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Chapter 6 - Turning On: Becoming a Marijuana User PDF Print E-mail
Written by Erich Goode   
Wednesday, 09 March 2011 00:00

Chapter 6 - Turning On: Becoming a Marijuana User


The verb "to turn on" has many meanings within the drug-using community. It is a rich and magical term, encompassing an enormous variety of situations and activities. Its imagery is borrowed from the instantaneous processes of the electrical age, which McLuhan has described with perverse brilliance. An electric light is turned on, and one's inept fumbling about a once-dark room ceases; a machine is turned on, and one can do what previously was impossible; the television is turned on, and a naked glass eye becomes a teeming, glittering illusion. The most general meaning of the verb to turn on is to make knowledgeable, to make aware, to open the senses, to sensitize, to make appreciative, excited. Thus someone may turn on someone to another person, a recording artist, an author worth knowing. A certain woman may turn on a man sexually. Reading a book may turn on its reader to an area of knowledge—or onto himself. A teacher may turn on his students. Someone may simply be turned on to the excitement of the world. Turning on is an enlargement of one's universe.
The specific meaning of the word is using drugs. Within the drug context, "to turn on" has at least three interrelated connotations: (1) to give or have one's first drug experience—usually with marijuana; (2) to become high for the first time—with marijuana; (3) to use a drug—usually marijuana. "Let's go to my place and turn on," would nearly always mean to smoke marijuana and become high. A significant element in the marijuana subculture is that marijuana use is a turning on, an enlargement of one's awareness, an opening up of the receptivity of one's senses and emotions. To turn on with marijuana is, at least to its users, a part of living life as fully as possible.
We will now use the term in its first meaning: using marijuana for the first time—the process of "becoming a marijuana user."[1] Our guiding concern will be the dynamic transition between being a nonuser to trying the drug initially. It is the story of the initiate, the neophyte's first drug exposure. What are the factors which make for such a transition? What sorts of experiences does the convert go through, and why? What are the appeals of this drug to the young, to the drug-naive, to the inexperienced, that make this transition so widespread? It should be kept in mind that we are describing an event that took place in the past. The smoker today was turned on previously, not today, perhaps a few days ago, perhaps a few years ago. Thus, there exists the possibility for distortion in our respondents' reports of their turn on. They may make their past consistent with present sentiment or events. The past may be shaped to tell an interesting story based on how they feel today. We have no idea how this tendency distorts the respondents' stories about their initial use of marijuana, but we ought to be attuned to the possibility of such a distortion.
Every marijuana user passes through the process of being turned on. Not all experiences will be the same, of course, but a hard core of common experiences will prevail among most users. Certain features will parallel any new experience, while some will be unique to marijuana use. Nearly all human activities at least indirectly involve other people, and being introduced to marijuana offers no exception to this rule; in fact, marijuana use in general is exquisitely a group phenomenon. Only six of our interviewees (3 percent) turned themselves on, that is, the first time that they ever smoked marijuana, they were alone. (They all had, of course, obtained their marijuana from someone else.) Eight individuals (4 percent) were turned on exclusively in the company of other neophytes. At their initial exposure to the drug, the user-to-be is subject to the tribal lore of the marijuana-using subculture, a distinctive and idiosyncratic group in society; his experience with the drug is, in a sense, predefined, channeled, already structured. He is told how to get high, what to do when he is high, how to recognize the high, what to expect, how he will react, what is approved high behavior, and what is disapproved, what experiences are enriched by the high, and which are not. The nature of the experience itself is defined for the initiate. Although these definitions in no way substitute for the experience itself, they are a variable which goes into its making. They do not determine the nature of the high experience, totally irrespective of any and all other variables, but they are crucial. It is necessary, therefore, to examine the impact of group structure in the experience of turning on.
Not only is the initiate turned on by experienced marijuana users rich in the collective wisdom of their group, but these proselytizers are also intimates.[2] In no case did a peddler turn on the respondent—unless he was a friend. The profit motive in these conversions was simply and frankly absent. Friends were involved in every stage of the process—supplying information about marijuana, or supplying the opportunity, or the drug. But equally as important is that a friend or group of friends supplied a kind of legitimation. They were an "example." Prior to any first or second hand acquaintance with the drug, many users have a stereotype in their minds about the kinds of people who use marijuana. They might have been convinced that smoking pot is an undesirable thing to do because, in their minds, only undesirable people used it. Even more important than any knowledge about the effects of the drug in convincing them that turning on might have merit was their association with and attitudes toward people who endorsed and used marijuana. At the point where the individual realizes that it isn't only undesirable (in his eyes) people who use it, but many poised, sophisticated ones as well, his defenses against using it have been weakened, possibly more than by any other single factor. "I didn't want to smoke it because that added you to a collection of people who were undesirable," said one nineteen-year-old ex-coed. "The times when I could have turned on, I didn't want to try it with the people I was with—they were depressing people to be around," added another young woman. The disillusionment came with the awareness that "people I respected smoked it. I gradually began to realize the fakery about it," in the words of a thirty-year-old executive. "People I like smoked it." "Friends I knew and respected smoked it and like it." "A guy I admired was smoking, and I asked him if I could smoke." This theme ran through our interviews. "At first I looked down on it—it's dope, it's habit forming, it leads to heroin, it's demoralizing. But once, when I was staying over at my cousin's house, I thought, if my cousin, whom I dig, is doing it—she's a great kid—it can't be too bad," a twenty-year-old clerk explained. "I was apprehensive, a little excited, scared, and ignorant, but I trusted the guy I was with," a twenty-nine-year-old commercial artist told me, describing his turn-on ten years ago.
