Marijuana in the Lives of Americans
by William Novak
1. An Overview of Marijuana
Suddenly you're through the looking glass. It's your bedroom or
living room all right, and everything is exactly the same, but
everything is exactly different than it ever was before you were
stoned. And suddenly you don't care about your arthritis, or that
you have to appear in court the next day because of a speeding
ticket, or that you've got a mid-term paper due in two days, or
that you've only got one ear.
A Child's Garden of Grass 
Only two effects of marijuana on the human body have been established
without question: a reddening of the eyes (conjunctival vascular
congestion) and a temporary increase in the rate of heartbeat
(tachycardia) Marijuana also appears to dry up the mouth and the
Although marijuana is not new to American life, and although its
recorded history goes back several thousand years, it was not
until 1968 that these basic facts were established. In a study
conducted at Boston University, Dr. Norman E. Zinberg of the Harvard
Medical School and Andrew Weil, then a medical student at the
same institution, conducted a series of pilot experiments in an
effort to learn about the effects of marijuana intoxication on
human beings. What made the experiments notable was that this
was the first study of cannabis to be conducted in a double-blind
fashion, with neither the subjects nor the administrators of the
experiments aware during the study of who was smoking marijuana
and who was smoking a well-designed placebo.
Among other findings, the Zinberg and Weil study disproved the
commonly held notion that marijuana causes a dilation of the pupils
This "fact" had been so prominently believed by the
general public that it was often used by the police as a cause
for searching a residence for illicit drugs. Some drugs do cause
a dilation of the pupils, but marijuana Is not one of them. This
basic error is typical of the state of marijuana "research"
until the 1960s, before which, apparently, nobody had thought
to study the drug scientifically. The misconception about dilated
pupils arose in the first place, Zinberg and Weil speculated,
because smokers were using marijuana in darkened rooms; that,
and not the drug, accounted for the change.
Subsequent studies and surveys have revealed other basic effects
of marijuana. Users commonly report an increased ability to
concentrate on whatever it is they are doing or thinking about;
for many, marijuana leads to a general increase in the intensity
of most aspects of life. Another very common effect is a heightening
of sensual excitation: listening to music, viewing a film or work
of art, making love, eatingall are commonly reported to be
enhanced by marijuana. Often, when a user is high, one of his
senses will work cooperatively with another in a process known
as synesthesia: for example, a smoker may have the sensation of
being able to "see" the music he is listening to. In
addition, many users find that abstract ideas and sensations become
more concrete, and more visual as well.
Under the influence of marijuana, time appears to pass more slowly,
short-term memory seems to be impaired, and smokers often find
themselves feeling relaxed, free, creative, and outside the normal
restraints of time, space, and, sometimes, social amenities.
Users speak of a sense of "well-being" and commonly
feel peaceful and content. They tend to feel happy, as well. "When
I'm high," says a day-care worker, "my mouth starts
to hurt from smiling so much."
The high normally reaches its peak within about half an hour after
smoking; after another hour, it often gives way to a slight lethargy
or tiredness. Conversation and general awareness, after being
stimulated during the first hour, will often fade a little in
the second. This process is known as "coming down,"
and for some smokers it is slightly unpleasant, resulting in a
headache or in a "cloudy" or "foggy" mental
state. The effects of coming down may be delayed by a second or
third round of smoking or by going to sleep. The most common aftereffect
is tiredness, which, for a few smokers, extends into a kind of
hangover the following day. Although different kinds of marijuana
appear to have somewhat different effects, the determining factors
reside in the individual rather than in the drug.
Marijuana's most common effects occur in the mind of the user.
Ideas may flow more quickly ("like throwing gasoline on a
fire," observes a scientist), and the smoker may find himself
thinking more imaginatively and perhaps gaining a new perspective
on a familiar scene or problem. The new perspective sometimes
renders events transcendent; at other times, it illuminates the
mundane; occasionally, the user may have trouble knowing the difference.
