Marijuana in the Lives of Americans
by William Novak
2. The First Time
So grand a reward, so tiny a sin.
Indian proverb 
The great majority of smokers speak easily and fondly of their
initial experience with marijuana. A number of smokers spoke in
terms of two first times: the first time they tried marijuana
and the first time they actually got high. It turns out that a
surprisingly large number of smokersperhaps as many as half,
perhaps even moredid not get high on their initial attempt.
This curious fact is one of the few aspects of marijuana use that
has attracted serious thought and attention, although even here
there are still unanswered questions.
The first marijuana experience is rarely ordinary and is seldom
forgotten Commonly, the novice smoker either feels nothing unusual,
or else becomes extremely stoned, experiencing dramatic and sometimes
memorable effects that may never again be equaled in their intensity.
Normally, if the first time is pleasant, there will be others
in its wake. If there seem to be no effects at all, the novice
may be discouraged. Some beginning smokers, however, are actually
relieved when nothing happens; this sets them at ease, since they
understand that at least no uncontrollable or frightening event
is about to take place.
In their 1968 study of the effects of marijuana, Weil and Zinberg
found that "naive" users (subjects who had not tried
marijuana prior to the study) did not become subjectively high
in a neutral setting and showed only minor changes in measured
physical responses to marijuana. One of the naive subjects, upon
smoking marijuana for the first time and sensing that it wasn't
the placebo, told the experimenters: "I have probably had
something but it can't be marijuana because I would be more stoned
than this." In fact, the only one of nine naive subjects
who did get high during his first attempt was the young man who
during the preliminary interviews had shown the most eagerness
to try marijuana. In a different study, Erich Goode found that
among the respondents to his questionnaire, 41 percent said they
did not get high the first time, and another 13 percent weren't
sure whether they did or not.
Not everybody who tries marijuana shows a noticeable response
or undergoes a change of consciousness. Some people appear to
be completely resistant or immune to marijuana; they don't, as
the Jamaicans say, "have the head for it." "It
really does happen," says Norman Zinberg. "There are
people who refuse to accept or submit to the experience, who just
do not metabolize it. The experience is there, but what people
do with it is enormously variable."
It is not known whether or not the inability of some people to
feel the effects of marijuana is determined physiologically. Many
first-time smokers, consciously or not, simply refuse to let go;
marijuana is a sufficiently subtle drug that the user must want
to experience it. People who do not feel high after their
first experience may well exhibit obvious physical effects, and
laboratory studies have shown that volunteers may have red eyes,
a dry mouth, and an increased heart rate without actually feeling
anything different from their everyday, normal sense of reality.
Back in 1953, which in terms of marijuana research was still the
dark ages, Howard S. Becker, the sociologist, published an essay
entitled "Becoming a Marihuana User"; it has long enjoyed
the status of a classic, not only among marijuana researchers
but in general sociology as well. Becker's essay is important
because it suggests a complete and compelling answer to the intriguing
question of why so many marijuana smokers do not get high on their
Becker argues that this may be because most people have to learn
to use marijuana, and he outlines a three-step process by which
this education occurs. The first phase is merely mechanical and
involves learning the technique of inhaling the smoke. A joint,
after all, is not smoked like a cigarette; marijuana smoke is
most effective when held in the lungs for as long as possible.
This can be difficult, initially, for the smoker of tobacco cigarettes
to master, and almost impossible for the nonsmoker. Mezz Mezzrow,
a white jazz musician whose book Really the Blues tells
a great deal about marijuana use among American musicians between
the wars, recalls that even he, the most celebrated smoker of
his era, failed to get high the first time he tried:
I didn't feel a thing and I told him so. "Do you know one
thing?" he said. "You ain't even smokin' it right. You
got to hold that muggle so that it barely touches your lips, see,
then draw in air around it. Say tfff, tfff, only breathe
in when you say it. Then don't blow it out right away, you got
to give the stuff a chance."
Since Mezzrow's time, and especially during the 1970S, there have
been several new developments in the technology of smoking paraphernalia
that have made the task of inhaling the smoke considerably easier.
The most popular alternative to the marijuana cigarette is a water-cooled
pipe known as a bong, which originated in Thailand two centuries
ago. The bong allows the user to inhale smoke that may be cooled
by ice cubes or tempered by hot water, or even both at once. In
addition, there is always the option of eating marijuana, especially
in baked goods, but this is more talked about than done. Among
veteran smokers, the hand-rolled joint still prevails.
