Winter, 1972. My last year of junior high. I’m sitting in English class, listening to Mr. Kincaid drone on, paying more attention to the distraction of the show that Mother Nature is putting on for our benefit, just outside our second story window. It’s the first snowstorm of the year, and the thick, heavy flakes are being flung diagonally from the heavens directly onto the lawn and evergreens flanking the school building. All of the students sitting at desks in straight rows are thinking the same thing: Will it stick? Will the roads become too slick for the school buses? Will we have early dismissal?
Suddenly, the classroom door bangs open and a missing classmate bursts into the room with a grand entrance. “It’s snowing!” he yells. His unrestrained exuberance brings grins to many of our faces. The guy is high as a kite, and Mr. Kincaid promptly dispatches the pot-reeking fellow to the assistant principal’s office.
Throughout junior high, high school and college, I found myself constantly dodging the haze of marijuana smoke that seemed to surround me everywhere I went. From the time I was 14, the pot culture trickled down from the older kids. Woodstock had occurred just three years earlier, the Summer of Love just two years before that. The fact that marijuana was highly illegal in New York State and the fact that we were minors didn’t mean a thing. My mother, herself an assistant principal in another school district, taught me that marijuana smoke smelled like burning rope. It didn’t take me long to verify that firsthand. It wasn’t unusual for me to push open the door to the boys’ room and to turn right around and walk out, coughing. I guess I didn’t have to pee that bad. Ugh.
As a very conservative teenager with a religious upbringing, the drug culture of the late sixties and early seventies freaked me out. I could not understand why people felt the need to attain altered states of consciousness. The vast majority of my classmates came from upper middle class families; few were poor. Most of us led a fine suburban life. What exactly were we trying to escape?
We’d hear a lot of talk about “youthful experimentation.” Then we’d be shown films featuring marijuana as a “gateway drug,” with a clear explanation that the gateway led to a wasted life, delirium tremens, death from overdose and suicide. Most of us laughed it off as typical “square” adult reactionist propaganda. If only our elders would try it, their eyes would be opened to what the kids already knew. If only they weren’t so uptight. The illegality of pot wasn’t a factor at all. That the purchase and possession of marijuana violated the law was just another notch in the deepening generation gap.
Teenagers such as myself who stood with our parents against drugs were ridiculed and marginalized. “You do what’s right and never mind what anyone else thinks,” my mother would tell me. I agreed with her, but it still felt like an uphill battle, at least until the middle of my junior year of high school when we moved farther upstate. Although I am Jewish, I fell in with a crowd of conservative students who shared my love of music and drama. It didn’t take too long for me to realize that most of them were born-again Christians. But they were so nice to me, and none of them used drugs or even smoked cigarettes. Happiness!
College was another story entirely. I attended the state university nearest my home. I was familiar with the campus, as my parents had done their graduate work there while I was growing up. What I didn’t fully appreciate at first is that it was a so-called party school. Drugs of every kind were for sale up and down my dormitory corridor. I was offered drugs at every turn, and quickly learned how to duck and dodge the smoke and pills that seemed to be everywhere. I learned that those tall glass monstrosities were known as “bongs.” I had read enough to know to politely decline the offer of a brownie. The college administration buried their heads in the sand, ignoring what was going on under their very noses. In my second year of college, I transferred to a larger state university farther upstate, but the drug culture was there, too. I simply couldn’t run away from it. I’d return to my dorm suite after class and find a thick haze of pot smoke awaiting me. “When else will we get to do this if not while we’re young?” my suitemate would tell me. I was totally disgusted and moved into a single room occupancy student hotel at my first opportunity.
Among the privileges of adulthood that I began to enjoy upon graduating from college was freedom from being surrounded by illegal drugs. There was no pot smoke in the rest rooms at work, and I did not have to constantly justify my drug-free lifestyle.