There are physical effects as well, and smokers sometimes talk
of such responses as a tingling sensation in their limbs, a drop
in body temperature, and various other subtle changes. But it
is not clear whether these changes are real or merely imagined
As sociologist Howard Becker explains it, "There are all
kinds of physical and even psychological events going on in your
body all the time. Most of them you've learned to ignore, like
momentary tics of a muscle, or quivers, or other things of that
kind. Ordinarily, you feel it happening and you say, 'Oh, that.'
When you're a child, you tell your mother and she tells you
not to worry about it. And the next time it happens, you ignore
it. On marijuana, however, you might not ignore it, especially
if you're nervous about using the drug. But if you just sit and
pay serious attention to your body for a few minutes, whether
or not you're stoned, you'll discover all sorts of things going
on, things you would normally ignore, things which are capable
of being interpreted if you're so inclined."
Many smokers speak of an increased awareness of their bodies in
positive terms. "I can almost feel the blood rushing through
my veins," says one man, "and the boom boom boom of
How Marijuana Works
The agent in marijuana that is thought to be responsible for most
of the drug's effects is a psychoactive chemical called delta-g-tetrahydrocannabinol,
commonly known as THC. Generally speaking, THC is found in greater
quantities in marijuana plants grown in tropical climates, although
the determining factor is not environment but heredity. While
potency is generally measured in terms of the THC content, marijuana
also contains dozens of related chemicals known as cannabinoids,
which are unique to the cannabis plant. Research on the effects
of these other chemicals is still in the early stages.
Much of the THC in the marijuana plant is concentrated in the
sticky resin exuded from its flowering tops when it reaches maturity.
These flower tops, together with the upper leaves of the plant,
are dried, crushed, and shipped from their country of origin to
marijuana smokers in the United States and elsewhere.
(Hashish is generally made from the resin alone, although contrary
to popular belief, it is not a standard substance; like stew,
hashish is made differently in different societies. According
to folklore, hashish used to be made by having laborers run naked
through fields of cannabis. The resin that stuck to their bodies
was scraped off with a special blunt knife, and was then treated
and dried and pressed into hashish.)
Whether or not a person will feel high after smoking marijuana
depends on a number of factors. An obvious consideration is the
quality of the marijuana that is being smoked, which is generally
measured in terms of potency, or THC content. Quantity is important
too, but only up to a point. Most smokers agree that while there
is a significant difference between a single toke and smoking
an entire joint, there is little difference between, say, two
joints and three other than the increased likelihood of fatigue
and headache. There is, apparently, a law of diminishing returns
after the first joint.
In addition to the quality and quantity of the marijuana that
is smoked, the nature and extent of the high will also depend
on such factors as the freshness of the marijuana, the origin
of the plant, and which part of the plant is being smoked. However,
without the use of a laboratory or of rather technical machinery,
there is no way for the smoker to know for certain the strength
of a particular sample before smoking it. Indeed, it is not always
easy for the smoker to assess the potency of the marijuana even
after smoking it, but that is another discussion (see chapter
11) Until legalization occurs, there can be no equivalent other
than hearsay and an educated guess as to the tar levels indicated
on a package of cigarettes or, perhaps more accurately, to the
proof markings on a bottle of wine or whiskey.
Until a few years ago, drug researchers believed that most of
the effects of marijuana were determined by the drug itself. But
the more marijuana is studied, the more it appears that the marijuana
experience depends on a host of other factors. For the sake of
convenience, these are frequently grouped together by researchers
under the rather formal phrase "set and setting." "Set"
has to do with a series of factors relating to the smoker, including
his personality, history, mood at the time of smoking, life-style,
outlook on life, past drug experiences, and especially his expectations
of the drug's probable effects at the time of its use.
"Setting," on the other hand, has to do with factors
relating to the smoker's external environment, as described in
physical, social, and even cultural terms. In his study of marijuana
smokers, psychologist Charles Tart described set and setting in
this way: "The particular effects of a drug are primarily
a function of a particular person taking a particular
drug in a particular way under particular conditions
at a particular time."
