High History: Watching A Cultural Shift On Marijuana

Photo Credit: Junfu Han

Let me say it upfront: I inhaled.

When presidential candidate Bill Clinton said during his 1999 campaign that he smoked marijuana but never inhaled, most people didn’t believe him.

So, here’s my inhale story:

The first time I saw marijuana was as a sophomore in college. A young roomer at the frat house where I lived asked me to stash in my room his cigar box of various pot leaves and buds because he had word that the cops were looking for him.

The cops were a serious, serious threat. People were going to prison for 20 years for having a couple of joints or a dime bag in their possession. The laws were as tough as they could be.

The 1936 movie “Reefer Madness” was mandatory viewing in high school auditoriums and Sgt. Friday was going after pot-heads on “Dragnet.”

Born and raised in a blue-collar city dominated by three shifts a day at steel mills and factories and truck plants, I saw a lot more beer and whiskey than anything else. I knew about marijuana, but I had never seen it and didn’t know of anyone who had it or used it.

That roomer never returned for his pot. I smoked some the way he taught me before he fled — take a tobacco pipe, remove the stem, cover the bowl with aluminum foil, put holes in the foil with a pin, put a pinch of pot on top, light it and puff.

How quaint and old-fashioned.

The first time I saw people smoking an actual joint of grass I thought, wow, what a waste, the smoke billowing away as the reefer was passed.

By the time I graduated from college, marijuana was everywhere. This was the ‘60s, after all. Jack Kerouac and Timothy Leary were cultural icons. Weed went to war in Vietnam and was linked just as closely to antiwar protesters. And then, of course, there was Woodstock.

Even the scholarly author Aldous Huxley tried hallucinogens and wrote about his experience in an essay, “The Doors of Perception,” a line he borrowed from poet William Blake and where that rock group got its name.

Marijuana was right up there with heroin as far as the authorities were concerned. It was very dangerous to grow, carry and smoke, and for some therein lay its appeal.

In many instances, it was illegal tender. A friend told me at the time she was paid in joints for babysitting. Another friend told me he used a couple of homegrown reefers to get a tow-truck driver to give him a free battery jump late at night on the Cross Bronx Expressway.

Marijuana didn’t become illegal until 1937 with the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act. It was a low-profile drug, but even celebrities were not immune to prosecution.

As far back as 1948, actor Robert Mitchum was arrested after a police stakeout in Laurel Canyon, Calif. Bob Denver, star of “Gilligan’s Island,” was busted in 1998 and filmmaker Oliver Stone was arrested for hash possession the following year, the same year actor Matthew McConaughey went down for grass.

And back in 1964, the story goes, Bob Dylan introduced The Beatles to cannabis.

From the ‘60s on, marijuana — forbidden and illegal as it was — was a factor that bound generations together. And to each other.

“The music from the ‘60s stayed popular for many years,” a man born in the ‘70s told me, “leaving most of us born then feeling we missed this awesome time.”

Photo Credit: Associated Press

Speaking of Clinton, the first president younger than I was, he was not alone. George W. Bush is on the record as having used pot, as is JFK. And Barack Obama was always open about his experimentation with pot in college.

Things would never change, most everyone thought. Marijuana would always be an underground drug, just as it was for the black musicians who cultivated its use back in the 1930s.

Those who came after the ‘60s generation, however, often wondered when it would be legalized. And what was taking so long.

Times they were a’changing

After college, most people moved on. Got married, got jobs, had kids.

When I arrived at The Attleboro Sun in 1969, kids were just starting to get busted here at pot parties in the woods. Parents were aghast, confused and afraid.

My bosses at the paper asked me to write a groundbreaking series of stories about pot and drug use. I took more than three weeks out of the office and ended up writing a 10-part series on drug use in The Attleboros, talking to police officers, state officials, rehabbers, parents and local drug users.

I went to The Pit at Attleboro High, where the kids hung out before school and came back to the office with a handful of roaches — joints smoked down and discarded after the bell rang.

Yes, the ills of marijuana, and its use, were taught in school.

I even got $50 from the newspaper to buy some pot on the street, just to prove to our readers how easy it was.

Eyes began to open.

During this period stores peddling marijuana rolling papers, joint-rolling machines and fancy pipes for smoking pot and hash sprang up, operating just inside the law.

The prevailing message of the day was that marijuana was accessible, cheap and non-addictive.

Police prosecution of mere pot smokers declined as the years went by.

“I don’t remember being afraid of cops,” one younger smoker told me. “I was more afraid of the principal, my teachers, my parents.”

A 43-year-old local man told me he tried pot when he was 11 with some older neighborhood kids, but started smoking regularly with his friends when he was a freshman in high school.

“The first time was because I was curious,” he told me. “Later I just found it better than drinking, which was the ‘norm.’”

From that period on, if you approved or you disapproved, marijuana was in, or on the fringe, of your life.

Those terrifying teenagers getting high in the woods are parents and grandparents today.

Into the future

Jump forward about 50 years. It’s 2017 and I’m getting an informal guided tour of a medical marijuana facility. The place is orderly, clean and comfortable, with display cases and sofas. The people standing in line or window-shopping are quiet and polite, and those waiting on customers are professional.

The wares include leaf marijuana, salves, edibles, all of different potency and with different medicinal benefits.

There are two-fers and special one-day sales. Step right up.

The hottest things, especially for those who didn’t want to smoke or eat, were vaporizers. I saw a demo: The user takes a puff, a battery charge ignites the THC — the active ingredient in marijuana — and they get a hit from what looks like a writing pen.

It turns out medical marijuana, useful for many health problems, was just the beginning.

Even with the state dragging its feet on the legalization of recreational marijuana, it’s happening now, here and elsewhere.

Today, Bill Maher jokes about pot smoking on TV. Marjery Egan talks about her use on a popular WGBH daytime radio show.

But old prejudices die hard. While it sometimes seems you can have a bar or package store on every corner, pot shops selling an herb must be tucked out of sight in industrial parks. After all, they do attract the wrong element. Mad-on-reefer stereotypes are still with us.

In 2016, more people were arrested for marijuana possession than for all crimes the FBI classifies as violent, according to their statistics.

Legalization, hopefully, may mean more quality control for users, less crime, less money spent on arrests and prosecution, more tax revenue.

The ballot question passed overwhelmingly by Massachusetts voters in November 2016 allowing recreational marijuana is a perfect example of governing from the bottom up.

For most people alive today, marijuana has been a part of their history, either in the foreground or the background, but always there.

“It’s everywhere and everyone does it,” said one man I talked to. “There is an immediate bond and connection among smokers. Imagine if all society could feel that way.”

While writing this piece, out of the blue I asked a stranger in her 70s sitting next to me at a restaurant bar what her experience with marijuana was.

“Oh, I smoked it,” she told me without a qualm.

“Between husbands,” she added.