Marijuana in the Lives of Americans
by William Novak
6. The Social Drug
A friend with weed is a friend indeed.
a smoker in Wisconsin
I get high with a little help from my friends.
John Lennon and Paul McCartney
One of the most interesting phenomena reported by marijuana smokers
is the "contact high." This occurs when a smoker gets
highor highermerely by being in the presence of other people
who are smoking. Some smokers believe this is due to the amount
of smoke in the air, which may lead even the nonsmoker to get
slightly high. Others are convinced that the contact high has
less to do with physical than with social causes. Howard Becker,
the sociologist, offers an explanation of how the process might
When you're high, there's a characteristic way that you talk,
which has to do with not remembering anything that's just happened.
Now suppose you're in a group of stoned people, and you're not
stoned. They're all talking, and in order to participate, you
have to talk that way or else you can't communicate. If you're
used to being high, and accustomed to that style of talking, you
can move into it easily, without even noticing what's happening.
And if you find yourself talking that way, then in turn you're
going to feel high by the association. Unconsciously, you figure
that you're talking that way because you're high, so you figure
that you must really be high.
Smokers have mixed feelings about socializing when they are stoned.
Among friends, marijuana loosens inhibitions, allowing people
to be freer and more relaxed with each other. Among strangers,
many people prefer not to light up, finding that various kinds
of polite social chitchat are difficult when they are high. Judy
used to be reluctant to get high at cocktail parties but gradually
learned to adapt:
I now feel more secure with myself while I'm stoned, and I'm also
more comfortable being in the minority, or even being the only
one who is stoned. Many of Murray's friends from work like to
drink at parties, and I used to feel too inhibited to be the
only one smoking, which in turn increased my isolation from
everybody else. Now, I toke up before going to these parties,
and I can always find a comfortable niche for myself. I don't
care as much whether I'm accepted, which, paradoxically, eases
my sense of fitting in.
Mark, however, finds that marijuana makes him nervous at parties
where most people are drinking. It makes him more sensitive to
other people's moods and to their remarks, and he takes offense
more easily than usual:
In addition, grass increases my imagination, so that I might read
a lot into a few words or a look. Sometimes I'm right, but very
often I find myself interpreting something that was not intended
at all. I would rather smoke than drink with a group of friends,
but in a roomful of strangers, I'd just as soon use alcohol to
relax. Grass may have other effects.
To the extent that socializing is built around conversation, smoking
may be useful in freeing associations and in helping the user
focus in on what somebody else is trying to say. Martha finds
that getting high helps at parties whether or not the other people
After a joint or two, I find myself paying more attention to what
the other person is really saying, rather than hearing only the
words he uses in trying to get his point across. By keeping track
of his mannerisms and his tone of voice in a more concentrated
way than usual, I can more fully understand his point, and can
respond more directly than normal.
A Pittsburgh dentist maintains that marijuana facilitates real
conversation when he is with his friends. "I read somewhere
that the national average of real conversation, not counting household
stuff, the weather, and things like that, is less than half an
hour a week. Every time we get stoned, we surpass the national
But conversation is not the only measure of group interaction,
as this fifty-seven-year-old teacher observes:
I think the greatest moment when a group of people are high is
when no one wants to talk, but each person just listens to the
music and thinks his own thoughts. No one intrudes, questions
or criticizes, and yet the rapport between these people is still
there, ready to show itself again at the first spoken word.
But another woman complains that "you can never get a group
of stoned people to decide to do anything. It's like everyone
is on a different level."
Naturally, whether a stoned person will feel comfortable in a
group depends on who is in that group and what he thinks the other
people feel toward him. It's a good example of the importance
of set and setting, as this Iowa man explains:
If the high people are in the minority, and I'm high, I might
get a little paranoid, believing that I probably appear as stoned
as I feel, and that this will have an adverse effect on people's
impressions of me. Sometimes when this happens I wish my clothes
matched the wallpaper so that I could just stand there and never
I've learned to be careful about what state of mind I'm in while
socializing. Sometimes I get high; at other times I might stay
straight, but may bring along a joint just in case. At still other
times, I won't even bring anything with me.
