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High Culture:

  Marijuana in the Lives of Americans

    by William Novak

      14. Looking Ahead: Smokers Speculate on the Future

Did you dial her name today instead of her number? Did you lose yourself in your own closet? Did you walk out the door and forget where you were going? You must have been smoking Dealer's Choice. Remember, Dealer's Choice is the dope that, uh, Dealer's Choice is, uh, the dope that is... Dealer's Choice!

— Lenny's scenario for the year 1999

Most Americans who use marijuana are optimistic about its future. With respect to legalization, which is by far the most important question, smokers believe that it's more a matter of when than if and that eventually the rest of the country will become more open-minded on this issue, as it has in other matters involving individual liberties. Aside from the obvious benefits, legalization might also bring such conveniences as freedom from impurities, cheaper and more competitive prices, and, no small matter, some way of knowing in advance the potency and other characteristics of a particular batch of marijuana.
    Those who remain skeptical point out that a decade ago it seemed quite likely that marijuana would be made legal by 198C; having once been proved wrong, they are reluctant to offer new predictions. Still, the reasons to anticipate eventual legalization do seem compelling. For one thing, there has been a steady trend toward the liberalization of marijuana laws and attitudes in various states. In addition there are now more marijuana smokers of voting age than ever before, which means that a greater number of nonusers are now aware of what marijuana is—and what it isn't. During the 1970s, the voting population of the United States shifted dramatically, with millions of young people entering the political process and millions of older, generally more conservative voters leaving it; this has not affected the political system to the degree that some had anticipated, but neither have things remained as they were. Finally, scientific and medical studies continue to indicate that marijuana might not only be less harmful than was once believed but that it might actually be beneficial in certain medical respects.
    Drug educator Laurence McKinney believes that the future of marijuana in America depends upon its social acceptance. He points out that in almost every society in which marijuana has been available, it has been used by two basic groups: the lower classes, who use it as a general intoxicant, and the upper classes, who smoke it as a stimulant. "From the point of view of the middle class," says McKinney, "the lower classes use it criminally, and the upper classes use it decadently." Where America differs, according to McKinney, is that marijuana has become a middle-class activity as well. If this continues, he believes, legalization is inevitable. "Otherwise, if stratification sets in, the current laws will become still more repressive."
    Cynics maintain that in the end it is always financial concerns that determine political issues, but here even the cynics are optimistic. They point out that hundreds of millions of dollars are spent each year in a futile attempt to enforce the current marijuana laws. Added to the prospect of this huge saving is the possibility that marijuana farming might revitalize depressed rural communities, as is already occurring in northern California. Then there are the huge profits and massive tax revenues that legalization would bring in. According to this view, money will inevitably win out over politics, and legalization will occur sooner rather than later.
    Oddly enough, there are smokers who oppose the legalization of marijuana. This is another generational difference, and the opposition to legalization comes mostly from veteran smokers, who insist that if marijuana were made legal, it would lose its special appeal and become ruined by the twin forces of capitalism and commercialism. "It will become bland," predicts a smoker in North Carolina, "just like packaged bread and low-potency beer." Another argues:
If you start depersonalizing marijuana by marketing it commercially, you'll destroy it. Once something special becomes a routine part of society, accepted by everybody, it stands a good chance of being ruined. It's better to keep marijuana as a personal experience, even if it must remain illegal. It's sort of like religion: once it becomes desacralized and institutionalized, it loses its meaning and turns into empty ritual.

