Book Review: Pot Planet
Brian Preston is part journalist, part missionary and all viper. He likes to get "baked" on pot. He also enjoys the vagabond life. So, one day, perhaps while under the influence, what should pop into his head but an idea for a book: travel around the world, check out the marijuana scene in different countries (getting baked whenever possible), then write it all up and get it published. Dude! Such notions often float past while the bong bubbles, but in Preston's case he actually grabbed on, stayed with it and cranked out "Pot Planet: Adventures in Global Marijuana Culture."
The book is a pleasantly droll travelogue and reading it may have an unexpected effect, even for those who haven't inhaled wacky tabacky in decades. After disappearing into a cloud of pot tales for 286 pages, one feels an unmistakable craving -- much the same way you work up a powerful thirst after watching a movie in which the characters are constantly sipping martinis, or get hungry after paging through a favorite cookbook.
Like Craig Claiborne describing coq au vin, Preston makes cannabis sound so inviting and transporting: "At the first toke, that strange bodily sense of eagerness and impatience takes hold, a longing for the remembered indolent happiness of being high. The mere taste of it in mouth and lungs brings on the longing. Then comes the payoff -- that great whoooooooooosh of feeling uplifted, like some unseen force is tucking its hands under your armpits and whispering, Come fly with me."
In Preston we have a man who loves his subject so very much he's willing to circumnavigate the earth in hopes of more visitations from the Great Whoooooooooosh. And he is not disappointed. Yet he doesn't let the longing and luscious indolence distract him from his mission. He does not, for example, spend 60 pages describing the most amazing leaf he found one day next to a river near a town under a mountain in, uh, umm, never mind, I can't remember.
On the contrary, "Pot Planet" is fun to read, gallops along and, should you like to embark on such an odyssey yourself, might even serve as a guide. "For much of the research and most of the writing of this book," Preston tells us (with just the teensiest bit of defensiveness), "I was high on marijuana. Now then -- it can't be that amotivating." OK, OK, chill, man. Point made: You can type while baked. But here's the good news: Notwithstanding the occasional preachy passages, you can't even tell that Preston was stoned when he wrote "Pot Planet," which is more than you can say for a lot of books.
He begins his sojourn in British Columbia where he goes to be a "marijuana judge at Cannabis Culture magazine's first ever Cannabis Culture Cup," a grass-judging get-together -- kind of like a wine tasting, but smokier and with much better names. Burgundy, cabernet and chenin blanc are fine as far they go, but they can hardly compete with "Shishkaberry," "Bubbleberry," "Sweet Skunk," "Purple Hempstar," "Chocolate Thai," "Highland Oaxaca Gold," "Northern Lights" and "Texada Time Warp." The names alone adroitly underscore the qualitative difference between pot and alcohol. Regardless of which way your tastes run, grass is the clear victor in the moniker competition.
"Pot Planet" is an insider's report, but the noncognoscenti needn't feel left out. Preston is gently didactic, sometimes peppering his instruction with a fetching aquatic analogy to help us grasp the basics. There are two marijuana species, he explains, indica and sativa. A third species, ruderalis, isn't worth bothering with unless you're a strong believer in the placebo effect. Indica and sativa affect you quite differently, he writes: "Smoke a sativa and go for a swim and you're likely to feel yourself to be a water sprite, splashing on the diamond surface. Smoke an indica, and you'll feel yourself a shark, with an urge to hold long breaths and descend to the murky depths."
Speaking of descending to the murky depths, what would drugs be without sex? Exactly. Fortunately, Preston only makes us wait until Page 13 before getting down to it: "Marijuana is one of the few plants (kiwifruit is another) that is either entirely male or entirely female. On most of the world's plants the female and male sex organs, the pistils and stamens, occur on the same flower." Unfortunately, that's one of the hottest sex scenes in the book or we'd have a bestseller on our hands.
Nevertheless, what "Pot Planet" lacks in the slap and tickle department it makes up for by taking the reader on an intoxicated mystery tour that stops in Nepal, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Australia, England, Holland, Switzerland, Spain, Morocco, Canada and the United States. During his stint as a marijuana judge in British Columbia, Preston notices that the conversation resembles "pretentious wine snob chatter," and learns that pot grower DJ Short has created a chart of basic olfactory categories to help tokers talk like connoisseurs. Short's categorized aromas include "woody," "spicy," "earthen," "pungent," "chemical" and "vegetative." But Short's chart isn't as helpful to Preston as a tip one pothead gives him before he's to depart for Nepal: "If you want to score anywhere in Asia, just find a place where they're playing Bob Marley music."
