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High Culture:

  Marijuana in the Lives of Americans

    by William Novak

      13. Using Marijuana Well — and Using It Badly

I used to smoke marijuana. But I'll tell you something; I would only smoke it in the late evening. Oh, occasionally the early evening, but usually the late evening—or the mid-evening. Just the early evening, mid-evening and late evening. Occasionally, early afternoon, early mid-afternoon, or perhaps the late-mid-afternoon. Oh, sometimes the early-mid-late-early morning.... But never at dusk!

—Steve Martin in concert

Social Controls

To many Americans, marijuana and other recreational drugs are not just illegal, but are still, officially, unthinkable. Although some twenty to thirty million Americans use marijuana regularly, the long-standing taboos against the nonmedical use of drugs are still so strong that in the minds of most people there is no real difference between drug use and drug abuse. According to this viewpoint, the use of any illicit drug constitutes drug abuse by definition, regardless of its consequences to the user or to society at large.
    But this prejudice does not correspond to current reality. While our society continues to concern itself with the monumental (and impossible) task of eliminating drugs altogether, it is clear that the effort is in vain, that drugs are with us to stay. A more realistic and constructive project would be to provide answers to the real questions at hand: Now that many people are using drugs without significant harm to themselves or others, where should the new lines be drawn? How are drug users to distinguish between good and bad, positive and negative, models of drug use? Or, more to the point, what is the difference between using marijuana well, and using it badly?
    Until these questions are faced, and until a realistic approach to drugs comes into being, it will be difficult to establish educational guidelines that young people can take seriously. As long as drug education has existed, it has resorted to misconceptions so blatantly false that they are rarely taken seriously by students. The consequences of such a policy are obvious, as Murray recalls:
After I started smoking pot, I realized that everything I had read or been told about it was a lie. This led me to doubt anything that was presented about drugs by the government or the schools. Although the marijuana high was totally satisfying to me, I figured that all the propaganda about speed, acid, and other drugs were also lies. I had to find out for myself that some of these drugs were pretty frightening.

