The Marijuana Smokers
Chapter 6 - Turning On: Becoming a Marijuana User
The verb "to turn on" has many meanings within the drug-using
community. It is a rich and magical term, encompassing an enormous
variety of situations and activities. Its imagery is borrowed
from the instantaneous processes of the electrical age, which
McLuhan has described with perverse brilliance. An electric light
is turned on, and one's inept fumbling about a once-dark room
ceases; a machine is turned on, and one can do what previously
was impossible; the television is turned on, and a naked glass
eye becomes a teeming, glittering illusion. The most general meaning
of the verb to turn on is to make knowledgeable, to make aware,
to open the senses, to sensitize, to make appreciative, excited.
Thus someone may turn on someone to another person, a recording
artist, an author worth knowing. A certain woman may turn on a
man sexually. Reading a book may turn on its reader to an area
of knowledgeor onto himself. A teacher may turn on his students.
Someone may simply be turned on to the excitement of the world.
Turning on is an enlargement of one's universe.
The specific meaning of the word is using drugs. Within the drug
context, "to turn on" has at least three interrelated
connotations: (1) to give or have one's first drug experienceusually
with marijuana; (2) to become high for the first timewith marijuana;
(3) to use a drugusually marijuana. "Let's go to my place
and turn on," would nearly always mean to smoke marijuana
and become high. A significant element in the marijuana subculture
is that marijuana use is a turning on, an enlargement of one's
awareness, an opening up of the receptivity of one's senses and
emotions. To turn on with marijuana is, at least to its users,
a part of living life as fully as possible.
We will now use the term in its first meaning: using marijuana
for the first timethe process of "becoming a marijuana
user." Our guiding
concern will be the dynamic transition between being a nonuser
to trying the drug initially. It is the story of the initiate,
the neophyte's first drug exposure. What are the factors which
make for such a transition? What sorts of experiences does the
convert go through, and why? What are the appeals of this drug
to the young, to the drug-naive, to the inexperienced, that make
this transition so widespread? It should be kept in mind that
we are describing an event that took place in the past. The smoker
today was turned on previously, not today, perhaps a few days
ago, perhaps a few years ago. Thus, there exists the possibility
for distortion in our respondents' reports of their turn on. They
may make their past consistent with present sentiment or events.
The past may be shaped to tell an interesting story based on how
they feel today. We have no idea how this tendency distorts the
respondents' stories about their initial use of marijuana, but
we ought to be attuned to the possibility of such a distortion.
Every marijuana user passes through the process of being turned
on. Not all experiences will be the same, of course, but a hard
core of common experiences will prevail among most users. Certain
features will parallel any new experience, while some will
be unique to marijuana use. Nearly all human activities at least
indirectly involve other people, and being introduced to marijuana
offers no exception to this rule; in fact, marijuana use in general
is exquisitely a group phenomenon. Only six of our interviewees
(3 percent) turned themselves on, that is, the first time that
they ever smoked marijuana, they were alone. (They all had, of
course, obtained their marijuana from someone else.) Eight individuals
(4 percent) were turned on exclusively in the company of other
neophytes. At their initial exposure to the drug, the user-to-be
is subject to the tribal lore of the marijuana-using subculture,
a distinctive and idiosyncratic group in society; his experience
with the drug is, in a sense, predefined, channeled, already structured.
He is told how to get high, what to do when he is high, how to
recognize the high, what to expect, how he will react, what is
approved high behavior, and what is disapproved, what experiences
are enriched by the high, and which are not. The nature of the
experience itself is defined for the initiate. Although these
definitions in no way substitute for the experience itself, they
are a variable which goes into its making. They do not determine
the nature of the high experience, totally irrespective of any
and all other variables, but they are crucial. It is necessary,
therefore, to examine the impact of group structure in the experience
of turning on.
Not only is the initiate turned on by experienced marijuana users
rich in the collective wisdom of their group, but these proselytizers
are also intimates. In
no case did a peddler turn on the respondentunless
he was a friend. The profit motive in these conversions was simply
and frankly absent. Friends were involved in every stage of the
processsupplying information about marijuana, or supplying
the opportunity, or the drug. But equally as important is that
a friend or group of friends supplied a kind of legitimation.