After the new user has mastered the proper smoking technique,
he must move on to the second step in Becker's scheme, which is
to perceive and experience the effects of the drug. That these
effects may already be present in the novice smoker is irrelevant
unless and until they have been identified and recognized. "The
user must be able to point them out to himself and consciously
connect them with his having smoked marijuana before he can have
this experience," writes Becker. "Otherwise, regardless
of the actual effect produced, he considers that the drug has
no effect on him."
The new user's ability to make this connection depends, as Becker
sees it, on his having "faith (developed from observations
of users who do get high) that the drug actually will produce
some new experience" and on his willingness to continue trying
it until it does. But many first-time smokers, unaware of the
complexity of this seemingly simple process, lack the patience
to wait for the new experience to manifest itself and, more important,
lack the knowledge even that patience is required. And so, not
having undergone any observable changes on the first or second
attempt, many would-be smokers assume that there is nothing in
it for them and wonder, in some cases, if there is anything there
at all. Presumably, there are several million Americans who have
tried marijuana without experiencing any effect and who therefore
believe themselves, incorrectly, to be immune to it. Indeed, many
probably suspect that the whole enterprise is something of a hoax.
Becker's third and final step sounds at first a bit obvious: the
user must learn to enjoy the effects he has just learned
to recognize. Indeed, for all of the attendant pleasures described
by its adherents, being high on marijuana is not intrinsically
enjoyable for everyone, involving as it does the shock of another
consciousness, frequent disorientation of time and space, occasional
awareness of unconscious truths and processes that might easier
be left unnoticed, and various physical discomforts such as hunger,
fatigue, and dryness of the mouth. To many novice smokers, these
annoyances may be more than enough to convince them that marijuana
is considerably overrated.
While Becker's article represents the most complete answer to
the question of why so many first-time users fail to get high,
the question is still open. In part, the answer may have to do
with the uniqueness of marijuana, whose effects are not directly
comparable to anything else in the life of the novice smoker.
The most common point of reference, naturally, is alcohol, and
the person familiar with that form of intoxication may try marijuana
and wait in vain for a fairly concrete assault upon the senses,
all the while remaining oblivious to the more subtle effects of
Another possibility, according to some researchers, is that THC,
the active ingredient in marijuana, is changed by an enzyme in
the liver into the metabolite known as 11-hydroxy delta-9-THC;
it is this metabolite, some scientists believe, rather than "raw"
THC that causes the high. Since it is normally present in the
body in only minute quantities, several smoking sessions may be
required for the liver to start producing sufficient quantities
to affect the user.
The First Time
Most marijuana smokers were introduced to marijuana by a friend,
a teacher, a sibling, or a slightly more experienced companion.
Others were first turned on at a party, on a date, or with a group
of friends. None of the people in my sample reported using marijuana
for the first time when they were alone, while Erich Goode found
that only 3 percent of his respondents turned themselves on.
Although many people experience no effects at all, the opposite
phenomenon is also common. Lenny recalls that he enjoyed his first
smoking experience so much that he immediately bought two ounces,
one of which he sold to a friend, thus becoming a user, a buyer,
and a dealer all at once.
When the first experience is good, it is often memorable. A salesman
from Michigan recalls:
I was starting to feel different. A fog started to separate me
from my two friends. Charlene wanted to go back, so we piled into
my brother's car and started back along the dirt road. I felt
unsteady at the wheel, and Dan asked if I needed help. I said
no. I saw a car approaching and pulled over to the side. It took
ages before the car passed us, and I felt so foolishly happy.
We arrived back at the lake, and the water was peacefully beautiful.
It felt as if this was the beauty and the peace I had always wanted.
If I could express that beauty in words, I would be a poet.
A more typical description of the first time is offered by a French
instructor at a small southern college, who was introduced to
marijuana in 1965, when he was a senior:
I was nervous at the beginning. There was still a lot of bad press
about what dope could do to you, and my family background was
pretty strict and conservative. But a lot of people I admired
were smoking pot, so I wanted to try it.
The first time I smoked, I became very nervous. I was also very
open to suggestion; the friend who turned me on was himself nervous,
and he reassured me a bit too much, which made me even more nervous.
The first time I really got high there was some Mozart
playing, and Mozart had never sounded that way to me before.