    Norman Zinberg is one of the few drug experts who has given some consideration to an alternative public policy toward drugs. Together with Wayne Harding, his associate at the Cambridge Hospital in Massachusetts, Zinberg has been studying the ways in which users of illicit drugs seek to minimize the drugs' negative effects while maximizing the positive ones. Zinberg and Harding maintain that this is exactly what has taken place throughout the history of alcohol use in America, and they find it useful to consider alcohol as a reference point for other drugs.[1]
    When America was still young and its citizens had no real traditions governing the use of alcohol, there were essentially only two viable options with regard to drinking: one either abstained or one drank a great deal. There was very little room between the two categories. Gradually, drinking patterns underwent various changes to the point where today, approximately 90 percent of those who drink are able to do so with relative impunity—and without being alcoholics.
    Zinberg and Harding refer to this historical development as the evolution of social controls. They observe that, consciously or not, the overwhelming majority of Americans who drink do so with a clear set of rules and rituals. Most people do not drink habitually, or to excess. For some, controlled use means having a cocktail before dinner or even three cocktails at lunch. For others, it means a Bloody Mary at Sunday brunch, but otherwise no alcohol before nightfall during the rest of the week. Social control can take the form of wine at a meal, beer at a football game, or several drinks of hard liquor at a wedding or party. It is even possible to stretch the concept of social control to include occasional drunkenness, so long as it occurs at very specific and socially sanctioned times.
    Because our Puritan-based society has traditionally been uneasy about alcohol, and because alcohol is so easily subject to abuse, various controls have been developed governing its sale and use; while they may be flawed, these controls do work. (It is generally acknowledged that the extreme social control known as Prohibition was a failure, just as prohibition is now a failure with marijuana.) To accommodate the moderate use of alcohol, society has devised informal yet serious rules for drinking, including don't drink alone, don't drink and drive, don't drink before noon (or before dark), don't drink on an empty stomach, know your limit, and so forth. People invite one another to have "a drink," and sometimes two, but those who drink to excess, or who drink self-destructively, are still the exception rather than the rule.
    Zinberg and Harding observe that the rituals and social sanctions that govern the use of alcohol are first learned in early childhood. In time, the rules become internalized, to the point where they feel natural. Children see that their parents and other adults use alcohol; they are also exposed to drinking on television, in the movies, and in magazines and newspapers. In some cultures, here and abroad, children are introduced to alcohol by their parents7 whether it be a glass of wine at dinner or a mere sip on religious occasions. But more often, social controls regarding alcohol are transmitted by unconscious example, both through the media and within individual families.
    As children grow into adolescence, they often test the rules they have been taught. In an attempt to discover their own limits, they may violate some of the rules and take note of the disapproval of society toward their behavior. Indeed, it is expected that adolescents will show a strong interest in drinking, to the point where many teenagers must feel that antisocial drinking on their part is at least partially sanctioned, if not altogether condoned, by adult society. For those with drinking problems, there are agencies, sympathetic adults, and even peers who will help, usually stopping short of urging total abstinence.
    Unfortunately, users of illicit drugs have no comparable models or rules to look to outside of the drug culture itself. Currently, the rules that govern the use of recreational drugs are passed on by peer groups and are learned individually as well. For example, most marijuana smokers, if unfamiliar with the origin of the joint they are smoking, will usually not finish it all at once. If, after a few minutes, they do not feel high (or high enough), they will resume smoking.
    Similarly, without even realizing it, most marijuana smokers over the age of, say, twenty-five, use marijuana only at specific times: on weekends, in the evenings, at parties, and so forth. One smoker suggests that smoking during daylight hours on a weekday constitutes a serious act of defiance and is a blatant violation of the norms of the rest of society; therefore, he believes, it represents more of a commitment, and also more of an adventure.
    The kind of cross-generational teaching that takes place with regard to the use of alcohol has no equivalent when it comes to other drugs. As far as the adolescent as potential user is concerned, the obvious authorities—school, government, the medical establishment, and the mass media—have used up what credibility they may have had with regard to drugs by interposing their moral vision instead of presenting facts. The problem used to be the concern of drug users; it is now spreading to the general public as well. "I know my daughter is smoking pot," says a Chicago businessman, "and it won't do much good for me to tell her she shouldn't." Why, he wants to know, can't drug education be more like sex education, so that his daughter can learn the truth about the various choices and risks involved. "Of course I would prefer that she didn't use drugs at all," he explains, "but I have to be realistic. I know she does, and I want her to get good information and good advice so she can stay out of trouble."
    The way most marijuana users stay out of trouble is to adopt one of two convenient lines of reasoning. The first, which is especially attractive to marijuana smokers who use no other drugs, is to separate all drugs into categories of good and bad. Marijuana is "good," heroin is "bad," and other drugs are assigned various levels of acceptability within this range. But such distinctions, Zinberg and Harding insist, are both arbitrary and false. They say that the more that is learned about drugs, the more it becomes clear that drugs by themselves have little inherent meaning; their meaning comes from the people who use them. And so, for example, there are several million Americans who use marijuana in an essentially harmful or destructive way—it interferes with their work, their growth, and even their social relations. For these people, it would seem that marijuana is anything but "good." At the same time, several million other Americans use heroin to no great disadvantage, and without becoming addicted to it.[2]


Addiction and Dependency

The other way smokers measure their relationship to marijuana is in terms of frequency of use. Here, too, Zinberg and Harding dissent. "You don't expect the once-a-month smoker to be in trouble with the drug," observes Wayne Harding. "And the ten or twenty joint-a-day person probably has a problem But what about the great bulk of smokers in the middle?" The real issue, he insists, is not frequency at all. The real issue is dependence.
    Among marijuana smokers and researchers, dependence is a controversial term. Despite serious attempts to do so, no scientists have been able to demonstrate that marijuana is addicting in human beings or even in animals. Nor does marijuana necessarily lead to larger doses; more commonly, in fact, smokers notice a "reverse tolerance," whereby they find that they can get stoned by smoking less rather than more. Finally, there is no indication that the cessation of marijuana use results in any significant physical effects or problems of withdrawal for the vast majority of smokers.
    This brings us to the issue of "psychological dependence." Marijuana may not be physically addicting, concede its modern opponents; surely, however, it is—or can be—psychologically addicting. But to those who have considered the question, the notion of psychological dependence is meaningless unless it can be shown that marijuana actually causes the dependence. That marijuana can be and is misused by some smokers goes almost without saying; these people can be said to be psychologically dependent on it. But this is different from saying that marijuana is a dependency-inducing drug. As Andrew Weil writes, "Psychological dependence is simply a negative way of describing the behavior of someone who does something repeatedly because he likes it."[3]
    Zinberg and Harding measure dependence among marijuana users by asking smokers not how often they use marijuana but rather what they do when their supply runs out. Harding elaborates:
If a smoker tells me he can't keep the drug around, but has to use it as soon as he gets it, I'd say he's in trouble with it. If a person runs out of pot, I'm not interested in how he feels about it; I want to know what he'll do. I want to know how much discomfort the user will tolerate, and how far he is willing to go to relieve that discomfort. You have to look at it flexibly; after all, many people will walk a dozen blocks to get the Sunday paper, so a certain amount of discomfort has to be expected. I want to know where the marijuana user will draw the line, and whether he will be able to function if he can't get more pot.