They were an "example." Prior to any first or second
hand acquaintance with the drug, many users have a stereotype
in their minds about the kinds of people who use marijuana. They
might have been convinced that smoking pot is an undesirable thing
to do because, in their minds, only undesirable people used it.
Even more important than any knowledge about the effects of the
drug in convincing them that turning on might have merit was their
association with and attitudes toward people who endorsed and
used marijuana. At the point where the individual realizes that
it isn't only undesirable (in his eyes) people who use it, but
many poised, sophisticated ones as well, his defenses against
using it have been weakened, possibly more than by any other single
factor. "I didn't want to smoke it because that added you
to a collection of people who were undesirable," said one
nineteen-year-old ex-coed. "The times when I could have turned
on, I didn't want to try it with the people I was withthey
were depressing people to be around," added another young
woman. The disillusionment came with the awareness that "people
I respected smoked it. I gradually began to realize the fakery
about it," in the words of a thirty-year-old executive. "People
I like smoked it." "Friends I knew and respected smoked
it and like it." "A guy I admired was smoking, and I
asked him if I could smoke." This theme ran through our interviews.
"At first I looked down on itit's dope, it's habit forming,
it leads to heroin, it's demoralizing. But once, when I was staying
over at my cousin's house, I thought, if my cousin, whom I dig,
is doing itshe's a great kidit can't be too bad,"
a twenty-year-old clerk explained. "I was apprehensive, a
little excited, scared, and ignorant, but I trusted the guy I
was with," a twenty-nine-year-old commercial artist told
me, describing his turn-on ten years ago.
It is necessary that the proselytizer be someone whom the potential
initiate trusts; he is generally unwilling to put his fate in
the hands of a stranger. If he accepts society's generally negative
judgment of the drug, there must be some powerful contrary forces
neutralizing that judgment before he will try marijuana. Peer
influences are just such powerful forces. Society's evaluation,
even if taken seriously, is a vague and impersonal influence.
The testimony of one or several friends will weigh far more heavily
in the balance than even parental disapproval. If an intimate
friend vouches for the positive qualities of cannabis, the ground
has been cleared for a potential convert.
More specifically, the relationship between the neophyte and his
marijuana initiator is crucial. The lack of association in the
naif's mind of marijuana with a specific unsavory "scene"
is, of course, important, but it lacks the immediacy and impact
of his feelings for those who actually hand him a glowing joint.
Although sexual parallels should not be pushed too far, something
of the same significance is imputed to one's first sex partner
as to the person one has decided to be turned on by. With women,
the conjunction is closer than for men, since women are usually
turned on by men, whereas men are more often turned on by other
Looking at smokers through the eyes of the potential convert,
it is clear that, on the whole, a high proportion are respectable.
More than that, many are at the center of the youth culturethe
most highly respected of the younger half of the population are
known as users. Known users are generally brighter, more creative,
socially active, and knowledgeable in those aspects of the youth
culture that the young take most seriously. A young black man,
president of his sophomore class at Andover, was quoted by The
New York Times as saying, "No matter what parents instill
in their sons, they lose a lot of it here. Everybody wants to
be identified with the 'in' crowd, and the 'in' crowd is now on
the left." He might have added that the left is into pot.
It is not merely that marijuana is fashionable to youngsters today,
its users are seen as role models; they are, in many ways, a reference
group for slightly younger nonusers. It is from the using population
that many of the dominant values of today's youth springin
music and fashion, to mention two of the most obvious examplesand
from whom standards of prestige and desirability flow. One of
the appeals of the drug, and why its use has spread with such
facility, is that endorsers and users are seen by their peers
as socially acceptable and even highly desirable human beings.
As Alan Sutter, one of the researchers on the Blumer study of
drug use in the Oakland area, wrote: "Drug use, especially
marijuana use, is a function of a socializing movement into a
major stream of adolescent life." Another
reason why marijuana spreads with such rapidity is that users
project relatively unambiguously favorable endorsements. Not only
are they interested in making converts to a degree unequal to
that of any other drug culture, but they advertise their drug
better. Their propaganda is more effective, because they present
more of its favorable qualities and fewer of its negative traits.