Although most researchers at least pay lip service to the importance
of set and setting, they often describe the effects of marijuana
as though they were the same for everybody. Even smokers are often
convinced that other smokers experience the same results they
do. But the facts indicate otherwise. It makes little sense to
discuss the effects of marijuana in general, because people
do not smoke marijuana in general. Marijuana smokers are individuals
who differ from each other in many ways and who use the drug with
different degrees of frequency, at different times, and for different
Just as the bored housewife who drinks compulsively at home in
the afternoons has little in common with the priest who sips wine
at communion, other than that they are both consuming an alcoholic
beverage, so, too, marijuana smokers are a diverse group who use
the drug in a variety of ways. There are smokers who use marijuana
only for special occasions, others who smoke on weekends, and
still others who use it habitually, like cigarettes. Some people
smoke it for fun, or to stimulate thinking, or for sex, or for
relaxing; others smoke because they hope to be stimulated verbally,
sensually, emotionally or creatively. Still others use marijuana
as a medicine or a sleeping aid, or to work or to escape from
work. Invariably, these differences have little to do with the
drug, and everything to do with its users.
The point seems simple enough, but it needs reinforcement; almost
everything that most people have been taught about drugs is negated
by the idea of set and setting. An analogy from religion may be
helpful here. The Buddhist or Hindu mystic who has a religious
vision is unlikely to witness an appearance by Elijah or Jesus;
such a possibility lies outside his set and setting. Or, in the
words of Thomas De Quincey, the English writer who described the
effects of opium to an eager public, "if a man whose 'talk
is of oxen' should become an opium eater, the probability is,
that (if he is not too dull to dream at all)he will dream about
That is an example of set. Setting refers to a complex of variables
outside the individual using the drug. In our own time, a particularly
important aspect of setting is the attitudes of our society toward
various illicit drugs. For example, in the 1960S American smokers
commonly described feelings of "paranoia," but these
feelings have been declining steadily over the past few years.
In some other cultures, where marijuana is more generally accepted,
they do not occur at all. Similarly, volunteers in experiments
who are asked to smoke marijuana in sterile laboratories under
rigorously controlled conditions of neutrality do not normally
have the same experiences as they do smoking at home with their
friends. The point would seem obvious, but it is routinely overlooked
by drug researchers.
"Our normal waking consciousness," wrote William James,
is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it,
parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential
forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life
without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus,
and at a touch they are there in all their completeness....
While William James was interested in drugs, he was not thinking
of marijuana when he wrote these words. Still, his observation
sounds familiar to contemporary marijuana users, for whom the
drug's effects represent what is commonly referred to as an altered
state of consciousness.
As marijuana smokers are well aware, contemporary Western society
operates under a common and convenient myth that holds that there
is only one real and operative form of consciousness, variously
known as the ego state, rationality, or logic. This, we are told
in many ways, is what is known as "reality," while other
forms, other states of consciousness, be they dreams, physical
sensations, drug-induced states, hypnosis, precognition, or intuition,
have beenand for the most part still areconsidered to be
distortions and aberrations.
Many marijuana users find it difficult to adhere to these beliefs
of what constitutes reality. Indeed, for some, marijuana has served
as a teacher whose principal lesson has been that life holds multiple
forms of reality. "Marijuana has helped me to see the phenomenal
power of plural" is how one man puts it, continuing:
"There is more than one way to look at something, and marijuana
has made me aware that perception and consciousness can come in
more than one kind of package." A computer programmer speaks
of "getting into another realm, and, when that isn't possible,
at least accepting that there is another realm."
It is only in recent years that social scientists and others have
begun to pay serious attention to altered states of consciousness,
which include such diverse phenomena as parapsychological manifestations,
meditation, and prayer. Of those who have investigated states
of consciousness resulting from marijuana and other drugs, Andrew
Weil has made an especially significant contribution. After completing
work on the 1968 marijuana study in Boston, Weil went on to write
a book about states of consciousness, with and without drugs.