It is necessary that the proselytizer be someone whom the potential initiate trusts; he is generally unwilling to put his fate in the hands of a stranger. If he accepts society's generally negative judgment of the drug, there must be some powerful contrary forces neutralizing that judgment before he will try marijuana. Peer influences are just such powerful forces. Society's evaluation, even if taken seriously, is a vague and impersonal influence. The testimony of one or several friends will weigh far more heavily in the balance than even parental disapproval. If an intimate friend vouches for the positive qualities of cannabis, the ground has been cleared for a potential convert.
More specifically, the relationship between the neophyte and his marijuana initiator is crucial. The lack of association in the naif's mind of marijuana with a specific unsavory "scene" is, of course, important, but it lacks the immediacy and impact of his feelings for those who actually hand him a glowing joint. Although sexual parallels should not be pushed too far, something of the same significance is imputed to one's first sex partner as to the person one has decided to be turned on by. With women, the conjunction is closer than for men, since women are usually turned on by men, whereas men are more often turned on by other men.
Looking at smokers through the eyes of the potential convert, it is clear that, on the whole, a high proportion are respectable. More than that, many are at the center of the youth culture—the most highly respected of the younger half of the population are known as users. Known users are generally brighter, more creative, socially active, and knowledgeable in those aspects of the youth culture that the young take most seriously. A young black man, president of his sophomore class at Andover, was quoted by The New York Times as saying, "No matter what parents instill in their sons, they lose a lot of it here. Everybody wants to be identified with the 'in' crowd, and the 'in' crowd is now on the left." He might have added that the left is into pot. It is not merely that marijuana is fashionable to youngsters today, its users are seen as role models; they are, in many ways, a reference group for slightly younger nonusers. It is from the using population that many of the dominant values of today's youth spring—in music and fashion, to mention two of the most obvious examples—and from whom standards of prestige and desirability flow. One of the appeals of the drug, and why its use has spread with such facility, is that endorsers and users are seen by their peers as socially acceptable and even highly desirable human beings. As Alan Sutter, one of the researchers on the Blumer study[3] of drug use in the Oakland area, wrote: "Drug use, especially marijuana use, is a function of a socializing movement into a major stream of adolescent life."[4] Another reason why marijuana spreads with such rapidity is that users project relatively unambiguously favorable endorsements. Not only are they interested in making converts to a degree unequal to that of any other drug culture, but they advertise their drug better. Their propaganda is more effective, because they present more of its favorable qualities and fewer of its negative traits. The chronic amphetamine user or the heroin addict are ambivalent about their drug of choice and rarely portray it in unambiguously positive terms. They are willing to admit its dangers, its damages to their body, the hazards of use. Asked if their drug of choice is harmless, the amphetamine and heroin users are unlikely to agree, while the pothead is likely to do so. An indication of the relativity in images of the various drugs, what they do to the body, and their users, may be gleaned from the jargon for users of these drugs. The term "head" implies no negative connotation; it is a purely descriptive term. Thus, a "pothead" is simply one who uses marijuana heavily. But the terms "fiend" and "freak" are predominantly negative. Freak and fiend are never used in reference to marijuana users, whereas they are frequently applied to methedrine and heroin users—"meth freak," "speed freak," "scag fiend," and so forth. A linguistic projection of these differential images does not prove our point, but it does lend it support.
The image of potential and present potsmokers as "wild thrill seekers" has no basis. Most of the users interviewed were cautious and apprehensive about trying marijuana, and would not have made the leap unless they had been convinced that it would not harm them. The lure of cannabis is not that it represents danger; it is almost the reverse. It represents no obstacle to the future user when he is led to believe that it is safe. He rarely tries it himself to determine whether it is safe, but accepts testimony about its safety from those whose judgment he trusts. If it were depicted by his intimates as a dangerous drug or a narcotic (as defined by law), the overwhelming majority would never have tried it.
Americans generally pride themselves on being objective, hardheaded, empirical, and tough-minded. This is the show-me country, where the challenge to prove it calls for scientific demonstration. "I'll try anything once" is an open-minded attitude toward experience. Yet, for some reason, these injunctions are highly selective; they apply to some spheres of experience and not to others. There are, presumably, many activities and experiences that need no testing and are rightfully condemned out of hand. But the younger generation is taking the pragmatism of the American civilization literally, at face value. If it applies to technology, to the business world, to foods and fads, then why not pot? "Don't knock it unless you've tried it," was a theme running throughout my interviews. The firsthand experience is respected by America's young, and he who condemns without having "been there" will be ignored. And the reason why the pull to the promarijuana side is especially powerful is that positive personal testimony is more common than negative personal testimony, negative testimony being largely nonexperiential. Physicians who give talks designed to discourage marijuana use are invariably asked by young audiences whether they have tried the drug they condemn. Although the reply—you don't have to have a disease to recognize its symptoms—satisfies the middle-aged physician, it is insufficient for the experience-oriented high school or college student.
We are struck by the dominant role of at least five factors in this process:

