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High Culture:

  Marijuana in the Lives of Americans

    by William Novak


Jacob's Ladder

This is a book about the personal uses of marijuana, and so I will begin personally. My first exposure to marijuana occurred while I was in college, where some of my friends were using it and making positive claims on its behalf. At first I resisted any association with drugs, believing, along with most of the population, that people who used drugs were undoubtedly troubled, unhappy, and alienated.
    And yet, my friends who smoked marijuana did not fit into any of the stereotypes that had been created by a public anxious about the new "drug problem." They were not dropouts, or hippies, or amotivated, or unhappy. They did not progress from marijuana to "harder" drugs. Nor did they appear to be using marijuana to avoid dealing with reality or to escape.
    I grew increasingly curious about marijuana, and following several years of equivocation, I finally tried it in 1969, at the age of twenty-one. I was far too nervous to get high that first time, but I do recall the feeling of relief that came from knowing that I had finally, inevitably, lost my marijuana virginity and was thus joining that half of the world Who Knew What It Was Like, even if in actual fact I did not.
    In time, though, I would find out. A decade later, I was still curious about marijuana. Having learned what it was like for me, I now wanted to find out what it was like for other people. This book was my way of finding out.
    For me, marijuana has been an intellectual stimulant, serving as a useful tool in breaking down certain conceptual boundaries and categories that, I now see, kept out more light than they let in. Marijuana also presented a different version of reality than the one I was used to. Sometimes, when I have been high, I have felt like a visitor to another land, a land both familiar and new at the same time, only inches and moments away from the land I normally inhabit but also remote—and uncharted on any map I have consulted.
    During these visits, I have often wanted to take notes, to be sent back as postcards to myself in the places I have temporarily left behind. Sometimes the message on the postcard is a simple greeting, or a knowing smile. At other times it is a feeling or an insight I want to preserve and remember, or perhaps a fresh way of seeing a familiar object, idea or person. Occasionally, the postcard might describe an experience or an encounter lived deeply and intensely. And sometimes, the message is a brief one saying, "Hey, when you get back to the world you normally occupy, try to recall some of what you saw and felt and understood while you were here."
    As marijuana users are well aware, remembering and retaining the marijuana experience after it is over can sometimes be difficult, because the marijuana high carries with it a built-in erasure factor commonly known as "interference with short-term memory." But preserving at least some of the experience is important, because for many smokers the real and lasting pleasure of being high is to read those postcards on another day, to integrate into one's "straight" life the texture and illumination of a different reality, and ultimately, to bring the two worlds a little closer. That they are often only slightly and subtly different from each other merely serves to make the challenge of integrating them that much more difficult.
    For me, the existence of these two worlds and the need to bridge the gap between them suggest the Biblical motif of Jacob's ladder. In chapter 28 of Genesis, we are told that Jacob is traveling, and he stops for the night at a place he will name Beth-El. There, he falls asleep and has the famous dream:
Here, a ladder set up on the earth,
its head reaching to heaven,
and here, angels of God
going up and down upon it.