The Natural Mind was published in 1972, and it is something
of a classic among marijuana users, being a lively and imaginative
theoretical treatment of the marijuana experience.
Weil believes that all people are high all of the time on some
level, and that the point of using drugs is not so much getting
high as connecting with a high that is already there.
And so for most users, Weil writes, smoking marijuana becomes
an opportunity, and sometimes an excuse, to experience a mode
of consciousness that is actually available to everyone all the
time without drugs, even though most people do not know how to
get there in other ways. Drugs, Weil insists, do not contain
highs; highs are latent in the human nervous system, waiting
to be triggered or released by various mechanisms. This is a message
that marijuana users hear all the time from opponents of drug
use, but coming from Andrew Weil, it carries more credibility
and seems far less of a moral prejudice.
In one way or another, many of the people I interviewed for this
book made a similar point: "I don't think marijuana really
adds anything that isn't there in the first place," I was
told repeatedly. "It just enhances and brings out what's
inside of you." Again and again, smokers described variations
on this basic theme, not casually but thoughtfully, and often
after a decade or more of smoking marijuana. Although these various
articulations of the same idea mean that it has become part of
the conventional wisdom about marijuana, it is interesting that
each person came to this realization individually, and nobody
seemed aware that many other marijuana users had come to believe
the same thing.
Objectivity, or Double Consciousness
One of the least understood aspects of marijuana intoxication
on the part of the nonusing public is the process of "double
consciousness," whereby the smoker, despite being affected
by the high, is nonetheless able to reflect upon it with almost
complete objectivity while it is taking place, and is able, if
the need arises, to "come down" from the high almost
at will. "Every time I get stoned," says an Oregon woman,
"I have the feeling that I'm watching myself" Her daughter
describes a similar feeling:
My body's there, but my mind is up higher, watching me. Once I
got high in school, and we were playing volleyball. I was watching
the ball going back and forth, and I realized how stupid the whole
thing must have looked. Here we were, a bunch of teenagers lunging
out to hit a ball over a net, for no real reason. It looked so
funny that I started laughing in the middle of the game.
Other smokers refer to this phenomenon as "detachment,"
or "disassociation." For a Chicago man, double consciousness
feels like being in a bubble, where he is part of what is going
on but also removed from it. Smokers who experience this phenomenonand
it is very commondo not regard it as a detriment to their enjoyment
of the high. On the contrary; for most users it actually increases
the pleasure. Lenny, a New England businessman, explains that
the sense of being grounded provides "something concrete
to stand on while the rest of me can drift off." He elaborates:
Because marijuana is a stimulant, you're aware that you're stoned.
You're aware that you're not functioning or perceiving things
entirely normally. But your judgment remains more or less the
same, so you can usually tell how stoned you are. With a depressant,
like alcohol, your judgment is affected, so you're not always
aware that you're not aware. That's a crucial difference: on marijuana,
you know that something has changed; on alcohol, you might not
even realize it.
The sensation of double consciousness is so common a part of the
marijuana experience that many smokers are often not even aware
of it. An interesting exception is this Atlanta secretary, who
feels it to an unusual degree:
When I'm very stoned, I find myself switching constantly between
two or more frames of mind. In both of them I am aware of being
stoned, but they differ in their effects.
One frame of mind, which I call A, allows me to really get into
being stoned. I have insights and revelations, I feel good, let
my imagination run free, and generally have a good time. In A,
reality is secondary and I rely on instinct to deal with real
In B, the other frame of mind, I deal more directly with reality,
and am more aware of the world around me. I can get into a conversation
or a piece of music, or if I'm driving, I can concentrate on that.
The neat thing about all of this is the way I can switch from
one frame of mind to the other. It can happen, initially, as often
as every few seconds, and once I figure out what triggers the
switch, I can do the switching at will. For example, it
might have something to do with whether my eyes are open or shut.
Sometimes just changing the direction of my gaze can cause the
jump from A to B or back again, or it could be something as simple
as changing positions in my chair.
