The Thrill is Gone

Image Source: Jurassic Blueberries – CC BY 2.0

My basic training buddy and I sat in the holding room of a public hospital in Atlanta, Georgia. It was sometime in late October or early November 1969. We were on our first weekend pass from basic training. The room was filled with what appeared to be a lot of people who had bad reactions to drugs, or were drunk. We had been brought to this facility after a private hospital in Atlanta refused to admit me and called the police. The cop driving the squad car, alone, looked back over his shoulder and stated: “You’re going to go to jail for life for this.” (“The Day I Almost Went to Prison for Life,” CounterPunch, November 29, 2018). “This” meant using marijuana and getting caught in the Deep South.

My buddy, Fred (a fictitious name of a real person) was only high, very high in fact, and had not been badly affected by the weed we had purchased on the section of Peachtree Street in Atlanta that was a hippie enclave. I, alternately, was completely zonked on the grass, either because it was adulterated, or maybe I wasn’t able to deal with the strength of the product we had been sold.

The cop left us in the expansive room and I was quickly brought to my senses by a huge man in a wheelchair only a few feet from where Fred and I sat, as he violently writhed in the wheelchair to which he was manacled and ended up on the floor with the pieces of the chair all around him. I had never witnessed that level of strength.

The evening ended with both Fred and I coming down from the high and getting dumped off at our hotel. The cop kept the dope and the ride from the hospital to the hotel was punctuated by a guided tour of the hippie section with the cop repeatedly asking us if we could identify the person who had sold us the weed. There was not a chance this side of hell that we would ever implicate anyone on the street who sold us the drug and it didn’t seem to matter to the cop after several unsuccessful sweeps through the area.

Fred, apparently coming down from a high, smacked his lips ferociously as we drove toward our hotel and I could tell that he blamed me for the intervention of the police. He was a newly minted lawyer from California completing basic and advanced training in the army as a way of avoiding the Vietnam War like many in our training cycle. There were tens of thousands of people like ourselves doing the exact same thing.

Fast forward to 2018 when marijuana went from availability in Massachusetts for medicinal purposes to general recreational use. Other states like California and Colorado had beat Massachusetts by years to that end.

After months of regulatory and organizational delay, my wife and I stood in a long and slow-moving line outside of a recreational marijuana business in Northampton, Massachusetts. Even though it was decades removed from the Atlanta scene of buying marijuana, it was exciting to talk with people of all kinds standing in line in the post-Thanksgiving holiday cold. Entering the facility was an extraordinary experience. There were several retail spots in the shop staffed by knowledgeable people who seemed to know a voluminous amount of information about grass. We spent quite a lot for our stash of cigarettes, electronic vapes, and a concentration of liquid marijuana of a strength that was recommended by the retail person. After the use of these items over a period of time, they seemed not to do what was purported. Retail outlet after outlet burgeoned across the state. The last bottle of liquid marijuana I purchased seemed almost a joke. It did next to nothing in its effects and the bottle was minuscule positioned and suspended in a much larger box making it appear that it was worth the purchase price.

I tried another marijuana outlet in a neighboring town. The product was also expensive and just as ineffective. The difference in the two nearby outlets, two of many, many here, was that one retail space was staffed by ordinary people and the first outlet nearby was staffed with people who were groomed to a degree that they could have appeared in fashion magazines.

The Cannabis Control Commission reported that in 2023 marijuana sales in Massachusetts exceeded $1.6 billion. Sales were up by $78 million over 2022 – a 5% increase. Seventeen percent is added to the retail price of cannabis in Massachusetts that goes to the state, while 3% goes to the community in which the retail outlet is located. This is where all that money goes. Here are the early plans to use or hold onto the tax windfall that went to the town where I have purchased marijuana. Two years after that article was written this discussion took place in March 12, 2021 on the Albany, NewYork-based public radio station about the potential uses of marijuana funds.

Several years ago I discussed marijuana use with a person who often travels to Colorado. He commented that the legal use of marijuana there was not without its problems. He spoke of seeing many young people in his travels in that state who seemed zonked on drugs, but this subjective assessment lacks objective proof. I also spoke with a mental health therapist in New York City, where recreational marijuana is now legal, who noted that marijuana can have deleterious effects on health conditions such as sleep disorders after marijuana use ends.

Here is a fairly recent compilation of evidence-based studies showing modest to moderate positive effects of marijuana to several medical conditions (“Therapeutic Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids,” National Academy of Sciences, 2017).

Assessing marijuana objectively is difficult since the substance is mired in cultural disputes. That those on the borders of society, although hippies and yippies from the 1960s and early 1970s were hardly a fringe group in society then, were used as stereotypes before the present culture wars to vilify the use of marijuana.

Marijuana consumption is hardly the stuff of the movie Panic in Needle Park (1971). The political right with its culture wars and insane warnings that marijuana use will lead in a straight line to heroin use and addiction is so absurd that even a casual observer from out of space would be incredulous. However, the political right and its culture wars have placed hippies, yippies, and jazz musicians, among others, of the past in combination to create an absurdity. Look instead to the far greater consumption of alcohol and opioids, including pain killers, for an accurate commentary of where many in a society have travelled where the basic needs of life or livable wages are absent in the lives of millions of people.

That people caught with a joint have been sentenced to life imprisonment through the draconian three strikes statues put the many drug wars on steroids. These laws had their inception in the early 1950s, but joined the skyrocketing and shameless mass incarceration epidemic in the US with the iteration of the drug wars and general wars against communities of Black and Brown and poor people when globalization and mass deindustrialization began in the early 1970s.

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