    Jacob's ladder represents in visual terms the intention of this book: to establish a link, a bridge, perhaps even a ladder, but at least a means of access and communication between two different states of consciousness. I want to describe the "high" world in a way that makes sense in the "straight" one, where most of us spend the bulk of our lives. By drawing upon the experiences of marijuana users, I hope to provide a realistic understanding of what being high is like, in a way that makes sense both to the experienced smoker and to the person who has never tried marijuana. To this end, I shall say no more about my own marijuana use, preferring instead to serve as a guide to the experiences of some three hundred other people. To read their accounts is, I hope, to become comfortable going up and down that ladder which links one state of consciousness to another.
    For those who have never tried marijuana, or who have tried it with no apparent result (a common occurrence), I hope to provide a reasonably complete answer to the question: "What is it like?" For those already familiar with the drug, I have ordered some of its effects and experiences into a cultural and social context. More importantly, this book provides language and expression for various feelings and perceptions that marijuana users know well but may never have been able to put into words. I also hope that users can benefit from this book by learning from each other more successful and satisfying models of marijuana use and by becoming more aware of the experiences—and some of the problems—that their fellow smokers report.
    These are some of the elements that struck me as essential for a book about the personal uses of marijuana. I searched for such a book in vain, concluding, finally, that it did not exist. Indeed, I used to think that it could not exist; how else could I account for its absence? The idea, after all, was so obvious that somebody must have done it already. But nobody had, so I have attempted to write the sort of book about marijuana that I have long wanted to read.
    There are, to be sure, many good books about marijuana, and I have read virtually all of them. But what I read was mostly academic or scientific, dealing with medicine, history, anthropology, sociology, psychology, or other fields of knowledge. Those rare selections that were personal tended also to be literary, and usually had an exotic and false ring to them—especially the well-known and elaborate accounts of the nineteenth-century French writers, including Baudelaire and Gautier, who described their experiences with hashish. But these men, it turns out, did not smoke small quantities of hashish—which is made from the same plant as marijuana—as some Americans do; they ate hashish, and in large quantities, a combination that can induce florid visions.[2] In addition, hashish is often more potent, being to marijuana roughly as Scotch is to beer. There is another difference as well; scholars now believe that the accounts of the French hashish writers were influenced by their interest in certain other drugs, notably opium.
    In short, then, I could find almost nothing in print that bore much resemblance to what the people I knew were experiencing and describing. When asked, my friends and acquaintances spoke not of dreamlike visions or elaborate fantasies but of simpler, more direct, and more modest experiences. Often, they would describe a new way of looking at something, or an interesting insight, or perhaps a feeling of joy or contentment; marijuana, they seemed to be saying, was certainly interesting, pleasant, and above all fun, but it was rarely alien to their normal consciousness. Before I began to write this book, I had no reason to believe that the marijuana experiences of these people were unique; now, after interviewing and corresponding with three hundred marijuana users of various ages, backgrounds, and social classes, I know that they were not.