For a different kind of person, marijuana can be very helpful
in an otherwise awkward social situation. Judy and Murray recently
attended the wedding of a friend, which they might have found
distasteful and boring:
If we hadn't been stoned, we might easily have gotten caught up
in our disdain for the ostentatiousness of the party. Instead,
we stopped being so judgmental, and relaxed, and got a huge kick
out of it, enjoying the food and the dancing, and even ducking
out twice to listen to the World Series on the car radio.
Some smokers find that marijuana can function as a social equalizer.
A social worker at a large clinic was disturbed by the extent
to which other members of the administrative staff kept their
distance from the nurses and the attendants. Believing that this
separation was potentially harmful to the well-being of the clinic,
she brought an ounce of marijuana to the annual Christmas party
and encouraged her friends in both groups to share her supply
together. She thinks the evening had a lasting effect:
There's no doubt that it broke down some of the barriers. Now,
there's a little more trust and openness between the two groups.
One of the attendants said to me that he never would have expected
to see me smoking, and that he realized that I set an example
in my work which wasn't necessarily the same as who I was in private.
He admired the fact that I smoked and also maintained a high position
Smokers are often pleased to learn that their acquaintances also
smoke. "It means that even if they're uptight, there's probably
a limit to their pretentiousness," observed a Connecticut
real estate broker. "A person who smokes usually has the
ability to laugh at himself on some level."
Parties, of course, are the traditional time and place where marijuana
is smoked, and among younger users, "to party" means
to smoke marijuana. But the marijuana party of the 1960s, where
people came together for the explicit purpose of sharing a joint,
appears to be on the decline There are various explanations for
this; most smokers attribute it to the growing acceptance of marijuana,
which no longer requires special conditions and emotional support
from friends. "The thing we stress hardest in our research,"
observes Norman Zinberg of his work at the Cambridge Hospital,
"is that there are socially evolving patterns of drug use."
According to Zinberg, marijuana smokers used to gather in small
groups because what they were doing was not only illegal but also
deviant. These days, it's merely illegal, Zinberg observes. "The
pot party and the idea of people smoking together was really an
important way of doing it with a minimum of anxiety. It's just
no longer necessary."
One user believes that the pot party has become less popular because
drinking is a more social activity, whereas marijuana tends to
involve its users in subjective, inner experiences. Whatever the
explanation, many people now think twice about whether to accept
a joint at a party.
They give various reasons. "I don't like to smoke in social
situations," says an art dealer, "because I have a hard
time keeping up with conversations when I'm stoned, and I don't
always like to be asking 'What did you say?' only a few seconds
after they've said it." While marijuana may act as a social
lubricant in small groups, in larger gatherings it has a tendency
to backfire. "If I'm stoned at a party," says a college
administrator, "when it's over, I often feel that I haven't
made contact with anybody." And an Oregon midwife speaks
for many of her fellow-smokers:
When I do go to parties stoned, I'll often remove myself mentally
from the situation, leaving my body out there, and watching myself
behave. To some extent I can blot out my own ego, and become a
noncritical observer. That's a nice thing to do at a party, get
high and watch, but it doesn't do anything for the party.
On the contrary; it goes against the grain of what a party is
for. I might sit in a chair by myself and have a great time, and
be fascinated, but then somebody will start a conversation when
I'd rather be alone, and that would just not be enjoyable.
At the same time, there are many smokers who very much enjoy smoking
marijuana at parties. Sometimes the enjoyment begins even before
the person has smoked, as Sarah explains:
If I arrive at a party, and I don't know anyone, but I see that
people are smoking dope, I automatically feel more comfortable.
I can tell that the people will be friendly. There's something
primal about passing a joint around that brings people together,
even though they may be strangers.
