Pot Is Super Popular Among My Fellow Boomers. So Why Can’t I Get on Board?
One of Philadelphia’s most celebrated novelists tries to rekindle the spark.
I’ve been doing the cha-cha with a novel I’m working on where the age-55-and-over main characters regularly smoke marijuana to get high. Really high. So much so that when I’m writing about them, whiffs of that unmistakable aroma akin to a rope on fire with a punch of wood and thyme rise from the page. I get giddy as I write, suddenly craving sweet ginger tea and crunchy carbohydrates as I pull down memories to authenticate the scenes, memories that have long lain dormant in the dusty attic of my brain.
I’m 14 or 15 again, riding up Montgomery Drive on a brilliant summer Sunday in the backseat of my father’s car, slightly nauseous from the smell of his cigar. Having been the victor in the tussle with my sisters for a coveted window seat, I lean my head out of the car as we curve around Montgomery and approach Belmont Plateau. I say I’m hanging out of the window to get relief from the cigar, but I’m really trying to catch a contact high from all that hippie hemp smoke (my mother’s term) informing the air around the plateau, which is already charged with the jolting sounds of electric guitars mixing with mellow vibes of Make love not war.
Or I land on that memory from 1973 when I went to see Pam Grier and her fabulous ’fro in the film Coffy. My date and I had gotten off the D bus, now the 21, at 18th and Chestnut and walked first through Rittenhouse Square to get a couple of hits of what we hoped would be “the killer,” our term for really potent weed. It did not disappoint. We laughed our way to 16th and Chestnut and into the movie theater. We settled in with butter-saturated popcorn and cherry Cokes that were heaven to the weed-altered palate and proceeded to tilt our heads in confusion as Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford commanded scene after scene. At what point would Pam Grier rush in and pull the weapons hidden in her enviable woolly hair and kill the drug dealers who’d messed up her sister? We wouldn’t be seeing it that night, because, high and discombobulated, we’d sauntered, not into the Duke, where Coffy was showing, but instead into The Way We Were, playing at the Regency next door.
That’s actually a timely recollection as I two-step through my novel-in-progress and consider my love affair with weed: how it changed as I did, and how the words to the title song of the movie I watched in reefer-fueled error — would we, could we referencing the chance to do it all again — shimmy in my head to the beat. The lyrics tantalize, as if egging me on to join the legions in my age group who would, could and are smoking, eating, sipping, spraying, rubbing on weed in any of its myriad forms. So many boomers, in fact, are getting high that according to recently released results of the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, marijuana consumption is as common among my generation as it is among teens! I would be in familiar company, then, should I decide to reintroduce a ganja-stuffed bowl to my recreational pursuits. But would I, could I, pull on a pipe, or joint, or bong, and hold it until I cough, and recapture the high-heady, floaty times of my youth?
I began smoking marijuana in earnest in the early ’70s. I was fresh on the University of Pennsylvania campus from my cloistered West Philadelphia neighborhood — where I’d been a glasses-wearing, youth-church-ushering, teacher’s-pet-type good girl — and smoking a joint was a way for me to dip my toe in the counterculture. My then-boyfriend knew people, and on Friday nights he’d bring me cheesesteaks from Jim’s, Boone’s Farm apple wine that his older brother procured at the state store on Market Street above 40th, and a precious plastic baggie filled with a half-ounce of the most beautiful mix of brownish-green buds and twigs and seeds. I say precious because the half-ounce bag cost $20, and if there were several of us putting in, that could amount to more than five entire dollars fished from my very shallow stream of disposable funds.
Mythology had it that weed was legal on campus; it was not, of course, but I’d never heard of anyone getting arrested for smoking in Penn’s high-rise dorm. Still, out of an abundance of caution, we’d stuff a blanket in the slip of space under the door to keep the smoke from selling us out. We’d burn apple-scented incense, insisted upon by my non-weed-smoking friends, and then get down to the business of moistening sheets of Top paper to envelop the stogies we rolled. We’d toke and pass and toke and pass to the rhythm of Bloodstone crooning “Take to the sky on a natural high” (irony noted) until the munchies hit and the cheesesteaks were devoured and the table got cleared for marathon pinochle games interspersed with chatter about world affairs and campus gossip and how generally effed up everything was; or funny, hysterically so; or deep, too deep to dig, maybe, because much of the commentary was followed by Can you dig it?
I, for one, dug the weed. I much preferred the giggly high to the sloppy buzz of the cheap fruity wine, more a bring-down than a laugh-maker. And although the 1936 propaganda film Reefer Madness would have one believe that marijuana is highly addictive, I was never so ensnared that I suffered withdrawal when I was without it. Nor did I need to smoke increasing amounts to get that pleasurable feel of pings melting in my head. That sweet joint or hit from the bong or pull from the pipe was sufficient, my reward for getting through the week — or the day, depending on the day I’d had. Penn was hard, and I’m not talking academically, because the “heavy booking” — our term for studying — had been expected, accepted. The real energy-sapper was the constant stroking and kicking to keep from drowning in the high-tide oceans of whiteness and privilege. It was exhausting. Weed made it less so and was certainly preferable to the tranquilizers Student Health had prescribed for the tension headaches that befell me.