Marijuana in the 1980s

Nobody knows with any certainty how many Americans use marijuana regularly. Some current estimates suggest that as many as fifty million people have tried it, of whom about half smoke it with some regularity. There are probably between five and ten million people who use marijuana at least two or three times a week, and this is possibly a conservative guess. In 1977, a Gallup Poll[3] reported that one American in four over the age of eighteen had tried marijuana at least once; that figure, the report added, had doubled since 1973. In the years since 1977, it is reasonable to assume that the numbers have once again increased sharply. The consumption of marijuana has grown steadily in each of the past twenty years, both in terms of bulk and in the number of smokers; in all likelihood, the trend will continue well into the 1980s.
    The financial implications of all this are staggering. At an average retail price of $35 an ounce, marijuana sales make up an industry that boasts something like $10 billion a year in sales. And that figure is estimated to be four times larger than it was as recently as 1974, when many observers thought that marijuana use had peaked.
    These facts may come as a surprise to those who thought they had witnessed the fading away of the counterculture of the 1960S. Actually, what has happened is that the counterculture is merely no longer visible. Many of the styles, values, and modes of behavior that once characterized it have become accepted—albeit in a diffused form—into the mainstream of American life. Like the other aspects of the culture that spawned its widespread use, marijuana has not disappeared either, but rather has grown up and changed its clientele. One need only look at today's movies, television, books, political trends, and public attitudes to be reminded that much of what used to be considered counterculture is now more or less accepted by large segments of the population.
    True, some things have changed. The hippies are gone, the students are quiet, the communes have mostly disbanded, and many of the young radicals of a previous decade are now selling insurance or practicing law. But many of the survivors of the sixties continue to smoke marijuana, and their number has been swelled by the coming of age of the seventies generation. While most of the psychedelic trappings associated with marijuana in the 1960S have fallen away, marijuana itself remains, playing a significant and in many cases a prominent role in the personal lives of millions of Americans, a role that has gone largely unexamined.
    What this means is that great numbers of marijuana smokers are no longer part of the younger generation. People who were in their twenties when they first smoked marijuana as students in 1968 are now in their thirties, and many of them are ambitious professionals who work in banks, schools, offices, publishing houses, advertising agencies, law firms, hospitals, and in politics—including the White House. As these people have grown older, their reasons for using marijuana have changed, as have their patterns of use. Clearly, it is no longer helpful to attribute the popularity of marijuana to the alienation of the young, or to American foreign policy, or to political protest movements. To learn the details of America's love affair with marijuana, it is necessary to turn to the only people who have known them all along: the smokers themselves.
    Not surprisingly, the dramatic increase in the consumption of marijuana during the l970s has had an effect on the public debate about marijuana, which is now far less heated than it once was. First of all, marijuana smokers themselves now have access to levels of power and public opinion that were hitherto unavailable to them. In addition, nonusers of marijuana are far more likely than before to have direct knowledge of the drug and its users. As a result, as more people smoke marijuana without noticeable bad effects, fewer people are worried about its alleged dangers.
    The issue, in short, has become dramatically less polarized, almost as though the advocates and opponents of marijuana had struck a bargain: "We'll stop making our optimistic and inflated claims about how marijuana is really good for you if you'll stop exaggerating its potential hazards and dangers." While no such negotiating actually took place, both sides in the debate have significantly relaxed their respective positions.
    The best indication of this moderation can be seen in the changing marijuana laws. As this book goes to press, the possession of marijuana has been changed from a criminal to a civil offense in eleven states. In 1973, Oregon became the first state to eliminate criminal arrest and jail penalties for the possession of small amounts of marijuana, and to substitute a citation-enforced civil fine, roughly equal in seriousness to a parking ticket. (Subsequent studies in Oregon have revealed that the residents of that state now smoke about the same amount of marijuana as they did before the new law.) Ten other states have enacted similar reforms: Alaska, Maine, Colorado, California, Ohio, Minnesota, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, and Nebraska. In addition, President Carter has called for the federal decriminalization of marijuana.
    Political change, of course, is directly affected by personal attitudes. Ten years ago, most people who used marijuana did not tell their parents about it; these days, marijuana users are as likely to be concerned about what to tell their children. In the 1960s, those parents who discovered or were told that their sons and daughters were using marijuana were often outraged or horrified. Today, many parents are aware that their children use the drug, and while they may not approve of it and may have little idea as to how often their children indulge, neither do they seem to be expending much energy worrying about it. They have simply learned to live with marijuana, as they have learned to live with premarital sex, rock music, and other phenomena of the 1960s that have become part of mainstream culture.


