On Legalization

December 11th, 2017

(This is an essay I wrote in the form of testimony to a legislative committee.  the Vermont legislature will be reconsidering legalization of marijuana in the coming session.  I hope they eighty-six forty-two.)

 

This is testimony based on my personal experience about what the people advocating marijuana legalization are trying to sell you.

 

I was sixteen and new to the high school, but I knew what to do with the fat hand rolled cigarette my new friend had given me.  Even though I never had seen one before, I had heard about such things.  So I went to the second floor bathroom in my house, opened the window, put a towel under the door, and smoked it.  By contrast with the harsh tobacco I had tried, I could keep the smoke from this one down.  When I went outside on that sunny summer day, it seemed sunnier than sunny, and I felt happy and relaxed and at ease.  I had not felt so relaxed and at ease for a long time.

 

That was 1968, when pot was a lot weaker than the 10% or more THC content it is purposely bred to now, and thus began the next seventeen years of my life.  By the time I got to college, I was smoking every day, if I possibly could.  I smoked my way through law shcool, rarely attending classes, barely graduating, and then I failed to use my law degree for another eleven years, until after I had stopped smoking.  In the meantime, living in Boston on a near-poverty level stipend from VISTA, I bought pot with whatever money I had left over after paying rent and food, and when I couldn’t afford to buy a lid I stole it from my housemates, sneaking into their rooms when they weren’t there and stealing small amounts, taking roaches out of ashtrays and garbage cans, scraping hash pipes for residue, making sure I could get high every day.

 

I will leave it to others to quibble over whether to call this addiction.  You may say people have the right to make choices, even bad ones.  I did not sign up to spend a quarter of my life in dull stagnation, but that’s what happened.

 

When I say got high every day, I do not mean that pleasant, relaxed, aesthetically heightened state that I found at the beginning, when the birds’ singing was more musical than music and music itself was a transcendental experience – the drum solo in Inna Gadda Da Vida, man! The sound of a zilch bomb dripping into a bucket in a friend’s apartment at 3 a.m.!  Although it is bad enough, in retrospect, to have been so absorbed for so many hours by such meaningless stupidity.

 

Even those experiences eventually were beside the point.  When you’re high all the time, what was intense to begin with gradually greys and dulls to the stuff of quotidian routine.  The point of getting high becomes not the heightened aesthetics, not the jollies, which in any event are no longer so heightened nor so jolly, and in fact now are tinged with numbness and paranoia.  I just passively let stuff happen around me.  I watched a lot of TV.  I felt empty, so I ate a lot of lousy food.  We laugh about munchies, but poisoning yourself with junk food isn’t really funny.  Why are those people are looking at me?  Am I behaving oddly?  How should I know?  No, the point of getting high becomes simply that, to get high.  Furtively digging that little lump of crumpled, browned, saliva stained paper out of a housemate’s wastebasket, unfolding it, and finding a crumb of vegetable matter inside – oh good it’s not a seed – to add to the other little bits of vegetable matter I’ve scrounged and burn them and suck it into my lungs so I can get to that place that is somehow different from the place I would be if I hadn’t done this.

 

Seventeen years of putting my brain on hold, of putting my emotional development on hold.  A pothead might do startling or clever things, but he’s not growing, and although he might feel he is being creative, his ability to create is hampered because his ability to deal with life is impaired.  That impairment is the other point of being high.  Pot makes you stupid, but in a particular way.  It provides a rug and a broom and you can use that  broom to sweep under that rug all the stuff you should be dealing with.  In my case, that included the death of someone I loved and a history of early childhood sexual abuse.  Being high all the time put that stuff so far away from me I couldn’t see it.

 

When you’re high, it’s difficult to sustain a thought or develop an image.  Mental processes may begin with a whoosh of energy, but they soon dissipate into curly digressive tangles.  Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to be a writer.  But writing is hard, particularly the part where you have to make yourself sit down and do it.  I look back at my marijuana years, and see a lot of time spent away from the typewriter, a lot of fitful starts, a lot of crumpled paper and unfinished work, and what little I produced was stunted and shallow.  Because I was.

 

Dealing with the painful stuff of growth and development, and of overcoming trauma, requires sustained effort, a willingness to gaze steadily on ugliness and to accept pain in order to move through it.  But the stoner is hedged off from that mental space by a thicket of distractions and diversions.  Avoiding all that discomfort can help you function, but at a minimal level, and at the cost of stagnation.  You sacrifice your capacity for joy.