The chronic amphetamine user or the heroin addict are ambivalent
about their drug of choice and rarely portray it in unambiguously
positive terms. They are willing to admit its dangers, its damages
to their body, the hazards of use. Asked if their drug of choice
is harmless, the amphetamine and heroin users are unlikely to
agree, while the pothead is likely to do so. An indication of
the relativity in images of the various drugs, what they do to
the body, and their users, may be gleaned from the jargon for
users of these drugs. The term "head" implies no negative
connotation; it is a purely descriptive term. Thus, a "pothead"
is simply one who uses marijuana heavily. But the terms "fiend"
and "freak" are predominantly negative. Freak and fiend
are never used in reference to marijuana users, whereas they are
frequently applied to methedrine and heroin users"meth
freak," "speed freak," "scag fiend,"
and so forth. A linguistic projection of these differential images
does not prove our point, but it does lend it support.
The image of potential and present potsmokers as "wild
thrill seekers" has no basis. Most of the users interviewed
were cautious and apprehensive about trying marijuana, and would
not have made the leap unless they had been convinced that it
would not harm them. The lure of cannabis is not that it represents
danger; it is almost the reverse. It represents no obstacle to
the future user when he is led to believe that it is safe. He
rarely tries it himself to determine whether it is safe, but accepts
testimony about its safety from those whose judgment he
trusts. If it were depicted by his intimates as a dangerous drug
or a narcotic (as defined by law), the overwhelming majority would
never have tried it.
Americans generally pride themselves on being objective, hardheaded,
empirical, and tough-minded. This is the show-me country, where
the challenge to prove it calls for scientific demonstration.
"I'll try anything once" is an open-minded attitude
toward experience. Yet, for some reason, these injunctions are
highly selective; they apply to some spheres of experience and
not to others. There are, presumably, many activities and experiences
that need no testing and are rightfully condemned out of hand.
But the younger generation is taking the pragmatism of the American
civilization literally, at face value. If it applies to technology,
to the business world, to foods and fads, then why not pot? "Don't
knock it unless you've tried it," was a theme running throughout
my interviews. The firsthand experience is respected by America's
young, and he who condemns without having "been there"
will be ignored. And the reason why the pull to the promarijuana
side is especially powerful is that positive personal testimony
is more common than negative personal testimony, negative testimony
being largely nonexperiential. Physicians who give talks designed
to discourage marijuana use are invariably asked by young audiences
whether they have tried the drug they condemn. Although the replyyou
don't have to have a disease to recognize its symptomssatisfies
the middle-aged physician, it is insufficient for the experience-oriented
high school or college student.
We are struck by the dominant role of at least five factors
in this process:
- The initiate's perception of danger ( or the lack thereof
) in marijuana use
- His perception of its benefits
- His attitude toward users
- His closeness to marijuana's endorsers
- His closeness to the individual trying to turn him on*
* This discussion assumes that the potential user has been
provided with an opportunity to try marijuana, this is, itself,
a variable and not a constant. We are concentrating on the characteristics
of the individual himself in this discussion.
Of course, these five variables are only theoretically independent
in actual cases, they interpenetrate and influence one another.
For instance, the neophyte is more likely to believe that marijuana
is harmless if he is told this by intimatesless likely
if told the same thing by strangers; therefore, (1) and (2)
are partly determined by (4) and (5). Each of these factors
should be thought of as a variable that is neither necessary
nor sufficient; the only absolutely necessary precondition for
turning on is the presence of the pot. Thus, the individual can
come into a turn-on situation with almost any conceivable
attitude toward trying marijuanaalthough, obviously, if the
turn-on is to be successful, certain kinds of attitudes on the
potential convert's part are more likely than others. However,
what is necessary is that certain combinations of these variables
To understand how the process of a typical turn-on might work,
let us play a game by assigning each factor an imaginary (probably
unrealistic) weight of twenty, and each individual a score ranging
from zero to twenty, depending on the degree of favorableness;
in his case, each factor is for a turn-on. Let us further claim
that a turn-on occurs when our candidatewho has just been given
an opportunity to turn onis assigned a total score of fifty.
Let us look at the following actual cases:
I had notions that marijuana was harmful, that I might commit
suicide, that it was a real drug; pot wasn't separated from the
other drugs in my mind. Then, I had a neighbor in Berkeley who
was a pothead. He explained what it was like to me. He told me
not to be frightened about it. He described the high as a very
sensual experience. It was as if I was a virgin. He talked to
me for about two months before I tried it.
