Arts & Culture

Pot odyssey

An author looks at marijuana from all the angles.

Peter Ames Carlin is the author, most recently, of Bruce, a biography of Bruce Springsteen.

When Harry J. Anslinger became the nation’s first drug czar in 1930, he came to develop a deep loathing for marijuana. It’s hard to say why. Was he philosophically opposed to any variety of perception-shifting substance? Was he protecting his department from budget cuts? Was he in the pocket of corporate interests? No one knows for sure.

What does seem apparent is that he was willing to say or do anything to keep Americans safe from the terrible scourge of reefer. Anslinger had no idea what marijuana’s effects actually were, so he filled the gap with his own trippy imagination. The evil weed, he railed, transformed users into “bestial demoniacs, filled with a mad lust to kill.” To drive the message home he pulled together a church group and a distillery to produce scare movies such as Reefer Madness, which went to such extremes it would eventually be seen as a classic comedy. Anslinger’s testimony before Congress would have been just as hilarious, if it hadn’t been so baldly racist. The vast majority of marijuana smokers, he said, were minorities, “Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers,” who were not only prone to murderous rampages when they were high, but would also have sex with white women. Horrors.

Total nonsense, but it worked. Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, and the drug became verboten in the United States.

As Alfred Ryan Nerz argues in his latest book, Marijuanamerica: One Man’s Quest to Understand America’s Dysfunctional Love Affair with Weed, the federal government’s continuing battle against marijuana has little grounding in the drug’s actual threat to society. Pot’s active ingredients are relatively benign (it is nearly impossible to overdose on it), and while some studies indicate that heavy use may result in memory loss, a diminished immune system, and a chronic inability to get off of the couch and make something of yourself, young man, it also has more than a few medical uses. Scientists and doctors have concluded that consuming marijuana can relieve the symptoms of glaucoma, ease chronic pain, and palliate the nausea and weight loss that plagues AIDS sufferers and chemotherapy patients.

No matter. The US Department of Justice lists marijuana as a Schedule I substance, a status it shares with the likes of heroin. Today, an increasingly vocal group of scientists and doctors want to change that, as do the governments of states, most notably California, that have decriminalized weed for medicinal use. Meanwhile, voters in Washington and Colorado chose recently to legalize the drug for any and all uses.

The Feds are not amused. But Nerz, a journalist who specializes in full-body immersions into his subjects, recognized a double-headed opportunity. If he made for the weedy frontiers of America’s pot-centric communities, he could explore America’s pot culture while also coming to terms with his own relationship with the drug. As the book opens, Nerz’s life is a mess: the 38-year-old writer is jobless, basically homeless, girlfriendless, and deeply in debt. Long accustomed to easing his troubles with a strong dose of herb, he has come to wonder whether the drug relieves his problems or causes them. “My relationship with weed started to feel dysfunctional,” he writes. “Smoking pot became less social, and more a solitary prelude to just about everything.”

Eager to see how the drug weaves into the lives of other users, Nerz visits a middle-aged stockbroker whose horrendous pain from a bone disease is only alleviated when he smokes pot. Other patients afflicted by disease tell Nerz of similarly transformative results; the mother of a severely autistic child says her son only communicates with his family after he has eaten a pot-laced brownie.

Nerz’s travels take him to medical marijuana shops on the boardwalk in Venice, California, to a marijuana conference and a pot-researching psychologist at Columbia University, and on a trip with a smuggler to an undisclosed location in an undisclosed city on the eastern seaboard. He may come off like a slacker, but Nerz is a sharp-eyed storyteller with a solid sense for pacing and detail. He makes the best of these skills when, midway through his odyssey, he finds himself among a group of relatively big-time marijuana growers holed up in the mountains of northern California. Many of their concerns center on basic professional agriculture—keeping the plants healthy, worrying about bugs and soil chemistry, and so on. They are heartwarmingly eager to keep their product organic. But the criminality of the business keeps cropping up. Paranoia reigns, as you’d expect when enormous amounts of contraband meet piles of untraceable cash. Afternoon parties regularly turn into all-night bacchanals. Heavier drugs appear, then guns. Nerz is both repelled and attracted.

Too smart to end his story at the end of his trip, Nerz confronts the morning after with eyes open. He attends Marijuana Anonymous meetings and finds no power, higher or otherwise. Most in the predominantly young group are there to satisfy a judge’s order, and few can hide their contempt. More than 40 million Americans—lawyers, doctors, hedge fund managers, realtors, pop stars, and layabouts—consume the stuff with some regularity, with few, if any, dark ramifications. Does that make them all criminals, or does it reveal the folly in the criminal code? Nerz quotes former Seattle police chief and legalization advocate Norm Stamper, who said: “Any law disobeyed by more than 100 million Americans … is bad public policy.”

Nerz concludes the burden should rest with the individual, who can identify her “own personal Aristotelian mean of marijuana use,” whatever that turns out to be. As long as you don’t turn into a bestial demoniac with a mad lust to kill, then why should anyone else care? Consider the billions of dollars spent annually to track, capture, and imprison marijuana producers and users—and the billions that could be raised from taxing the not-all-that-harmful product—and reefer madness takes on an entirely new meaning.

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