By ELIZABETH RENZETTI
Saturday, June 30, 2018
In July, 1943, as the celebrated jazz drummer Gene Krupa was heading to San Quentin after being convicted of possessing marijuana and using a teenager to carry it, Time Magazine decided to explain this whole drug business to its readers.
"Marijuana may be called muggles, mooter, Mary Warner, Mary Jane, Indian hay, loco weed, love weed, bambalacha, mohasky, mu, moocah, grass, tea or blue sage," the magazine noted.
"Cigarets made from it are killers, goofbutts, joy-smokes, giggle-smokes or reefers."
The article attempts to convey why anyone might become an enthusiast after smoking a goof-butt: "He has a sensation of floating on air, or falling softly on waves. His ears ring sweetly, his head swims pleasantly, his limbs are langorously heavy, his hunger grows, especially for sweets. Curious things happen to his perceptions of space and time."
Which, if you think about, is quite a pitch for becoming a stoner and following Krupa to the hoosegow (he was released after 84 days, by the way). The Time article arrived at a crucial point in the cultural understanding of the marijuana user: It was published seven years after the film Reefer Madness portrayed smokers as jittery degenerates, and six years after The Globe and Mail opined that cannabis causes insanity and "has been known to turn quiet, respectable youth into raving murderers." Time magazine, in a remarkably progressive stand, wasn't buying it: "in spite of the legends, no case of physical, mental or moral degeneration has ever been traced exclusively to marijuana." And there lies the pothead conundrum that popular culture has wrestled with in the past century. Is the stoner a couch-bound waster or a ruleflouting outlaw? A reprobate or a visionary? Is he Jeff Spicoli ordering a pizza in class, or Pablo Picasso painting one of the masterpieces of the Rose period? Is he even necessarily a he? As we move into a time when cannabis is legal and accompanied by luxury vaporizers and gourmet edibles, the cultural representation of the weed-smoker is changing along with it.
We might think of it as the stoner's progress.
"There's a shift away from the image of the lazy stoner, or this idea that cannabis makes you forgetful or unable to function," says Amanda Siebert, author of the forthcoming Little Book of Cannabis and former cannabis editor at The Georgia Straight.
Once, celebrities would hide their bongs when Vanity Fair came calling; now, they appear on talk shows and compete to tell the funniest stories about being high. On film and TV, potheads have gone from the beach to the boardroom. Yes, Seth Rogen and Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg are stoners, but so are Rihanna and Lady Gaga and Sarah Silverman. Even Oprah has partaken of the herb, if you believe the account of her best friend, Gayle King.
The cultural history of cannabis in the United States and Canada can't be separated from the racist politics that criminalized it, or the sexism that made it, for decades, an all-bro zone.
I'm going to trace the stoner's cultural journey through three distinct types: the visionary; the outsider; and ladies who toke. This is necessarily a small and subjective list; I apologize now if your favourite stoner didn't make it.
THE VISIONARY For the legendary trumpeter Louis Armstrong, who smoked three cigar-sized joints daily, the drug he called "gage" was a release: "We always looked at pot as a sort of medicine," he told his biographer Max Jones. "It was a cheap drunk and with much better thoughts than one that's full of liquor." Armstrong was arrested for possession in 1930 outside the Cotton Club in Los Angeles, but that wasn't a deterrent: He was always in the tribe of the "viper," the jazz musicians who liberated the imagination with cannabis rather than drowning it with alcohol.
Although marijuana's been used by humans for more than 3,000 years, for most of that time, it's been a tool for creativity and spiritual insight rather than pleasure, historian John Charles Chasteen writes in his book, Getting High: Marijuana Through the Ages.
Cannabis has "consistently been used by people seeking meditative insights, a stimulus to creativity, direct access to the spirit world, or the experience of transcending earthly cares to enter a mystical union with God and the cosmos."
As Chasteen points out, there is evidence that some drugs suppress the "default-mode network" in the brain, which perhaps accounts for the free-thinking associated with cannabis. "Suppress the brain's conductor, it seems, and you unleash powers of improvisation, and start to get jazz."
