So grand a reward, so tiny a sin.
— Indian proverb 
The great majority of smokers speak easily and fondly of their initial experience with marijuana. A number of smokers spoke in terms of two first times: the first time they tried marijuana and the first time they actually got high. It turns out that a surprisingly large number of smokers—perhaps as many as half, perhaps even more—did not get high on their initial attempt. This curious fact is one of the few aspects of marijuana use that has attracted serious thought and attention, although even here there are still unanswered questions.
The first marijuana experience is rarely ordinary and is seldom forgotten Commonly, the novice smoker either feels nothing unusual, or else becomes extremely stoned, experiencing dramatic and sometimes memorable effects that may never again be equaled in their intensity. Normally, if the first time is pleasant, there will be others in its wake. If there seem to be no effects at all, the novice may be discouraged. Some beginning smokers, however, are actually relieved when nothing happens; this sets them at ease, since they understand that at least no uncontrollable or frightening event is about to take place.
In their 1968 study of the effects of marijuana, Weil and Zinberg found that "naive" users (subjects who had not tried marijuana prior to the study) did not become subjectively high in a neutral setting and showed only minor changes in measured physical responses to marijuana. One of the naive subjects, upon smoking marijuana for the first time and sensing that it wasn't the placebo, told the experimenters: "I have probably had something but it can't be marijuana because I would be more stoned than this." In fact, the only one of nine naive subjects who did get high during his first attempt was the young man who during the preliminary interviews had shown the most eagerness to try marijuana. In a different study, Erich Goode found that among the respondents to his questionnaire, 41 percent said they did not get high the first time, and another 13 percent weren't sure whether they did or not.
Not everybody who tries marijuana shows a noticeable response or undergoes a change of consciousness. Some people appear to be completely resistant or immune to marijuana; they don't, as the Jamaicans say, "have the head for it." "It really does happen," says Norman Zinberg. "There are people who refuse to accept or submit to the experience, who just do not metabolize it. The experience is there, but what people do with it is enormously variable."
It is not known whether or not the inability of some people to feel the effects of marijuana is determined physiologically. Many first-time smokers, consciously or not, simply refuse to let go; marijuana is a sufficiently subtle drug that the user must want to experience it. People who do not feel high after their first experience may well exhibit obvious physical effects, and laboratory studies have shown that volunteers may have red eyes, a dry mouth, and an increased heart rate without actually feeling anything different from their everyday, normal sense of reality.
Back in 1953, which in terms of marijuana research was still the dark ages, Howard S. Becker, the sociologist, published an essay entitled "Becoming a Marihuana User"; it has long enjoyed the status of a classic, not only among marijuana researchers but in general sociology as well. Becker's essay is important because it suggests a complete and compelling answer to the intriguing question of why so many marijuana smokers do not get high on their first attempt.
Becker argues that this may be because most people have to learn to use marijuana, and he outlines a three-step process by which this education occurs. The first phase is merely mechanical and involves learning the technique of inhaling the smoke. A joint, after all, is not smoked like a cigarette; marijuana smoke is most effective when held in the lungs for as long as possible. This can be difficult, initially, for the smoker of tobacco cigarettes to master, and almost impossible for the nonsmoker. Mezz Mezzrow, a white jazz musician whose book Really the Blues tells a great deal about marijuana use among American musicians between the wars, recalls that even he, the most celebrated smoker of his era, failed to get high the first time he tried:
I didn't feel a thing and I told him so. "Do you know one thing?" he said. "You ain't even smokin' it right. You got to hold that muggle so that it barely touches your lips, see, then draw in air around it. Say tfff, tfff, only breathe in when you say it. Then don't blow it out right away, you got to give the stuff a chance."
Since Mezzrow's time, and especially during the 1970S, there have been several new developments in the technology of smoking paraphernalia that have made the task of inhaling the smoke considerably easier. The most popular alternative to the marijuana cigarette is a water-cooled pipe known as a bong, which originated in Thailand two centuries ago. The bong allows the user to inhale smoke that may be cooled by ice cubes or tempered by hot water, or even both at once. In addition, there is always the option of eating marijuana, especially in baked goods, but this is more talked about than done. Among veteran smokers, the hand-rolled joint still prevails.
