Pot Shots

The aroma surrounding the apartment's entryway is unmistakable -- a frat-house combination of incense, bachelors and pot. Inside, the presence of marijuana becomes quite evident -- roaches fill the ashtray, a glass "bubbler" pipe sits discarded (for the moment) on the coffee table beside a small baggie, half full of a leafy green substance. But mostly, it can be seen in the haphazard attitudes and relaxed faces of the apartments' residents.   

It's OK to label Jack, Ted and David, who requested that their real names not be used in this article. They happily admit to being "stoners" of varying degrees. Especially now, while the drug is in full effect.   

The apartment belongs to David and Jack. Ted just stopped by to share his new DVD of Scarface, which plays silently on the television throughout the interview. Later, they turn up the volume so we can watch Tony Montana's brilliantly violent demise.   

Ted, the only one with a full-time job, qualifies his participation in the discussion, saying he's left the lifestyle behind him except for a little weed on the weekends. David and Jack are daily smokers. Both have part-time jobs; David as a substitute teacher and Jack as a waiter. If they need extra cash, they could sell a quarter-ounce bag, but they prefer to stay out of the sales arena except among their tight-knit group of friends.   

Life is relaxed and for the most part, stress-free. They certainly don't act like criminals.   The first question is easy, and they smile at the memories. "I was hanging out at Cottonwood Mall the first time I smoked pot," said 20-year-old Jack, the most talkative and, as the conversation reveals, the one with the best connections to high quality "kind" bud. "I was 14 years old. I tried it with three of my buddies; we laughed our asses off and had such a good time. I liked it the very first time I tried it, and I knew I would do it again soon."   

Ted, 21, thinks hard for a moment. "I don't really remember the first time. It was while I went to Kearns Junior High ... "   

"Dude, I remember your first time," interjects Jack, playfully smacking Ted on the arm. "I was out playing ball and you came up and told me you'd been smoking pot."   

"Oh yeah! I told you it was the shit and you had to try it. You were scared, though. I was in 7th grade. It was crazy. I didn't think it would do anything, but I got so fucked up. I was all self-conscious and paranoid, but I was happy. I liked it."   

David, the oldest of the group at 28, said he was about 12 years old when he first tried marijuana. "I was walking home from school with my friend Ricky—I lived in Phoenix, Arizona, then—we found a bag somebody had stashed. It freaked us out, but we tried it anyway. Somebody was probably pissed that we stole their bag."

"That's where I am today"

Marijuana, the three young men reveal, has been a constant presence in their lives since they first stumbled upon it. They relate, one by one, that they had normal childhoods, marked by the typical pitfalls faced by young Americans today. They weren't bad kids, just curious, adventurous and a little rebellious, with too much time on their hands.   

And they don't have bad parents, just out-of-touch, preoccupied with their own lives, and a little in denial about their sons' extracurricular activities.   

Jack's parents divorced when he was 7 years old, and he was caught in a custody battle, shuttled back and forth between Salt Lake City's suburbs. He attended a different school almost every year, sometimes changing mid-semester. Once you hit junior high, he explains, the most welcoming group for a new kid is the stoners.   

His first possession charge came in the 9th grade in Sandy. Jack's parents' reaction was to move him again, back to Kearns. He joined the debate team and tried to stay out of trouble, but was lured again by marijuana's charms.  

"All of the debaters smoked, especially the older ones, the people I admired and wanted to hang out with. I'm sure smoking weed made my grades worse, but I kept going so I could debate. But of course, that got fucked up," he looks down as he speaks, clearly angry at the injustice. "My parents somehow managed to have a conversation about me smoking pot, and I had to move back with my dad, and they told me I couldn't debate." He didn't go back to school after 11th grade.   

Jack's dad set him up with a job at a ski resort. "He said there were respectable people there, that they would be a good influence. Almost every person there puffed weed all the time. Instead of straightening me out, my dad sent me to Marijuana Camp." Cheerful again, he grins and begins to load the pipe, carefully separating the seeds and stems from the leaves and buds that they'll smoke.   

Jack got his GED six months ago, but has not steered clear of trouble. He earned another possession charge, for which he served 45 days in jail this summer, and has already violated his probation once. "Yeah, but that was bogus," he said. "They weren't even my beers." He's been thinking about moving to Minnesota, where his mom lives now, but will have to wait out his probation in Utah first.   

Dark and handsome, Ted says he has found peace with his marijuana use now, after his curiosity led him to much more dangerous drug use. He's more dressed up than the other two, in black slacks and a button-up shirt compared to their jeans and T-shirts. He sits up straight and chooses his words carefully. "My mom knows I smoke only on weekends with Jack now—and that's the truth." But that wasn't always the case, he said. "She was so oblivious! I don't think she even realized I had tried pot until well into my teenage years. I was stoned at home all the time, and she was just blind. It turned into a game, trying to see what we could do without her noticing.   

