The Stars Come 'Out'
Comedian Rodney Dangerfield's new autobiography, It's Not Easy Being Me: A Lifetime of No Respect But Plenty of Sex and Drugs (HarperCollins), contains surprising news: he smokes marijuana. Dangerfield, 82, says he's been smoking pot for nearly 50 years, joking, "I was a hippie long before hippies were born."
Dangerfield's neglectful parents left him with little self esteem, and he admirably channeled his despair into his act. The ugly, unloved kid had quite a full life, and his book is full of interesting anecdotes, interspersed with hilarious jokes. His first "I don't get no respect" joke was "I used to play hide and seek. They wouldn't even look for me." As well as giving us 50 years of great jokes, Dangerfield has helped foster the success of countless young comics, by hosting an HBO comedy showcase and running a comedy club in New York City.
Dangerfield tells of drinking heavily to counter his depression, but had better results with marijuana. He writes, "Booze is the real culprit in our society. Booze is traffic accidents, booze is wife beating. In my life I've seen many doctors and psychiatrists, and all of them have told me that I'm better off with pot than with booze." Dangerfield now has a doctor's recommendation from a California physician to use marijuana medicinally for high blood pressure and pain. He cautions against smoking on the job, however, saying his comic timing is off while "high" and he does not perform under marijuana's influence.
Dangerfield's admissions are part of a wave of revelations that is being compared to the gay movement's "outing", a strategy that ultimately helped gays achieve greater civil rights. The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) has launched a campaign to enlist VIPs to their cause with an advisory board that includes Michelle Phillips, Bill Maher, Jesse Ventura, Dr. Andrew Weil, and former US Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders. VeryImportantPotheads.com tells stars' stories and issues "Outie" awards to celebs who come clean. Another site, cannabisconsumers.com, encourages ordinary folks to come out, too.
Academy Award-winning actress Frances McDormand and Emmy winner Jennifer Aniston have come "out," McDormand to High Times magazine and Aniston to Rolling Stone and the foreign press. Arnold Schwarzenegger admitted he smoked pot in the 1970s just before winning the governorship of California. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) recently ran ads quoting New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg saying of marijuana smoking, "You bet I did. And I enjoyed it."
Talk show host and former Navy intelligence officer Montel Williams devotes a full chapter to medical marijuana in his new autobiography, "Climbing Higher" (New American Library). Williams, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, uses marijuana for medicinal purposes. When interviewed after marijuana was found in his bag at a Detroit airport in November 2003, Williams made no apologies. "I think it's time for a change," he said. "I hope to inspire others to take a stand." Williams said he uses marijuana to ease pain and depression, in lieu of pharmaceutical drugs. "Oxycontin and Vicodin are extremely addictive. Percocet didn't work. Marijuana is the best tool for me," he said.
Basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was similarly outed in 1999, when marijuana was discovered in his bag at a Toronto airport. He was merely fined when he said he uses marijuana to alleviate the nausea associated with migraine headaches that have bothered him for years. Former NBA star and Senator Bill Bradley admitted to smoking pot on a pundit show during his run for the 2000 Democratic presidential nomination, prompting Sam Donaldson to out himself also. At the time, Bradley was running against admitted pot smoker Al Gore. John Kerry also inhaled.
More surprising is the fact that Newt Gingrich smoked pot, and introduced a bill to ease federal restrictions on medical marijuana in 1981. On March 19, 1982 he wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association, "We believe licensed physicians are competent to employ marijuana, and patients have a right to obtain marijuana legally, under medical supervision, from a regulated source. Federal policies do not reflect a factual or balanced assessment of marijuana's use as a medicant."
Out with the Old
Celebrities coming out for marijuana decriminalization, based on their own experiences, is nothing new and it isn't just entertainment figures and politicians who have spoken out.
Anthropologist Margaret Mead testified before Congress in favor of the legalization of marijuana in 1969, and she told Newsweek that she had tried it once herself. Noted scientists Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan used pot, and Sagan said it inspired some of his work.
Paul McCartney helped pay for a 1967 advertisement in the London Times that called for legalization of pot possession, release of all prisoners on possession charges and government research into marijuana's medical uses. "I think we could decrimalize marijuana, and I'd like to see a really unbised medical report on it," he said after being deported from Japan for bringing nearly half a pound of marijuana into Tokyo for a Band on the Run concert tour in 1980. (John Lennon told a Paris newspaper that their band smoked pot at Buckingham Palace before being decorated by the queen in 1965.)
Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddins discovered that Louis Armstrong's manager suppressed parts of the 1954 autobiography Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans that dealt with marijuana. Armstrong planned to publish a sequel which he said he would call "Gage"--slang for marijuana. Giddins also "outed" Bing Crosby in the biography Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, (2001, Little Brown & Co.), writing that Crosby smoked it before it became illegal and surprised interviewers in the 1960s and 1970s by suggesting it be decriminalized. Bing's eldest son, Gary, told Giddins that Bing advised him to use marijuana instead of drinking. Gary recalled, "there were other times when marijuana was mentioned and he'd get a smile on his face. He'd kind of think about it and there'd be that little smile."
Alcohol and Tobacco Backlash?
Acclaimed film director Robert Altman has been on record as a marijuana smoker for over a decade. A review of Altman's movie "The Player" in the New York Times, April 5 1992, quotes him saying, "I was a heavy drinker, but the alcohol affected my heart rather than my liver. So I stopped. And I miss it. I really like that kind of life. I smoke grass now. I say that to everybody, because marijuana should be legalized. It's ridiculous that it isn't. If at the end of the day I feel like smoking a joint I do it. It changes the perception of what I've been through all day." Altman serves on NORML's advisory board.
TV star Larry Hagman comes to similar conclusions in his autobiography, Hello Darlin': Tall (and Absolutely True) Tales About My Life. Hagman writes, "Why that stuff should be illegal is beyond me. It's so benign compared to alcohol. When you come right down to it, alcohol destroys your body and makes you do violent things. With grass you sit back and enjoy life."
Willie Nelson told Country Music Television's Inside Fame program, "I used to smoke three, four packs of cigarettes a day. I used to drink as much whiskey and beer as anybody in the world. I would have been dead if it hadn't been for pot, because when I started smoking pot I quit smoking cigarettes and drinking." While adding that he doesn't encourage drug use by young people, he said that marijuana is the best vice in dealing with stress. "The highest killer on the planet is stress, and so many people medicate themselves in one way or another," said Nelson. "But the best medicine for stress, if you have to take something, is pot."
With so many stars saying that marijuana is more beneficial to them than are than pharmaceuticals, alcohol and tobacco, one wonders whether those industries are behind the movement to keep pot illegal. Companies like Phillip Morris and Johnson & Johnson are known to be major contributors to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, the group that once ran the fried egg "This is your brain on drugs" ads and admitted it used a brain scan of a coma victim to falsely depict a drug user's brain. The group is now headed by former drug "czar" Bill Bennett, a former chain smoker who acknowledged last year his compulsive gambling cost him $8 million, but wouldn't admit it was an addiction. Our federal government is still spending millions on rabid anti-marijuana ads, despite studies showing they have little effect.
Former US Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala admitted to smoking pot in college in an interview with Diane Sawyer before her appointment. Later, she stood with Attorney General Janet Reno and Drug "Czar" Barry McCaffrey, threatening to revoke doctors' licenses for recommending medical marijuana (a successful civil challenge later backed the government off). "Marijuana is illegal, dangerous, unhealthy and wrong," Shalala said. "It's a one-way ticket to dead-end hopes and dreams." But her indulgence doesn't seem to have dead-ended Shalala.
Aniston, in her Rolling Stone interview, said, "I wouldn't call myself a pothead. I enjoy it once in a while. Everything in moderation." Aniston also drew a line between marijuana and harder drugs. Those are reasonable messages young people should be hearing from someone they admire and trust, but they won't hear them in our zero tolerance school programs, or in government-sponsored drug education programs, which preach abstinence as the only option.
Some claim that smoking pot was all right in the 1970s, but believe that marijuana is much stronger now, a "fact" not backed up by the government's own studies. Nothing has changed about pot in the last 30 years but the political climate. And it looks like that's changing again.
When the news of Dangerfield's marijuana use first broke in August 2002 (when he surprised nurses by lighting a joint in a hospital bathroom), his publicist Kevin Sasaki said his office was flooded by calls - all of them positive - after the story hit the stands. "Everyone wanted to tell him, 'You go!' He's become a hero of sorts," Sasaki said. With 80 million admitted pot smokers in the US alone, Dangerfield was suddenly reaching an untapped fan base. He got my respect.