drug of dropping out, of living in fear. This is, I believe, because one was legal and one was not. I believe that learning to break the law by smoking pot had a corrupting influence on my relationship with the law and with the state, and that this is not something a state wants to promote. The state does not want to produce a whole class of lawless people. That is not intelligent state-building.

But I'm trying to keep mainly to the personal. So that's the beginning of my story. I am enjoying very much the letters I am receiving about individuals' experiences with pot and will soon begin answering them in the usual manner.

P.S. I'm down at Loma Linda now, getting my first daily dose of proton beam radiation today, but right now I am enjoying beautiful early-morning birdsong, over the sound of water falling and distant airplanes and under the palm trees and the bougainvillea, quite happily writing on the laptop in a lovely gazebo.

Traveling is series of improvised acts. We try to be deft. We like to make it look effortless, but every new sink and toilet, every new hanger and snack, requires just little more of us. Writing, on the other hand, for some of us, requires a rigid set of circumstances. Luckily, I am learning to write anywhere. Right now, I am in a gazebo in Redlands, Calif., with the laptop.

As much as possible, I'll write this column three times a week for the next week or two, and then, if all goes well, I will return to the five-day-a-week schedule. But there may be interruptions, as I deftly or daftly adapt to life as an itinerant.

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By Cary Tennis

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