In a similar way, all of the inhaling a couple of years after college softened, if only a little, the jags of heartbreak and grief as I watched my mother die from esophageal cancer. My father would prepare lavish Sunday dinners in the weeks after her death, and his house would be overflowing with food and people, and at some point those of us so inclined would look at one another with subtle raises of eyebrows and casually move in the direction of the back of the house and into the yard, where a joint or two or three got quickly smoked. We’d make our way back inside, red-eyed and thumb-burned, laughing as we piled plates high with Dad’s signature bread pudding, swooning over how good it was. He must have known that I’d just been out in the yard getting high, likely in view of the neighbors, who’d talk. He never acknowledged it, never discouraged it. He was probably relieved that for the moment I seemed to hurt less, and if it was the result of the weed, so be it.
Then I stopped smoking abruptly, in my late 20s: Pregnant with twins, I put away my bong, my array of pipes, the Top papers, and expressions like Who’s got the killer? and What you got for the head? I needed to adult with clarity. Caffeine was my new go-to. Also new was my shifting attitude about getting high. This was now the early ’80s, when crack cocaine was beginning to thrash and burn its way through black communities, bombing out families. My sister lost a college friend to the epidemic — rumor had it that someone laced her marijuana with crack, addicting her. I witnessed a cherished friend descend into a heroin swamp — he didn’t die physically, but his potential died, his spirit. This was before all classes of white people became casualties of the opioid epidemic. Back then, there was no push for addiction to be recognized as a brain disorder. People afflicted with addiction were at best considered weaklings incapable of just saying no; at worst, dregs.
I never grew so callous as to fail to see the humanity of a person suffering from addiction, but my attitude toward highness was becoming, dare I say, conservative. So much so that I confess to being somewhat affected by that PSA that began airing regularly in 1987 that showed a hot skillet sizzling with butter, and then a voice-over warning This is drugs; a raw egg is then plopped into the skillet, and as the egg begins to quickly fry, the voice further intones, This is your brain on drugs. Any questions? A decade earlier, I might have said to the television, “Yes, I’ve got questions: Can you sprinkle a little salt and pepper on that, maybe a side of bacon with some cheese melted over the top, and slip it between two slices of pumpernickel?” The ad would have been worthy of such jokes to anyone who smoked as I did yet still moved through life with brain intact, synapses still firing. Also, the PSA didn’t distinguish the wide range of detrimental effects that lay between puffing on a marijuana-stuffed pipe and injecting heroin. Amazingly, I had begun to do the same thing. I lumped them all, weed, crack, heroin, LSD, speed; they were all tools the devil him/herself employed to establish a bona fide hell on earth. I was in good (horrible) company. The Controlled Substances Act signed into law by Richard Nixon had classified marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, right up there with heroin, meaning that at the time, it was thought to be highly addictive and to have no medical value.
By the time my twins crossed over into adolescence, I had completely exchanged my laid-back attitude toward marijuana for mom pants and zero tolerance. I’d convinced myself that should my kids smoke weed, the results would be abysmal SAT scores, lackluster college admissions essays, the death of motivation. Forget inhaling; merely walking around with reefer might jeopardize their freedom. Especially my son’s, given that young black men were routinely being stopped and searched and, even when in possession of just tiny amounts of marijuana, finding themselves on the periphery of the modern-day slavery that is the criminal justice system. And I’m not being hyperbolic with the slavery reference; I watched Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th.
Fast-forward to today: My kids didn’t go to jail, and my attitude toward marijuana has become nuanced once again, helped by all the related headlines that have managed to grab my attention from the horror show that is national politics: marijuana’s availability in the dispensaries that are popping up in the Philadelphia area like, well, weeds; its inchworm moves toward legalization here, where Mayor Kenney has called for green-lighting adult recreational use and having it sold in state stores; its medicinal use by people in my generation, who are increasingly lighting up or eating or rubbing on oils or swallowing pills containing weed derivatives to treat the chronic pain of rheumatoid arthritis or the nausea from cancer treatment, or to mitigate the symptoms of glaucoma or multiple sclerosis, or to reverse cognitive decline. Cognitive decline? I’d assumed that THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, caused that very condition. But an NIH-supported study found that cannabinoids may remove plaque-forming Alzheimer’s proteins from brain cells. And a headline in Scientific American blares out to me: “Marijuana May Boost, Rather Than Dull, the Elderly Brain.” Apparently, senior-citizen mice treated with THC improve on learning and memory tests — perhaps another reason the National Survey on Drug Use found that boomers are using as much pot as teens.