Twenty-two-year-old public school art teacher, female
I knew almost nothing about pot. I had no attitude about it one
way or another. I was in high school, and a friend took me to
a bar, he made a connectionI didn't know it until afterand
then we drove off. In the car, he asked if I wanted some. I asked
him a few questions about it, and then I tried it.
Twenty-seven-year-old graduate student in sociology
I didn't believe in it. I felt as if I was above it. I didn't
need a thing like that. Others seemed to take it when they have
problems, and not when they were happy.
It seemed to be a miserable type of drug. I was visiting friends
who were marijuana smokers, who were talking about it constantly,
but I didn't want to smoke, and everybody else did. They said
at first that it was okay if I didn't smoke and everybody else
did, but I felt awkward not smoking when everybody else was,
and I felt pressured into it. They all tried to teach me
how to do it.
Twenty-two-year-old writer, female
I can remember thinking, if I were offered marijuana, I would
try it. I knew it wasn't dangerous. I was offered it coming back
from skiing with somebody I'd just met. We were riding home in
Twenty-one-year-old advertising specialist, female
I didn't want to go along with everyone else. It was the hip thing
to do in my high school in the tenth grade. I just didn't want
to be a part of the drug scene. I was against it, but I knew I
would eventually try it. I felt as if I might really like it.
I just didn't happen to like those kids I knew that smoked. One
day, two of us were sitting in a coffee house, and a friend dropped
in and said, let's try it. We went into the back, into the ladies'
room, and smoked it.
Eighteen-year-old college freshman, female
I was sixteen years old, in the Air Force. Near the base, in a
bar, a whore picked me up, and we went to her place. She turned
me on. My attitudes were hostile concerning pot. I thought it
was dope, I thought it was addicting. I took it because I'm a
chump for a broad. Anything she suggested was okay.
I knew it would be groovy two years before I turned on. I didn't
have any opportunities before then. I would have snatched them
up if I had. I studied up on drugs before I took it. I knew what
the hygiene course we had in high school was teaching were lies.
Twenty-year-old bookstore clerk
At first, I thought, it's a terrible drug, and it leads to heroin.
But my brother demolished all the fallacies. It sounded good.
There was nothing wrong with it but I was still afraid of it.
My brother turned me on.
Nineteen-year-old clerk in a bookstore, female
My feelings about pot were nonexistent, though I was vaguely favorably
disposed to it. I discounted the negative jazz as hoopla and propaganda;
I couldn't see, after reading about it, any harm from it. I didn't
accept the first few opportunities I had, because I didn't like
the people I was with. Finally, I visited some friends, and they
offered me some.
Before, I didn't want toI didn't see any reason for it. I wasn't
around people who smoked it. But at the job I have now, people
at the office talked about it. I got interested. I mentioned to
someone in the office I'd like to try it: Could you get me some?
So, one night my husband and I had guests. No one had ever had
the stuff before. Three of us turned on with the pot I got from
the office. My husband didn't try it.
Twenty-five-year-old assistant research analyst, market research
I knew it was harmless, and I was curious about it. I was sitting
in the park, and a guy came to me and asked if I wanted to buy
some, and I bought a nickel bag, and went over to a friend's place,
and we turned on.
Nineteen-year-old college student
I was against the idea of marijuana. I was ignorant. I knew it
was a drug, and I thought it was addictive. But my closest friend
smokedI was close friends with this guy for four years. He
asked me several times to turn on and I said no. Finally, I decided,
what the hellgive it a try.
Twenty-four-year-old market research study director
My older brother gave it to me. He told me not to turn on out
of social pressure; I should be turned on by someone I trustedhimself.
He got it for me, and then I went up to the attic and turned on
alone. I came down and talked to my parents. Only my brother knew
I was high. Before that, I didn't know people well enough, or
trust them, to turn on.
I knew almost nothing about pot, but I was completely confident
that nothing would happen, since my brother turned me on.
Twenty-one-year-old unemployed college drop-out
I felt safe with good friends, and I felt it would be all right.
Twenty-year-old coder, female
Thus, someone who is extremely close to both the endorser and
the individual turning him on (forty points), and who has an ambivalent
attitude about users (ten points), sees no benefits in use (zero
points), and is unsure about its safeness (ten points), is a potential
candidate for being turned on, when the occasion arises. Another
person who thinks of the stories about its dangers as myths, thinks
that it would be fun, and has at least a moderately favorable
image of smokers, is likely to be turned on, even by a stranger.
