Commentary Magazine


High Culture, by William Novak; Grass Roots, by Albert Goldman

Going to Pot

High Culture.
by William Novak.
Knopf. 228 pp. $12.95.

Grass Roots.
by Albert Goldman.
Harper & Row. 262 pp. $12.95.

Fifteen years ago, marijuana was the drug of the alienated and daring few. Today, smoking dope has made it into the mass culture. The sweet smell of grass permeates movie houses on Saturday nights, rolling papers are on sale in the supermarket, and joints are passed with the chip dip at parties.

The two most recent books on the subject, William Novak’s High Culture and Albert Goldman’s Grass Roots, seem to set the final seal of legitimacy on the democratization of pot. They provide the hitherto missing element without which no experience exists as a truly American phenomenon: High Culture is marijuana’s first experiential survey based on interviews and questionnaires; Grass Roots is the first scholarly treatise on the history, cultivation, and smuggling of marijuana.

High Culture arose directly from Novak’s own experience with the drug. Having found it to be, in his case, “an intellectual stimulant” and “a useful tool in breaking down certain conceptual boundaries that . . . kept out more light than they let in,” Novak remained curious about its effect on others. And so he set about gathering information, talking personally to about a hundred people, and reaching some three hundred more with a written questionnaire. High Culture is the synthesis of those interviews, along with the scientific background, and some of Novak’s thoughts on the matter; it is, in short, an attempt at a detached journalistic view of marijuana in America.

“Despite some progress in recent years,” Novak writes, “the degree of ignorance about marijuana . . . on the part of the non-using public remains formidable. It is comparable, perhaps, to what most Soviet citizens might understand about the nature of a free and democratic society.” This distressing state of affairs has its roots in the rigid attitude of Western society toward marijuana and other drugs.

The primary component of our rigidity—and the one most difficult for marijuana users to accept—is the “common and convenient myth that holds that there is only one real and operative form of consciousness [and that] other forms . . . be they dreams, physical sensations, drug-induced states, hypnosis, precognition, or intuition, have been . . . considered to be distortions and aberrations.” Novak and his subjects know better, at least in the matter of drug-induced states; as one respondent explains, “‘Marijuana has helped me to see the phenomenal power of plural. . . . There is more than one way to look at something.’”

Such profundity of insight is not uncommon among marijuana users. And, with characteristic generosity, many were willing to share their revelations. “‘You share heaven,’” one smoker realized while stoned, “‘with everybody you’ve ever been in a photograph with.’” “‘Tonight,’” recounts another,

I feel free and easy, and I take a longer shower [than usual]. I start thinking about how sometimes you have to look for the barrier on the road (in this case, the short shower rule), take it off the road (examine it closely), drive your car through that spot (violate the rule), and then put the barrier back on the road for the next person (actually, for yourself, the next time you travel this path).

Curiously, Novak muses, the claim that pot produces insights is not universally accepted in the marijuana community. There is, in fact, considerable disagreement on the question, as there is in regard to marijuana’s connection to creativity. One young writer, who composes all her stories under the influence, has found that “‘Coupled with good music, marijuana relaxes the control I try to harness to the creative flow and lets the idea develop itself, producing a more natural story.’” Others find that relaxation interferes with their work. There is, however, a consensus about marijuana as an aid to creative thinking. As one painter puts it, “‘I’ve got a heavy sense of scruples about marijuana when it comes to the production of art. But art appreciation is another matter. The weed is definitely an enhancer there, and spurs ideas like crazy.’”

Nor is the power of enhancement limited to the realm of the intellect. Novak reports, for example, that when stoned, “Murray and Judy . . . both mental-health professionals . . . find themselves experiencing a profound sense of closeness . . . that led directly to their decision to get married.” Judy first became aware of this intimacy “one summer evening, where for three hours she felt a concentrated closeness that she had never felt before. ‘I felt totally understood by Murray,’ she recalls.” More important, “‘during that first stoned encounter I was able to make interpretations to him about his mother, which I could never say to him in our normal life without getting belted. But stoned, I felt free to say these things, and, equally important, he was able to hear them.’”

Even as it stimulates the intellect and enriches the spirit, moreover, marijuana adds something to the most trivial daily activities. Food tastes better, music sounds better, sex feels better, when you’re stoned. Sports are more invigorating, games are more interesting, and parties are more fun, when you’re stoned. In fact, as one user succinctly puts it, “‘The major effect of marijuana is that it makes people feel good.’”

Feeling good may be the major effect of the drug, but Novak acknowledges that there are those who fear that the side effects are far less pleasant. Some scientific studies, he admits, have found that marijuana can have adverse effects on the bodies and brains of users—as well as on their offspring. But he cautions that “Unfortunately, the history of marijuana research includes numerous attempts to make the facts conform to certain prejudices on the part of the researchers.”

