by Karene Horst, contributing editor – I strolled through my dad’s thick tangle of a backyard for the customary tour during my last visit.
The quarter-acre plot glowed vibrantly green now the rains had returned to So Cal: potted baby king palms, succulent jades, and assorted sprouting flotsam my father dug up on a whim and nurtured into fruition, all tucked between hundred-year-old Valencia orange trees and an out-of-control patch of arugula.
That backyard watched me grow from a buck-tooth and freckled shy girl of five playing hide-and-seek with the neighborhood gang, to a bleary-eyed, sullen adolescent sneaking cigarettes whilst hiding from a family of eight amidst trailing avocado branches. I think I lost my virginity back there.
“You want anything to take home, go ahead,” Dad offered as he stroked the leaves of some unrecognizable plant he’d started in a 12-ounce metal Yuban coffee can. I passed, reminding him I live in the mountains and require hardier foliage.
Then I spotted a familiar leaf pattern stretching its limbs toward the sun.
Dark burgundy clusters of leaves topped by greenish buds spiked with rust-colored hairs. I pinched a tad and sniffed.
“Dad, what’s this?”
“I don’t know. I dug it up from somewhere,” he said as he flung his hand toward the chain-link fence cocooned in ivy, “It’s doing great. You want it?”
“Dad … I think this is marijuana.”
He chuckled and said someone else had made the same observation. Knowing that most of my brothers and I had imbibed during our reckless youth spent under his roof, he added rhetorically, “I wonder how it ended up here.”
I’m still flabbergasted at how I ended up here myself, nonchalantly admiring the offspring of my 87-year-old dad’s green thumb just as California follows the path of several other states by legalizing recreational marijuana including cultivation of up to six plants for personal use.
My twisted journey, from the seemingly carefree ’70s pot culture through decades of draconian tactics inflicted by the War on Drugs starting in the ’80s, has transported me to today, where cannabis dispensaries are taking root across parts of our country, but I still can’t get a job without pissing into a cup and providing a THC-free stream.
What a long, strange trip it’s been.
I discovered pot in seventh grade. One of my friends had stolen a joint from her older brother, so after school we snuck into a nearby parking garage and passed it around amongst a group of five girls. We giggled a lot, but we always giggled. I don’t remember feeling anything more than giddy.
Then during a sleepover at another friend’s house two blocks from the Venice Boardwalk, we snagged some from her step-father’s stash and kicked back on her waterbed while listening to a soundtrack of waves lapping against the shore. At one point I thought I was actually lying on the beach and then the realization hit me; I was stoned.
At Samohi we passed pipes in the girl’s bathroom between classes: the thick plumes of tobacco smoke from our compatriots covered our tracks. When we weren’t cutting class to smoke weed, we were ditching school to buy thai stick, hashish, or sometimes a dime bag of whatever that had too many seeds and stems but we were desperate. I didn’t hang out with the in-crowd, the jocks or the nerds. I hung out with the stoners. I rarely made it to classes scheduled after lunch.
Through the slits of my reddened eyes, I envisioned a gloriously mainstreamed marijuana lifestyle. Everyone partied, not just hippies. People in suits and ties, celebrities, professionals. My best friend’s father used to light up in a restaurant after his meal.
Not my parents, of course, and that divergence caused quite a few brouhahas in my household. My pack-a-day Marlboro habit smothered most of the evidence, but my parents weren’t stupid. They discovered my bong buried behind a pile of unread books on my closet shelf. They just yelled at me, stonily stared down the few friends who dared stop by my house, and silently prayed I wouldn’t experiment with the harder stuff. And although of course I did, I wasn’t enamored with cocaine, quaaludes or LSD as I was with pot. Even our teachers just acted annoyed when they caught us smoking or smelled it on us. I only had one teacher who threatened me with retaliation if I entered his classroom reeking again. I dropped his class.
Yes, you could still get in trouble if caught with grass and the government definitely didn’t want us getting high. The US funded the spraying of marijuana fields in Mexico with the herbicide Paraquat to kill the crop, but the growers harvested it anyway smuggling kilos across the border to us satisfied consumers. One radio station offered a program where listeners could send in a sample of their weed for testing to see if it was safe to inhale. Yeah right, we said. We smoked it anyway, Paraquat or not.
They couldn’t arrest all of us. Decriminalization was just around the corner. Starting with Oregon in 1973, a handful of states liberalized their marijuana laws by making possession of small amounts a misdemeanor punishable with fines rather than jail time. By 1977, President Jimmy Carter told Congress he would support legislation eliminating federal criminal penalties for possession of up to one ounce. I’d heard somewhere that the cigarette companies were trying to copyright the names “Acapulco Gold” and “Maui Wowie.”