The book is mostly about pot, of course -- its availability, its relative strength, the people who merchandise it and the people who try to stop them from doing so all around the globe -- but Preston also throws in the occasional odd anecdote that has nothing to do with dope, and those passages are some of the most entertaining. In Katmandu he doesn't hear Marley, but he does come across Bhawani, "an English teacher at the local college," a chatty gent with whom he discusses Shakespeare, the meaning of life (Preston says he doesn't know what it means), "The Great Gatsby" (Preston says the novel's lesson "might be that money can't buy happiness") and Bhawani's table manners:
"He's been eating his dhal baat, the rice and bean staple of the Nepal diet, with his right hand. Now that he's finished he's pouring water from his glass onto his hand, to clean it, and the water is dribbling into the leftover food on his stainless-steel plate. I'm staring. He's got bits of uneaten rice and dhal right up to the crotch of his fingers. He sees me staring and stops.
"'Oh, pardon me. This is rude. We have a superstition that if we wash our hand on the plate like this, it results in trouble. It makes the plate appear like the pot where we vomit when becoming sick.' He changes the subject. 'What do you know about Keats? What of his love of Fanny?'"
In Thailand, Preston hears about a less literary fellow who likes to "smoke speed and creep around all night in the rice fields, trying to catch poisonous snakes." Once he catches them, he puts them in a burlap bag containing marijuana. "'It mellows the snakes out completely,'" an expat tells him. "'You can pick them up with your bare hands.'" Uh-huh. You first.
Though Bangkok's got a rep as Sin City, Preston says it is not "pot-friendly ... There are a couple of reggae bars in the alleys off Khao San Road, places with big sloppy amateurish Bob Marley portraits painted on the walls, where you'll be offered ganja, but in the guesthouses nearby you can buy speed, ecstasy or ketamine easier than pot." What he does smoke in Bangkok doesn't pass the whoooooooooosh test: "[I] never experienced the giddy rush, the sudden whoooooooooosh up the mental mountainside that marijuana brings me."
In Vientiane, Laos, where, at 2 in the afternoon, only "mad dogs and cannabis smokers" go out in the scalding heat, Preston scores two ounces of "powerful but not all that pleasurable" grass for 20,000 Laotian kip -- about three American dollars, and later ends up in a restaurant next to the Mekong River where he's waited on by a transvestite. Another guest asks Preston, "'Is that a man or a woman?'"
"'A man who wants to be a woman,'" Preston responds.
"'How do they make love?'" the Laotian wonders.
"'Love is a feeling that comes from the heart,'" says the writer. And like marijuana, it knows no boundaries, can't be successfully legislated. (Bhawani, if you're reading this, that seems to be the lesson of "Pot Planet.")
Preston's book works best when he's not worrying about converting us to Whooooooshism and we're just allowed to stumble along with his amusing tale, as he goes from puff to puff, country to country and character to character, a latter-day Margaret Mead smoking out chemical relief. Still, while the pro-pot lobby can be as tedious as the no-pot lobby, as this story unfolds Preston's promotion of legalization seems by far the more cogent point of view (and he's certainly not sneaky about it: The book's last chapter is called "Pot Polemic"). Not surprisingly, given where his sympathies lie, virtually everywhere he goes he comes across rational arguments against cracking down on grass, but Cambodia supplies him with one of the most lucid illustrations of the futility and abject silliness of the war on drugs.
"Until very recently pot was legal in Cambodia," Preston writes. "It was a drug for old people to smoke in the evenings or use in soups as an appetite enhancer. It was a weed. You could buy it in the market for a dollar a kilo. Thanks to American diplomatic pressure it was made illegal three years ago. And now that it's illegal it's worth something. The price is around seventy dollars a kilo in Phnom Penh, which means in three years cannabis has gone from worthless weed to the most profitable crop a farmer can grow. So everyone's growing it."
For a laid-back doper, Preston is awfully hard to please. Even when he gets to wide open Amsterdam, where grass and hashish can be legally purchased in coffee shops, and where everyone is so gloriously free that their clogs must be nailed to the floors so they don't float up in the air, he's still not satisfied.
In the Dutch city, he writes, "Some coffee shops take the craft of marijuana growing seriously, and do their utmost to supply the best. But, I have to say, even in the better coffee shops, like De Dampkring, or De Rokerij, I felt a sense of disappointment, a letdown. Finally, a place where you can freely buy marijuana, and they're pushing it at you just like booze or tobacco. Is this what legalization would be like? Would pot become just another consumer product, marketed like any other line of goods in Babylon?"
I'd answer that, but I don't want to bring the dude down.
Douglas Cruickshank is a senior writer for Salon.