  1. The initiate's perception of danger ( or the lack thereof ) in marijuana use
  2. His perception of its benefits
  3. His attitude toward users
  4. His closeness to marijuana's endorsers
  5. His closeness to the individual trying to turn him on*

* This discussion assumes that the potential user has been provided with an opportunity to try marijuana, this is, itself, a variable and not a constant. We are concentrating on the characteristics of the individual himself in this discussion.

Of course, these five variables are only theoretically independent —in actual cases, they interpenetrate and influence one another. For instance, the neophyte is more likely to believe that marijuana is harmless if he is told this by intimates—less likely if told the same thing by strangers; therefore, (1) and (2) are partly determined by (4) and (5). Each of these factors should be thought of as a variable that is neither necessary nor sufficient; the only absolutely necessary precondition for turning on is the presence of the pot. Thus, the individual can come into a turn-on situation with almost any conceivable attitude toward trying marijuana—although, obviously, if the turn-on is to be successful, certain kinds of attitudes on the potential convert's part are more likely than others. However, what is necessary is that certain combinations of these variables exist.
To understand how the process of a typical turn-on might work, let us play a game by assigning each factor an imaginary (probably unrealistic) weight of twenty, and each individual a score ranging from zero to twenty, depending on the degree of favorableness; in his case, each factor is for a turn-on. Let us further claim that a turn-on occurs when our candidate—who has just been given an opportunity to turn on—is assigned a total score of fifty. Let us look at the following actual cases:
I had notions that marijuana was harmful, that I might commit suicide, that it was a real drug; pot wasn't separated from the other drugs in my mind. Then, I had a neighbor in Berkeley who was a pothead. He explained what it was like to me. He told me not to be frightened about it. He described the high as a very sensual experience. It was as if I was a virgin. He talked to me for about two months before I tried it.

Twenty-two-year-old public school art teacher, female

I knew almost nothing about pot. I had no attitude about it one way or another. I was in high school, and a friend took me to a bar, he made a connection—I didn't know it until after—and then we drove off. In the car, he asked if I wanted some. I asked him a few questions about it, and then I tried it.