And an Indiana woman observes:
I'm more animated at parties, and I laugh easier when I'm stoned.
Once, before going to a party that I knew would be boring, I smoked
just before I got there, and ended up talking to the most obnoxious
man there. I wasn't even listening to what he was saying. I was
just watching his mouth move up and down, which at the time was
really fascinating. The only drawback to being stoned is that
I lose my train of thought, so sometimes people think I'm a little
slow. When everybody else is stoned, it's very funny, but otherwise
it can be embarrassing.
Although today's smokers are more likely to use marijuana when
they are alone than was previously the case, friends are still
an important part of the smoking experience. Marijuana, as we
have seen, often facilitates intimate exchanges, and many, maybe
most, smokers prefer to share that kind of experience with people
who are important to them. Claire, the radio announcer, explains:
When I'm stoned with a very good friend, we just sit there and
watch messages bounce back and forth between us, like neutrons.
It happens rapidly, and we can feel it in an almost physical way.
I often get onto a higher plane of communication with good friends
when we smoke together. It almost seems as if we're experiencing
mental telepathy, with communication going on so rapidly. And
the closer the friend, the more this is likely to occur.
Another advantage of smoking with good friends is that the user
is more apt to relax and let go, which makes the high more fulfilling.
"When other people think you are very stoned," Claire
observes, "and when they are actually happy to see you that
way, the whole experience is enhanced."
Although much has been said and written about how marijuana creates
a brotherhood of its own, smoking is by now so widespread that
the old image of a group of friends sitting around in a tight
circle passing a joint is outdated. More often, in a social situation,
marijuana is just there, although David says he always
pays attention to who supplies the goods. "It's like who
brings the football when you're kids. The guy who brings the dopeand
it's usually a guytends to be either somebody that everybody
likes or else a complete jerk who is trying to get people to like
Some smokers actually have two sets of friends: those with whom
they smoke frequently, and others, with whom marijuana is irrelevant.
Sometimes, in the case of heavier users, marijuana may define
friendship groups, as a Chicago college student explains:
Dope has chosen my friends. Those "high class" people
who are straight care more about being popular and rich, and since
I would rather smoke pot than be like them, I choose to associate
with people who do smoke, or who at least are cool about it. Most
of them are fine folks who aren't hung up on pot. When I'm with
them, I like myself better, and I feel more sure of who I am,
because I don't have to pretend. Most of the guys I go out with
are smokers, but if they rely on it too much or are real heads,
then I'm not interested.
The distinctions this woman makes better describe a previous era
than the contemporary scene, where the gap between smokers and
nonsmokers is less pronounced than it once was. But there are
still circumstances in which smoking becomes a problem among friends.
A New York editor who smokes only rarely does not care to be in
a group of smokers, because he finds them "boring and self-indulgent.
I just don't like to be in their presence," he says, "even
though I may like them individually." The sword cuts both
ways. For example, even though Judy smokes only on weekends, she
prefers to spend her social time with fellow-smokers:
We went out to eat a while ago at a very exciting restaurant together
with a couple that Murray knows from work. They don't smoke, so
we didn't either. The evening was very nice, but I didn't have
a good time because nobody was really loose or relaxed, as we
are on dope. At this point, I wouldn't consider such an elegant
dinner engagement without smoking first. I also think the fact
that we haven't pursued a friendship with this couple may be related
to the fact that they don't smokewhich to me implies they are
probably too inhibited to be really close.
For the woman who lives with her husband on a farm in Maine, there
are not many options. Both are in their fifties, and most of their
friends in the area do not smoke. "They know that we do,"
she says, "but we don't believe in doing it in front of them."