"It wasn't always a big party, though. Pot was just something we did. We'd smoke, then we'd get the munchies so we'd find something to eat, play video games, go to movies, go for walks. It was all regular kid stuff."   The pot slowed him down mentally, Ted admits, but it also kept his temper in check. That temper, he says, prevented him from graduating from high school. "I had problems with anger and authority," he says frankly. "I got in trouble for hitting a teacher and throwing him down the stairs. I wasn't smoking at all then. I think pot mellows me out, takes some weight off my shoulders."   

Ted and Jack found an apartment together after high school, and together they began to experiment more. "We ate acid almost every day, did a lot of coke ... " Ted said. "This Mormon kid that lived with us freaked out and we ended up losing the house." They dissolve into chuckles over their adventures. Behind us, Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino silently seduce one another onscreen.   

After that incident, Ted said, his experimentation led to addiction. "A year ago, I was smoking all the time. I did anything I could get my hands on ... I got addicted to crystal meth and coke, and I did Special K [ketamine]. Anything you could snort up your nose, I would do.   

"My brother saved me. He kicked all the tweakers out of my place and took me to live with him. And he ruined all of my connections -- that was the smartest thing -- he told all my dealers if they ever sold to me again, he'd kill them. And they haven't. 

"And that's where I am now. I have a good job, I listen to a lot of music. I quit doing everything except weed, and only with Jack."   Noticeably less gregarious than his friends, David quietly begins his story. "I grew up in one of the worst neighborhoods in Phoenix. I was surrounded by hard drugs -- people smoked crack cocaine and embalming fluid. Both of my brothers are in the penitentary right now, addicted to crack cocaine. I think pot was actually a healthy choice for me.   

"The schools I went to were useless. They'd pass you just to get you the fuck out. I was a terrible student. I stole, I vandalized. I went to a special school for a little while, but I got kicked out. I was so tired of my brothers stealing from me and everybody I cared about. I had family in Utah, and I came here with nothing but the clothes on my back.   

"Pot takes the edge off my problems," David says of why he continues to smoke daily. "Where I grew up, smoking weed brought people of different ethnic groups together peacefully. It wasn't violent, like cocaine. I can't believe it's bad. I think the world would be a better place if everybody just sat down together and smoked pot."

Pros and Cons

Marijuana has held a number of distinctive roles in American culture, particularly when it became mainstream in the 1960s. Celebrities from Cheech & Chong to Woody Harrelson have openly admitted to smoking regularly. Publications like High Times print information ranging from how to grow it to who allegedly smokes it. Its advocates seek legalization, pointing to its proven medical benefits, theorizing that the only reason it's illegal at all is because it's easy to grow and hard for the government to control.   

But law enforcement officials say pot is a "gateway" drug. People who smoke it are more likely to become curious and seek something stronger. Although its dangers are less obvious than heroin or cocaine, marijuana is not safe for recreational use, according the federal Drug Enforcement Agency's website.   

"Marijuana users experience the same health problems as tobacco smokers, such as bronchitis, emphysema and bronchial asthma. Some of the effects of marijuana use also include increased heart rate, dryness of the mouth, reddening of the eyes, impaired motor skills and concentration, and frequent hunger. Extended use increases risk to the lungs and reproductive system, as well as suppression of the immune system. Occasionally, hallucinations, fantasies and paranoia are reported," warns the site.   

Barry Jamison, special agent in charge of the Utah DEA, says he is all for enforcing marijuana laws. "The credible studies—and I've seen lots of studies, not all of them credible—indicate that it is a gateway drug. I'm not going to say marijuana is as dangerous as heroin, but it still exacts a toll on society. And that's why heroin possession penalties are harsher than marijuana possession penalties."   

He referred to a train wreck attributed to marijuana that occurred in 1987 near Chase, Md., in which an engineer drove three linked Conrail engines through a closed switch into the path of an Amtrak train, killing 16 and injuring 175. "Incidents like that are happening more and more around the country," said Jamison.   

He said he doesn't support the medical marijuana movement because the drug's active ingredient, THC -- delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol -- is already available by prescription, in the form of a drug called Marinol. "People don't want to go to a doctor and take the liquid form, they want to smoke pot. I can't think of any legal drugs that you smoke."   

Marinol is marketed as having the ability to reduce nausea and increase the appetite of patients being treated for cancer or AIDS. But medical marijuana advocates say cannabis has many more positive side effects than negative, most of which are not addressed on Marinol's website.   