One indication that our scheme reflects something of the actual
situation is the fact that many marijuana users (46 percent of
our respondents) report having refused opportunities to
turn on prior to their eventual conversion because one or another
circumstance at that time was not favorable. Any one of these
factors could have been the reason, but the two most often mentioned
were the fears about the drug's danger and a lack of closeness
with the person or persons offering the opportunity to try it.
With this scheme in mind as a very rough model, it is possible
to see how someone could accept an offer to smoke even though
he is still fearful of the drug's effects, although this is empirically
It is relatively rare for the initiate to try to simulate prior
drug experience, although it does occur. The majority going through
the initiation ceremony are known to be novitiates by all present
(70 percent of our interviewees), while occasionally some present
at the turning on ceremony will know, while others do not (6 percent)
at a large party, for instance. It is not uncommon for the respondent
to be unaware of what others know of his prior drug experience
(15 percent), and sometimes none present at his turn-on knew that
he was marijuana-naive (g percent). Typically, both initiate and
initiator regard the turn-on as a highly significant event in
the novice's roster of life experiences. It is a kind of milestone,
a rite de passage; it is often seen as a part of "growing
up" for many adolescents. Even
when others are not in the know, the subject is nervous and excited
at the prospect. Its importance in one's life is overshadowed
only by (and is similar to) losing one's virginity. Although the
following account is atypical because it is so extreme, it captures
much of the flavor of the ritual-like nature of the characteristic
turnon; I present the verbatim transcript of a portion of the
interview of a twenty-three-year-old dramatics graduate student.
(I am asking the questions.)
Q: Do you remember how you got it for the first time?
A significant element in the marijuana subculture's tribal lore
is the technique involved in smoking the weed. For those who do
not smoke tobacco cigarettes, the whole procedure might seem particularly
strange. But even for those who do smoke, much of the tobacco
cigarette agendum is inapplicable to smoking marijuana cigarettes;
if pot is smoked exactly like an ordinary cigarette, the novice
probably cannot become highit is difficult enough in the beginning
when done correctlyalthough it is possible with practice. The
initiate, to become high, must inhale the marijuana smoke deeply
into his lungs; take some air in with the smoke; hold it there
for a few seconds; and let it out slowly. These
procedures require observation and instruction. They are part
of the technology of marijuana use that must be mastered. Although
they do not compare in complexity with heroin technology, they
are necessary for attaining the desired state of intoxication.
A: It was given to me. I smoked it with a friend of mine, and
a friend of his, and another amiable person.
Q: Do you remember what the occasion was?
A: There was no occasion; the occasion was the turning on.
Q: You got together for the purpose of turning on?
Q: All the others presentdid they know you were smoking for
the first time?
A: Yes. And if the party was the celebration of anything, it was
the celebration of a new person coming to turn on, and that was
a big deal. And everyone was very nice, you know, and brought
all sorts of great things to eat. And taste, and wild things,
and put on a whole show, you know, it was a great, marvelous
experience: just absolutely marvelous.
Q: Did you get high?
A: Yes, I got very, very high. Had an enormously good time. The
first time I got high, I think we were listening to jazz, and
the notes became visual, and turned different colors, and became
propellers. And jazz became kind of formalized in a great color
and motion thing that I created from my own imaginationwonderful
things like this happened. And the room was tilted slightly up,
you know, turned on its side; it was like a rocket ship taking
off for somewhere, you know, way out in the vastness of outer
By itself, without becoming high, marijuana smoking is not pleasurable.
All users smoke marijuana to become highin traditional language,
"intoxicated." They see no point to smoking it for its
own sake. There is no pleasure to be derived from inhaling the
fumes of the burning marijuana plant (although the same could
be said for the leaves of the tobacco plant), and there is, moreover,
no ideology which claims that mere smoking, without intoxication,
is pleasurable or good, or relaxingor anythingas there is
with regular tobacco cigarettes. (Pot, in addition, lacks the
physiological compulsion-imperative built into nicotine.)