    Smokers of this persuasion speak of marijuana being grown by machines, in huge industrial farms with artificial fertilizers. Good-tasting marijuana of high potency, they fear, will go the way of the good-tasting tomato replaced by a mass-produced plant. They shudder at the prospect of buying marijuana through a vending machine. And connoisseurs worry that under legalization, the very best varieties of marijuana would become unavailable, although others question this assumption and point to the growth of the wine industry after the end of Prohibition. "Don't forget," says one optimist, "that in this country, if you want to buy something, there will usually be somebody who wants to sell it to you."
    Strangely enough, these grim scenarios of legalization are not shared by the dealers, who would seem to have the most to lose if marijuana became legal. Rightly or wrongly, many dealers are under the impression that they will benefit significantly from legalization, which will give them the opportunity to be recognized and employed as marijuana professionals. A dealer from California suggests that he and his colleagues might find employment as buyers or even tasters for the large tobacco companies, or whoever ends up selling marijuana to the public. A few dealers speculate that after legalization their current role could continue, since many customers will prefer to buy marijuana in the manner to which they are accustomed. A Colorado woman has developed a plan for the national licensing of dealers. "But how can you license compassion?" she asks skeptically.
    Many smokers who are not dealers tend to be skeptical about these predictions. Lenny observes that the people who will benefit from legalization will not be those who are experts in marijuana but rather those who are skilled in business and marketing. "Why else," he asks, "are heads of companies moved from one concern to another with little regard for what the product is? To make money, your experience has to be in making money."
    The future, as imagined by marijuana smokers, ranges from the obvious ("save your roach-clips, they'll soon become collectors' items") to the paranoid ("there will be secret smoke alarms in every community that react to the smell of burning marijuana by sending a signal to the nearest police station") to a dreary continuation of the status quo ("I wonder if I will still be sneaking joints when I'm forty, fifty-two or sixty-five?" ) to the wildly optimistic ("by the end of the century, marijuana will be delivered automatically to each household by special tubes, just as electricity, gas, and water are delivered now") .
    Speculating about the future raises a number of fascinating and difficult questions. Under legalization, who would be given the right to sell marijuana, and where would it be sold? Who would be allowed to buy it? Will it be legal to smoke on the streets, or in other public places? Will there be commercial brands that compete for customers? Will there be advertising, and where will it be allowed to appear? Will consumers stick to one brand, as they do with cigarettes, or will they purchase different brands of varying strengths for different occasions, just as they now purchase beer, wine, Scotch, and gin? Will the THC levels and the country of origin be printed on the package? What other information will appear? Will legalization inevitably result in a weaker product? Will marijuana be sold in joints, or in bulk, or both?
    The question of packaging is especially interesting to smokers. Prepackaged joints would offer convenience, but since THC is unstable and begins to break down as soon as the buds and leaves are crushed, this would almost certainly result in a weaker product. Perhaps there will be special stores for those connoisseurs who prefer to buy exotic brands in bulk, similar to stores selling exotic coffee beans to those willing to pay for them.
    "We will never see a seed again," predicts one smoker who believes that prepackaged joints are inevitable. And a woman who dreads the idea says, "If it's sold that way, my kids will never see how beautiful it can be. They may never know what a ripe bud looks like."
    For years there have been rumors to the effect that tobacco companies have geared up to produce marijuana in the event of legalization and that names like Acapulco Gold and Panama Red have been registered as trademarks. These rumors, accepted as old facts by many smokers, are entirely without evidence. Michael Aldrich reports that a group called Amorphia sent somebody to go through the files of the U.S. Patent Office in 1970 and found that nobody had registered the name Acapulco Gold. Amorphia applied for the name, hoping to use it to market rolling papers; the application was refused because Acapulco Gold is a generic name for a kind of marijuana, and generic names cannot be copyrighted.
    In the event of legalization, it is unlikely that names will make a great difference. As Lenny puts it, "A product called Horseshit will outsell Acapulco Gold if it gives you a better smoke." Nor is it clear that marijuana would be distributed by the tobacco companies at all; it might just as easily be the liquor companies—or a new entity, the marijuana company. In response to questions, tobacco company spokesmen point out that if marijuana were made legal, no gearing-up process would even be necessary, since prepackaged joints could be manufactured within a matter of months.
    Some smokers like to fantasize aloud about a "dope bar" or "smokeasy"; several such places have already come and gone in Manhattan, and perhaps elsewhere. This would be a place where the smoker could go to relax at the end of the day, request his favorite pipe and special blend, and turn on in a friendly atmosphere with fruit juice, ice water, and appropriate sweets at or near every table. There might even be headphones for listening to music, and perhaps pinball machines in a back room.
    Beyond that, the possibilities are endless. If restaurants ever serve marijuana, will McDonald's provide the cheapest Mexican blend? Will fancy establishments brag of their fine marijuana cellars? Will somebody market a "dope of the month" service, through which consumers would be sent a different variety through the mails every four weeks, along with a descriptive brochure? Perhaps the future will bring about the production of marijuana with no THC at all, with the THC to be added later, in prefixed amounts. In this way, some plants could be grown only for their looks, taste, and smell, while other plants could be grown only for potency.
    But even if marijuana is never legalized, many of today's smokers expect to be using it all of their lives. As one sixties smoker put it:
What's going to happen to our generation when we're old? We'll all end up in self-help communes. Together with a few good friends, we'll buy an old house in the country, and move in. We'll get livein help, and we'll be there, in our seventies and eighties, sitting around all day with the other old folks on rocking chairs on a gigantic porch, talking and rocking and passing a few joints.
    Unlike previous generations, though, ours won't stop growing or thinking before we're forty. We'll continue developing, and eventually we'll become really terrific old people. We'll have reached a formidable level of sagacity, and we'll be revered, like in Chinese culture. We won't be kicked out, that's for sure. I take some comfort in knowing that our fate will be different from that of the generations who came before us. And that whatever we now get out of smoking dope, we'll continue to get for many years to come.

Appendix I

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