After the new user has mastered the proper smoking technique, he must move on to the second step in Becker's scheme, which is to perceive and experience the effects of the drug. That these effects may already be present in the novice smoker is irrelevant unless and until they have been identified and recognized. "The user must be able to point them out to himself and consciously connect them with his having smoked marijuana before he can have this experience," writes Becker. "Otherwise, regardless of the actual effect produced, he considers that the drug has no effect on him."
The new user's ability to make this connection depends, as Becker sees it, on his having "faith (developed from observations of users who do get high) that the drug actually will produce some new experience" and on his willingness to continue trying it until it does. But many first-time smokers, unaware of the complexity of this seemingly simple process, lack the patience to wait for the new experience to manifest itself and, more important, lack the knowledge even that patience is required. And so, not having undergone any observable changes on the first or second attempt, many would-be smokers assume that there is nothing in it for them and wonder, in some cases, if there is anything there at all. Presumably, there are several million Americans who have tried marijuana without experiencing any effect and who therefore believe themselves, incorrectly, to be immune to it. Indeed, many probably suspect that the whole enterprise is something of a hoax.
Becker's third and final step sounds at first a bit obvious: the user must learn to enjoy the effects he has just learned to recognize. Indeed, for all of the attendant pleasures described by its adherents, being high on marijuana is not intrinsically enjoyable for everyone, involving as it does the shock of another consciousness, frequent disorientation of time and space, occasional awareness of unconscious truths and processes that might easier be left unnoticed, and various physical discomforts such as hunger, fatigue, and dryness of the mouth. To many novice smokers, these annoyances may be more than enough to convince them that marijuana is considerably overrated.
While Becker's article represents the most complete answer to the question of why so many first-time users fail to get high, the question is still open. In part, the answer may have to do with the uniqueness of marijuana, whose effects are not directly comparable to anything else in the life of the novice smoker. The most common point of reference, naturally, is alcohol, and the person familiar with that form of intoxication may try marijuana and wait in vain for a fairly concrete assault upon the senses, all the while remaining oblivious to the more subtle effects of cannabis.
Another possibility, according to some researchers, is that THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, is changed by an enzyme in the liver into the metabolite known as 11-hydroxy delta-9-THC; it is this metabolite, some scientists believe, rather than "raw" THC that causes the high. Since it is normally present in the body in only minute quantities, several smoking sessions may be required for the liver to start producing sufficient quantities to affect the user.
The First Time
Most marijuana smokers were introduced to marijuana by a friend, a teacher, a sibling, or a slightly more experienced companion. Others were first turned on at a party, on a date, or with a group of friends. None of the people in my sample reported using marijuana for the first time when they were alone, while Erich Goode found that only 3 percent of his respondents turned themselves on.
Although many people experience no effects at all, the opposite phenomenon is also common. Lenny recalls that he enjoyed his first smoking experience so much that he immediately bought two ounces, one of which he sold to a friend, thus becoming a user, a buyer, and a dealer all at once.
When the first experience is good, it is often memorable. A salesman from Michigan recalls:
I was starting to feel different. A fog started to separate me from my two friends. Charlene wanted to go back, so we piled into my brother's car and started back along the dirt road. I felt unsteady at the wheel, and Dan asked if I needed help. I said no. I saw a car approaching and pulled over to the side. It took ages before the car passed us, and I felt so foolishly happy.
We arrived back at the lake, and the water was peacefully beautiful. It felt as if this was the beauty and the peace I had always wanted. If I could express that beauty in words, I would be a poet.
A more typical description of the first time is offered by a French instructor at a small southern college, who was introduced to marijuana in 1965, when he was a senior:
I was nervous at the beginning. There was still a lot of bad press about what dope could do to you, and my family background was pretty strict and conservative. But a lot of people I admired were smoking pot, so I wanted to try it.
The first time I smoked, I became very nervous. I was also very open to suggestion; the friend who turned me on was himself nervous, and he reassured me a bit too much, which made me even more nervous.
The first time I really got high there was some Mozart playing, and Mozart had never sounded that way to me before.