We may take it as an axiom that everywhere and at all times, marijuana
is smoked in order to attain the high. It might seem surprising
that at this point we encounter another learning process. No activity,
bodily state, or condition is inherently pleasurable. Physiological
manifestations of human sexuality, for instance, experienced by
the completely untutored are apt to be interpreted as disturbing
and puzzling, not necessarily pleasurable. We are prepared for
and instructed in the pleasures of sex; sufficient negative tutoring
will generally yield disgust and a desire for avoidance in the
individual. Now, it should be mentioned that some bodily states
have greater potential for being defined as pleasurable: sex,
for instance, or the marijuana high. But the social-defining and
learning process must be there. It seems a paradox to say that
one must learn how to have fun, especially as the Freudians tell
us that culture is primarily repressive, not liberative, but it
is difficult to avoid such a conclusion.
The unprepared individual is unlikely to think of the marijuana
intoxication as pleasurable. The pleasures or discomforts of the
high are interpreted, defined, sifted by group definitions. One
is, in a sense, programmed beforehand for the experience, for
feeling a pleasurable response. Even as one is in the very process
of becoming high and beginning to experience the effects of the
drug, a dialectical relationship exists between the high and the
user's moral and epistemological ambiance. Group definitions constantly
interpret and reinterpret the experience, so that subsequent feelings
and events are continually tailored to fit the expectations of
the group. Although when a marijuana circle has a novice on its
hands, the instruction is generally verbal and calculated, much
of the learning process is preverbal. It need not be consciously
didactic: one may be taught by example, tone of voice, movements,
laughter, a state of apparent ecstasy. Merely by looking around
him, the novice senses that this is a group preparing to have
fun, this is the type of situation in which people enjoy themselves.
Thus, even when turning on for the first time, the neophyte will
rarely experience something which is wildly out of line with group
expectations. If he does, the initiate is "talked out"
of them. The statistically few events that do occur contrary to
the group's expectations are noteworthy for their rarity.
Since users most generally think of marijuana use as normal, healthy,
appealing, and sybaritic, the novitiate absorbs mostly favorable
definitions and expectations of what he is about to experience.
Interpretations concerning the high emanating from the group become
assimilated into the beginner's moral outlook, and most commonly
his experiences are a reflection of these definitions. If use
were condemned by users who saw themselves acting out of "compulsive"
and "sick" motives, and who thought of smoking in morbid,
self-flagellating terms, not only would the novice be unlikely
to try the drug, but even if he ever did, his high would be experienced
as unpleasant, distasteful, repellent and even psychotomimetic.
This is not generally the case because each new user is insulated
from negative experiences with the high by favorable definitions;
it is the "legacy" which the marijuana subculture passes
down to succeeding generations.
Curiosity is the dominant emotion of the neophyte at the time
of his turn-on; this
is often mixed with excitement, apprehension, joy, or fear. It
should be stated at the outset that I do not endorse the "forbidden
fruit" argument. If marijuana use were not considered improper
or immoral by the bulk of society, there is no doubt whatsoever
that it would be more common. Social condemnation, particularly
among one's peers, keeps down the condemned activity, although,
obviously, the less significant the condemning individual or group
is felt to be, the less effective the condemnation will be; it
is even possible to find "negative reference groups."
I would hold that one of the appeals of marijuana is not that
it is abhorred by adult society; it does not represent rebellion
or a rejection of adult values. Yet, its mystery, its underground
character, the fact that it is clandestine and morally suspectall
lend an air of excitement and importance that would be absent
otherwise. For the neophyte, the maintenance of a matter-of-fact
attitude is almost impossible. A1though use is not greater because
it is forbidden, its contraband nature, at least in the beginning,
make it special and outside the orbit of the everyday. The excitement
is manufactured: it is a social artifact. Inexperienced users
perceive its socially imputed gravity through cues ranging from
the voice tone of marijuana participants to the reactions of the
police to the discovery of marijuana possession. The more contact
the user has with the drug and other users, the less "special"
Users often draw parallels with sex; being turned on is seen as
equivalent to losing one's virginity. Feelings of the specialness
of one's activities and uniqueness dissolve with the growing awareness
that many seemingly respectable individuals also smoke marijuana:
"After being turned on, I realized that many straight types
smoke, too. It's sort of like when a virgin has just been deflowered;
she realizes that others must also be nonvirgins, too, after
having experienced it herself," said a twenty-two-year-old
law school student, a weekly smoker. In fact, there is often a
certain degree of disappointment in the experience. The
experience has been billed as bizarre, beautiful, frightening,
orgiastic, but either pro or con, the descriptions are invariably
unusual. "At first I thought it would be the passageway
into heaven," a young man of Catholic parentage told me,
somewhat disenchanted that it wasn't. "I expected a fantastic
change," said a twenty-three-year-old woman writer about
her experience of being turned on in a cafe in Tangiers; "I
was disappointed," she added. "I was scared shit,"
a student in pharmacy told me about an experience six years earlier.
