Following a few unsuccessful attempts to experience a marijuana high in my late teens in high school—circa 1969—and a handful of slightly more interesting experiments in college, I didn’t truly experience the magical realm of a pleasurable, altered cannabis state until the age of 23, in 1975. It must have been a far more potent strain than any I had ever tried.
I was on a winter’s day hike through a snow-covered forest with a friend on a sunny day in New England. Within minutes of inhaling, our surroundings were transformed into an animated Disney reality: every ice crystal on each tiny branch of every little weed, shrub and towering tree glistened with an other-worldly glow, and I gazed in absolute awe and wonderment at the veins in each individual leaf, seemingly hand-calligraphed, and all of it was abiding in a cartoon paradise.
I felt overwhelmed with joy, gratitude, and mystery. It was the vey first time my “doors of perception” had swung wide open, and I had a glimpse of a parallel universe, coexistent with the world I ordinarily inhabited, that was infinitely more vibrant, radiant, alive, and well, a lot more fun!
Ah, the good old days. Like a first love, or a first anything, it never happened quite that way again.
Though God knows I tried to repeat the experience. And then tried again; and again. Perhaps some 10,000 times over the next 40 years. But clearly I’m a slow learner, and it took several decades for it to gradually sink in that not only wasn’t marijuana ever going to provide me with access to that profoundly mystical portal again, the truth was, it had often grown more and more unpleasant as time wore on. The law of diminishing returns. As Robin Williams said of his addiction to cocaine, “Anything that makes me paranoid and impotent, give me more of that!” My version would have been, “Anything that makes me afraid, ashamed, withdrawn, isolated, and filled with regret about my entire life, let’s do it again tomorrow!”
For a long time, however, smoking grass for me was a 50-50 crapshoot. After a few puffs, I would either immediately plunge into a hellhole of a variety of miserable mental, emotional, and physical states, or I’d be transported to an exalted realm of inspired perception. On the downside of the equation, my heart would race wildly, which my body and mind naturally interpreted as fear; the fear would fuel a series of thoughts concerning the worst possible catastrophic outcomes waiting for me just up the road a bit; often my genetic disposition to buried Holocaust terrors, from my mother’s side, would suddenly surface and despite being in the safety of my own home, I may as well have been hiding in Anne Frank’s attic, waiting to be discovered, carted away and burnt to a crisp; I’d feel impossible shame that I’d wasted my life and made all the wrong choices and it was way too late to salvage myself from the ruins; unbearable grief would gurgle up as if from a long-dormant volcano living deep inside my belly like a steel brick; and all of this would be coupled with an utter inability to interact with any other human being. (See, how could anyone pass all that up?)
OR…I could smoke a little cannabis and be spared all of the above, feel instantly restored to my center and positive outlook, completely energized and creative and find myself painting or playing music for hours, or writing through the night until dawn, on fire with inspiration. This potentially positive result always seemed worth the gamble of extreme suffering each time.
It still does; just not very often anymore.
Although many people report that the “brilliant” work they do while stoned is usually seen as pure drivel and nonsense the next day, that was never the case for me. I actually created some wild and brilliant paintings while under the influence; poured my heart out in song and music and often healing tears; and as for writing, I discovered that if I wrote my first draft straight, the editing process while high would always provide new dimensions, associative leaps and whirligigs of language that truly enhanced the work even when read in the light of sobriety the next day. Also, contrary to the zoned-out, couch-potato stoner, I had what one psychiatrist termed a “paradoxical” response to cannabis, and would often be stimulated to perform prolonged physical activity—either hop on my bike for a 20-mile ride or put on music and dance for several hours, garden all day, or deep clean the house.
Along these lines, contrary to smokers who often have what seem to be revelatory ideas while stoned only to realize they are absurd and ridiculous the next day, I made a vow early on to follow through and take action on all of my off-beat ideas while high so that they wouldn’t simply vanish in a haze of smoke, like a dream you can’t quite remember in the morning. As an example, I was living in a mountain community one summer and had the idea, while stoned, of a group art project to paint my car. The next day found me standing in a circle of 15 people around my vehicle, each equipped with a different-colored spray paint, maintaining silence as the Second Bach Brandenburg Concerto played through a boom box—all of us completely conscious, present and straight—and 30 minutes later the hand-me-down Oldsmobile Cutlass my Dad gave me had been transformed into a psychedelic art car worthy of Burning Man and would have been the envy of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. (My girlfriend wrote “NOT JUST MARRIED” on the back windshield just before we drove down the mountain and back into the world a few weeks later.)
Years ago I met an otherworldly healer and trance medium in Brazil who told me that every substance has an entity, or a Being, living within it. The energetic presence in cocaine, for example, could be characterized as a man in a white suit and top hat, holding gold coins in each hand. The magic mushroom Being, she explained, is a wizened old Oriental sage, with a knowing twinkle in his eye. And the God/dess of Marijuana is bi-gendered and bi-colored. The male, green energy will empower the user if the substance is approached as a sacrament and used in the service of creativity or spiritual practice. If, instead, one haphazardly smokes weed with no sacred intention, out of boredom and habit, the mad, female, red energy will express her wrath by plummeting the smoker into the depths of misery and paranoia. I found that information useful, and I began to reserve and conserve my marijuana use only for times when I would have a chunk of time alone, able to devote it to creative projects. No longer would my trip to the local dump to unload my trash be sufficient reason to get high (although, I have to say, I did have some deeply profound conversations with the guys who worked there.)
Looking back over my marijuana career, despite the many nightmarish experiences, I have much to be thankful for resulting from this plant that is more and more being acknowledged by legitimate, scientific sources as being useful for a variety of medical ailments, and it is also inching more and more toward legalization for recreational use, begrudgingly recognized as a safer alternative to alcohol and tobacco for those who feel compelled to honor the perennial human aspiration to explore altered states of consciousness.
So now, after decades of use, just when marijuana appears to be approaching a tipping point, on the verge of possibly being legal in most of the United States, it seems I can barely tolerate the stuff! Even during my positive experiences, it was always against the backdrop of at least some underlying paranoia stemming from the awareness that I was breaking the law and could wind up in the slammer if caught in the wrong place at the wrong time by the wrong guy. (In fact, I was arrested once, had a gun pointed to my head and was handcuffed during a local post office sting operation, for receiving five joints in the mail. I copped a plea and gave up my driver’s license for six months and peed into a cup every three weeks for a cute girl named Lisa who worked at the O.A.R., the Offenders Something Something department.)
I waited patiently my whole life for the marijuana stigma to be removed, for that ever-present, uncomfortable edge of breaking the law to be finally lifted; for the medical benefits of cannabis to come to light and be confirmed by science and research; for the relative harmlessness of the herb to become patently obvious; for the thousands of incarcerated, non-violent marijuana users to be exonerated. I’ve waited and waited for all that, and now just when many of those outcomes may finally be looming on the horizon, it seems I am pretty much done with the stuff, for the most part.
It figures. My wife Shari calls me “Contrary Man,” because I often do everything backward. She begs me not to work because it seems that whenever I get a job, it winds up costing us a ton of money somehow. Now that mindfulness meditation has gone mainstream, I’ve stopped meditating. Shari used to refuse to drive in a car with me unless I smoked first, as it relieved her terror and made me a more conscious, present and safe driver. Other people commune with dolphins and are blissed out and transformed; I chose to swim with them in the Bermuda Triangle (seriously) and they completely ignored me.
So I guess this marijuana development is par for the course. Just my luck; but given who I am, it figures. I certainly hope the rest of you have a great time, if and when widespread legalization comes to pass. And I’ll be really sorry to miss the party.