Artists such as Pablo Picasso and novelists such as Norman Mailer also unfettered their minds with pot and hash, but the jazz club was the most fertile ground for the freethinking hedonist.
Jazz clubs helped spread the popularity of cannabis throughout the United States and a racist backlash against the musicians led to pot's criminalization in 1937 (it was added to the schedule of restricted drugs in Canada in 1923). The federal U.S. drug agency was run by a bigot named Harry Anslinger, who wrote: "There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use."
For decades, the stoner was demonized as a weakling and a freak, a bent stick in a straight world. Admitting to marijuana use meant banishment from the world of tradition. In 1969, the astrophysicist and astronomer Carl Sagan wrote an anonymous essay about the mind-expanding virtues of pot, which made him appreciate art, sex, light and the simple delights of a potato.
The entire essay is virtuoso, but one passage deserves to be appreciated in full: "I can remember one occasion, taking a shower with my wife while high, in which I had an idea on the origins and invalidities of racism in terms of gaussian distribution curves. It was a point obvious in a way, but rarely talked about. I drew the curves in soap on the shower wall, and went to write the idea down.
One idea led to another, and at the end of about an hour of extremely hard work I found I had written eleven short essays on a wide range of social, political, philosophical, and human biological topics."
At the crest of the hippie wave, the squares were in charge, but the stoners saw the truth. Those who smoked thought they'd been given a special glimpse behind the curtain, at the gears and levers manipulating a corrupt society.
As Allen Ginsberg wrote in The Great Marijuana Hoax, his famous 1966 essay for The Atlantic Monthly, "If marijuana is a hoax, what is Money? What is the War in Vietnam? What are the Mass Media? ... Already millions of people have gotten high and looked at the images of their Presidents and governors and representatives on television and seen that all were betraying signs of false character."
THE OUTSIDERS In 2005, national treasure and "marijuana connoisseur" Pierre Berton demonstrated how to role a perfect cone joint on Rick Mercer Report: "Remember, Canada, it's a loose joint that leaves unsightly toke burns on your chair or your bow tie."
It was a perfect, multilayered joke, subverting the stereotype of the buttoned-up elder statesman while playing to another stereotype - that all Canadians, even the ones whose books we read as children, like to get high.
Even if all of us don't like to get high, enough of us are fine with the idea for Canada to become the second country to legalize pot.
And, over the years, it is a triumvirate of Canadian comedians, rooted in different parts of the country, who planted the idea of the cool, maverick stoner.
Tommy Chong perhaps best exemplifies the journey of the pothead as cannabis gains legitimacy: He achieved his first fame driving around in a weed-filled truck with his buddy Cheech Marin in a series of hit movies, smoking joints the size of toilet-paper rolls. Caught up in the frenzy of the U.S. war on drugs, he was jailed for nine months in 2003 for selling mail-order bongs. Now, he's a pot entrepreneur, selling his Chong's Choice strain at marijuana dispensaries. He is the stoner who laughed last.
Chong's journey reflected the changing face of cannabis in popular culture: As the age of Aquarius died, pot was eclipsed by the drug of crisp twenties and crisp shirt collars - cocaine. Who wanted to be left behind on the sofa, watching old episodes of The Flintstones and eating Cheetos, when there were millions to be grabbed with only the help of a thin white line on a mirror?
At some point in the nineties, the stoner regained his cool, precisely because he remained unbuttoned in a world being choked by its necktie: He was the Dude in The Big Lebowski, telling his lady friend, Maude, "Lotta strands in old Duder's head. Luckily I'm adhering to a pretty strict drug regimen to keep my mind, you know, limber." He was Slater, the high-school kid in Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused, enthusiastically relating a history lesson in which Martha Washington prepared "a big fat bowl" for George at the end of the day. Later, he was Harold and Kumar, tripping on their search for the perfect burger.
And, at the height of his powers, he was Seth Rogen, the tightly wound middle man who discovers freedom while getting high, like a stoner Jack Lemmon. Rogen's success in Hollywood belies the stereotype of the unambitious pothead: "I smoke a lot of weed when I write, generally speaking," he once told MTV. "I don't know if it helps me write. It makes me not mind that I'm writing."