And if I have started a nice fantasy in A, I can switch to B
temporarily, and then jump right back to A and pick it up
right where I left off.
Related to double consciousness is the ability of most smokers
to "come down" or "turn off" the marijuana
high when it becomes inappropriate or interfering. Typically,
this occurs when the user is pleasantly stoned at home in the
evening. The phone rings with an urgent business matter, or bad
news, or somebody the person doesn't care to speak with while
stoned. Most experienced smokers can handle this situation easily,
although this usually involves some kind of sacrifice or payment,
a using up of part of the energy of the high, in order to deal
properly with the problem or person at hand. Novice smokers routinely
find themselves undergoing a kind of on-the-spot training, in
which they must suddenly cope with a minor emergency when they
are stoned. Usually, to their surprise, they function perfectly
well, and this in turn provides reassurance and confidence for
the future. Often, there is a sense of mastery and pride that
the user feels after meeting such a challenge, and a sense of
control that contributes to the enjoyment.
Why People Smoke
People use marijuana for a variety of reasons. The most famous,
peer pressure, is indeed one of them, but it is actually far down
on the list, and is much less prominent a reason than the public
apparently believes. The most important reason that people
try marijuana is out of curiosity; they stay with it if the experience
is fun or enjoyable or stimulating.
Our society finds it profoundly difficult to accept the notion
that some people use marijuana and other nonmedical drugs primarily
because they lead to experiences that are fun, or meaningful,
or both. Built upon formidable Puritan roots, American culture
retains the lingering legacy of, in Mencken's famous phrase, "the
haunting fear that someone somewhere may be happy." That
a rational and responsible person might deliberately perform an
act that may not be socially useful or in any way related to the
work ethic is a difficult notionunless, of course, that person
needs to use drugs. And so, in each decade of the twentieth
century, society has invented various reasons to explain the increased
use of alcohol, cannabis, and other drugs, including Prohibition,
the end of Prohibition, economic depression, war, social tensions,
political alienation, conformity, nonconformity, and most recently,
the youthful rebellion and the "me decade." By now it
should be clear that while such "reasons" come and go
with the years, the use of drugs continues to escalate without
regard to the explanations.
In the 1960s, social generalizations about drug use did make some
sense. In that era, marijuana smoking was something more than
a personal decision; it constituted an act of belonging to a specific
subculture or community, with its own norms and values. These
days, however, marijuana smokers belong to the same society as
everybody else; one result of this change is that even those smokers
who appear to use the drug casually have often given serious thought
to their reasons for smoking. For some, this reflection may be
due to their discomfort in performing an illegal act; for those
who find themselves sharing most of society's values and norms,
marijuana smoking constitutes an act of defiance they feel they
must explain, if only to themselves.
When marijuana users talk about what they find attractive in marijuana,
they often mention its effect of allowing the mind to wander almost
effortlessly, visiting new places and returning to familiar ones,
and focusing in on issues and objects that often lie beyond the
normal range of concerns. The focus may be on the secrets of the
universe, or a sudden preoccupation with the colors or the pattern
of the living room rug; marijuana generally does not respect the
operative boundaries that separate the ridiculous from the sublime.
When one's normal range of concerns becomes fixed on depressing,
trivial or unproductive topics, marijuana may help the user get
unstuck, as this research scientist explains:
I smoke pot because I enjoy the idea that one minute my mind and
body are tired, confused and depressed, and the next minute it
doesn't matter. The high has built up unknowingly while I've been
smoking, and the doors of my mind have been opened. My problems
and frustrations don't go floating away, but rather, they are
no longer important for a while. I can still conjure them up if
I want there are, after all, still bills to pay, doctors to visit,
relatives to deal with. But where does such worrying get you?
Often, marijuana allows its users to shift their minds away from
their own problems and to focus instead on the world immediately
around them. And that world, the smokers report, is suddenly more
interesting, more alive, more rich with details and possibilities.