This man's nervousness is typical; even the most casual marijuana smokers are nervous the first time they smoke. It may be for this reason, among others, that many male smokers develop a measure of bravado with regard to the drug. But almost everybody admits to having felt some nervousness the first time, and a few smokers recall that they delayed their initial marijuana experience for as long as two or three years, until curiosity finally triumphed over fear. Surely these fears, which were especially common among smokers who started using marijuana during the 1960s, go a long way toward explaining why so many first-time users fail to get high.
The existence of these fears makes sense. The marijuana experience takes place on a different level of reality than the one most people are familiar with, and the prospect of the change may well threaten the sense of control and stability of a person uneasy about letting go of normal, waking consciousness. Some smokers recall that during their first high, they developed a fear that they would undergo a permanent change and would never return to their "real" selves. Even those who are most eager to try marijuana usually cannot imagine realistically what it will be like, and fear follows easily on ignorance. "Everyone can feel the effects of grass," states A Child's Garden of Grass, long known as the unofficial Bible of marijuana users, "if they simply get over their fear of losing control."
For many smokers, especially during the 1960s, fears about marijuana, exacerbated by the mass media, had to be overcome and dealt with before the decision to smoke could be made with any degree of comfort. A former Radcliffe student recollects:
I had read all this stuff about grass—in Life and Time and that kind of magazine—and the writers would always be saying, "These poor children, on the road to heroin, thinking they are expanding their world but really on the road to losing themselves ... oh alas, alas, will no one stop this dire green menace?" And I started thinking: what if the jokers who wrote the articles are the ones who are wrong—since their inner worlds didn't seem exactly the more aware and expanded ones, from the way they wrote. And I also figured that something you smoked, instead of injecting, was unlikely to do anything dire the first time even if they were right. I was really too interested. I'd read Huxley and other people, too, and they didn't sound like they were doing drugs to escape from anything.
As marijuana use has increased, the fears of first-time users have diminished accordingly, as have reports of bad trips. Still, the scare tactics and hysterical reports of a previous era linger on, if only subliminally. After seeing the most famous of the marijuana scare films of the 1930S, revived periodically in college towns to the delight of stoned audiences, one student told me: "Even though everybody knows that Reefer Madness is propaganda and nonsense, a little of the fear stays with you."
Accordingly, the most valuable function of the introducer is not so much to tell the novice what to do and how to smoke but rather to calm him down and assuage his fears, should that become necessary. These days, it seldom is. Occasionally, the introducer may also find himself providing a quick course in marijuana etiquette. A Boston actor tells of turning on an acquaintance who, as late as 1978, was completely unfamiliar with the world of marijuana:
It was a guy I didn't know too well. After we smoked he said to me, "What do I owe you?" He said he knew the stuff was expensive, and he seemed to think that if he didn't pay for it, the experience wasn't fully his own. I explained to him that dope is meant to be shared among friends, and I think he understood.
The Moment of Awareness
While parts of the marijuana experience change with cultural and social developments, other aspects remain constant. Here is Baudelaire on a characteristic response of novice smokers:
Most novices, of only the first degree of initiation, complain that hashish is slow in taking effect. They wait with childish impatience for it to do so; and then, when the drug does not function quickly enough to suit them, they indulge in a swaggering incredulity, which gives great delight to old initiates, who know just how hashish sets about its work.
Baudelaire might well have been commenting on the account of a young woman who was a senior in 1967 at a quiet Catholic college in upstate New York:
It was a very protective environment, but I had a boyfriend who got some pot, and he asked if I wanted to try it. I was nervous, but he convinced me that it was nothing more powerful than aspirin. I was sitting there in the car after taking a few hits, saying, "Ah, nothing's happening, it's such a waste." I kept repeating myself, saying over and over that nothing was happening. At this point my boyfriend was beside himself with laughter, realizing that I was stoned out of my mind.
I realize now that when I don't think I'm stoned, and I feel I have to ask, then I probably am. If I'm not stoned, I don't have to ask the question.