 

Listen to the language we use and what it tells you.  Ripped, baked, fried, stoned, blasted, wasted, f-ed up.  These are the words that our culture has grown organically, as it were, out of the experience itself.  They’re more honest and truly descriptive than any of the carefully chosen language you’ll hear from a marketer or advocate.

 

When I stopped smoking pot, I had to play a lot of psychological catch-up, years of therapy for which I am grateful the state employees’ health insurance plan paid.  If I hadn’t had access to that, I might still be struggling merely to function.  Of course this service didn’t come free: thanks to all those state employees and taxpayers for funding it.  Maybe if I’d addressed the stuff I needed to address earlier than I did, I would have addressed it quicker and more cheaply.  I might have written more and better, contributed more to the community as a lawyer,  learned what I needed to become a better husband and parent.  But I smoked pot instead.

 

I am a lucky one.  I did not have a psychotic break, although a pot smoker is 2.6 times more likely to suffer this outcome. I know a few people this happened to.  I’ve known a number of drug casualties, people whose mentation, shall we say, is of the vague and wandering sort.  Don’t we all know people like that?  Nobody got injured in any of my car accidents.  I scrupulously stuck to my self-imposed rule about never using a needle, so I escaped that kind of addiction. Studies now show that opiate addiction is more likely for pot smokers.  Sure, my memories of those seventeen years are haphazard and spotty.  So a quarter of my life is mostly lost to me.  That’s the kind of price the lucky ones pay.

 

Pot is not the safe and innocent pleasure I thought it was, back in the sixties, despite what adults and the government wanted me to believe.  The adults’ standards regarding everything else, from sexuality to religion to the meaning of success, were suspect and crumbling, and the government was lying to me about matters of life and death such as war, and there wasn’t any science to back up their hysterical overreaction to this seemingly benevolent drug.

 

Now there is plenty of science.  Listen to the doctors.

 

Don’t legalize it.  You may ask, what difference would that make?  Criminalization didn’t stop you, Mr. Steinzor, from abusing it.  But legalization would do several things.  It would make it more available, and it would feed into the misperception that this is a harmless recreational activity.  People who want to believe that would seize on this as an authoritative statement.  It’s called confirmation bias.  We tend to focus on information that supports what we want to believe, and we dismiss the rest.  Listen to the doctors.

 

Don’t support legalization unless you really think it would be fine for your kids to spend a substantial portion of their lives grubbing around among the dust bunnies under the couch for a few grains of weed.

 

I am not calling for criminalization – what a disaster that was!  But I’m not saying the status quo is acceptable, either.  Get real about substance abuse.  Get over the notion that a rich person’s God-given right to have lots of money is more important than what I’m talking about.  Raise taxes if you need to.  Fund the mental health system adequately – our so-called “system” of services for adolescents is a sick joke.  Give kids healthy things to do in school and especially out of school – sports, outdoor education, art education, music, theatre, community service.  Invest in programs that support and strengthen families.  Invest in community, in making our villages and towns places where people can have daily encounters with beauty, where they can expect to live creative, productive, happy lives, where the strength of neighborhood supports them.

 

Or, you can give all that money to the marijuana industry.  You’ll never get it back.  Your choice.

This entry was posted on Monday, December 11th, 2017 at 4:53 pm and is filed under Current events, Law, Me. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

2 Responses to “On Legalization”

  1. Joan Price Says:

    “Seventeen years of putting my brain on hold, of putting my emotional development on hold.” Thank you for your courage in disclosing this and writing such a powerful, vulnerable essay. We don’t often hear this side, and you’re brave to voice it.

  2. walter adams Says:

    How do you get someone to do what they don’t want to do?
    Unless you physically take hold of them and force their bodies to move where, when and how you direct, you cannot guarantee their actions.
    And what kind of person do they become with all this compelled virtue?
    What kind of person do you become?
    Modern man has systematically destroyed all of the Institutions that generated virtue and stability; Marriage, the Church, a school system that perpetuated the values of the parent.
    Now they are gone, or impotent and the whirlwind is upon us.
    If you have lost something, go back to where you last saw and look for it there.
    I would say the 50s came close to a society that much more conducive to generating the type of people and environment that didn’t destroy people before they could even get off the ground.
    Was it a Perfect Age?
    No.
    Is this one?
    The 50s had the same problems we have now, but, they didn’t overwhelm the Institutions in place to deal with them.

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