This man's nervousness is typical; even the most casual marijuana
smokers are nervous the first time they smoke. It may be for this
reason, among others, that many male smokers develop a measure
of bravado with regard to the drug. But almost everybody admits
to having felt some nervousness the first time, and a few smokers
recall that they delayed their initial marijuana experience for
as long as two or three years, until curiosity finally triumphed
over fear. Surely these fears, which were especially common among
smokers who started using marijuana during the 1960s, go a long
way toward explaining why so many first-time users fail to get
The existence of these fears makes sense. The marijuana experience
takes place on a different level of reality than the one most
people are familiar with, and the prospect of the change may well
threaten the sense of control and stability of a person uneasy
about letting go of normal, waking consciousness. Some smokers
recall that during their first high, they developed a fear that
they would undergo a permanent change and would never return to
their "real" selves. Even those who are most eager to
try marijuana usually cannot imagine realistically what it will
be like, and fear follows easily on ignorance. "Everyone
can feel the effects of grass," states A Child's Garden
of Grass, long known as the unofficial Bible of marijuana
users, "if they simply get over their fear of losing control."
For many smokers, especially during the 1960s, fears about marijuana,
exacerbated by the mass media, had to be overcome and dealt with
before the decision to smoke could be made with any degree of
comfort. A former Radcliffe student recollects:
I had read all this stuff about grassin Life and Time
and that kind of magazineand the writers would always be saying,
"These poor children, on the road to heroin, thinking they
are expanding their world but really on the road to losing themselves
... oh alas, alas, will no one stop this dire green menace?"
And I started thinking: what if the jokers who wrote the articles
are the ones who are wrongsince their inner worlds didn't
seem exactly the more aware and expanded ones, from the way they
wrote. And I also figured that something you smoked, instead of
injecting, was unlikely to do anything dire the first time even
if they were right. I was really too interested. I'd read Huxley
and other people, too, and they didn't sound like they were doing
drugs to escape from anything.
As marijuana use has increased, the fears of first-time users
have diminished accordingly, as have reports of bad trips. Still,
the scare tactics and hysterical reports of a previous era linger
on, if only subliminally. After seeing the most famous of the
marijuana scare films of the 1930S, revived periodically in college
towns to the delight of stoned audiences, one student told me:
"Even though everybody knows that Reefer Madness is propaganda
and nonsense, a little of the fear stays with you."
Accordingly, the most valuable function of the introducer is not
so much to tell the novice what to do and how to smoke but rather
to calm him down and assuage his fears, should that become necessary.
These days, it seldom is. Occasionally, the introducer may also
find himself providing a quick course in marijuana etiquette.
A Boston actor tells of turning on an acquaintance who, as late
as 1978, was completely unfamiliar with the world of marijuana:
It was a guy I didn't know too well. After we smoked he said to
me, "What do I owe you?" He said he knew the stuff was
expensive, and he seemed to think that if he didn't pay for it,
the experience wasn't fully his own. I explained to him that dope
is meant to be shared among friends, and I think he understood.
The Moment of Awareness
While parts of the marijuana experience change with cultural and
social developments, other aspects remain constant. Here is Baudelaire
on a characteristic response of novice smokers:
Most novices, of only the first degree of initiation, complain
that hashish is slow in taking effect. They wait with childish
impatience for it to do so; and then, when the drug does not function
quickly enough to suit them, they indulge in a swaggering incredulity,
which gives great delight to old initiates, who know just how
hashish sets about its work.
Baudelaire might well have been commenting on the account of a
young woman who was a senior in 1967 at a quiet Catholic college
in upstate New York:
It was a very protective environment, but I had a boyfriend who
got some pot, and he asked if I wanted to try it. I was nervous,
but he convinced me that it was nothing more powerful than aspirin.
I was sitting there in the car after taking a few hits, saying,
"Ah, nothing's happening, it's such a waste." I kept
repeating myself, saying over and over that nothing was happening.
At this point my boyfriend was beside himself with laughter, realizing
that I was stoned out of my mind.
I realize now that when I don't think I'm stoned, and I feel I
have to ask, then I probably am. If I'm not stoned, I don't have
to ask the question.
It is still common for new smokers to repeatedly ask, "Am
I stoned?" or to insist over and over that they are not.
"How do I know I'm stoned?" some ask earnestly.