Twenty-seven-year-old graduate student in sociology

I didn't believe in it. I felt as if I was above it. I didn't need a thing like that. Others seemed to take it when they have problems, and not when they were happy.

It seemed to be a miserable type of drug. I was visiting friends who were marijuana smokers, who were talking about it constantly, but I didn't want to smoke, and everybody else did. They said at first that it was okay if I didn't smoke and everybody else did, but I felt awkward not smoking when everybody else was, and I felt pressured into it. They all tried to teach me how to do it.

Twenty-two-year-old writer, female

I can remember thinking, if I were offered marijuana, I would try it. I knew it wasn't dangerous. I was offered it coming back from skiing with somebody I'd just met. We were riding home in a car.

Twenty-one-year-old advertising specialist, female

I didn't want to go along with everyone else. It was the hip thing to do in my high school in the tenth grade. I just didn't want to be a part of the drug scene. I was against it, but I knew I would eventually try it. I felt as if I might really like it. I just didn't happen to like those kids I knew that smoked. One day, two of us were sitting in a coffee house, and a friend dropped in and said, let's try it. We went into the back, into the ladies' room, and smoked it.

Eighteen-year-old college freshman, female

I was sixteen years old, in the Air Force. Near the base, in a bar, a whore picked me up, and we went to her place. She turned me on. My attitudes were hostile concerning pot. I thought it was dope, I thought it was addicting. I took it because I'm a chump for a broad. Anything she suggested was okay.

Twenty-eight-year-old carpenter

I knew it would be groovy two years before I turned on. I didn't have any opportunities before then. I would have snatched them up if I had. I studied up on drugs before I took it. I knew what the hygiene course we had in high school was teaching were lies.

Twenty-year-old bookstore clerk

At first, I thought, it's a terrible drug, and it leads to heroin. But my brother demolished all the fallacies. It sounded good. There was nothing wrong with it but I was still afraid of it. My brother turned me on.

Nineteen-year-old clerk in a bookstore, female

My feelings about pot were nonexistent, though I was vaguely favorably disposed to it. I discounted the negative jazz as hoopla and propaganda; I couldn't see, after reading about it, any harm from it. I didn't accept the first few opportunities I had, because I didn't like the people I was with. Finally, I visited some friends, and they offered me some.

Twenty-seven-year-old dishwasher

Before, I didn't want to—I didn't see any reason for it. I wasn't around people who smoked it. But at the job I have now, people at the office talked about it. I got interested. I mentioned to someone in the office I'd like to try it: Could you get me some? So, one night my husband and I had guests. No one had ever had the stuff before. Three of us turned on with the pot I got from the office. My husband didn't try it.

Twenty-five-year-old assistant research analyst, market research firm

I knew it was harmless, and I was curious about it. I was sitting in the park, and a guy came to me and asked if I wanted to buy some, and I bought a nickel bag, and went over to a friend's place, and we turned on.

Nineteen-year-old college student

I was against the idea of marijuana. I was ignorant. I knew it was a drug, and I thought it was addictive. But my closest friend smoked—I was close friends with this guy for four years. He asked me several times to turn on and I said no. Finally, I decided, what the hell—give it a try.

Twenty-four-year-old market research study director

My older brother gave it to me. He told me not to turn on out of social pressure; I should be turned on by someone I trusted—himself. He got it for me, and then I went up to the attic and turned on alone. I came down and talked to my parents. Only my brother knew I was high. Before that, I didn't know people well enough, or trust them, to turn on.

Twenty-five-year-old artist-performer

I knew almost nothing about pot, but I was completely confident that nothing would happen, since my brother turned me on.

Twenty-one-year-old unemployed college drop-out

I felt safe with good friends, and I felt it would be all right.