Aside from the expectation that the high would be much more spectacular,
some of the disappointment stems from the fact that many initiates
do not become high the first time that they smoke, or at least
do not recognize it. Marijuana's effect is subtle, and is, as
I have stated, quite dependent on the learning process. In Becker's
... the new user may not get high and thus not form a conception
of the drug as something which can be used for pleasure....
... being high consists of... the presence of symptoms caused
by marijuana use and the recognition of these symptoms and their
connection by the user with his use of the drug. It is not enough,
that is, that the effects alone be present; alone, they do not
automatically provide the experience of being high. The user must
be able to point them out to himself and consciously connect them
with having smoked marihuana before he can have this experience.
Otherwise, no matter what actual effects are produced, he considers
that the drug has had no effect on him.
It is possible that the drug sometimes does not take effect on
an individual who has smoked once or even a dozen times. A small
proportion of individuals seem almost incapable of attaining a
high, at least using conventional smoking techniques. Whether
this is physiological or psychological, it is impossible at this
point to determine. Many of these individuals have been socialized
into the subculture, know the proper techniques and what to expect
from them, have seen others enjoying pot, and yet never seem to
cross the threshold of becoming high. More commonly, however,
the reason for the lack of attainment of the high is inexperience.
Among our respondents, 41 percent said that they did not become
high the first time and 13 percent said that they weren't sure
whether or not they were high. The attainment of the high, however,
usually comes with experience. Twelve percent of our respondents
said that they became high on their second attempt, g percent
on their third, 8 percent on their fourth, and so on. Only
seven individuals in our sample claimed never to have been
high, and all but one had tried only half a dozen times
or fewer. The completely resistant individual, although he
does exist, is a relative rarity. Of the various reasons
offered for their lack of becoming high on the first attempt,
the most common (twenty-seven individuals) was improper technique;
fear and nervousness accounted for a dozen or so responses. Again,
the sexual analogy seems relevant. Becoming high smoking marijuana
is similar in many respects to the attainment of sexual orgasm,
at least for the woman, in that:
- It is more likely to occur when emotion is part of the relationship
the differential is greater, obviously, with sex than with pot.
- It often does not occur with the first attempt.
- With experience, its likelihood increases.
- Some individuals seem especially invulnerable to it ever occurring;
they seem to resist it, possibly for fear of losing control, or,
for some reason, their bodies seem peculiarly incapable of attaining
that blissful state.
- Nervousness and fear reduce the likelihood.
- Simple technique has a great deal to do with its attainment.
- Some individuals (with sex, always women) wonder whether they
have ever reached that state, since the line between attainment
and "normalcy" is tenuous and the symptoms of attainment
have to be learned.
- Its importance is exaggerated to such a degree that the neophyte
will often be puzzled as to what all the fuss is about.
It is only after repeated interaction and involvement with the
marijuana subculture that some of these initial disappointments
begin to evaporate, just as the recently deflowered girl gradually
learns that the delights of sex blossom with time and nurturance.
There is a progressive accretion of sensitivity to the subtle
and not so easily discerned marijuana high; it takes time to learn
how to enjoy marijuana, to absorb the prevailing group definition
on the drug's pleasures and virtues. By interacting repeatedly
with more experienced users, the neophyte takes their definitions
of what the drug does to his body and mind as his own and eventually
comes to experience those effects.
Among individuals acquainted with marijuana over a period of timeindividuals
who have used it on many occasions, who have seen others high,
and who have participated in a variety of activities highthe
drug becomes demythologized. Much of the excitement and awe of
the new adventure gradually drains out of its use. It becomes
taken for granted. At this point the propagandists step in and
inform us that a jaded palate inevitably generates the desire
for increasingly greater thrills and kicks. No one has successfully
explained why this should be so; for some reason it appeals to
common sense. The truth is the drug need not retain that mixture
of fear, awe, and excitement in use to retain its appeal. Experienced
users become comfortable with the marijuana high, much as they
might enjoy making love with a spouse of long duration. By losing
much of its subterranean character, marijuana does not necessarily
lose its appeal. In fact, whatever uncomfortable or even psychotomimetic
effects the drug might have had earlier, with limited experience,
become dissipated with increased use. In general, experienced
users describe their high in more favorable terms than the inexperienced.