It is still common for new smokers to repeatedly ask, "Am I stoned?" or to insist over and over that they are not. "How do I know I'm stoned?" some ask earnestly. When two novices decide to smoke together, and there is no experienced smoker with them, the results can be quite funny, with each one trying to decipher clues from the other. This is what happened in the case of a humanistic psychologist who first tried marijuana while teaching at a small rural college in the Midwest:
I was with another fellow, also a teacher, and both of us were trying marijuana for the first time. And we got into this funny situation, a kind of circle, or knot. How could we know which of us was stoned? He was saying that I was stoned, and I was saying, "No, I'm not stoned; I only look stoned to you because you're stoned." We had very little to go on, not knowing what to expect, how we would feel, or anything. It's clear, years later, that we were both wrecked.
It generally takes time—years, in some cases—for the novice to understand and appreciate the full range of effects and possibilities of this altered state of consciousness. Indeed, most smokers never experience more than a small portion of that range, some because they don't care to, others because they have established for themselves very strict limits, such as smoking only at parties, for example, or only on weekend evenings. There is a trade-off for such people: their stoned experiences may be limited, but their sense of control over the drug—no trivial matter—is usually secure.
Those who began smoking marijuana in college during the mid-1960s were often heavily influenced by media reports about it. The media erroneously lumped marijuana together with psychedelic drugs, implying that marijuana leads to exotic and hallucinatory experiences, which is only rarely true in the United States. Ironically, many college students tried marijuana anticipating the reactions they had read about in Newsweek, which in turn was purporting to describe what the college students were experiencing, producing a circle of ignorance that benefited nobody. But because LSD and marijuana are both mind-altering drugs that came into public awareness at roughly the same time, they were frequently confused, although they are radically different substances. Indeed, some students tried LSD rather casually, assuming that the reports about it were no more true than the reports about marijuana.
And so the novice smoker of the 1960s kept waiting for the cosmic light show to begin, while back on earth there were more immediate and mundane matters to deal with. Sarah, now a teacher, a mother, and a daily smoker, first tried marijuana in 1968, while a student at Wellesley College. She was introduced to marijuana by three male friends. "God," she recalls thinking, "they must be so incredibly smart, smoking and talking at the same time!" A few moments later, when she had to go to the bathroom, she was afraid of not being able to get there. "I was worried that I wouldn't be able to walk down the hall," she says, "but everyone assured me that if you did things when you were high you would do them normally, even if you didn't think you could." It turns out that going to the bathroom was for many novices the first real test of whether they could function normally after smoking marijuana; despite some initial nervousness, nobody reported failure. Today, many of these same people think nothing of driving, going to work, or even giving a lecture while they are stoned.
Many smokers can recall the exact moment they first realized they were high. A Florida man recalls being on the roof of an apartment building overlooking a city on a spring night. A joint was circulating, and he asked to try it:
After about seven tokes I noticed that the lights of the town were taking on a weird, dazzling look. I had already cultivated the ability to see lights this way by keeping my eyes motionless, so that the after-images built up. These images, I had discovered, were an effective jumping-off point to fantasy worlds. Marijuana, I decided, made this process a lot easier, and I was very pleased. Later, walking back to my room, I was intrigued by the way things felt and looked. I decided that I had discovered something pretty damn good.
Combined with this excitement there was also a measure of disappointment for what marijuana did not represent:
For the rest of that spring, I spent one or two evenings a week smoking with friends and listening to music. I enjoyed this a great deal, but I did not find what I was really after. I had been fascinated by the term "altered states of consciousness," and I would stare into the light bulb on those stoned nights, trying to penetrate the Veil through whatever opening the light bulb might provide. No luck.
The images I was able to induce by closing my eyes were entertaining, but none of it led anywhere. I was looking for something much more intense. What I was really looking for, I now realize, was what I received from LSD. But that's another story.
Some smokers recall that their first experience was more than disappointing. A graduate student in Philadelphia reports that the first time he smoked, it tasted like eating a combination of burning charcoal and hot peanut butter A man who was in the navy, stationed on Hawaii in 1969, had a very unpleasant first trip. Bad trips on marijuana are statistically minuscule, but they do occur—especially the first time. The navy man was driving with a friend one night and was talked into sharing a joint with him while riding through the pineapple fields:
The first thing I felt was a strange sort of numbness spreading up the back of my head. I started to worry that I was going to black out. I kept driving, and then I started worrying about whether I could keep the car on the road. I think I was driving pretty well at the time, but I became terribly conscious of the dangers involved, and terribly uneasy about whether or not I could cope with these dangers while high. It got so bad that my companion offered to drive, and I gladly let him. We drove back to the barracks, and I remember as we approached the parking lot that I was scared to death that we would run into a military cop who would know that we were high on grass, and not just drunk.