Twenty-year-old coder, female


Thus, someone who is extremely close to both the endorser and the individual turning him on (forty points), and who has an ambivalent attitude about users (ten points), sees no benefits in use (zero points), and is unsure about its safeness (ten points), is a potential candidate for being turned on, when the occasion arises. Another person who thinks of the stories about its dangers as myths, thinks that it would be fun, and has at least a moderately favorable image of smokers, is likely to be turned on, even by a stranger. One indication that our scheme reflects something of the actual situation is the fact that many marijuana users (46 percent of our respondents) report having refused opportunities to turn on prior to their eventual conversion because one or another circumstance at that time was not favorable. Any one of these factors could have been the reason, but the two most often mentioned were the fears about the drug's danger and a lack of closeness with the person or persons offering the opportunity to try it. With this scheme in mind as a very rough model, it is possible to see how someone could accept an offer to smoke even though he is still fearful of the drug's effects, although this is empirically infrequent.
It is relatively rare for the initiate to try to simulate prior drug experience, although it does occur. The majority going through the initiation ceremony are known to be novitiates by all present (70 percent of our interviewees), while occasionally some present at the turning on ceremony will know, while others do not (6 percent)— at a large party, for instance. It is not uncommon for the respondent to be unaware of what others know of his prior drug experience (15 percent), and sometimes none present at his turn-on knew that he was marijuana-naive (g percent). Typically, both initiate and initiator regard the turn-on as a highly significant event in the novice's roster of life experiences. It is a kind of milestone, a rite de passage; it is often seen as a part of "growing up" for many adolescents.[5] Even when others are not in the know, the subject is nervous and excited at the prospect. Its importance in one's life is overshadowed only by (and is similar to) losing one's virginity. Although the following account is atypical because it is so extreme, it captures much of the flavor of the ritual-like nature of the characteristic turnon; I present the verbatim transcript of a portion of the interview of a twenty-three-year-old dramatics graduate student. (I am asking the questions.)