The Purpose of This Book

This book focuses on the individual user and attempts to answer certain basic questions. First, what happens, exactly, when a person smokes marijuana? How does that person feel? What does he or she experience? And second, how do marijuana users really use marijuana? When and where and why and how often do they smoke? What do they get out of it? Does marijuana help—or hinder—them personally, socially, mentally, creatively, or in other ways? Do marijuana users experience any special problems or conflicts? Does marijuana seem especially appropriate in certain situations and activities, and inappropriate in others? What do smokers think about marijuana and their own use of it, and how does it fit in with the rest of their lives? And finally, now that marijuana is being increasingly accepted as a legitimate recreational activity, where might the new lines be drawn to separate use from abuse, and what might it mean to use marijuana well—or badly?
    These are not new questions. Some have been asked before, but most often in terms of laboratory calculations or technologically measured responses, or, at best, through questionnaires. Seldom have they been asked in subjective and personal terms, in open-ended conversations with marijuana smokers in their own homes. Even less often have marijuana smokers had the opportunity to answer these questions in their own words, rather than in the technical terms of the social scientist, or the specialized language of computers or statistics.
    This does not mean, of course, that social scientists, physicians, and other researchers and experts have nothing important to tell us about marijuana—merely that they can't tell us everything. Unfortunately, the history of marijuana research includes numerous attempts to make the facts conform to certain prejudices on the part of the researchers, although in some cases, the researchers have changed their minds in the face of the evidence, in other cases, the studies have been discredited. Recently however, marijuana research has been conducted on a more impartial plane, and some social scientists, including Erich Goode, a sociologist, and Charles Tart, a psychologist, have conducted important research by communicating directly with marijuana users themselves.[4]
    Despite some progress in recent years, the degree of ignorance about marijuana (and other illicit drugs) on the part of the nonusing public remains formidable. It is comparable, perhaps, to what most Soviet citizens might understand about the nature of a free and democratic society, or to what Americans might know about alcohol if they had never taken a drink, been to a bar, or seen an advertisement for beer or liquor.
    There are various reasons for this ignorance. For many people, marijuana is an unknown quantity, and they fear it. In addition marijuana's identification with different fringe and minority groups during the twentieth century has made it appear less than respectable. The fear and ignorance about marijuana that reached its zenith in the late 1930S, in response to the Federal Bureau of Narcotics's carefully orchestrated campaign of hysteria, has not entirely abated Most important, the marijuana experience is not easy to comprehend for many Americans, representing as it does a break from the reality with which most people are familiar. It differs, too, from more familiar American alternatives to conventional reality such as dreams, insanity, and alcohol intoxication, to which smoking marijuana is sometimes naturally, though wrongly, compared.
    Marijuana is different: its users can almost always function normally under its influence and can, if they wish, conceal the fact that they have used it. As one observer of the subject has put it, the only way to know for sure whether somebody is high on marijuana is if he tells you—and perhaps not even then.


How This Book Was Written

The bulk of this book is based upon lengthy interviews I had with marijuana users during 1978 primarily in Boston, and also in New York and California. In each interview, I first asked some general questions, and then encouraged the person I was speaking with to lead the discussion into areas of his or her personal interest. These interviews were recorded and transcribed, and I sent a copy of the transcript to the people I interviewed, inviting them to elaborate on or to clarify anything they had said, or to add anything they had thought of in the aftermath of the interview.
    Most of the interviews lasted close to three hours, yielding an average of some twenty pages of transcript. The majority of those I spoke with chose to get high during the interview, which usually facilitated their recollection of previous high experiences. "It's like mountain climbing," one smoker told me. "When you're standing on a peak, you get a clear and unobstructed view of those peaks you've already climbed." Being high also served to encourage some of the people I met with to be more relaxed and more personal during our conversation. In all, I spoke with a hundred users.
    Finding them was easy. I inquired among those smokers I knew, who in turn led me to others. I was in the especially fortunate position of having a long list of people who were not only willing but actually eager to speak with me; a number of users, upon hearing of my book through reports in newspapers, radio, and television, contacted me and requested interviews. Many told me that they had never before had the opportunity to reflect openly and at length about what was an important part of their lives, a source of considerable pleasure and, in a few cases, a source of anxiety and conflict as well.
    Each interview provided fresh material; I found less conventional wisdom about marijuana, at least among its users, than I had anticipated After the first twenty or so interviews, it became clear that the subject was a larger one than I had realized and that my sample would be neither broad enough nor varied enough for what I wanted to accomplish. And so I began work on a second front, soliciting letters and written statements from marijuana smokers in all parts of the country. To do this, I placed classified advertisements in about twenty national, regional, and college publications, saying, more or less in these words, "Author writing a book about the personal uses of marijuana wishes to correspond with people who have ideas, experiences, and anecdotes. Anonymity guaranteed." An ad in Rolling Stone was particularly successful, resulting in about fifty letters. Query letters in High Times (a monthly magazine for users of recreational drugs) and the New York Times Book Review led to another hundred letters. Local radio and television publicity, including a syndicated radio announcement based on an article about my work in the Village Voice and broadcast on FM stations in several cities, generated the rest of the letters. In all, I received about three hundred responses, of which approximately two-thirds turned out to be useful. I answered each query with this reply:

The Marijuana Book

The book will be published in 1979 by Alfred A. Knopf, New York. You can help by answering as few questions as possible—in as much detail as you can.
No names will appear in the book, but it would help if you told me your age, profession, sex, and so forth.
Please feel free to duplicate this sheet, and to send it to anybody you know who might respond to it.