When two novices decide to smoke together, and there is no experienced
smoker with them, the results can be quite funny, with each one
trying to decipher clues from the other. This is what happened
in the case of a humanistic psychologist who first tried marijuana
while teaching at a small rural college in the Midwest:
I was with another fellow, also a teacher, and both of us were
trying marijuana for the first time. And we got into this funny
situation, a kind of circle, or knot. How could we know which
of us was stoned? He was saying that I was stoned, and I was saying,
"No, I'm not stoned; I only look stoned to you because you're
stoned." We had very little to go on, not knowing what to
expect, how we would feel, or anything. It's clear, years later,
that we were both wrecked.
It generally takes timeyears, in some casesfor the novice
to understand and appreciate the full range of effects and possibilities
of this altered state of consciousness. Indeed, most smokers never
experience more than a small portion of that range, some because
they don't care to, others because they have established for themselves
very strict limits, such as smoking only at parties, for example,
or only on weekend evenings. There is a trade-off for such people:
their stoned experiences may be limited, but their sense of control
over the drugno trivial matteris usually secure.
Those who began smoking marijuana in college during the mid-1960s
were often heavily influenced by media reports about it. The media
erroneously lumped marijuana together with psychedelic drugs,
implying that marijuana leads to exotic and hallucinatory experiences,
which is only rarely true in the United States. Ironically, many
college students tried marijuana anticipating the reactions they
had read about in Newsweek, which in turn was purporting to describe
what the college students were experiencing, producing a circle
of ignorance that benefited nobody. But because LSD and marijuana
are both mind-altering drugs that came into public awareness at
roughly the same time, they were frequently confused, although
they are radically different substances. Indeed, some students
tried LSD rather casually, assuming that the reports about it
were no more true than the reports about marijuana.
And so the novice smoker of the 1960s kept waiting for the cosmic
light show to begin, while back on earth there were more immediate
and mundane matters to deal with. Sarah, now a teacher, a mother,
and a daily smoker, first tried marijuana in 1968, while a student
at Wellesley College. She was introduced to marijuana by three
male friends. "God," she recalls thinking, "they
must be so incredibly smart, smoking and talking at the same time!"
A few moments later, when she had to go to the bathroom, she was
afraid of not being able to get there. "I was worried that
I wouldn't be able to walk down the hall," she says, "but
everyone assured me that if you did things when you were high
you would do them normally, even if you didn't think you could."
It turns out that going to the bathroom was for many novices the
first real test of whether they could function normally after
smoking marijuana; despite some initial nervousness, nobody reported
failure. Today, many of these same people think nothing of driving,
going to work, or even giving a lecture while they are stoned.
Many smokers can recall the exact moment they first realized they
were high. A Florida man recalls being on the roof of an apartment
building overlooking a city on a spring night. A joint was circulating,
and he asked to try it:
After about seven tokes I noticed that the lights of the town
were taking on a weird, dazzling look. I had already cultivated
the ability to see lights this way by keeping my eyes motionless,
so that the after-images built up. These images, I had discovered,
were an effective jumping-off point to fantasy worlds. Marijuana,
I decided, made this process a lot easier, and I was very pleased.
Later, walking back to my room, I was intrigued by the way things
felt and looked. I decided that I had discovered something pretty
Combined with this excitement there was also a measure of disappointment
for what marijuana did not represent:
For the rest of that spring, I spent one or two evenings a week
smoking with friends and listening to music. I enjoyed this a
great deal, but I did not find what I was really after. I had
been fascinated by the term "altered states of consciousness,"
and I would stare into the light bulb on those stoned nights,
trying to penetrate the Veil through whatever opening the light
bulb might provide. No luck.
The images I was able to induce by closing my eyes were entertaining,
but none of it led anywhere. I was looking for something
much more intense. What I was really looking for, I now realize,
was what I received from LSD. But that's another story.
Some smokers recall that their first experience was more than
disappointing. A graduate student in Philadelphia reports that
the first time he smoked, it tasted like eating a combination
of burning charcoal and hot peanut butter A man who was in the
navy, stationed on Hawaii in 1969, had a very unpleasant first
trip. Bad trips on marijuana are statistically minuscule, but
they do occurespecially the first time. The navy man was driving
with a friend one night and was talked into sharing a joint with
him while riding through the pineapple fields:
The first thing I felt was a strange sort of numbness spreading
up the back of my head. I started to worry that I was going to
black out. I kept driving, and then I started worrying about whether
I could keep the car on the road. I think I was driving pretty
well at the time, but I became terribly conscious of the dangers
involved, and terribly uneasy about whether or not I could cope
with these dangers while high. It got so bad that my companion
offered to drive, and I gladly let him. We drove back to the barracks,
and I remember as we approached the parking lot that I was scared
to death that we would run into a military cop who would know
that we were high on grass, and not just drunk.