Q: Do you remember how you got it for the first time?
A: It was given to me. I smoked it with a friend of mine, and a friend of his, and another amiable person.
Q: Do you remember what the occasion was?
A: There was no occasion; the occasion was the turning on.
Q: You got together for the purpose of turning on?
A: Yes.
Q: All the others present—did they know you were smoking for the first time?
A: Yes. And if the party was the celebration of anything, it was the celebration of a new person coming to turn on, and that was a big deal. And everyone was very nice, you know, and brought all sorts of great things to eat. And taste, and wild things, and put on a whole show, you know, it was a great, marvelous experience: just absolutely marvelous.
Q: Did you get high?
A: Yes, I got very, very high. Had an enormously good time. The first time I got high, I think we were listening to jazz, and the notes became visual, and turned different colors, and became propellers. And jazz became kind of formalized in a great color and motion thing that I created from my own imagination—wonderful things like this happened. And the room was tilted slightly up, you know, turned on its side; it was like a rocket ship taking off for somewhere, you know, way out in the vastness of outer space.
A significant element in the marijuana subculture's tribal lore is the technique involved in smoking the weed. For those who do not smoke tobacco cigarettes, the whole procedure might seem particularly strange. But even for those who do smoke, much of the tobacco cigarette agendum is inapplicable to smoking marijuana cigarettes; if pot is smoked exactly like an ordinary cigarette, the novice probably cannot become high—it is difficult enough in the beginning when done correctly—although it is possible with practice. The initiate, to become high, must inhale the marijuana smoke deeply into his lungs; take some air in with the smoke; hold it there for a few seconds; and let it out slowly.[6] These procedures require observation and instruction. They are part of the technology of marijuana use that must be mastered. Although they do not compare in complexity with heroin technology, they are necessary for attaining the desired state of intoxication.
By itself, without becoming high, marijuana smoking is not pleasurable. All users smoke marijuana to become high—in traditional language, "intoxicated." They see no point to smoking it for its own sake. There is no pleasure to be derived from inhaling the fumes of the burning marijuana plant (although the same could be said for the leaves of the tobacco plant), and there is, moreover, no ideology which claims that mere smoking, without intoxication, is pleasurable or good, or relaxing—or anything—as there is with regular tobacco cigarettes. (Pot, in addition, lacks the physiological compulsion-imperative built into nicotine.)
We may take it as an axiom that everywhere and at all times, marijuana is smoked in order to attain the high. It might seem surprising that at this point we encounter another learning process. No activity, bodily state, or condition is inherently pleasurable. Physiological manifestations of human sexuality, for instance, experienced by the completely untutored are apt to be interpreted as disturbing and puzzling, not necessarily pleasurable. We are prepared for and instructed in the pleasures of sex; sufficient negative tutoring will generally yield disgust and a desire for avoidance in the individual. Now, it should be mentioned that some bodily states have greater potential for being defined as pleasurable: sex, for instance, or the marijuana high. But the social-defining and learning process must be there. It seems a paradox to say that one must learn how to have fun, especially as the Freudians tell us that culture is primarily repressive, not liberative, but it is difficult to avoid such a conclusion.
The unprepared individual is unlikely to think of the marijuana intoxication as pleasurable. The pleasures or discomforts of the high are interpreted, defined, sifted by group definitions. One is, in a sense, programmed beforehand for the experience, for feeling a pleasurable response. Even as one is in the very process of becoming high and beginning to experience the effects of the drug, a dialectical relationship exists between the high and the user's moral and epistemological ambiance. Group definitions constantly interpret and reinterpret the experience, so that subsequent feelings and events are continually tailored to fit the expectations of the group. Although when a marijuana circle has a novice on its hands, the instruction is generally verbal and calculated, much of the learning process is preverbal. It need not be consciously didactic: one may be taught by example, tone of voice, movements, laughter, a state of apparent ecstasy. Merely by looking around him, the novice senses that this is a group preparing to have fun, this is the type of situation in which people enjoy themselves. Thus, even when turning on for the first time, the neophyte will rarely experience something which is wildly out of line with group expectations. If he does, the initiate is "talked out" of them. The statistically few events that do occur contrary to the group's expectations are noteworthy for their rarity.
Since users most generally think of marijuana use as normal, healthy, appealing, and sybaritic, the novitiate absorbs mostly favorable definitions and expectations of what he is about to experience. Interpretations concerning the high emanating from the group become assimilated into the beginner's moral outlook, and most commonly his experiences are a reflection of these definitions. If use were condemned by users who saw themselves acting out of "compulsive" and "sick" motives, and who thought of smoking in morbid, self-flagellating terms, not only would the novice be unlikely to try the drug, but even if he ever did, his high would be experienced as unpleasant, distasteful, repellent and even psychotomimetic. This is not generally the case because each new user is insulated from negative experiences with the high by favorable definitions; it is the "legacy" which the marijuana subculture passes down to succeeding generations.
Curiosity is the dominant emotion of the neophyte at the time of his turn-on;[7] this is often mixed with excitement, apprehension, joy, or fear. It should be stated at the outset that I do not endorse the "forbidden fruit" argument. If marijuana use were not considered improper or immoral by the bulk of society, there is no doubt whatsoever that it would be more common. Social condemnation, particularly among one's peers, keeps down the condemned activity, although, obviously, the less significant the condemning individual or group is felt to be, the less effective the condemnation will be; it is even possible to find "negative reference groups." I would hold that one of the appeals of marijuana is not that it is abhorred by adult society; it does not represent rebellion or a rejection of adult values. Yet, its mystery, its underground character, the fact that it is clandestine and morally suspect—all lend an air of excitement and importance that would be absent otherwise. For the neophyte, the maintenance of a matter-of-fact attitude is almost impossible. A1though use is not greater because it is forbidden, its contraband nature, at least in the beginning, make it special and outside the orbit of the everyday. The excitement is manufactured: it is a social artifact. Inexperienced users perceive its socially imputed gravity through cues ranging from the voice tone of marijuana participants to the reactions of the police to the discovery of marijuana possession. The more contact the user has with the drug and other users, the less "special" use becomes.
Users often draw parallels with sex; being turned on is seen as equivalent to losing one's virginity. Feelings of the specialness of one's activities and uniqueness dissolve with the growing awareness that many seemingly respectable individuals also smoke marijuana: "After being turned on, I realized that many straight types smoke, too. It's sort of like when a virgin has just been deflowered; she realizes that others must also be nonvirgins, too, after having experienced it herself," said a twenty-two-year-old law school student, a weekly smoker. In fact, there is often a certain degree of disappointment in the experience. The experience has been billed as bizarre, beautiful, frightening, orgiastic, but either pro or con, the descriptions are invariably unusual. "At first I thought it would be the passageway into heaven," a young man of Catholic parentage told me, somewhat disenchanted that it wasn't. "I expected a fantastic change," said a twenty-three-year-old woman writer about her experience of being turned on in a cafe in Tangiers; "I was disappointed," she added. "I was scared shit," a student in pharmacy told me about an experience six years earlier.


