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The Day I Almost Went to Prison for Life

Photo Source Joshua Livingston | CC BY 2.0

Larry and I took the bus from Augusta to Atlanta, Georgia on a Friday night in November 1969. We were at the halfway point of basic training at Fort Gordon and the first weekend pass was our reward for surviving the rigors of military training during the Vietnam era. We were both in the National Guard, and unlike some others in our training unit, we would get to go home in the early spring following the completion of both basic and advanced training in our military specialty.

I was completely against the Vietnam War, but that is not the subject of this essay. I read Martin Luther King’s Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? as the bus sped along the roads to Atlanta through the night. My first stop in Atlanta was at what would become King’s temporary tomb next to the church where he preached along with his father: Ebenezer Baptist.

In the evening of that Saturday, Larry and I were going to unwind, and since beer was about all we could get at the basic training PX, we would go out in search of some grass in the hippie enclave of Atlanta on Peachtree Street. It didn’t take long for us to make a connection, and we returned to our hotel and rolled a few joints and smoked them.

Soon after finishing the joint, I began what seemed like a paranoid trip. Looking back over forty-nine years I can be a bit more objective and conclude that it probably were forces that had little to do with the marijuana that put me in the mental state I experienced. I had trouble breathing and the room was doing all manner of distortions. Had I noticed Larry, who was uncontrollably smacking his lips, I probably could have concluded that it may have been a combination of basic training, homesickness, and whatever particular personality traits were at play that were causing such a strong reaction.

I told Larry that I was heading to a hospital to get checked out and away from the confines of our room and he accompanied me. The taxi that we hired took us to a hospital where we were quickly tossed out onto the sidewalk, the staff adding that this was a private facility and we were not welcome there.

We took a second taxi and landed in a public hospital, in a unit, or rather a large holding room, where what seemed to me to be a large number of people who were dealing with similar reactions from a variety of drugs and/or alcohol. While we waited, a man who was confined to a wheelchair in handcuffs began writhing violently and screaming… Within seconds, the wheelchair where he had sat was turned into small pieces of wood, detached wheels, and unrecognizable metal objects. I completely freaked out at that sight and the police were called and both Larry and I were put in the back of a cruiser.

At that point, Larry began giving me dirty looks and said that his license to practice law in California could be revoked given our current situation. The cop driving the cruiser said that we would end up in prison for life for our offense of smoking pot and we had better come clean and direct him to the people on Peachtree Street who had sold us the marijuana he now held as evidence of our criminality.

By this point, I was coming down from the trip and knew better than to turn anyone in for anything, and in any case to try to tell the difference between the folks who sold us the stash and the others who were walking along the street in the hippie district of Atlanta would have been impossible. Satisfied that we couldn’t help the police locate the people who had sold us the pot, we were dropped off at the door to our hotel and I spent the rest of the night, before falling asleep, dealing with Larry’s glares after he was brought so close to professional ruin. The police never asked for our names and we were never arrested or charged. We were simply intimidated and finally let go.

Fast forward forty-nine years later when I will get up before dawn, three days from now and drive a little over an hour to a retail marijuana shop in Northampton, Massachusetts on the first morning that recreational marijuana will be sold legally east of the Mississippi River. It’s not that I’m a pothead or major druggy or anything like that… Maybe I still would rather have an occasional beer as I recall Phil Ochs in Outside of a Small Circle of Friends: “Smoking marijuana is more fun than drinking beer, But a friend of ours was captured and they gave him thirty years.” I haven’t smoked marijuana since that night in any substantial way. Nixon supported the spraying of paraquat on marijuana fields and that freaked me out for a number of years. A next-door neighbor grew stuff that would have taken a barn full to make someone high, so I really have been disconnected from it all.

I’ll stand in line on Tuesday morning and an educated guess is that police will be directing traffic rather than looking to arrest anyone. Some might say that by doing this I’m subsidizing the marijuana industry and they may be right to a degree, but it means something to have voted for the recreational marijuana ballot initiative in 2016 and to be able to take advantage of a people’s movement in an angry and imperfect world that includes the untold thousands in jail for nonviolent drug charges and some people who have been murdered for similar reasons.

The way it actually turned out

Frigid weather, snow, rain, and Thanksgiving kept me from traveling to Northampton for six days. When my wife Jan and I finally arrived, the line was long and it took about an hour and a half to get into he marijuana facility.

Outside, while waiting, a young man stood in back of us with a friend and he seemed to know nearly everything there was to know about marijuana. Once inside, it took almost no time to make a purchase and the person who took our order and checked us out was friendly and remarked, “I’m glad that folks from your generation could see this happen,” I thought, if he only knew the story that stood behind his observation. Once outside of the facility, walking back to our car, someone on the street behind us said, “I wanted to come to see the social scene today.” It was, indeed, quite a scene as the cliche went during the 1960s and early 1970s.

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Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

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