But the vast majority of first-time experiences are either neutral
or pleasant. Sometimes the first high is punctuated by unexpected
and inexplicable laughter and sometimes by a clear, new visual
perception of familiar objects. Both of these phenomena happened
to a writer who works at a Washington think tank:
I got a classic case of the giggles but unclassically, I found
that I could stop them by a sufficient effort of the will. If
I did, however, the entire universe tilted before my eyes to an
incline of about forty-five degrees, and the only way I could
straighten out the world was to let go and laugh. This felt to
me like some weird kind of e=mc2; that is, emotional looseness
had some kind of relationship to spatial perception, structure,
and the rightness of the world. In other words, my world made
sense only if I let myself go, especially in laughter. I was a
pretty square, uptight, antiwar liberal back then, not interested
in spiritual life, or in my own identity, or in laughing. It was
a major lesson for me.
A Montana man offers a more elaborate version of the laughing
experience during his first high:
I walked out of the room and watched a tennis match. I turned
to ask somebody what the score was, and then I questioned what
words I had used. I thought I had said "Whjabbaja babjalla?"
Then I remembered that I had gotten an answer to my question,
so perhaps I was wrong. I still hadn't attributed my behavior
to the pot. Finally, at dinner, someone said something funny,
and I couldn't stop laughing. I must have been a spectacle, but
it was great. Then and only then did I realize that the pot had
For other smokers, the first moment of stoned awareness is marked
by an unmistakable change in auditory or visual perception. A
medical student in San Francisco recalls:
I didn't realize that I was stoned until I got home from a friend's
house, turned off the lights, and turned on "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida"
by the Iron Butterfly. I got incredibly freaked out by the music.
At first, I was really frightened, because I couldn't understand
why I felt this wayuntil I remembered that I had smoked.
A teacher in Oregon recalls turning on her best friend:
We were in a group of people, and a joint was being passed around.
She reached for itshe had never smoked beforeand I said,
"Now you know you don't have to if you don't want to."
I was worried that she might feel pressured to smoke. She said
she knew what she was doing and proceeded to take three tokes.
She coughed a little, and after a while I saw her staring at the
trees out of the window. I said, "Kathy, what are you staring
at?" She said she never noticed how beautiful the trees were.
I knew then she was high.
A woman in her late fifties who lives on a farm in Maine reports
a similar experience. The first time she smoked, nothing happened.
Her two daughters, who had encouraged her the first time, tried
again a few weeks later. Still no results.
Then, the third time, I had a little more to smoke, and I noticed
a piece of glass sculpture on the windowsill that had caught the
sun. And I found myself staring at this sculpture, which was glowing.
I had never noticed before how beautiful it was. This was the
first time I noticed any effect.
An elderly New York woman reports a variation on this theme. She
claims she was sent a package of seeds in an envelope with a note
saying, "Plant these for size." She did, and one of
her friends recognized the plant and rolled two cigarettes for
her. "At this point," she writes, "I would like
to say I am on Medicare along with most of my friends. I think
we are considered little old ladies in sneakerswhich no doubt
we are." She continues:
So we smoked. Nothing happened except a deep sense of relaxation,
which was nice. Since I've never been able to drink, I understood
why liquor was so much in demand. I live on the thirty-first floor
of my building, and there is a drugstore off the lobby where I
buy the evening paper. I rang for the elevator. The trip down
was endless, and the lobby was miles away. I got there, bought
the paper, wandered through the desert of the lobby for forty
years, got on the elevator and flew home.
I had left the radio on and it was playing the most heavenly music
I've ever heard. The pianist was making each note sound clear
and rounded and perfect. I was held until the record was over.
Then the announcer said that the pianist was Liberace and that
strange and evocative music was "Traumerei" by Schumann.
I decided to get rid of the Mary Jane at once.
As with many other facets of life, what a person brings to the
marijuana experience will largely determine what he gets out of
it. Steve, now a car salesman, first tried marijuana in his adolescence,
when he was involved in a quest for truth, meaning, and values:
For me it was an intellectual thing. I'd ask a question, and I'd
have to have the answer to it. I wasn't smoking for fun. These
were huge questions like: what is the meaning and purpose of life?