    Most smokers, when they run out of marijuana, are able to go without smoking for as long as necessary, with only a minimum of discomfort. If forced to do so by circumstances, many users can abstain indefinitely. A high school student who is concerned about her own dependence on marijuana writes: "It is not so severe as I have heard. The typical user does not go berserk when he is out of grass. He just wishes he had some."
    Indeed, many users, concerned about their relationship to marijuana, and fearful of being dependent on it, will test themselves periodically on their ability to go without smoking. This exercise usually lays to rest any lingering fears about dependency and also, according to some smokers, "cleans out the system." A college student from Maryland speaks for many users:
I smoke daily, because I enjoy it, and not because I feel a need. Well, you might ask, if I smoke every day, how can I be so sure it isn't addicting? Because about a year ago, I stopped smoking for six months. And last summer, when I went on vacation with my family, I didn't get high at all; I didn't even miss it. Through my five years of smoking I have had to stop at different times for various reasons, and never did I feel a craving for it or a panic without it.

    At the same time, marijuana is an attractive activity for dependency inclined people, as are television, movies, sports, and friends. Not all dependent smokers are willing to acknowledge the nature of their relationship with marijuana to others, or even to themselves. Still, many are candid about the severity of their problem, as this young woman from Florida writes:
There is only one bad effect I get from pot. If I don't get high for a couple of days, I become a miserable person. When this happens, I try to find a joint. If that doesn't work, I isolate myself from other people by drawing or reading, and just wait for the opportunity to buy more grass.

    A New Jersey man is in even more serious trouble with marijuana:
I guess you could say that I'm addicted to pot, but life's a bitch. That's the good news. Even though I'm a lover of the weed, and will be until I die, I also sometimes wish that it had never been discovered. When I start to get serious about life, I see that pot has really messed me up. I have lost one job because of getting high, and I think that one of these days the whole country will go to pot.

    A particularly severe case is reported by a high school senior[4] in Georgia, who has noticed:
... an addiction, rapidly growing, which brings about insomnia, loss of appetite, cold sweats, headaches, and occasionally a harsh temper when pot is taken away from me. I first noticed the addiction when I was fifteen, but never paid much attention to it. I smoke when I wake up, before I go to school, when I get home, several times during the evening, and once more before going to sleep.


Strategies of Smokers

To avoid entering into an unhealthy relationship with marijuana, many users develop a variety of tactics, strategies, and rationalizations in order to control, explain, and sometimes excuse their use of the drug. One prevalent myth among smokers holds that marijuana isn't a drug at all but rather an "herb." For some smokers, like David, marijuana exists in its own special category:
For a long time I resisted the idea that marijuana was a drug. After all, I wasn't a person who used drugs. All I did was smoke marijuana. Despite my positive experiences with grass, and my strong curiosity about other drugs, I stayed away from cocaine, acid, speed—even hash. At least I was consistent in my distortion. I was honest enough to realize that I could tolerate only a single exception in my structure. I knew that I couldn't start making exceptions for cocaine or anything else without the whole false scheme coming apart.

    Carol recalls practicing a similar self-deception:
For years I was a person who "officially didn't smoke dope," even though I was actually smoking about twice a week. But it was never my own stuff, and that made all the difference. I never actually went out and bought it, because that was a symbolic step I wasn't prepared to take. Finally, when I moved to Denver, I bought an ounce because—or so I told myself—my boyfriend would want to smoke when he came up to visit. After using a couple of ounces before he even showed up, I took a look at what I was doing, and stopped playing games.

    And Judy remembers that when she was single, she never actually bought marijuana; she only smoked it. Buying was too great a commitment. "Once I bought an ounce," she recalls, "but I kept it quiet so that nobody would think I was a head."
    The question of self-image among smokers is an important one, and it can be understood through the use of the term "pothead," or its contemporary version, "head." It seems that almost everybody who smokes marijuana knows somebody else who smokes more often. And that person is considered a head, whether it be the once-a-week user talking about his three-joints-a-week friend, or the three-a-week user talking about the daily smoker, or even the daily smoker talking about the person who is stoned virtually all of the time.
    Not all strategies of marijuana use involve distortion or denial. Most smokers have a realistic notion of the difference between use and abuse. A Wisconsin teacher provides a typical definition:
To use dope badly is to use it to avoid oneself, life, or dealing with the real world. In short, it is the same as using liquor or pills to avoid or negate the pain which is part of human experience and growth. Grass can often alleviate pain, and I don't always think that's a good thing. To use it well means to use it for enhancing pleasures, rather than avoiding pain.