But the vast majority of first-time experiences are either neutral or pleasant. Sometimes the first high is punctuated by unexpected and inexplicable laughter and sometimes by a clear, new visual perception of familiar objects. Both of these phenomena happened to a writer who works at a Washington think tank:
I got a classic case of the giggles but unclassically, I found that I could stop them by a sufficient effort of the will. If I did, however, the entire universe tilted before my eyes to an incline of about forty-five degrees, and the only way I could straighten out the world was to let go and laugh. This felt to me like some weird kind of e=mc2; that is, emotional looseness had some kind of relationship to spatial perception, structure, and the rightness of the world. In other words, my world made sense only if I let myself go, especially in laughter. I was a pretty square, uptight, antiwar liberal back then, not interested in spiritual life, or in my own identity, or in laughing. It was a major lesson for me.
A Montana man offers a more elaborate version of the laughing experience during his first high:
I walked out of the room and watched a tennis match. I turned to ask somebody what the score was, and then I questioned what words I had used. I thought I had said "Whjabbaja babjalla?" Then I remembered that I had gotten an answer to my question, so perhaps I was wrong. I still hadn't attributed my behavior to the pot. Finally, at dinner, someone said something funny, and I couldn't stop laughing. I must have been a spectacle, but it was great. Then and only then did I realize that the pot had hit me.
For other smokers, the first moment of stoned awareness is marked by an unmistakable change in auditory or visual perception. A medical student in San Francisco recalls:
I didn't realize that I was stoned until I got home from a friend's house, turned off the lights, and turned on "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" by the Iron Butterfly. I got incredibly freaked out by the music. At first, I was really frightened, because I couldn't understand why I felt this way—until I remembered that I had smoked.
A teacher in Oregon recalls turning on her best friend:
We were in a group of people, and a joint was being passed around. She reached for it—she had never smoked before—and I said, "Now you know you don't have to if you don't want to." I was worried that she might feel pressured to smoke. She said she knew what she was doing and proceeded to take three tokes. She coughed a little, and after a while I saw her staring at the trees out of the window. I said, "Kathy, what are you staring at?" She said she never noticed how beautiful the trees were. I knew then she was high.
A woman in her late fifties who lives on a farm in Maine reports a similar experience. The first time she smoked, nothing happened. Her two daughters, who had encouraged her the first time, tried again a few weeks later. Still no results.
Then, the third time, I had a little more to smoke, and I noticed a piece of glass sculpture on the windowsill that had caught the sun. And I found myself staring at this sculpture, which was glowing. I had never noticed before how beautiful it was. This was the first time I noticed any effect.
An elderly New York woman reports a variation on this theme. She claims she was sent a package of seeds in an envelope with a note saying, "Plant these for size." She did, and one of her friends recognized the plant and rolled two cigarettes for her. "At this point," she writes, "I would like to say I am on Medicare along with most of my friends. I think we are considered little old ladies in sneakers—which no doubt we are." She continues:
So we smoked. Nothing happened except a deep sense of relaxation, which was nice. Since I've never been able to drink, I understood why liquor was so much in demand. I live on the thirty-first floor of my building, and there is a drugstore off the lobby where I buy the evening paper. I rang for the elevator. The trip down was endless, and the lobby was miles away. I got there, bought the paper, wandered through the desert of the lobby for forty years, got on the elevator and flew home.
I had left the radio on and it was playing the most heavenly music I've ever heard. The pianist was making each note sound clear and rounded and perfect. I was held until the record was over. Then the announcer said that the pianist was Liberace and that strange and evocative music was "Traumerei" by Schumann. I decided to get rid of the Mary Jane at once.
As with many other facets of life, what a person brings to the marijuana experience will largely determine what he gets out of it. Steve, now a car salesman, first tried marijuana in his adolescence, when he was involved in a quest for truth, meaning, and values:
For me it was an intellectual thing. I'd ask a question, and I'd have to have the answer to it. I wasn't smoking for fun. These were huge questions like: what is the meaning and purpose of life? Here I was getting high, and saying to myself that I've got to have the answer to the questions I was asking. Marijuana didn't provide those answers, but it did help, and it stimulated more questions.