Here I was getting high, and saying to myself that I've got to
have the answer to the questions I was asking. Marijuana didn't
provide those answers, but it did help, and it stimulated more
Mark, who is married to Sarah from Wellesley, started smoking
ten years ago as a Harvard freshman. He works in the computer-design
field; back then, he smoked to better understand the workings
of his own mind:
I was a philosophy major. The fundamental question on my mind
was what is beauty. My roommate and I started smoking grass as
an experiment; we would spend hours getting stoned and taping
ourselves being stoned and talking about it. I have always been
very interested in how people's heads work. What is this process
called thinking, and how does it work? My early experiences with
drugs were originally intended to understand what was going on
in my own mind.
Some users become interested in the serious side of marijuana
even before trying it. Others come to it only after years of smoking,
while some users are simply not interested in using marijuana
as a tool for exploring their minds and hearts. Similarly, some
first-time users begin smoking fairly quickly, while others try
marijuana after so lengthy a deliberation that their first experience
may be more a matter of "when" than "whether."
This caution was more typical of the 1960s. Looking back on those
years, David recalls that he wanted to try marijuana as a junior
in college but didn't actually take the plunge until after graduation:
I had an older friend, Mel, who seemed to me very wise and full
of good advice on the business of life. I told him I wanted to
try marijuana, and I asked him what he thought. I knew he would
be against it, but I wanted a reason for my own opposition. He
gave me one: "You'd be a shmuck to try it." Now Mel
and I had a fairly deep friendship, and he was often saying wise
and pithy things. His answer made sense to me at the time and
served its purpose for three yearsuntil I finally realized
it was bullshit and began to smoke.
Sometimes the initial marijuana experience can be planned and
prepared for. Mark tells of introducing a friend to grass by reading
her selected passages from the chapter on "Turning On"
in Lester Grinspoon's book Marihuana Reconsidered. Several
smokers mentioned that they did research on marijuana before taking
their first toke. For others, the experience was more spontaneous,
as with a teacher from California who recalls:
I remember thinking to myself, "Here goes." It was almost
like losing my virginity. Nothing happened for an hour. Then,
walking along the beach with friends, I suddenly began to notice
that the whitecaps were rolling onto the shore like angels of
God sweeping in over some kind of grassy, wet meadow.
While actual hallucinations are rare with marijuana, it is common
for a smoker to experience an altered perception, to be struck
by a particularly forceful and vivid image. The California teacher
didn't claim to see angels of God, although under LSD he
might have. With marijuana, he is far more likely to be struck
by a concrete image such as "this is what angels of God might
Naturally, a particular challenge for the novice smoker is to
determine exactly where subjective change ends and objective "normal"
reality begins. In other words, he must answer the implicit question:
"Which world should I believe in when the two realities tell
me different things?" The new user frequently wants to know
if he looks different when he is stoned and often goes
off to seek the answer in the nearest mirror. A college student
in Baltimore who first got stoned at a medieval festival in New
York, recalls: "I had the strong feeling that I looked different,
I was nervous, and afraid that everyone knew I was stoned."
She had taken a camera with her, and she asked her friends to
take some pictures so that she could see, later on, how she had
actually looked that day. I asked her how the pictures turned
out, and she looked at me as though the question made no sense.
Indeed, by the time I asked, it probably didn't. "They turned
out absolutely normal," she replied. "I simply looked
happy. I guess the changes were all inside."
Another mark of the first-time experience are feelings of happiness
and confidence. A young man who, like several other users here,
smoked his first joint on a hill behind his high school, recalls:
At first I was thinking that there was no reaction, no effect.
"This isn't working," I thought. And then suddenly I
stopped and said, "Dave, I feel funny." And I started
looking at everything differently. Things seemed funnier. And
I became much less inhibited, and I started running down the hill
toward the school, yelling "BANZAI!"
Sometimes the initial experience is very dramatic, much more so
than subsequent smoking. An occupational therapist who had smoked
several times without getting high found herself in an encounter
group that celebrated its final session with a party. She evidently
had smoked a good deal, finding herself at one point passing two
pipes at once and holding a third one between her teeth:
I was having a fine time and wasn't really thinking about being
stoned until suddenly I had the sensation that I was simultaneously
blacking out and yet was completely aware of everything around
me. I was teetering between oblivion and total consciousness.