A retired professor mentions that he smokes whenever he wants
to enjoy what he is doing even more. "Life is beautiful,"
he says, "why not make it transcendent?" Many smokers
find that when they are stoned, they appreciate ordinary things
more deeply and become more intensely involved in routine experiences.
This is in sharp contradiction to the popular view that smokers
use marijuana to "escape" or to avoid coping with "reality."
Indeed, both of these uses are possible and, particularly in the
case of younger smokers, not uncommon. But most adult smokers
find it difficult to use marijuana as an escape, because it simply
doesn't work well in that capacity. As a law student put it, "If
I smoke to forget some important problem, I'll usually end up
thinking about it all the harder. Very often, in fact, I'll be
able to solve it, or at least to understand why I have it."
Some smokers argue, with respect to those who do use marijuana
to escape, that it is unfair that such people are judged more
harshly than their friends and colleagues who escape in other
ways, through television, for example, or music, movies, friends,
sleeping, work, or a dozen other routes. Every recreational activity
has the potential of being used both well and poorly, and marijuana
is no exception. As one smoker puts it, "If something you
do for pleasure gets in the way of your life, then it's escape.
Otherwise, it's play."
Besides, argue some smokers, a certain amount of escape is both
necessary and desirable. A Detroit family described the role played
by marijuana in the recuperation of their daughter, a high school
student who had been bedridden for months by back surgery. During
this period, she used marijuana daily to cope with the pain and
the boredom. She regards her own use as escape, but defends it
as being essential to her mental health and happiness during an
otherwise miserable winter.
But for most smokers, escape is simply not a real issue. On the
contrary; for many, marijuana leads to a greater sense of involvement
that may, paradoxically, be experienced in terms of detachment
or separation. In such cases, marijuana may help the user isolate
a particular problem, task, or experience, acting as a kind of
chemical coloring agent that shows component parts in relief from
the whole that surrounds them. A man who works for an insurance
company describes how this process works for him:
Smoking marijuana helps me see my life as a continuous whole.
It allows me to step back from my daily concerns and see the direction
in which I am headed. If I then feel I should make adjustments,
marijuana helps me decide how to proceed. By removing myself temporarily
from my daily concerns, I can see how certain little thingsan
argument I may have had, for exampleare just not as important
as I had once thought. Not only that, but it also makes me feel
that the only way to get past such a problem is by constructive
action, rather than mournful brooding.
Claire, a radio announcer who studied philosophy in college, makes
a similar point about the relationship between detachment and
Plato believed that the true philosopher had to step back from
the everyday worldthe Agora, the marketplace, he called it;
there, men are too busy with the mundane details of life: buying
and selling, eating and sleeping, taking care of business. To
find truth and beauty, Plato said, a man has to remove himself
from the business of the everyday world.
For me, marijuana serves such a function. It is a way of stepping
out of the routine, and gaining a fresh perspective. It allows
me to take the time to simply enjoy and appreciate what is going
on, to see beauty in everyday things that I would otherwise never
How Smokers Know They Are High
For some people, the change from "straight" to stoned
comes gradually, and there is no distinct point where one sensibility
yields to another. Other smokers find that marijuana hits them
all at once: "Five brains open up in my head."
An Ohio woman notices that every time she smokes marijuana from
a batch with which she is unfamiliar, she experiences a period
of waiting and wondering, not knowing what exactly is going to
happen, or even whether she is going to feel stoned. Smokers who
have been high hundreds of times sometimes have a similar experience.
David, a journalist for a Jewish magazine, describes smoking as
involving a "leap of faith" and compares the process
to that of climbing a ladder whose top step is missing. "You
have to take a bit of a jump," he explains, "and if
you don't make the effort, you won't get high. There's no free
Judy, a psychotherapist, often finds herself concerned that she
won't get high after smoking; to compensate, she will have what
she calls "an insurance toke." For example, if she has
smoked with friends before going out to dinner, she may, upon
arriving at the restaurant, remain in the car an extra moment
for the insurance toke, to make sure she will remain high through
the meal. The insurance toke serves another purpose; generally,
the most interesting and energetic parts of the high occur within
a few minutes of smoking, and to achieve the best results, some
users prefer to smoke smaller quantities of marijuana spread over
several hours, rather than a larger amount all at once.
