High There

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.”

 

 

An Open Letter to My Niece About Drugs

To my niece, who I love dearly:

Yesterday, I tried to help you with an essay you were writing for psychology class. It brought back many memories of my own college days.  After reading an article on the effects of alcohol and various types of illegal drugs on the brain and nervous system, you were supposed to write a short theme expanding upon how the information presented applies to your own life.  I suggested that you must have a wealth of anecdotes to draw upon from the experiences of your high school classmates.  (I sincerely hope you have no personal experiences to relate, and if you do, I’m not sure I want to know.  But let’s talk about it anyway. I know your two brothers use marijuana and I am concerned that your love for them might influence you in the wrong direction.)

“I don’t know what things are like in high school these days,” I told you, “but when I was in school a long, long time ago in the ‘70s, drugs were a really, really big thing.”

Without skipping a beat, you responded “it’s just like the 70s again.”

Well, then.  I guess drugs are everywhere.  Umm…

I have lots of stories I could tell you, dear niece, but I have a very distinct feeling that they wouldn’t even come close to the ones you could tell me.

Despite having graduated from a suburban high school in a wealthy school district and then having attended the local “drug central” state university campus, I never used drugs.  Not once.  Never experimented, never even was curious.  Bill Clinton may not have inhaled, but in my case, I just said no.  To do this, I had to be an island in the midst of a swirling sea of pot smoke, pills and worse.  And I had some close calls.

Drugs scared the crap out of me, and I ran away as fast as I could.  I spent four years of my young life doing the bob and weave.

Alcohol was different.  It didn’t scare me, it just disgusted me.  Dorm mates would get drunk and pull the fire alarm at two in the morning, causing those of us living at the top of the residence hall tower to roust out of bed and run down 21 flights of stairs to gather out in the below zero temperatures of the quad in our PJs.  Keg parties would be held on Saturday night; on Sunday morning, the dorm carpets would be sopping and sticky so that sloshing my way to the elevator (squish, squish) caused my socks to get wet.  The pervasive smell of beer and vomit was just another day in paradise.  The Who’s classic tune “Teenage Wasteland” comes to mind.  (I’m sure you can find it on You Tube, my dear.)

I remember celebrating a friend’s birthday with a bunch of students in a bar down on Quail Street and ordering an amaretto sour.  I didn’t even know what it was, but I had heard that it was pretty sweet and figured I had a chance of being able to sip at it without gagging.

I found beer as revolting as it was ubiquitous.  To this day, I do not know how my father (or anyone) drinks it.  “It’s an acquired taste,” Dad tells me.  Ugh, bully for you, Dad.

Then there was the wine.  The student choice appeared to be a cheap rosé called Lancer’s, often consumed with local favorite Freihofer’s chocolate chip cookies.

Let us not forget the many variations of Cuba Libre that were passed around.  One type involved buying cans of Coke out of the soda machine, drinking half the can and filling the rest with rum.  Then there was “rum and cherries,” served in a Dixie cup, that contained just a smidge of Coke for coloring.  I’m probably too old to use the word “yucky,” but there you have it.

Although I tried to fake it for a while by taking a sip of whatever was being served, about midway through college I had an epiphany that made me decide I wasn’t going to put up with it anymore.  Funny thing is, nothing dramatic happened to push me in that direction.  I was at a party at a dorm across campus, someone put a plastic cup of beer in my hand, and I proceeded to sip at it, trying very hard not to make faces at the horrible taste.  I walked around with it as a prop, as I always did, and finally braved a few more sips.  I realized it wasn’t as terrible as I had heretofore imagined and I drank about half the cup.  It was at that point that I woke up.  “This is not me,” I thought, “this is not who I want to be.”  I set down my beer, walked out of the building and never touched a brew again.  I had finally had enough of playing games for the sake of fitting in.  After that, I would just tell people that I didn’t drink.  If that made me a wussy, tough cookies.