Aside from the expectation that the high would be much more spectacular, some of the disappointment stems from the fact that many initiates do not become high the first time that they smoke, or at least do not recognize it. Marijuana's effect is subtle, and is, as I have stated, quite dependent on the learning process. In Becker's words,

... the new user may not get high and thus not form a conception of the drug as something which can be used for pleasure....
... being high consists of... the presence of symptoms caused by marijuana use and the recognition of these symptoms and their connection by the user with his use of the drug. It is not enough, that is, that the effects alone be present; alone, they do not automatically provide the experience of being high. The user must be able to point them out to himself and consciously connect them with having smoked marihuana before he can have this experience. Otherwise, no matter what actual effects are produced, he considers that the drug has had no effect on him.[8]


It is possible that the drug sometimes does not take effect on an individual who has smoked once or even a dozen times. A small proportion of individuals seem almost incapable of attaining a high, at least using conventional smoking techniques. Whether this is physiological or psychological, it is impossible at this point to determine. Many of these individuals have been socialized into the subculture, know the proper techniques and what to expect from them, have seen others enjoying pot, and yet never seem to cross the threshold of becoming high. More commonly, however, the reason for the lack of attainment of the high is inexperience. Among our respondents, 41 percent said that they did not become high the first time and 13 percent said that they weren't sure whether or not they were high. The attainment of the high, however, usually comes with experience. Twelve percent of our respondents said that they became high on their second attempt, g percent on their third, 8 percent on their fourth, and so on. Only seven individuals in our sample claimed never to have been high, and all but one had tried only half a dozen times or fewer. The completely resistant individual, although he does exist, is a relative rarity. Of the various reasons offered for their lack of becoming high on the first attempt, the most common (twenty-seven individuals) was improper technique; fear and nervousness accounted for a dozen or so responses. Again, the sexual analogy seems relevant. Becoming high smoking marijuana is similar in many respects to the attainment of sexual orgasm, at least for the woman, in that:

  1. It is more likely to occur when emotion is part of the relationship the differential is greater, obviously, with sex than with pot.
  2. It often does not occur with the first attempt.
  3. With experience, its likelihood increases.
  4. Some individuals seem especially invulnerable to it ever occurring; they seem to resist it, possibly for fear of losing control, or, for some reason, their bodies seem peculiarly incapable of attaining that blissful state.
  5. Nervousness and fear reduce the likelihood.
  6. Simple technique has a great deal to do with its attainment.
  7. Some individuals (with sex, always women) wonder whether they have ever reached that state, since the line between attainment and "normalcy" is tenuous and the symptoms of attainment have to be learned.
  8. Its importance is exaggerated to such a degree that the neophyte will often be puzzled as to what all the fuss is about.