Mark, who is married to Sarah from Wellesley, started smoking ten years ago as a Harvard freshman. He works in the computer-design field; back then, he smoked to better understand the workings of his own mind:
I was a philosophy major. The fundamental question on my mind was what is beauty. My roommate and I started smoking grass as an experiment; we would spend hours getting stoned and taping ourselves being stoned and talking about it. I have always been very interested in how people's heads work. What is this process called thinking, and how does it work? My early experiences with drugs were originally intended to understand what was going on in my own mind.
Some users become interested in the serious side of marijuana even before trying it. Others come to it only after years of smoking, while some users are simply not interested in using marijuana as a tool for exploring their minds and hearts. Similarly, some first-time users begin smoking fairly quickly, while others try marijuana after so lengthy a deliberation that their first experience may be more a matter of "when" than "whether." This caution was more typical of the 1960s. Looking back on those years, David recalls that he wanted to try marijuana as a junior in college but didn't actually take the plunge until after graduation:
I had an older friend, Mel, who seemed to me very wise and full of good advice on the business of life. I told him I wanted to try marijuana, and I asked him what he thought. I knew he would be against it, but I wanted a reason for my own opposition. He gave me one: "You'd be a shmuck to try it." Now Mel and I had a fairly deep friendship, and he was often saying wise and pithy things. His answer made sense to me at the time and served its purpose for three years—until I finally realized it was bullshit and began to smoke.
Sometimes the initial marijuana experience can be planned and prepared for. Mark tells of introducing a friend to grass by reading her selected passages from the chapter on "Turning On" in Lester Grinspoon's book Marihuana Reconsidered. Several smokers mentioned that they did research on marijuana before taking their first toke. For others, the experience was more spontaneous, as with a teacher from California who recalls:
I remember thinking to myself, "Here goes." It was almost like losing my virginity. Nothing happened for an hour. Then, walking along the beach with friends, I suddenly began to notice that the whitecaps were rolling onto the shore like angels of God sweeping in over some kind of grassy, wet meadow.
While actual hallucinations are rare with marijuana, it is common for a smoker to experience an altered perception, to be struck by a particularly forceful and vivid image. The California teacher didn't claim to see angels of God, although under LSD he might have. With marijuana, he is far more likely to be struck by a concrete image such as "this is what angels of God might look like."
Naturally, a particular challenge for the novice smoker is to determine exactly where subjective change ends and objective "normal" reality begins. In other words, he must answer the implicit question: "Which world should I believe in when the two realities tell me different things?" The new user frequently wants to know if he looks different when he is stoned and often goes off to seek the answer in the nearest mirror. A college student in Baltimore who first got stoned at a medieval festival in New York, recalls: "I had the strong feeling that I looked different, I was nervous, and afraid that everyone knew I was stoned." She had taken a camera with her, and she asked her friends to take some pictures so that she could see, later on, how she had actually looked that day. I asked her how the pictures turned out, and she looked at me as though the question made no sense. Indeed, by the time I asked, it probably didn't. "They turned out absolutely normal," she replied. "I simply looked happy. I guess the changes were all inside."
Another mark of the first-time experience are feelings of happiness and confidence. A young man who, like several other users here, smoked his first joint on a hill behind his high school, recalls:
At first I was thinking that there was no reaction, no effect. "This isn't working," I thought. And then suddenly I stopped and said, "Dave, I feel funny." And I started looking at everything differently. Things seemed funnier. And I became much less inhibited, and I started running down the hill toward the school, yelling "BANZAI!"
Sometimes the initial experience is very dramatic, much more so than subsequent smoking. An occupational therapist who had smoked several times without getting high found herself in an encounter group that celebrated its final session with a party. She evidently had smoked a good deal, finding herself at one point passing two pipes at once and holding a third one between her teeth:
I was having a fine time and wasn't really thinking about being stoned until suddenly I had the sensation that I was simultaneously blacking out and yet was completely aware of everything around me. I was teetering between oblivion and total consciousness. It was an incredible experience. I don't think I recognized what was happening until I attempted to call out a phone message, which was dissolved in laughter; I knew then I was no longer in control of things.