The article that you were assigned to read, dear niece, mentioned something called a “keg stand.”  This is a phrase I had never heard of before.  I had the distinct impression that it did not refer to a platform on which to set the keg.  So, of course, I had to look it up.  Your assignment descriubed it as a dangerous form of binge drinking.  Turns out it’s an acrobatic drinking game (thanks, Wikihow).  What’ll they come up with next?  Sheesh.

In my first year of college, I quickly learned that a bong was not the sound that the carillon made to strike the hour.  I also learned that “hits” did not refer to music and that a “tab” did not refer to a bar bill or a typewriter key.  But then there were lots of strange terms I had to learn in college.  Many of my dorm mates hailed from Long Island and had a vernacular of their own.  A “pisser” was not a urinal; it meant that you were quite a character.  A “piece of work” was not an assignment to be turned in for credit; it meant that you were a hopeless nerd.  Furthermore, “taking a dump” did not mean that you were going out to empty the trash and “tossing your cookies” did not have anything at all to do with Freihofer’s.  And “worshipping the porcelain god” was decidedly not something that one did in church.  I’m sure all this stuff carries totally different monikers today, dear niece, which is far out, man.

Living in the college dormitories was intolerable for me; I made a go of it for two years before settling for a cubbyhole in a single room occupancy firetrap of a hotel downtown.  Being straitlaced resulted in merciless teasing that got old after a while.  And I found myself in a no-win situation involving eight students in a suite trying to make do with one bathroom.  I won’t go into details here, but it wasn’t pretty.

The swirl of pot smoke never seemed to end.  If I walked into the suite and they were at it again, I would turn around and walk out.  I’d take a bus downtown or wander around the campus.  The big question should have been:  Why isn’t anyone calling the cops?  The answer, of course, was that the city police stayed out of the campus and the Kampus Kops turned a blind eye.  The administration didn’t give a flip.

As a freshman (first time away from home and all that), I was terribly naïve and very nearly stumbled into disaster one day.  I should preface this story by explaining that I was caught up in a nightmarish game of Musical Roommates.  My first roommate, a very friendly guy, left me after three days to go bunk with his homie down the hall.  My next roommate got homesick and let after a couple of weeks.  At this point, I was paired with an older student, a druggie who did not appreciate wimps like me who told the residence staff just what was going on (which I finally did after walking in on him and his girlfriend doing the nasty).  My lovely roommate found the perfect way to get back at me.  He knew my Achilles’ heel:  Food.  In this case, homemade brownies.  His sex partner had made an entire pan, cut into nice little squares, and wouldn’t I like to have one?  I wanted so badly to take one, and it took all my willpower to say no.  I had read something once about druggies consuming marijuana that way.  Only later did I learn that the brownies were laced with hashish.

Pills of all kinds were for sale in our dorm.  The local drug dealer lived two doors down and across the hall from me; he kept his wares stashed in one of his dresser drawers, beneath his bulky sweaters.  He warned me that I would get hurt if I told anyone.  I have no doubt that he was telling the truth.

I suppose the ultimate in my college experience of dodging the ever-present barrage of drugs occurred at a party I attended in my senior year.  I was one of the editors of our student newspaper and an end-of-semester bash was held by the staff at another editor’s home downtown.  It was a three-story Victorian and they took advantage of the party possibilities that this arrangement afforded.  I walked in the front door to find people milling around with cups of beer.  Nothing unusual there.  Then I saw the sign.  “Liquor, first floor.  Pot, second floor.  Hard stuff, upstairs.”  I turned around, tore open the door and walked as fast as I could to the nearest bus stop.

And so, dear niece, if indeed it is the 1970s again in your high school and now your college, I feel for you.  I truly sympathize with what you are going through and I hope, for your sake and that of your little daughter, that you will emulate your uncle by turning and running the other way as fast as you can.

I know I’m over fifty years old and that I can’t possibly understand the challenges that your generation is facing today.  But I like to think I know a thing or two about peer pressure and how it is possible to respect yourself enough to say no.

And one other thing.  I love you and I kind of want you to be around for a while.