I’ve been fortunate so far in not needing medical marijuana for the host of maladies proponents claim it will help ease. But since I’m a writer, boosting the brain is something I’m definitely open to — even as I talk back to those “The Way We Were” lyrics stuck in my head and struggle with my reluctance to light up for the sole purpose of getting high.
Part of my resistance has to do with the inequity of it all — who benefits, who suffers. Take the hoopla over Elon Musk, billionaire CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, puffing on a joint on a live podcast. That’s some rich-white-male privilege on display, because even though recreational weed is legal in California, where he lit up, imagine the likes of rapper and criminal-justice-reform advocate Meek Mill, a black man, doing a similar thing. (By the way, Meek, please don’t try that here at home.) And then there’s former U.S. House Speaker John Boehner’s lightning-rod tweet months ago announcing that he was joining the board of Acreage Holdings, formerly (cutely) known as High Street Capital Partners, a marijuana processing and dispensing operation currently licensed to operate in 14 states and with plans to expand. He’d once famously said he was unalterably opposed to the legalization of marijuana. Now he claims that his thinking on marijuana has evolved. Sadly, his evolution can do nothing to evolve the criminal records of the countless young black men caught up in the system because they were stopped and frisked and found to be carrying maybe a single marijuana cigarette. I know a woman who had to shell out hundreds of dollars for legal representation for her college-student son, who was caught with paraphernalia that had trace amounts of weed. Trace amounts!
Another part of my resistance to getting high has to do with the learning curve. There are so many new-to-me ways to use marijuana now — edibles and oils and mists and capsules and tinctures and patches and creams. One can spray it like a breath freshener or consume it on a dissolvable strip. I shudder to think I might end up like New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who ingested a cannabis chocolate in a hotel room in Denver in 2014 and ended up curled on the bed for hours in a state that sounds more like a bad LSD trip. Do they still smoke plain old joints? Yes, according to a man I know who asked to remain anonymous — the only person who would even talk to me about still getting high once I disclosed that I was writing about my marijuana journey. He cautioned against buying it on the street the way he did years ago: “There’s nothing but crap out there,” he said, adding that his bud in New Jersey uses medical marijuana and the quality is much better than it used to be. He rushed to add that he himself, of course, would have no way of knowing other than what his “friend” has told him. Apparently his “friend’s” assessment would be correct. Generally, marijuana today is much more potent than it was when I was puffing away. Most of the weed that found its way to Penn’s Superblock in the ’70s had made a long, hot trek from places like Colombia, causing its potency to decline. Back then, the THC level might have been three percent. Today, it could be upward of 12. That sounds much stronger than the “killer” of years ago that sent me into the wrong movie.
A while back, I attended a dinner with people I knew from decades ago. Somewhere around dessert and coffee, a few of them disappeared from the table, but not before giving that slight raise of the eyebrow I’d used myself during my father’s back-in-the-day dinners. They met up with the rest of us later as we milled around outside; they were giddy with the type of laughter that scrunches the eyes practically shut. But it wasn’t just the laughter fusing their eyes. I joked that they smelled like 1975, even as I felt a swath of regret that I hadn’t joined them. Why didn’t I? I’m still asking myself.
I could validly claim any or all of the reasons my contemporaries have expressed for why they choose not to smoke weed: They stopped because of the children and never looked back; they live with or very close to someone recovering from addiction; they’re afraid of an adverse physical reaction; it feels immature at this age; wine is legal, and they’re not trying to break the law at this point in life. When I asked, “What if it was legal?” my sister Paula said, “If it’s legal, I mean, well, yeah, but only if it’s legal, not just decriminalized — fully legal at both the state and federal levels.”
And yet, the illegality is what enticed me all those years ago when I stuck my head out of the car window to gulp in the weed-tinged breeze moving through the be-in on Belmont Plateau. I got high on the anticipatory thrill of it before I ever smoked a joint. I was on the precipice of young adulthood. Marijuana wasn’t just about getting my head right, as we used to say about a good high. Marijuana also represented the revolution that was all around me, growing me up. I was doing this absolutely taboo thing — good-girl me — and that enhanced the pings firing and melting in my brain, getting me higher still. Smoking again would feel like desperately chasing a thrill that’s long gone because it should be gone, because it no longer serves a purpose.
So, for now, since the lyrics from “The Way We Were” are stuck in my head anyway, I’ll hum the part about memories lighting the corners of my mind, grateful to know that should those memories grow too dim from age-related cognitive decline, there will be the medically sanctioned option to swaddle crumpled buds of weed inside sheets of moistened Top paper and toke away.
Published as “Joint of No Return” in the February 2019 issue of Philadelphia magazine.