1. When do you smoke, where, and how often? With whom? Do you smoke mostly under certain circumstances? Are there certain moods or settings that you find particularly suitable—or unsuitable—for using marijuana?
2. How (if at all) has marijuana affected your values or personality? (Please be as specific as possible.)
3. Is marijuana an issue between you and any of your friends? Between you and your parents? You and your children? You and—yourself? If so, can you explain the nature of the problem, and your solution, if any?
4. Have you invented or participated in any special stoned activities, or stoned games?
5. Could you go into detail and explain how, exactly, marijuana affects you with regard to any of the following activities: sports, playing music, listening to music, dreaming, sleeping, sex, socializing, thinking, watching television, going to work or school, feeling, introspection—or anything else?
6. How, if at all, does marijuana affect your creativity?
7. Have you had any insights—however trivial or wrong they may now seem (or however wonderful)—while under the influence?
8. Have you ever had an especially bad/good/interesting marijuana experience?
9. Where do you think things are headed with regard to marijuana use in America?
l0. Is there any difference, for you, in the effects of different kinds of marijuana?
11. Are there any myths or misconceptions about marijuana which you would like to see corrected in a book like this?
12. What would it mean to use marijuana "well"—or "badly"?
Thank you very much for your assistance!

    Because I encouraged my correspondents to go into detail on particular subjects that interested them, not all of my questions were answered, and I did not receive many responses to any one question. For this reason, and because my sample was arrived at by means that were anything but scientific, I have refrained from making quantifiable judgments except where I was fairly certain that I was correct. Readers interested in such things as the most common effects of marijuana are referred to Appendix II, where I have included conclusions from several other studies.
    The people represented in this book are self-selected. They tend to be unusual in the following respects: marijuana is probably more important to them, and they probably use it more often and more consciously, than is true for most smokers. Those users who responded by mail tended to be between the age of fifteen and forty; having grown up in a relatively free climate with regard to marijuana, the younger smokers were less nervous about telling their experiences to a stranger than were the relatively older users. A number of college and graduate students are represented in this book, along with some high school students, mental health workers, teachers, writers, artists, musicians, housewives, office workers, salespeople, mechanics, broadcasters, computer programmers, restaurant workers, drug dealers, journalists, and prisoners.
    Among the people not fully represented in this book, in terms of their probable statistical representation among all marijuana smokers, are, most significantly, users under the age of about fifteen. This is really a separate group of smokers, whose use and misuse of marijuana appears to be rather different from that of the larger population. The statements and the generalizations about smokers in these pages do not necessarily apply to this group. Also not fully represented in this book are smokers over fifty, members of minority groups, blue-collar workers, civil servants and politicians, latter-day hippies, and, so far as I am aware, homosexuals. Women and men are represented about equally.
    Except for occasional changes in grammar and style for the sake of clarity, quotations from users appear virtually unedited. At the back of the book, I have included in full some of the more interesting and informative letters I received. With both the letters and the interviews, I have omitted or slightly altered any details that might reveal the identity of the person being quoted. In a few cases, where an individual makes several appearances in the book, I have provided a pseudonymous first name for the sake of continuity. Scientists or other experts quoted from either conversations or written work are referred to by their full names.