It was an incredible experience. I don't think I recognized what
was happening until I attempted to call out a phone message, which
was dissolved in laughter; I knew then I was no longer in control
What followed was a long evening of wide-eyed amazement as I found
myself in a new dimension of time: the absolute present. There
was no past moment and no future momentat least, none that
was connected to any sense of reality. There was only the very,
very immediate present which changed with every fraction of a
second, and I had total control of it.
Every passing moment dissipated, and I entered a new state of
oblivion. The only time this feeling has ever been duplicated
for me was when I had to give a lecture to a group of students.
Panic-stricken, I spoke each word automatically and enthusiastically,
not knowing how I had started each sentence, or how on earth I
intended to finish it.
For many first-time smokers, the experience stands as a life-changing
event. Joining the company of fellow-smokers can represent a major
change, which has implications for other events and other decisions.
A Vermont man in his mid-twenties recalls his first experience,
which occurred while he was in high school:
Weeks of thought had gone into that decision, and starting to
smoke was for me the end of a long internal debate between two
very different world-views.
According to one, life was basically simple: all that needed to
be done was to choose a path and then follow it with little deviation,
and all would be well; problems would be resolved even before
they appeared. If I did well in school, decided on a professional
career, became active with the right crowd and didn't knock against
the surface of things, then life would be, well, life.
This path, in other words, would not represent a struggle for
the person who chose it. On the contrary: it would reflect the
substance and the personality of the chooser. The actual choice
would occur unconsciously, like the transition from adolescence
The trouble arose for me when I realized that there lay within
me another world-view, one that would not go away even when I
wanted it to, and one that had to be contended with. It said that
the surface of things was not always an accurate gauge of the
way things really were, that people who seemed to fit into their
prepared niches were not inherently better or smarter than those
who were still searching. The world was different than what you
were told it would be, and the voice of authority was not always
in possession of the best or wisest way to beor to behave.
If you held a complex view of things, like this second world-view,
you could never pretend to have a simple view, and life, far from
becoming simpler and more knowable as you got older, became instead
more complicated, more complex and entangled. There would be other
choices to make.
Deciding to smoke marijuana put me squarely in the second camp,
and I knew it. The undramatic first episode did not signal any
change of heart, any turning back. The decision had been made
to become a smoker and to accept the ambiguity of the smoking world,
not to mention its dangersthese were the days of jail sentences
for possession, not to mention the popular belief that marijuana
led to heroinand not to mention the defiance of parents, teachers,
and society at large.
1. Sometimes referred to as a "Hindu Proverb," this
is actually a Muslim catch-phrase recorded by J. M. Campbell,
Assistant English Opium Commissioner of Bombay, in an appendix
to the 1894 Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report. (back)
2. "I have probably had something": Norman E. Zinberg
and Andrew Weil, "Cannabis: The First Controlled Experiment,"
New Society 16 (January 1969): 84-86. (back)
3. Goode: The Marijuana Smokers, pp. 135-36. (back)
4. Howard S. Becker: "Becoming a Marihuana User," American
Journal of Sociology 59 (1953): 235-42. Becker's essay also
appears as chapter 3 of his book, Outsiders: Studies in The
Sociology of Deviance, pp. 41-58. (back)
5. Milton Mezzrow and Bernard Wolfe, Really the Blues (New
York, 1946), p. 71. Reprinted in David Ebin, ed., The Drug
Experience, p. 87. (back)
6. "The user": Outsiders, p. 49. (back)
7. "Faith": Ibid. (back)
8. 3 percent, Goode: The Marijuana Smokers, p. 123. (back)
9. In my interviews, I noticed an interesting difference between
men and women. In many cases, the men I spoke with affected a
posture of considerable knowledge and experience, whether or not
it was warranted. Similarly, many women who were clearly experienced
and informed about marijuana did not take their knowledge seriously,
and often underestimated their own sophistication with regard
to smoking. While "marijuana machismo" is not confined
to men, I was struck by the differences between the two groups.
Moreover, this posturing among men was in evidence even among
those men who have consciously allowed their values and attitudes
to be changed as a result of the women's movement; perhaps marijuana
brings out pockets of resistance. (back)
10. A Child's Garden of Grass: p. 22. (back)
11. Radcilffe: Dianne Bennett, "Marihuana Use Among College
Students and Street People" (Senior Honors Thesis, Harvard
University, 1970) . (back)
12. Baudelaire: in The Drug Experience, p. 21. (back)