It is only after repeated interaction and involvement with the marijuana subculture that some of these initial disappointments begin to evaporate, just as the recently deflowered girl gradually learns that the delights of sex blossom with time and nurturance. There is a progressive accretion of sensitivity to the subtle and not so easily discerned marijuana high; it takes time to learn how to enjoy marijuana, to absorb the prevailing group definition on the drug's pleasures and virtues. By interacting repeatedly with more experienced users, the neophyte takes their definitions of what the drug does to his body and mind as his own and eventually comes to experience those effects.
Among individuals acquainted with marijuana over a period of time—individuals who have used it on many occasions, who have seen others high, and who have participated in a variety of activities high—the drug becomes demythologized. Much of the excitement and awe of the new adventure gradually drains out of its use. It becomes taken for granted. At this point the propagandists step in and inform us that a jaded palate inevitably generates the desire for increasingly greater thrills and kicks. No one has successfully explained why this should be so; for some reason it appeals to common sense. The truth is the drug need not retain that mixture of fear, awe, and excitement in use to retain its appeal. Experienced users become comfortable with the marijuana high, much as they might enjoy making love with a spouse of long duration. By losing much of its subterranean character, marijuana does not necessarily lose its appeal. In fact, whatever uncomfortable or even psychotomimetic effects the drug might have had earlier, with limited experience, become dissipated with increased use. In general, experienced users describe their high in more favorable terms than the inexperienced. (Although individuals who do experience discomfort in use tend to discontinue smoking.) Simultaneously, the experience becomes increasingly less and less "apart" from the everyday, less and less discontinuous with it, and increasingly a normal and taken-for-granted element in one's day to day existence.
Among the more experienced users, marijuana comes to be regarded as an ordinary item in one's life—it becomes "no big deal." In fact, users of long duration have a difficult time switching back and forth from their taken-for-granted attitude toward pot to society's fearful and punitive stance. Many users do not regard marijuana as a drug—i.e., in a special and distinct and harmful category—just as few liquor drinkers will claim to be users of any drug, so unaccustomed are they to thinking of their drug of choice as anything of particular note. During the research, I went into a psychedelic book store in New York's East Village and asked the salesman, wearing long hair, beads, and bells and sandals, if they had any books on drugs. "What kind of drugs?" he asked. When I said marijuana, he replied, "Marijuana's not a drug." This theme emerged in the interviews. A twenty-three-year-old woman, a daily smoker of marijuana, told me, "I can't think of marijuana as being a drug—it's just pleasurable."

 

N O T E S

1. Howard S. Becker, "Becoming A Marihuana User," American Journal of Sociology 59 (November 1953): 235-243. (back)
2. In a study of the drug use of 432 "Yippies" in Chicago's Lincoln Park at the time of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Zaks, Hughes, Jaffe, and Dolkart found that the most common reason claimed by the respondents for "starting on drugs" (i. e., for turning on)—marijuana was by far not only the most popular drug, but was most likely to have been the first drug used—was that he was turned on by friends; almost two-thirds of the sample (63 percent) gave that as their reason. (Cf. Table 6, p. 24.) Without an understanding of this process, this answer might seem a non sequitur. But the fact that a friend (whose judgment we trust) gives us an opportunity to try a drug has a great deal to do with whether we ever turn on or not. An additional fifth of the sample (22 percent) gave "association with users" as a reason for turning on. See Misha S. Zaks Patrick Hughes, Jerome Jaffe, and Marjorie B. Dolkart, "Young People in the Park Survey of Socio-Cultural and Drug Use Patterns of Yippies in Lincoln Park, Chicago Democratic Convention, 1968" (Presented at the American Orthopsychiatric Association, 46th Annual Meeting, New York, March 30, to April 2, 1969), unpublished manuscript, 28 pp. (back)
3. Herbert Blumer et al., The World of Youthful Drug Use (Berkeley: University of California, School of Criminology, January 1967). (back)
4. Alan G. Sutter, "Worlds of Drug Use on the Street Scene," in Donald R. Cressey and David A. Ward, eds., Delinquency, Crime, and Social Process (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), p. 827. (back)
5. John Kifner, "The Drug Scene: Many Students Now Regard Marijuana as a Part of Growing Up," The New York Times, January 1 l, 1968, p. 18. (back)
6. A recent film, Easy Rider, released in 1969, in which marijuana is smoked nearly throughout, depicted a turning-on scene which contained the neophyte's fears: that he would become hooked on marijuana and that it would lead to harder stuff. This was laughed at by his initiators. The initiate was provided with instructions on how to smoke the joint. According to an interview with the film's director, actual marijuana was used in the smoking scenes. Hopper said, in the Times interview, "This is my 17th grasssmoking year. Sure, print it, why not? You can also say that that was real pot we smoked in Easy Rider." See Tom Burke, "Will 'Easy' Do It for Dennis Hopper?" The New York Times, Sunday, July 20, 1969, D11, D16. (back)
7. The Zaks et al., study found that curiosity was the second most often cited reason for turning on; over a third of their sample (37 percent) said that the reason for starting on drugs was curiosity, o p. cit., Table 6, p. 24. (back)
8. Becker, Outsiders (New York: Free Press, 1963), pp. 48—49.

Last Updated on Thursday, 03 March 2011 18:46
 

Our valuable member Erich Goode has been with us since Tuesday, 28 December 2010.

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