Finally, and less aspirationally, on Canada's other coast we find the goodhearted petty criminals of The Trailer Park Boys, the longrunning mockumentary series about the inhabitants of a trailer park in Dartmouth, N.S. They smoke weed; they grow weed; they try to profit from weed, with disastrous results. The trio's philosophy is aptly summed up by Bubbles, played by Mike Smith: "You go to school to learn, or you go to school to sell drugs."
There is nothing noble, uplifting or particularly creative about the boys' smoking, but there is something satisfyingly bratty in their rejection of polite society.
They demonstrate only the vaguest bit of remorse when caught hitting the bong by their thirdgrade teacher, who says: "There's always time to change the path you're on, boys."
They do not, as you can imagine, stop smoking. But we all get the joke: It's funny because she's a woman and women are disapproving scolds who don't like pot.
Isn't that right?
LADIES WHO TOKE Look around today and you realize just how ridiculous that is. If the current geyser of women's pot-smoking has a cultural wellspring, I'd argue it lies in the moment when Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda share a doob and plot revenge against their harassing boss in the film 9 to 5. They're having such a good time, dressed in their work clothes, eating barbeque, laughing and plotting Dabney Coleman's death. Every woman watching wanted to be one of them.
That was in 1980; it's taken more than 30 years for women dope-smokers to hit the mainstream. Stoner society has long been a bro-zone, if you think of the waste cases mentioned above, or the head shops of the 1990s, with their Red Hot Chili Peppers posters and eau de Doritos. As Canadian pot entrepreneur Alison Gordon, CEO of 48 North Cannabis Co., says, "For a long time, you had this whole Cheech and Chong culture and this idea that women don't get high, which is just not true."
Now, she sees a change on the horizon, or more specifically, on social media: "It used to be mostly men showing themselves doing bong hits, and now you have young women with high-profile Instagram feeds showing themselves getting high, rolling joints.
It's really exploded."
If women feel more comfortable - especially young ones - it may be because they see people who look like them getting high on screen and on stage, not accidentally or apologetically, but because they want to. Amy Schumer's character in Trainwreck hauls away on her one-hitter, much to her boyfriend's disapproval; the brilliant comedy Broad City is basically Laverne and Shirley updated and cloaked in a haze of pot smoke; in Ocean's Eight, the hacker played by Rihanna smokes a blunt while plotting an intricate jewel heist.
At this point, with the Martha Stewartification of cannabis on the horizon, the question has to be: Is there any remnant of the counterculture left in pot smoking? Or has it become the cultural equivalent of nudity - outre once, now hardly raising a shrug? When former pothead Miley Cyrus sang her anthem Dooo It on the MTV Awards in 2015 ("Yeah, I smoke pot/yeah, I love peace") it was not the word "pot" that caused consternation, but the expletive later in the song, which was bleeped.
Toking, fine; swearing, not so much.
Cyrus was a fixture on the talkshow circuit, discussing her use of weed - her "first and true love" - and then her abandonment of it.
She existed in the new rank of celebrities happy to promote their smoking alongside their new film or album or book. Perhaps this is the logical last phase in the cultural life of the stoner, the sputtering of a dying star. After the visionary and the outcast and the pioneer, there is the party bore, not on the fringes, but at the centre of the crowd.
Singer Lady Gaga speaks on stage at the 2018 MTV Movie & TV Awards in Santa Monica, Calif., on June 16. She is among the many celebrities who are vocal about their marijuana use, alongside Rihanna, Seth Rogen and Sarah Silverman.
Above: Louis Armstrong, pictured in 1932, smoked three cigar-sized joints daily and was arrested for possession in 1930. Top right: Astronomer Carl Sagan, seen in 1981, authored an anonymous essay about the mind-expanding virtues of pot. Above right: Tommy Chong, in Toronto in 2005, may best exemplify the journey of the pothead as cannabis gains legitimacy.
LEFT, TOP RIGHT: AP; ABOVE RIGHT: DONALD WEBER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL