Around the World in a Heady Daze

Brian Preston is not a pothead. Okay, he won’t say no to a puff if there’s a joint being passed around at a party. He might even buy an eighth once in a while. But Preston is not a pothead. He’s a middle-aged Canadian writer who latched on to a unique idea. Why not travel around the world seeking out, smoking and talking pot with people in far-flung countries, then write a book about it?

With a Rolling Stone article about Vancouver’s affinity for weed on his résumé, Preston pitched the picaresque book to Grove Press, a New York publisher with a history of battling the censors. (Grove Press has books like "Naked Lunch" and "Lady Chatterley’s Lover" on its résumé.) The publisher bit and Preston headed for Nepal with a cash advance and assurances they’d try to bail him out if he got busted.

After arriving in Nepal, he started literally living and breathing marijuana: smoking while meeting people, meeting people while smoking, smoking while writing. Two and a half years later, his first book, "Pot Planet: Adventures in Global Marijuana Culture," is available over the counter. (It’s also available online, but Preston thinks some people in the U.S. are reluctant to order it on the Internet because “there’s much more pot paranoia down there -- and rightly so.”)

Snickering aside -- and notwithstanding snide media potshots like “No kidding? I wrote a book?” which the revamped Saturday Night magazine used as a subhed for a recent article/excerpt by Preston, or the (positive) review on Salon.com punctuated with words like “dude!” -- Pot Planet is an engaging, entertaining read. But it’s more than a light-hearted and light-headed dope-themed travelogue.

Preston looks into the science of growing and plant genetics, the taste and “trip” concerns of connoisseurs, the politics and economics behind American’s War on Drugs, and he details the legalization and medicinal use battles being fought simultaneously on numerous fronts. He also smoked a hell of a lot of dope. And although it’s difficult to boil down his many discoveries into a single conclusion, Preston makes one concept perfectly clear: Pot isn’t nearly as dangerous as a lot of people want you to believe.

Doobie scoop

“With this book, I just dove right in,” Preston says over the phone from his home in Victoria, where he’s moved on to a novel and another nonfiction book project as the small budget “word-of-mouth, grassroots” publicity campaign behind Pot Planet starts heating up. Preston is telling me how much fun he had getting the scoop on various pro-pot communities, campaigns, organizations and businesses -- and hanging out with wake-and-bakers in a dozen different countries.

Other than getting hustled out of a few bucks in the chaotic streets of Morocco and losing his passport to a pickpocket during a ritualistic tug-of-war with an elephant in Cambodia, nothing really bad happened. Like your average marijuana buzz, the trip was pretty smooth. “I really liked Nepal and hiking in the hills with my Nepalese buddies,” he responds when asked for a highlight. “Sitting on mountaintops and pretending to be eagles. Very nice. Beautiful.”

In the countries he checked out -- Nepal, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Australia, England, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain, Morocco, Canada and the U.S. -- Preston was able to gain a certain intimacy with people by sharing the cannabis plant. In Nepal, when he approached five twentysomething guys smoking dope in a park, they pointed out the seedlings sprouting nearby where they flick their seeds. Preston jumped down from the platform they were sitting on for a look, leaving his backpack behind with the strangers -- and when he looked back at the Nepalese men, he saw that they noticed his trust. Almost instantly, there was a bond between foreigner and locals that otherwise might never have materialized.

Pot Planet focuses on these sorts of connections between like-minded people from diverse backgrounds, with marijuana acting merely as the subtext. “It couldn’t be totally about pot without readers getting bored,” says Preston. “Pot just gave me an excuse to get into things much deeper than the average tourist. In many countries, there’s an ‘us versus them’ thing, and once you get in, you’re part of the ‘us.’ As soon as you express your love of pot and are open to people, you’re in.

“That’s kind of the attitude I tried to keep going,” he continues. “And when you throw your lot in with people doing illegal things, you throw your whole lot in.... A lot of it had to do with openness and blindly stumbling around trying to find pot. People tend to know if you’re at their mercy, and you have to show you know it, too. You just surrender to it.”