And now, all these years later, it feels as if I am awaking from a pleasant dream, awaking into a nightmarish reality. Throughout the month of December, our local newspaper, the Sacramento Bee, featured a countdown (days, hours, minutes) on the front page of the online edition — a countdown to marijuana becoming legal for recreational use in California on January 1. I started seeing electronic signs along the freeway, warning the public that “DUI doesn’t just mean booze” and “Check the label before you pop that pill.” The hidden meaning seemed to be that pot may be legal, but driving under its influence is not. Then the TV ads started. “I really like it. Yeah, I love it! But I never drive under the influence.”
Marijuana dispensaries have begun opening all over the place. The strict (and expensive) licensing requirements are more than offset by the lines of Californians ready to lay down their money for a natural cannabis high. And I have to wonder whether, Cheech and Chong notwithstanding, California is truly going “up in smoke.” Not that everyone smokes. I’ve learned that there are “edibles,” marijuana in the form of candy, cookies and such. You don’t need to light up to get silly and zone out.
I suggested to my wife that we buy stock in Nabisco and Frito-Lay, as they will undoubtedly be making more of a killing than they already do, this time off wasted Californians with the munchies.
It is difficult for me to express the depth of my disappointment in the legalization of marijuana in my home state. What am I supposed to do, try to ignore what is all around me as I did in my college days? As a manager, what will I do when I encounter a red-eyed employee whose clothes smell vaguely of pot smoke? As long as the work is getting done, should I turn a blind eye? Honestly, I don’t know which end is up anymore.
But what I find most disappointing of all is my state’s willingness to flout federal law, under which the purchase and possession of marijuana remains clearly unlawful. Last I heard, the Golden State continued to be a member of the Union. So now the feds appear to be engaging in a backlash against California’s legalization of pot. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently made it easier for federal prosecutors to enforce federal marijuana laws in states in which recreational use has been legalized. The Bee has labeled Sessions as a hypocrite, in consideration of his past commitment to states’ rights.
The Founding Fathers must be turning over in their graves. The great political battles over federalism in the eighteenth century continue alive and well today. California has long been a bastion of liberalism, but I believe that there are limits. I am beginning to understand the secessionist rumblings that hit the news in California from time to time. It is said that, were California a nation, our economy would be the sixth largest worldwide. Perhaps, should the feds begin raiding California pot dispensaries, our state will finally be pushed over the edge and will declare its independence from the United States. The Second Civil War may well occur, not in the south, but in the west. I haven’t yet heard a call from Governor Brown to raise a state militia, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s next.
Meanwhile, I’m told that my opposition to marijuana use is nothing short of ignorant. I am reminded of its medical uses and its pain-killing power to alleviate suffering. I am told that pot is not addictive in the way that Oxycontin and fentanyl are, and that legalization of marijuana could even have the effect of stemming the expansion of the deadly opioid epidemic. I am told that if others want to drink or get high, that is their business, just as my decision to avoid those behaviors is my business.
To me, however, medical marijuana is one thing, while recreational use is quite another. (Nevertheless, I have nothing but admiration for my wife’s dad, who suffered from terminal cancer in the days before medical marijuana was legal, and who passed up the opportunity to use pot in favor of painkillers that could be legally prescribed.) It’s as if we haven’t learned anything from the families and lives that have been destroyed by alcohol. Let’s make substance abuse easier to engage in, as it’s not our place to judge how others choose to live their lives. What will be the cost of increased medical bills, increased deaths on the highways, and jobs and families lost to pot?
I’ve had a list of grievances against California that has grown throughout the 20 years I have spent in my adopted state. With the legalization of marijuana, however, I believe that California has finally lost its mind. Do we really want to live in a state in which every other person is high? My prayer is that my personal fortunes and circumstances change such that I am able to move to a saner state in which recreational marijuana is, in accordance with federal law, not tolerated. And I know that many of my fellow Californians will bid me good riddance, shouting through the pot smoke, “don’t let the door hit you where the good Lord split you.”