A Note on Language

With some exceptions for the titles of books and articles, I have used the spelling "marijuana" throughout. I have not distinguished among such terms as "high," "stoned," "wrecked," and so forth, and neither did most of those who communicated with me. A few years ago, there were clear delineations: a smoker might first "catch a buzz," and then get "high." If he or she continued smoking, or if the marijuana were of good quality, the next stage might be "stoned" and then "wrecked," followed by "wasted"—although few smokers want to alter their consciousness to that extent. These days, most users employ these various terms casually and more or less interchangeably, which is how they are used in this book.
    Curiously, there is no adequate word in our culture to describe the opposite of being high. Users speak of "coming down" after being high, and of being down, straight, sober, and even normal, but nobody seems very satisfied with these terms, which don't really express what the user means: simply the absence of feeling high.
    A "joint" is a marijuana cigarette. A "toke" is a puff; the word is also used as a verb. To "turn on" once meant to smoke marijuana for the first time; now it simply means to get high, which is also known as "partying" by younger smokers. A "roach" is the butt of a joint, universally thought to be the most potent part of the cigarette (although this has never been established for certain); the word is thought to have come from the butt's resemblance to a cockroach. A "lid" is a measurement of marijuana, either an ounce, or slightly less, depending on the year and the city; today, the expression is used more in the West than in the East and appears to be on its way out. A "head," which comes from the epithet "pothead," refers to somebody who smokes marijuana; among many smokers, "head" refers to anybody who smokes more than they do.
    Throughout this book, I have used the pronoun "he" as a convenience in referring to smokers of both sexes.
    The single most popular expression among marijuana smokers is "oh wow!" In writing this book, I have done my best to avoid using this phrase. Instead, my purpose has been to suggest some of the thoughts and feelings that lie behind "oh wow!" and to investigate and describe some of the many things the words can mean.
    Marijuana smokers refer to marijuana in a variety of ways, with "pot," "grass," "smoke," and "dope" being the most common designations. "Herb" and "weed" are popular in some circles. Older names for marijuana include "jive," "goof-butts," "muggles," "gauge," "Mary Jane," "loco-weed," "tea," "reefer," and "boo."[5] The botanical name of the most common type of marijuana is Cannabis sativa L.; more often, it is simply called cannabis.
    On the subject of names, a Boston poet had this to say:
I've always been partial to "cannabis" as a name for it; "kif" and "bhang" are pretentious and pedantic, although they sound wonderful. "Hash" is hash; "grass" and even "marijuana," I find, are two words that folks even at our callow level of hipness shun to use. "Shit" is a word we use mid-Saturday evening at some stranger's apartment in Central Square where we're stopping off on the way to somewhere else. A joint is circulating, and we decide we don't care what we sound like, and the word has to be used with an adjective like "good" or "bad" or, better, "dynamite." If we happen to be near MIT, it might be, "toroid... y'know what I mean?"
Then there's a whole set of poetic synonyms, most of which I've forgotten, like silt, gelt, wacca-wacca, dog, wind, bull, wand, shazam, pussy, wing, volt, dirt, moon, and so on. But mostly: the weed, stuff, and of course, dope. "Dope" has an interesting history: it began as the word parents and teachers used derogatorily to ward off its use by kids; the word caught on sometime in the '60s, at first humorously, as if to try on the bourgeois characterization for size, then in self-satire, then with just a slight waning-to-infinitesimal giddiness, then finally, more routine use, no longer ironic. It's almost all used up as a word, but the more I have the stuff, the more I'm not altogether certain it's a bad designation. But that's still an open question. One way or another, each word we use has its own shape, its own set of resonances, its own social context. I like "cannabis," especially in phrases like "Oh yes, he uses cannabis." A name's a posture.



1. Biblical quotation: Genesis 28: 12. From Everett Fox, "In the Beginning: An English Rendition of the Book of Genesis," Response 6, no. 2 (Summer 1972): 75. Revised, 1979, by the translator. (back)

2. For a comprehensive consideration of the French hashish writers, see Lester Grinspoon, Marihuana Reconsidered, pp. 55-85. (back)

3. Gallup: Marijuana in America (Princeton, N.J.), Report No. 143, June 1977, p. 1 (back)

4. Social scientists: See Erich Goode, The Marijuana Smokers, and Charles Tart, On Being Stoned. (back)

5. For more on names by which smokers call marijuana, see "R., the Dope Connoisseur," "What Do You Call This Stuff?" High Times, March 1979, pp. 18-19. (back)

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