Then in 1980 Ronald Reagan grabbed the reins of the US government along with a conservative posse that blamed “drugs” for high crime rates and the general breakdown in society. Nancy’s motherly “Just say No” mantra jacked up into SWAT teams crashing through front doors in search of heroin dealers and crackheads. They scooped up pot smokers, growers and sellers in their widely flung net. Harmless people ended up with lengthy prison sentences in cells next to rapists and murderers. Three strikes and you’re out. In 1980 the government had locked up 50,000 men and women for nonviolent drug law offenses; by 1997, the number rose to 400,000, according to drugpolicy.org
Caught with paraphernalia: lose your scholarship. Want to play junior varsity, then pee in the cup. Carrying while cruising in your Camaro, you’re going to jail but first, handover your car keys as the cops own it now.
In 1990 then Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates testified to the U.S. Senate that pot-smokers and casual drug users “ought to be taken out and shot.” Zero tolerance.
Throughout the hysteria, I still puffed away: with federal and state employees, lawyers, doctors, nurses, insurance agents, school teachers, business owners. But we maintained a close-knit group knowing public knowledge of our vice could destroy us. One friend withdrew her candidacy for the school board when an anonymous albeit unpublished letter to the editor accused her of marijuana use years before as a college student. Another friend had a near miss when his young daughter reported his daily smoke breaks in the family garage to her DARE counselor, who laughed off her story because who could believe this “pillar of the community” would smoke dope? One of my high school buddies got nabbed selling a baggie to an undercover agent, pleaded guilty and accepted a two-year jail term to protect his wife from being charged also and losing custody of their infant daughter. Scary times.
Living in the country away from the cops’ drug-sniffing canines, I felt somewhat insulated but we still indulged in a healthy amount of paranoia. Before the internet and the advent of cell phones and texting, you really only had to worry about the government bugging your landline, so you avoided discussing it unless you had a code; before visiting a friend I’d ask if I needed to bring any “party favors.” On road trips we always limited ourselves to an amount small enough to avoid the harshest felony penalties, plus my boyfriend insisted I hide it in my underwear right against my crotch; “they won’t search you there,” he argued. Besides, if he were caught with a joint he could lose his license to practice law. We risked criminal prosecution by purchasing from others rather than growing reefer on our land; we feared the government would seize our farm through asset forfeiture laws.
I was mostly too stoned to take any of it too seriously, however, until I got pregnant. I quit smoking as soon as I found out. Maybe once or twice I enhaled. I certainly reveled in second-hand smoke.
Eventually marijuana provided my only solace during the demise of my marriage and the frustrations of parenthood. I told myself that it was OK to set my kids in front of the television while I snuck away to the garage, knowing if I didn’t have a toke right then I’d do something horribly drastic. Comfortably numb.
Then September 11 turned our nation’s ire toward terrorists and all things foreign. Many American anti-drug soldiers on the political front finally surrendered, conceding the drug war a lost cause as they aimed their gun sights on other targets.
The tide had turned. According to a 2006 study by the National Institutes of Health, during the 1990s, “… the primary focus of the war on drugs has shifted to low-level marijuana offenses. …” at a cost of “… roughly $4 billion per year for marijuana alone …” The study concluded that the country’s war on marijuana diverted law enforcement funds from violent crimes, thereby representing “a questionable policy choice.”
With teenagers of my own, my inner parent took charge and I banished my youthful indulgence to “only once in awhile” but never when they returned from their dad to stay with me for my timeshare. OK, maybe once my son caught me with smoke spewing from my nostrils, and I had to make a public confession. But neither of my kids were stupid. They’d smelled it on me when they were just toddlers. “Mother, did you hotbox me?” my then teenage daughter once teased me in mock astonishment.
Still, I have to confess a strange pride that neither of my kids followed in my self-medicated meanderings. I discouraged them from experimenting, acknowledging that daily marijuana use had clouded my judgment and led to a multitude of poor choices especially as a teenager. Looking back, I’m still stunned that I survived those idiotic, drug-induced decisions.
The legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington in 2012 brought me a whiff of nostalgia. By then I avoided associating with anyone who imbibed. I’d gone back to school and worked in healthcare. I had a mortgage and responsibilities. I planned to travel the world. I no longer wanted to see my future through a haze. On a trip to Colorado in 2013, I contemplated hitting a “boutique” for some Blue Magoo or Censored Kush. First time I would ever smoke pot legally. Naaaah. It just wouldn’t be the same.
So seems I’ve come full circle. Welcome to the Hotel California. As I walk through the parking lot at the ski resort near my home, I breath deeply and smile wistfully while savoring the pungent perfume of Golden Goat, Green Crack, Triple Diesel, Strawberry Cough, Girl Scout Cookies. Aromatherapy! I’m 16 all over again. But this time around, my dad can cultivate a fine bouquet of wonderfulness whenever I want.
Not so fast. Our supreme leader and his band of merry henchmen want to steal the show, promising to crack down on recreational marijuana use, democratically legalized in eight states, by enforcing preemptive federal laws currently on the books. Will they drag us back onto that stomach-churning rollercoaster ride, snuffing out the booming businesses and growing tax revenues while stuffing our still overcrowded jails and prisons with more Americans prosecuted for victimless crimes?
Talk about a buzzkill.