Three years ago my sons and I, returning from a rafting trip in Oregon, were driving the Redwood Highway through Northern California when we passed the entrance to a field with a banner which read The Kate Wolf Music Festival. Intrigued, I suggested to the boys that we enter and check it out. But my sons had had enough of what they called ” weirdo alternatives” having encountered them in large numbers almost everywhere we went in Southern Oregon. Threatening mutiny, they adamantly refused. We drove on.
But my interest was piqued and for a year I awaited the announcement of the next year’s Festival. I was actually fascinated to discover what had become of the remnants of the hippie generation, which I was certain I would find at a gathering of this sort – a question that had beguiled me ever since I had heard Scott McKenzie sing about San Franciscans with flowers in their hair in the mid 60s.
So in early July, 2012 I drove the 600 or so miles to Black Oak Ranch in Laytonville, north of Mendocino. I did not know exactly what to expect. But as soon as I entered the gates, the aroma of one substance made it clear to me that I was no longer in Kansas. Marijuana was everywhere.
It took only an hour to find a group of friends. A collection of men and women, in their mid to late 20s, had set up a tent near mine and were singing songs to welcome in the Jewish Sabbath, which would soon be upon us. I joined them and for three days we enjoyed each others’ company and they provided a rich vein of material with which to tap into the mentality of the hippie culture which still thrives in many parts of America’s West Coast. What fascinated me most was the fact that every one of the fourteen people I met under that tent was involved, in one way or another, in the cultivation or dispensation of marijuana. From medical marijuana dispensaries to on-line websites to greenhouses, all of them had found a way to make a living from the sale of cannabis in modern day California.
Business, they told me, had boomed since California passed a ballot initiative in 2010 legalizing the sale of medical marijuana. Farmers, who had hidden their most lucrative cash crop for decades, suddenly came out in the open and were able to sell and have their cannabis processed unlike any time before. Some had become millionaires overnight.
Over the past few years I have become quite used to seeing, smelling and sensing marijuana freely used in Southern California. My children, who attend Orthodox Jewish day schools, tell me it is easily obtainable in their own school yard; it is passed around at parties – and it is doesn’t matter much whether the party goers are conservatives or liberals. Increasingly, pot smoking is seen as a sign of distinction, as if you are proving your credentials as a genuine bon vivant by rolling that bulging joint between your fingers.
Never having been a pothead in my youth- in fact having loathed smoking in general – I could not attest to the buzz so many seem to receive from the recreational use of marijuana. But the fact that so many people in California and other places seem to enjoy the experience – and can purchase and smoke (or otherwise ingest) marijuana on a fairly regular basis, has become the force which has propelled its acceptance in 21 states, first as a medical palliative – and now increasingly as a recreational drug of choice.
As of today four states – Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Colorado have legalized the recreational use of marijuana. On November 4th it was legalized in the nation’s capital;
So we must have come a long way from the unenlightened 1960s right?
Well, not exactly. Federal law still characterizes marijuana as a Substance 1 barbituate – placing it on the same level as heroin and cocaine in its addictive and health endangering properties. And this is for good reason. There have been no conclusive studies which have rebutted the notion that marijuana , taken as a regular relaxant, does not have long term medical risks. If cigarettes and alcohol are mind altering substances that can have deleterious long term affects on one’s health , marijuana is very much still in that category.
And although the relaxant properties of THC can alleviate pain, there are substantial doubts about its applications.
“Smoking is generally a poor way to deliver medicine,” says Dr. Akikur Mohammad, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist with a specialty in addictive medicine. “As a doctor, I assure you that it is almost impossible to administer safe, regulated dosages of medicines in smoked form. Morphine, for example, has proven to be a medically valuable drug, but no responsible physician endorses smoking opium or heroin.
Recent studies have also suggested that marijuana use in youth can lead to permanent damage, a problem that would likely be exacerbated by widespread legalization. Ultimately, though, definitive conclusions on the medical benefits or drawbacks of marijuana are hard to come by, since the drug’s status as a Schedule 1 substance by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency makes it’s difficult to obtain even for research purposes.
The immediate effects of taking marijuana – what we refer to as our our “high” – include rapid heart beat, disorientation, lack of physical coordination, often followed by depression or sleepiness. Some users suffer panic attacks or anxiety.
But the problem does not end there. According to scientific studies, THC, remains in the body for weeks or longer.
Marijuana smoke contains 50% to 70% more cancer-causing substances than tobacco smoke. One major research study reported that a single cannabis joint could cause as much damage to the lungs as up to five regular cigarettes smoked one after another. Long-time joint smokers often suffer from bronchitis, an inflammation of the respiratory tract.
And the drug can affect more than your physical health. A recent study from the University of Texas at Dallas links heavy, long-term use of marijuana with smaller growth in the orbitofrontal cortex–a brain region associated with decision-making and addiction. And a recent study in Britain linked high potency cannabis with the incidence of psychosis.
Young brains, that are not yet fully developed, are extremely susceptible to permanent damage from mind altering substances. And the claims that marijuana is not addictive are nonsense, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse
“It is estimated that 9 percent of people who use marijuana will become dependent on it.1 The number goes up to about 1 in 6 in those who start using young (in their teens) and to 25-50 percent among daily users.2 Moreover, a study of over 300 fraternal and identical twin pairs found that the twin who had used marijuana before the age of 17 had elevated rates of other drug use and drug problems later on, compared with their twin who did not use before age 17.3 “
With such a significant body of evidence to suggest that this stuff is just not good for you, how is it that we are now seeking to legalize it as if none of it matters? From the opium dens of Shanghai, Paris and London in the 1800s to the drug dependencies of our greatest jazz men – Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Stan Getz, we have seen the devastations that such addictions can wreak on vibrant minds. Why are we dropping our apprehensions about marijuana, and possibly other mind altering substances, when the evidence has been with us for hundreds of years?
Perhaps it has something to do with a hedonistic culture which just does not want any obstacles placed in the way of enjoying the true recreational pleasures of life. It is only when we start dying in our hundreds of thousands ( eg: from nicotine related causes or sexually transmitted diseases) that we suddenly wake up to realize how wrong headed our attitudes and tolerances have been.
There is a legend that Bob Dylan, in recording Rainy Day Women #12 and 35 , the first single from his famous 1966 album Blonde on Blonde, insisted that all the musicians recording it with him be either drunk or stoned – hence the famous refrain – Oh I would not feel so all alone /everybody must get stoned.
Apocryphal though the story might be, I have to wonder if Dylan ever thought that one day American society, once the barriers to freely acquiring hallucinogenic substances had been demolished – might be taking his edict quite seriously? And did he ever stop to wonder what kind of society we might have, when everybody, in fact, does get stoned?