One way that smokers know they are stoned is that they begin to
experience a certain distance between themselves and the rest
of the world, which they often describe as similar to the relationship
between a film or a play and its audience. Some smokers report
that they see themselves as the audience; others feel like the
actors. "I find myself making dramatic gestures as though
somebody's watching me, even though nobody is" is how one
woman describes it.
Similarly, many smokers experience the world around them in staged
or dramatic terms. One person calls it "the capital letters
syndrome," explaining, "When I'm high, the person I'm
with is not just standing around the kitchen making cookies, but
is instead Standing Around the Kitchen Making Cookies. The actions
seem more important, more deliberate, and more meaningful."
David makes a similar point, saying that when he is stoned, he
notices that his friends become an exaggerated extension of themselves:
It's very different from the effects of alcohol, which seems to
change people in a different way. On marijuana, sloppy people
get sloppier, tidy people are continually emptying ashtrays, witty
people become even more clever, and funny people are a riot. Unfortunately,
boring people become excruciatingly boring, although they are
often easier to tolerate because I too am stoned, and I'm usually
more flexible and less uptight.
My friends become so very much more themselves, almost to the
point of being self-parodies. I think to myself: here is Joel
becoming so Joel, Eva being the essential Eva, and Leora as a
caricature of herself.
Some smokers feel this way about themselves, as well. Laurence
McKinney, a Boston writer and educator, explains why:
There are parts of youin fact, 95 percent of youthat are
like everybody else. Physically, you're almost exactly like everybody
else. But your personality is different. How you view things,
your likes and dislikes, the various elements which make up who
you are, these are different as well. This has to do with the
higher cortical centers in your brain. Now here comes marijuana,
which is suddenly going to speed up the entire operation, like
pouring grease onto a fire. So for about an hour and a half, you
are going to be very much yourself. Every person becomes much
more themselves. And the things that particularly interest you
normally will become fascinating when you're stoned.
There appears to be no standard way in which people experience
and identify the moment wherein they know for sure that they are
stoned, and not all smokers experience that moment consciously.
For some, it may be a physical sensation in the body, or a certain
familiar mental process. For a Wisconsin teacher, it is a series
of perceptual changes that she describes:
Within a few seconds of taking a toke or two, the show gets on
the road. If the marijuana is good, I can tell right away. Little
visual scenes, like the arrangement of the salt and pepper shakers
on the table, or the linoleum patterns, will start to hint at
inner meaning. Across the room, the sparkle of an aluminum pot
becomes a sly wink. The radio music from the hall starts to manifest
itself with a new clarity, as though the radio and I were the
last living things in the world.
When I get up, my motions feel exaggerated, goofy, entrancing.
Somebody comes into the room and we get into a conversation. All
attention is on the subject at hand. At some point I might mention
that I'm stoned; the other person says she hasn't noticed, and
I wonder how that could be.
Relating to Marijuana
Almost by definition, committed smokers enjoy a relationship with
marijuana. "If I go for a week or two without smoking,"
says a Philadelphia clergyman, "I feel like I haven't been
home." But among smokers there exists a wide range of attitudes
toward the drug, depending on such factors as the frequency with
which they use it, their age, and the attitudes of the culture
around them. There are smokers for whom marijuana is barely a
drug at all; they use it habitually and have long ago stopped
getting high. At the other end of the spectrum are those who use
marijuana as a kind of miracle drug, who ascribe to it an endless
string of positive characteristics, sometimes viewing it as a
kind of sacrament that must be treated as something special in
order for the user to fully enjoy and appreciate its gifts:
Grass gives you time, a very precious gift, to think about what
you did today, and what you're going to do tomorrow, and also
what you did yesterday, and why. You learn the reasons for the
things you do, and it lets you learn quickly, without wasting
much time. All dope is good for the experienced user, but you
have to know how to use it instead of lose it, or else it's wastedand
so are you. And so is the time you've used up without learning
This approach is similar to the quasi-religious attitude of those
smokers who view marijuana in terms of a natural product that
has been put on earth specifically for the enjoyment and enlightenment
of human beings. A college freshman explains:
Like trees, earth and water, pot is truly a gift from heaven.