    For a Minneapolis smoker, using marijuana well means:
... knowing what kinds of effects the stuff produces, and identifying those times when you feel like having those effects. In other words, I know what it will make me feel like, and I'm interested in feeling that way, so I may use it. For me, it's a very conscious act. If using drugs ever became unconscious or habitual, I would worry about it.

    And a high school teacher in Ohio observes: "If you planned to smoke Friday night, and then forgot, and had a good time anyway, and then regretted not smoking—that's using it poorly."
    There are some smokers who are convinced that "good use" of marijuana is by definition infrequent use. "You have just so much stoned energy," says a Philadelphia lawyer, "so you should really give some thought as to how you want to use it." Lenny is convinced that a person's capacity for getting stoned is at its height in the morning hours, after body and mind have been well rested. And although Claire loves to get high, she limits herself to two joints a month. "I want to make it something special each time I smoke," she says. "The best way to do that is to smoke only when I have a lot of time, and when I can fully respond to the experience. I usually find that if I have gone about two weeks without smoking, the time is probably right to get high again."
    For Andrew Weil, the first sign of responsible drug use is the clear recognition that one is using a drug in the first place, whether it be alcohol, coffee, tobacco, marijuana or heroin. Weil stresses that all drugs contain an enormous potential for abuse, with cigarettes and coffee representing a special danger because their users so often refuse to recognize that they're using a drug at all. "It becomes commonplace," he says. "And there's often a loss of awareness about it. To me, that's the start of a negative relationship with drugs."
    With regard to marijuana, Weil points to users who develop a bad cough and refuse to consider that it may be because they smoke too much. He also speaks of users who smoke marijuana so frequently that they no longer get high and compensate by smoking still more often, or trying to find more powerful grass. These actions will usually backfire, according to Weil, for although stronger marijuana may work temporarily, the search soon becomes an endless cycle, and at some point the next level of potency will not be available. Weil's advice for smokers in this situation is to abstain completely for a time. Then, if they wish, they may resume smoking less potent material and less often, since psychoactive drugs are most effective when used in moderation.
    Disturbed about the casual way in which so many people use drugs, Weil advises users to ask themselves some hard questions:
First of all, they must be aware that they are using a drug. Then they should ask what they are getting out of it. Are they getting out of it what they got when they initially began using it? Are they getting something real and specific that they like and can use in their lives? If you look at people who are in bad relationships with drugs, often you find that they're merely getting relief from negative things. The addicted coffee drinker takes coffee in the morning not so much because it makes him feel good, but because he won't feel good without it. That's very different from what he got when he first started using coffee, which was, presumably, a positive feeling.

    In his book The Natural Mind, Weil outlines four ways in which drugs can be used well. First, he states that natural substances are preferable to synthetic ones. Second, he suggests that drugs be used ritually and deliberately, even if the ritual is subtle and almost unconscious. Next, he advises drug users to seek advice and information from people who know what they are talking about. He laments the fact that those scientists who have used drugs are often discredited by their peers for allegedly losing their objectivity; this leaves the responsibility for dispensing drug information in the hands of people who are often not sufficiently informed on the subject. Weil's fourth and final rule is that drugs ought to be used for positive rather than negative reasons; that is, to get high rather than to avoid being low.



For some smokers, the most judicious use of marijuana is not to use it at all. Not surprisingly, this decision is not always made easily, because for most users there is a complex trade-off of positive and negative effects. There are several million former marijuana smokers, and they differ from former users of alcohol and cigarettes in that most of them do not condemn the drug they have discontinued using. Indeed, some ex-users even foresee an occasional return to smoking. As one man put it, "I don't like the effects of grass, and I'm glad I quit. But I do want to get high every now and then over the next few years, just to make sure that I'm not deceiving myself about anything."
    Smokers decide to quit for a variety of reasons. For some people, smoking simply loses its appeal and ceases to be fun or interesting. "It got to the point where marijuana was like being tickled when you didn't feel like it," notes a musician. And a film critic explains why he stopped smoking:
I think for me it may have been a surrogate for real challenge. It became so splendidly hard to think straight, such a brilliant struggle with spotlights and choruses underscoring the effort, that my curiosity and ambition were sated on a narrow diet of pop music and escape reading. I think there is in me and other people a real drive to achieve and make something of ourselves in the process. But marijuana catered to my fear of initiating things. It let me sit things out with a Marvel Comic Book, or an amazing pizza with all those weird things on it.

