Drugs

It's Cool to Get High

Is Americans' attitude toward casual use relaxing? It appears that the nation is now ripe for catching the buzz.
"Marijuana is a mistress known by many names: KGB, Hash's cousin, Mary; El Diablo de Verde, Mr. T...HC, Bleecker St. Creeper, John Claude van Amsterdam," intone the three actors of the new play, the Marijuana-Logues.

"First, let's talk about THC, which stands for, er, 'The High Causer,'" says Tony Camin, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the eldest Brady son. "To overdose, you'd have to smoke 1,500 pounds of pot in 15 minutes, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. But technically," he continues in a high-pitched stoner's drawl, "it's not all that pot that kills you. It's the cookie dough."

Yes, Mary-Jane is back in vogue and in New York City that includes a theatrical debut. The Marijuana-Logues, an off-Broadway production of the Actors Playhouse, hopes to be a "hit" unlike anything the city has seen. By parodying pot and putting the plant center-stage, the play's performers discovered they have tapped into a wider trend -- marijuana's growing, though frequently tacit, acceptability. "There aren't that many outlets for pot humor," says Camin, who has appeared on the late-night circuit. "When we first started doing stand-up, pot jokes sounded corny, but now we get Moms and Dads coming up to us and saying, 'Thanks a lot. We're secret pot heads.'"

Long gone are the days when smoking dope was limited to an underclass of weedy, patchouli-laden advocates. The city, if not the nation, is now ripe for catching the buzz. According to U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 10.725 million Americans -- roughly 1 in 20 -- have used marijuana in the past month. And it's this enduring penchant for pot that has kept magazine High Times, the stoner bible for bud enthusiasts, in business for decades. Staff at the Manhattan-based magazine, which celebrates its 30th anniversary in May, has witnessed a recent shift in the cultural winds regarding weed.

"There's something in the ether. It does feel suddenly hip to roll a joint," says Anne Nocenti, High Times' editor-at-large, who believes perceptions about smokers have altered. "If you smoke pot you're not necessarily considered a stoner anymore." As proof, Nocenti plans to run an article on parents hiding pot from their kids in an upcoming issue.

This sentiment is echoed by Richard Stratton, High Times' editor in chief. Stratton is also producer of Showtime's highly successful Street Time, based on his former career smuggling hash and pot into the city. "So many (media) executives are outing themselves as smoking it," he says, a definite case in point. Stratton was sent down eight years for his exploits -- which are now funneled into the show's plot. "They were smoking pot 30 years ago and they're smoking it now. They don't see it as a plant with roots in hell that leads directly to injecting heroin."

With bong-hitting Boomers like Stratton now in positions of influence, the message has morphed from yesteryear's "just say no" to one that's easier to swallow, if not inhale: "it's OK to toke." Presidential-hopeful John Kerry has copped to smoking cannabis, saying he "didn't mind getting high" (a step-up from Clinton's admission that a joint hovered near his lips.) If anything, those who have smoked silently for decades have begun breaking the hush-hush about the herb.

"When I was a kid, we were told marijuana was the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind and made users hopelessly insane," says David R. Ford, a former CBS journalist and ad man, who published "Good Medicine, Great Sex," last year. In his book, Ford, who smoked dope for decades, insists that cannabis "fed his creativity, furthered his success, and led him into adventures both warmly amorous and fearfully dangerous." "But over the years," says Ford, who now lives in Sonoma, California, "many people began to question that as it just didn't happen. The misrepresentation by the federal government was pure propaganda."

In fact, the Boomers' positive experience with pot may be pushing weed's wider acceptability -- especially as the medical marijuana debate heats up. "They don't believe the myth that it's all bad," says Warren B. Eugene, founder of Amigula Medical Cannabis, the world's first publicly traded medical marijuana company. Eugene, 43, the first entrepreneur to establish Internet gaming and who posits himself as the 'Jerry Lewis of Pot,' plans to air infomercials on its healing powers as early as this summer.

"The times are a-changing," Eugene says, parroting Bob Dylan's line. "Judges are beginning to say there's little difference between a martini and puff on a joint. "It's the zeitgeist." While Eugene, a New York native who has temporarily set up shop at the Essex Hotel, is not a proponent of recreational use -- he claims he's never lit up -- he believes medical marijuana is a matter of civil rights. "It should be thoroughly embraced as a medical therapy. [That way] there won't be a stigma on it and it can be put in its proper place."

It is, of course, illegal to sell pot in the US. Ten states nationwide have passed pro-pot laws and in an interesting twist last September, voters in Seattle overwhelmingly passed Initiative 75, making marijuana for personal use the law's lowest enforcement priority. In Manhattan, Councilman Philip Reed has pressed Governor Pataki to enact a medical marijuana program. Twenty-one Council members currently support the bill, including six of the seven Health Committee members.

"Medical awareness makes it easier for people to come out and say they smoke," says John Buffalo, High Times' executive editor. While Buffalo, the youngest of Norman Mailer's offspring at 26, muses that the city's anti-smoking laws have reinforced the idea of sneaking outside for a smoke, he does feel that greater awareness of marijuana -- often culled from the Internet -- has helped create the resurgence.

"People are just hipper than they used to be. They aren't putting up with being spoon-fed what corporate rhetoric is telling them," he says. "If Fox News tells you one thing and then you go to High Times' website and read a completely different account of the same event, you know that someone is lying to you, or at least bending the perspective to suit their own needs."

In the same vein, the folks at High Times feel that the post-9/11 landscape has also had an effect, making people question the current administration's position on pot, as well as other basic issues. "People are not as willing to put up with bullshit any more," Buffalo says. A parallel could be drawn to the 1950s, when the Beatniks got their kicks and toking meant turning a back on the government's rigidity. "People want to talk about real things now," says Buffalo. "That's why they're outing themselves."

As the Marijuana-Logues continues its run, it has started to create a public forum for pot that hasn't really existed since the '60s. This is something Camin thinks could be beneficial on many fronts. "It needs to be out there more. People need to be able to laugh at pot smokers, too," he says, although when the laughter subsides, it inevitably slides towards the political. "People are in jail because of this drug. Maybe our play could be a lubricant to the system and help fight the myths."

Dara Colwell is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn.

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