It makes you happy, confident and patient. It makes me truly enjoy
people and enjoy living. If you go up to a complete stranger and
ask if they want to get high, chances are they will jump at the
opportunity. I came within an inch of going to prison once for
possession of marijuana, but I'll never quit getting high. I have
never met anyone who regrets that he has started smoking, and
I believe that everybody should try it once in his life.
For Judy, this feeling occurs only occasionally, when marijuana
A particularly wonderful thing is to come upon some dope by surprise.
Like on a Saturday afternoon: my husband and I have driven around
trying to buy furniture, and we're on each other's nerves and
fighting. We decide to treat ourselves to Chinese food. It sounds
like a great idea, we are both thinking, but it's too bad we don't
have any dope.
Then one of us gets the brilliant notion that there may be a roach
in the ashtray, and lo and behold, there is! Actually, there are
several, but there is only one just big enough to help erase the
cares of the day, and allow us to laugh at them and enhance our
The "roach in the ashtray" experience occurs infrequently,
and it really has to, by definition; it is most authentic and
most gratifying if it's a surprise. For many smokers, there is
an inverse relationship between the frequency with which they
smoke and the extent to which they value marijuana. Carol is a
psychiatric nurse in her mid-thirties who smokes only once or
twice a month. Her life by no means revolves around marijuana,
and yet it is clearly important to her:
Sometimes I have found myself thinking: this particular high tonight
is worth the whole cost of this ounce, even if it's fifty dollars.
Obviously, this is one item in which I'm getting my money's worth.
I really don't flinch anymore if the ounce is fifty dollars. I
know I'll keep it a long time and get immeasurable pleasure from
Part of a smoker's relationship with marijuana may involve a personal
understanding of how it works, of what it means to the smoker.
Occasionally, a smoker will explain this in metaphorical terms.
Marijuana, says an Oklahoma man, "is truly a weed that turns
to a flower in your mind." David uses a different image:
I think there's a lot of mythology about how grass works. If you
open a window, for example, and see a lovely view, you surely
don't assume that the window caused the view. And yet people
are always making that mistake about grass. It doesn't give you
anything new; it gives you access to new things. The results are
the same, but the process is different.
1. Epigraph Jack S. Margolis and Richard Clorfene, A
Child's Garden of Grass (New York, Pocket Books edition, 1975),
p. 26. (back)
2. "Only two effects": Andrew T. Weil, "Cannabis,"
Science Journal 5a: no. 3 (September 1969): 36-42. (back)
3. The Boston University study is described in Andrew T. Weil,
Norman E. Zinberg, and Judith M. Nelsen, "Clinical and Psychological
Effects of Marihuana in Man," Science 162 (13 December
1968): 1234-42 (back)
4. A complete list of effects, as recorded in the Weil-Zinberg
experiments and in other studies, appears in the second appendix
to this book. (back)
5. A fuller description of the effects of the major cannabinoids
appears in chapter 1 l. (back)
6. Making hashish: Marihuana Reconsidered, p. 39. (back)
7. Tart: On Being Stoned, p. 13. (back)
8. William James: The Varieties of Religious Experience (New
York, 1935), p. 298. (back)
9. Weil's view of altered states: Andrew Weil, The Natural
Mind, p. 96. For another view of Weil's book, see Lester Grinspoon's
review in the New York Times Book Review, (15 October 1972),
pp. 26-28. (back)
10. The public's attitude toward drugs: see Norman E. Zinberg
and John A. Robertson, Drugs and the Public. (back)
11. "Five brains": Joseph Berke and Calvin C. Hernton,
The Cannabis Experience, p. 62. (back)