An independent study by Joan M. Bello, titled "The Physical, Psychological and Spiritual Benefits of Marijuana," disputes marijuana's classification as a drug at all: "The term ‘drug' connotes concentration of a substance to its most powerful form, but marijuana is unprocessed, dried vegetation from a strong-smelling annual herb. The intact marijuana compound has no known level of toxicity and the amount needed to produce a lethal reaction has been estimated at from eating five pounds at one time to smoking 40,000 joints in one day, far beyond any physical possibility."   

The extensive and well-documented study outlines cannabis' positive impact on mind, body and spirit. According to Bello, it's a miracle drug, able to relieve virtually every negative human condition except death. Among the benefits: stress relief—"Marijuana ingestion has been shown to change the worried state by producing alpha waves, experienced as well-being." Heightened senses—"The enhanced capacity of all the body's sense organs (including the sense one has of him or herself) accounts for the mental interpretation of intense perceptions, known as the ‘high.'" Spiritual awakening—"Deep within each of us, an essential need for a higher meaning of life is waiting to be awakened. Because of its ability to unlock this yearning and allow us that glimpse of the deeper reality, marijuana is both feared by the establishment and loved by the user."   

Is Joan Bello's study one of the many non-credible sources of information to which Agent Jamison referred? Probably. But still, sides are being chosen across the country. Several states, including California and Maryland, have attempted to decriminalize, even legalize marijuana for medical purposes, but the federal DEA overruled them.   

A Sept. 10 debate held at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque -- "Directing America's Drug War: Which Way to a Safer Society?" -- between DEA Administrator Asa Hutchinson and New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, a nationally recognized legalization advocate, addressed the most current issues. While Johnson maintained that "drug abuse needs to be viewed as a medical problem, not a criminal problem," Hutchinson said the DEA is unequivocally opposed to legalization. "If we have a strong law enforcement presence that shows drugs are illegal and harmful, then that adds to the education, and many times triggers treatment [for users.]"

Who's Guilty?

Such are the issues a twenty-something pot user wrestles with. But if you ask Jack, the pros far outweigh the cons. "Pot is a part of my circle," he says. "It has been readily available to me for such a long time now. It's not the same as the stupid shit you inject into your arm. It's much better than fighting or breaking into places and stealing shit."   

Agent Jamison had to laugh at this reasoning. "I've never heard marijuana called a ‘healthy choice' before. It's like asking how would you prefer to die."   

The young pot smokers disagree with those sentiments. "Making marijuana illegal puts a mindset to people," says Jack. "Morality comes from the laws. And all the stupid, gullible people out there think it's wrong just because it's illegal. The government knows just as well as we [pot users] do that it's a tree and money grows on it. And that's why it's illegal. More people die from cigarettes and alcohol than pot."   

Quite true. But would legalizing marijuana alleviate that—proving true the theory that saying something is bad makes it twice as desirable—or would stoned drivers simply add to the drunken driving problem already plaguing America's streets? Several schools of thought exist, Agent Jamison and Jack and Co. representing two extremes. And a trip to Amsterdam, a haven for the drug-induced stupor, can't help but influence anyone's opinion.   

Whether or not marijuana enthusiasts admit it, marijuana has been proven to dull the mind and create complacency and inactivity, a situation that Ted sees ending his pot use sometime soon. "I think there comes a point when sobriety is important. You think so much clearer when you don't smoke for a long time. There comes a time when you need that clarity, to cope with life without using external substances. It's part of being a man, to see things in the light they're supposed to be seen in."   

Even Jack concedes he may someday grow out of his pot use. At 20, he's stopped experimenting with other drugs almost completely. "I still take acid [LSD] once in a blue moon, but I don't ever go out of my way to get anything besides weed. Bad experiences have turned me off to a lot of drugs. I don't even like mushrooms anymore. And I had a really bad coke trip like two years ago and haven't touched it since."   

Punishing young adults for experimenting doesn't help them get on with their lives, Jack theorizes. Adults should act as role models for their families instead of handing them money and plenty of free time. That, he says, is what's wrong with the young adults of today. Filling the jails with kids isn't solving any problems; it's just ruining a bunch of kids' lives.  

"Parents who hand their kids lots of cash might as well be giving them drugs," he says, even in Salt Lake City, UT with its religious overtones. "I'd be willing to bet that 99.99 percent of working Mormons don't smoke pot. But their kids are a different story. I know plenty of Mormon kids who experiment just like everyone else."   

Are authorities wasting their time with quarter-bags of marijuana? Jack, Ted and David think so. Many legislators and lawmakers agree. But until somebody makes a decision on whom to fight in the "War on Drugs," the prisons will continue to fill with the peers of these three young men. And they certainly don't act like criminals.

Brenda Baird is a staff writer and copy chief at Salt Lake City Weekly.

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