What followed was a long evening of wide-eyed amazement as I found myself in a new dimension of time: the absolute present. There was no past moment and no future moment—at least, none that was connected to any sense of reality. There was only the very, very immediate present which changed with every fraction of a second, and I had total control of it.
Every passing moment dissipated, and I entered a new state of oblivion. The only time this feeling has ever been duplicated for me was when I had to give a lecture to a group of students. Panic-stricken, I spoke each word automatically and enthusiastically, not knowing how I had started each sentence, or how on earth I intended to finish it.
For many first-time smokers, the experience stands as a life-changing event. Joining the company of fellow-smokers can represent a major change, which has implications for other events and other decisions. A Vermont man in his mid-twenties recalls his first experience, which occurred while he was in high school:
Weeks of thought had gone into that decision, and starting to smoke was for me the end of a long internal debate between two very different world-views.
According to one, life was basically simple: all that needed to be done was to choose a path and then follow it with little deviation, and all would be well; problems would be resolved even before they appeared. If I did well in school, decided on a professional career, became active with the right crowd and didn't knock against the surface of things, then life would be, well, life. This path, in other words, would not represent a struggle for the person who chose it. On the contrary: it would reflect the substance and the personality of the chooser. The actual choice would occur unconsciously, like the transition from adolescence to adulthood.
The trouble arose for me when I realized that there lay within me another world-view, one that would not go away even when I wanted it to, and one that had to be contended with. It said that the surface of things was not always an accurate gauge of the way things really were, that people who seemed to fit into their prepared niches were not inherently better or smarter than those who were still searching. The world was different than what you were told it would be, and the voice of authority was not always in possession of the best or wisest way to be—or to behave. If you held a complex view of things, like this second world-view, you could never pretend to have a simple view, and life, far from becoming simpler and more knowable as you got older, became instead more complicated, more complex and entangled. There would be other choices to make.
Deciding to smoke marijuana put me squarely in the second camp, and I knew it. The undramatic first episode did not signal any change of heart, any turning back. The decision had been made to become a smoker and to accept the ambiguity of the smoking world, not to mention its dangers—these were the days of jail sentences for possession, not to mention the popular belief that marijuana led to heroin—and not to mention the defiance of parents, teachers, and society at large.
1. Sometimes referred to as a "Hindu Proverb," this is actually a Muslim catch-phrase recorded by J. M. Campbell, Assistant English Opium Commissioner of Bombay, in an appendix to the 1894 Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report. (back)
2. "I have probably had something": Norman E. Zinberg and Andrew Weil, "Cannabis: The First Controlled Experiment," New Society 16 (January 1969): 84-86. (back)
3. Goode: The Marijuana Smokers, pp. 135-36. (back)
4. Howard S. Becker: "Becoming a Marihuana User," American Journal of Sociology 59 (1953): 235-42. Becker's essay also appears as chapter 3 of his book, Outsiders: Studies in The Sociology of Deviance, pp. 41-58. (back)
5. Milton Mezzrow and Bernard Wolfe, Really the Blues (New York, 1946), p. 71. Reprinted in David Ebin, ed., The Drug Experience, p. 87. (back)
6. "The user": Outsiders, p. 49. (back)
7. "Faith": Ibid. (back)
8. 3 percent, Goode: The Marijuana Smokers, p. 123. (back)
9. In my interviews, I noticed an interesting difference between men and women. In many cases, the men I spoke with affected a posture of considerable knowledge and experience, whether or not it was warranted. Similarly, many women who were clearly experienced and informed about marijuana did not take their knowledge seriously, and often underestimated their own sophistication with regard to smoking. While "marijuana machismo" is not confined to men, I was struck by the differences between the two groups. Moreover, this posturing among men was in evidence even among those men who have consciously allowed their values and attitudes to be changed as a result of the women's movement; perhaps marijuana brings out pockets of resistance. (back)
10. A Child's Garden of Grass: p. 22. (back)
11. Radcilffe: Dianne Bennett, "Marihuana Use Among College Students and Street People" (Senior Honors Thesis, Harvard University, 1970) . (back)
12. Baudelaire: in The Drug Experience, p. 21. (back)