A cool grass of milk

While being welcomed into the homes (and headspaces) of strangers makes for compelling copy, the politics and economics Preston explores are equally fascinating. Much of this material is anecdotal; in the Himalayan foothills of Nepal, for example, peasants grow cannabis as an appetite enhancer for cows -- a stark, sustainable contrast to our modern chemical and biotech farming methods. In Switzerland, it’s legal to sell, buy and possess pot -- you just aren’t allowed to smoke it. Other anecdotes are a tad more troubling: in England, contemplating the notion that marijuana is a “gateway” to harder drugs, Preston encounters a study revealing that there’s a link between getting busted for pot and more dangerous drugs like heroin and cocaine. “I met people in England who had never seen heroin until they were in jail for pot,” he says. Details like this help propel Preston towards his investigation of American and, by extension, global marijuana policies. Farmers in several developing countries have historically relied on cannabis cultivation to feed their families, but when the U.S. gave their governments millions of dollars to make pot illegal, it just created an underground, criminal market, inconveniencing impoverished farmers and driving up the price. In the U.S., where the massive law enforcement infrastructure swollen by booze prohibition shifted its focus to pot decades ago, the self-perpetuating fight against marijuana is responsible, to a large extent, for thousands of government and police jobs and millions of dollars in funding. Throw in Ronald Reagan’s blunt determination that there’s zero difference between hard and soft drugs, ongoing hypocrisy with alcohol and cigarettes being legal while pot is banned, plus a political climate in the U.S. in which any politician who appears “soft” on drugs can jeopardize his or her career... stir it all together and you get a status quo that sends otherwise law-abiding, taxpaying citizens to jail and ignores the potential benefits of a naturally-growing organism. “It’s very hard for governments to back up on this sort of thing,” Preston rationalizes. “They can’t say, ‘Oh, we were wrong and we’ve thrown a lot of innocent people in jail for 20 years.’” Even prison guards like pot, he reports: Not only does it drum up business for the prison-industrial complex, but dope smokers tend to be docile inmates.

A relaxed attitude towards drugs

Preston patiently heeds a longwinded question of mine about (a) John Ralston Saul’s observation that uncertainty is what makes us human, and (b) marijuana having the ability to stimulate un-empirical thinking, an openness to new ideas and, therefore, uncertainty. As far back as the 1950s, Preston says, pot was demonized by American politicians because it contradicted their nation’s nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic. “On an economic level,” he says, “when you look at what globalization is all about, everyone has to work harder and it’s the triumph of capitalism. Marijuana is the triumph of relaxing. It’s not about the dominant ideology of the world at the moment. As a matter of fact, it’s opposed to it. It’s about slowing down and reflecting about things.”

Let me repeat, here, my introductory disclaimer: Preston is not a pothead. He’s simply a libertarian who believes in personal responsibility and feels no addictive physical or mental aftermath to months of regular consumption. “The plant was a great pleasure for me at the time,” he says about getting lost in the haze of Pot Planet, which he considers his now-completed “duty” to the pot world. “But I put pot in perspective, which was kind of the point of the book.”

Preston makes a myriad of other points, too. He admires Dutch-style marijuana decriminalization, for instance, because it flies in the face of American anti-drug dogma, even though the Dutch are tired of American frat boys coming over to party and barfing in their canals. (In the Netherlands, curiously, pot usage rates are lower than in the U.S.) Preston also believes in the medicinal benefits of the plant, although he says giving the green light to medical use could create a new bureaucracy and mega-industry as big drug corporations start circling like sharks.

We need another Stone(d)wall

Regardless, Preston says more pot smokers need to stand up and be counted, as gays and lesbians did when they came out of their closet en masse and fought for their rights. He thinks it’s a shame that North American laws tend to penalize the poor kids caught with little baggies and seldom touch the middle-class white guys who can afford lawyers. He thinks it’s a bigger shame that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has set up an office in Vancouver and continues to exert heavy pressure on Canadian politicians and police, even though the Supreme Court of Canada this fall will listen to discussions about recreational marijuana use rooted in philosopher John Stuart Mill’s concept that the individual is sovereign over his own person.

Ultimately, however, Preston does not endorse smoking your brains out and losing touch with the world. He’s for more meaningful toking. As he writes on the last page of the book, peace-lovers and fun-seekers should get out there and greet their foreign counterparts. “Roll one up and find the shared pleasure of the smoky communion,” he advises. “Then roll another one up for me.”

Pot Planet: Adventures in Global Marijuana Culture -- By Brian Preston • Grove Press • 289 pp. • $24.95

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