(Although individuals who do experience discomfort in use tend
to discontinue smoking.) Simultaneously, the experience becomes
increasingly less and less "apart" from the everyday,
less and less discontinuous with it, and increasingly a normal
and taken-for-granted element in one's day to day existence.
Among the more experienced users, marijuana comes to be regarded
as an ordinary item in one's lifeit becomes "no big deal."
In fact, users of long duration have a difficult time switching
back and forth from their taken-for-granted attitude toward pot
to society's fearful and punitive stance. Many users do not regard
marijuana as a drugi.e., in a special and distinct and harmful
categoryjust as few liquor drinkers will claim to be users
of any drug, so unaccustomed are they to thinking of their drug
of choice as anything of particular note. During the research,
I went into a psychedelic book store in New York's East Village
and asked the salesman, wearing long hair, beads, and bells and
sandals, if they had any books on drugs. "What kind of drugs?"
he asked. When I said marijuana, he replied, "Marijuana's
not a drug." This theme emerged in the interviews. A twenty-three-year-old
woman, a daily smoker of marijuana, told me, "I can't think
of marijuana as being a drugit's just pleasurable."
N O T E S
1. Howard S. Becker, "Becoming A Marihuana
User," American Journal of Sociology 59 (November
1953): 235-243. (back)
2. In a study of the drug use of 432 "Yippies"
in Chicago's Lincoln Park at the time of the 1968 Democratic National
Convention, Zaks, Hughes, Jaffe, and Dolkart found that the most
common reason claimed by the respondents for "starting on
drugs" (i. e., for turning on)marijuana was by far not
only the most popular drug, but was most likely to have been the
first drug usedwas that he was turned on by friends; almost
two-thirds of the sample (63 percent) gave that as their reason.
(Cf. Table 6, p. 24.) Without an understanding of this process,
this answer might seem a non sequitur. But the fact that a friend
(whose judgment we trust) gives us an opportunity to try a drug
has a great deal to do with whether we ever turn on or not. An
additional fifth of the sample (22 percent) gave "association
with users" as a reason for turning on. See Misha S. Zaks
Patrick Hughes, Jerome Jaffe, and Marjorie B. Dolkart, "Young
People in the Park Survey of Socio-Cultural and Drug Use Patterns
of Yippies in Lincoln Park, Chicago Democratic Convention, 1968"
(Presented at the American Orthopsychiatric Association, 46th
Annual Meeting, New York, March 30, to April 2, 1969), unpublished
manuscript, 28 pp. (back)
3. Herbert Blumer et al., The World of
Youthful Drug Use (Berkeley: University of California, School
of Criminology, January 1967). (back)
4. Alan G. Sutter, "Worlds of Drug Use
on the Street Scene," in Donald R. Cressey and David A. Ward,
eds., Delinquency, Crime, and Social Process (New York:
Harper & Row, 1969), p. 827. (back)
5. John Kifner, "The Drug Scene: Many
Students Now Regard Marijuana as a Part of Growing Up," The
New York Times, January 1 l, 1968, p. 18. (back)
6. A recent film, Easy Rider, released
in 1969, in which marijuana is smoked nearly throughout, depicted
a turning-on scene which contained the neophyte's fears: that
he would become hooked on marijuana and that it would lead to
harder stuff. This was laughed at by his initiators. The initiate
was provided with instructions on how to smoke the joint. According
to an interview with the film's director, actual marijuana was
used in the smoking scenes. Hopper said, in the Times interview,
"This is my 17th grasssmoking year. Sure, print it, why not?
You can also say that that was real pot we smoked in Easy Rider."
See Tom Burke, "Will 'Easy' Do It for Dennis Hopper?"
The New York Times, Sunday, July 20, 1969, D11, D16. (back)
7. The Zaks et al., study found that curiosity
was the second most often cited reason for turning on; over a
third of their sample (37 percent) said that the reason for starting
on drugs was curiosity, o p. cit., Table 6, p. 24. (back)
8. Becker, Outsiders (New York: Free
Press, 1963), pp. 4849. (back)