It seems, indeed, that every study resulting in findings unfavorable to marijuana has relied on questionable testing techniques or faulty reasoning. For every such study he cites, Novak is also able to quote “critics” (albeit anonymous ones) who deplore the lack of control groups or the strengths of the dosage used. He can also cite studies that find marijuana harmless, and of which, apparently, no critics, anonymous or otherwise, exist. Users will no doubt be comforted to know that researchers who have discovered no danger in the drug appear untainted by prejudice. Novak does leave us, however, with one niggling doubt about marijuana’s safety: “Many smokers,” he reports, “who are otherwise sensitive to matters of health and nutrition will indulge in junk food after smoking marijuana.”

_____________

 

If High Culture is the product of William Novak’s personal curiosity, Grass Roots can only be viewed as a creature of sociological curiosity. Albert Goldman, author of a biography of Lenny Bruce, describes himself as “one of America’s few full-time students of the counterculture.” Since that selfsame counterculture has successfully infiltrated the general culture on many fronts, and since marijuana and marijuana smuggling are integral parts of the counterculture, Goldman felt it was time someone looked into the “Dope Game.”

No description of Grass Roots could do it better justice than the author’s modest introduction. “Though the marijuana world is much too vast for any man to ever survey completely,” he writes, “I think I covered the ground as thoroughly as any Ph.D. candidate has ever covered his field of specialization.” Indeed, Grass Roots is as tediously detailed as any doctoral dissertation on the development of the linseed-oil industry.

Goldman reports, for example, that there is archeological evidence, uncovered recently in Russia, of hemp-smoking among the Scythians in the 5th century B.C.E. Marco Polo heard about hashish smokers in Persia in the 13th century. And there was a Bantu tribe in the Belgian Congo that replaced idol worship with hash. Such heterogeneity can lead to only one conclusion: “The history of dope reduces eventually to the history of culture, and at last it becomes clear that instead of man being the slave of drugs, drugs are the slaves of man.”

Having established the historical background, Goldman sets off on his journey through the labyrinth of marijuana smuggling. He himself went down to Colombia, made the right connections, and learned all there is to know about the business. “I got as close to the action on both sides of the line,” he reveals, “as a writer can without compromising himself morally or getting killed.” Goldman does not hesitate to share every breathless moment of his experience—to say nothing of this new area of expertise. He ponders the relative merits of airborne and shipboard smuggling; discusses the best techniques for packaging and storage; and even offers a financial tip or two: “So long as you’re doing the job . . . there is no reason in the world why you shouldn’t make a lot more money if you have the balls to throw on top of your load a little garbage bag full of cocaine.”

Cocaine and the marijuana trade are connected in more ways than one. As Goldman points out, “We are witnessing currently an epidemic of cocaine usage, which would have been hard to imagine before the widespread experimentation with marijuana and other drugs in the 60′s. . . . Once one has pleasured himself with one drug, he is naturally well disposed to the idea of drug usage in general.” This is the only side effect of marijuana that gives Mr. Goldman pause—momentarily. He dismisses most of the others—such as brain damage and chromosome damage—as “the latest medical horror stories,” and concludes that “marijuana has proven to be a relatively harmless substance.”

The only ills, in fact, that Goldman ascribes to marijuana are the consequence of its illegality. The U.S. government’s refusal to decriminalize marijuana has led to corruption in Colombia, as well as to the poisoning of tons of grass and of an unspecified number of people with the herbicide paraquat. If, as Goldman claims, “The paraquat scandal provides . . . the first and only confirmation of the alleged dangers of smoking marijuana,” obviously the only way to guarantee the drug’s safety is to decriminalize it.

“Marijuana should be a source of pleasure, not of pain and shame,” Goldman contends. “We should be free to cultivate and sell and buy this harmless euphoriant. . . . When will we learn that in a democracy it is for the people to tell the government, not for the government to tell the people, what makes them happy?”

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Albert Goldman would have us believe, then—despite his own assertion that marijuana use leads to heavier drugs, and despite recent evidence of a virtual epidemic of marijuana addiction among young children, to the severe detriment of their mental and emotional health—that marijuana is merely a “harmless euphoriant.” William Novak would like us to accept the self-involved and pretentious dithering of his subjects as evidence of the wisdom, kindliness, and psychic health the drug can inspire. That both should feel obliged to defend so strenuously—and so deceitfully—a drug which by now is as readily available and as widely accepted as aspirin suggests that the truth about marijuana is other than what they propose, and that they know it.

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