    Some smokers come to a point where they feel that they have outgrown marijuana, that it represents a stage of life from which they want to move away. "Smoking helped me grow in some ways," explains a photographer from Phoenix, "but to continue growing I had to leave it behind."
    For other smokers, quitting comes about spontaneously:
When I smoked my last joint, I didn't know that would be it. I didn't make a simple one-shot decision. It has been more a matter of deciding to resume smoking again at a different juncture in my life. Only recently did I realize I had quit. Of course, I can't guarantee that I'll never smoke again. It seems unlikely, but as my history teacher used to tell us, "Never say never."

    "In the periods when I don't smoke," a journalist told me, "I feel as though a mist has been lifted, and I can see things with much greater clarity." He has since quit, explaining:
Although I had developed a cough, it was something I didn't want to look at, so I just tuned it out. I also found that grass made me sluggish and dopey and sedated, which were effects I didn't notice while I was getting high. But when I stopped, I saw those things and didn't like them.

    An Ohio woman quit for very practical reasons:
I stopped smoking because I am striving for bigger and better things. I am trying to get into graduate school in clinical psychology, and for me, smoking and studying are simply incompatible.

    To be sure, some ex-smokers are less tolerant of their former use of marijuana. A Washington, D.C., woman who works as a congressional aide sees marijuana as representative of an entire lifestyle, "mellow" and conflict-free, which she rejects. "I'm drawn instead to conflict, tension, and hopefully resolution," she explains. "What marijuana does is to skip the conflicts and go right to the resolution, where things are resolved without really being explored."
    Today, marijuana is so widely accepted that many users have forgotten it is a drug; during the lg60s, this problem was less acute. "Back then," says one veteran smoker, "we knew that we shouldn't take our cues about drugs from the general culture. Today, when the culture is much more hospitable to drugs, we have to remember that lesson. If we're going to resist the propaganda of the antipot forces, we have to be careful to fight back without resorting to propaganda of our own. The answer to 'drugs are dangerous' is not that drugs are benign. The truth is more complicated than that and we owe it to ourselves to think long and hard about which drugs we decide to use, and how we are going to use them."



1. Norman E. Zinberg, Wayne M. Harding, and Miriam Winkeller, "A Study of Social Regulatory Mechanisms in Controlled Illicit Drugs Users," Journal of Drug Issues 7:2, 117-33. See also Wayne Harding and Norman Zinberg, "The Effectiveness of the Subculture in Developing Rituals and Social Sanctions for Controlled Drug Use," in Drugs, Rituals and Altered States of Consciousness, ed. Brian Du Toit, pp. 111-33. (back)

2. This idea, of course, goes against everything we have been told about drugs. Occasional or controlled users of heroin, usually called "chippers," are well known to other heroin users, although they are almost never mentioned in the professional literature or in the media. Norman Zinberg estimates that there are at least twice as many chippers as there are heroin addicts. He also observes that more than 90 percent of the American soldiers who used heroin in Vietnam were able to give it up upon their return home. Zinberg does not claim that heroin is harmless, or that it is comparable to marijuana. He believes that in every drug there is the potential for abuse and that the important factor is not the drug but the person using it. Norman E. Zinberg and Richard C. Jacobson, "The Natural History of Chipping," American Journal of Psychiatry 133: (January 1976): 37-40. (back)

3. Psychological dependence: The Natural Mind, p. 64. (back)

4. My impression is that teenaged smokers, together with preadolescents, account for a highly disproportionate number of marijuana abusers. Even those writers who have found marijuana to be not harmful, including Norman Zinberg, John Kaplan, and Erich Goode, raise serious questions about the use of marijuana among adolescents, many of whom seem unable to use it (or any other drug, for that matter) responsibly and without causing themselves harm. "The danger that marijuana represents to adolescents," argues Zinberg, "is that it acts as a leveler. In adolescence, when you're learning to distinguish good from bad, and quality from trash, marijuana can make everything seem equally interesting, and can interfere with the process of growth. It's important to know the difference between going to McDonald's and having a fine dinner." (back)

Chapter 14

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