Most of her friends do enjoy drinking, however, and if she thinks
they will be receptive, she may suggest that they try marijuana
instead of alcohol. But she is careful not to push the case too
hard. Even in the big cities, marijuana crusaders are an unpopular
In fact, many of the users who do crusade on behalf of the drug
are people over forty-five who smoke marijuana as a conscious
substitute for alcohol; their goal is to get some of their friends
to do the same. Curiously, there appears to be less advocacy and
less proselytizing among younger smokers who assume, correctly,
that anybody in their peer group who has had the least interest
in trying marijuana has already had ample opportunity to do so.
Carol, the psychiatric nurse, has one friendship whose main topic
of discussion has to do with Carol's smoking:
She's always saying that it's rotting my brain and all the rest,
or that I shouldn't need it. I say to her, "There's a lot
of things in life you don't need, but you want to do them anyway.
And why should you not have something you like just because you
don't need it?"
Steve, a car salesman, and his wife are daily smokers. He doesn't
like to limit his social contacts to other smokers, but he finds
it difficult for most of his nonsmoking friends to break through
their own conceptions of why he smokes:
It's a real problem, because people know we smoke a lot, and that
we're generally high in the evenings. But they have trouble understanding
that without laying their own trip on it. For some people, getting
high becomes an end in itself, and they don't realize that for
us, it's not a goal, but a process. We do pretty much what other
people dogo to movies, visit friends, watch television, talk,
and so forth. It's just that we do it stoned. It's a way of doing
Claire, on the other hand, began smoking recently enough that
she can still remember clearly what it was like to be on the other
side. Her opinion of marijuana users was hardly flattering:
Before I started smoking, I used to spend a lot of time with people
who were stoned. I remember once being at a party where I overheard
a conversation; a group of people were talking and laughing hysterically,
and they thought they were being so clever and so funny. They
were talking about the world being divided into happiness pits
and sadness pits, and things like that.
I didn't want to be disdainful, but I knew they were talking
nonsense, even though they seemed to think it had real meaning.
But now that I also smoke, I realize that they were communicating
on that special plane you use when you're stoned: fast, visual,
symbolic. Often, though, what you're saying makes little sense
to somebody who isn't also stoned, who may well think you're just
being silly and pretentious.
A major point of contention between smokers and nonsmokers is
the charge that smokers are escaping reality, that they are smoking
because they need to. Some smokers respond in kind, with a popular
phrase to the effect that reality is for people who can't handle
drugs. More seriously, marijuana users insist that "reality"
is a subjective and vague term, and that by entering a different
form of it, they are not escaping but are in fact encountering
it on a different level. As a Boston man explains it, "Smoking
is something like a smooth stone skimming across the surface of
a lake; you are hovering above your normal reality most of the
time, but you never abandon it entirely."
Many nonsmokers feel awkward and even offended by the lack of
tolerance shown to them by marijuana users. "Whenever a joint
is being passed around," one woman told me, "I always
wonder what the other people are thinking of me, since I don't
smoke. I feel bad because they probably think that I'm really
square, and antisocial."
The irony of her remark is that at the present moment in American
culture, there are circumstances in which both users and nonusers
correctly perceive themselves as an embattled minority. Nonsmokers
sometimes complain of "trips laid on us" by smokers
and are frequently offended by the way smokers stick together
at a party, forming a closed group of gigglers, acting in an exclusive
and detached way. For their part, smokers are often angered by
casual pronouncements offered by well-meaning friends about the
drug and its use. A retired professor of psychology explains:
What really bugs me are the people who say, "I don't need
it." My feeling is, what an ungrateful wretch, to be put
on this planet with this truly beautiful substance, and then to
say to the Creator who gave it to you, "I don't need that."
These are the people who really do need it, and they also
need a kick in the pants for being so ungrateful.
More often, though, the differences between the two groups are
manifested less in anger than by a simple difficulty in communication.
While visiting with Murray's brother and sister-in-law during
a vacation, Judy found herself at odds with her hosts over the
marijuana issue. "They tried to make us feel guilty about
smoking," she says. "But actually, I think they're afraid
of trying it. They can't tolerate looking deeply into themselves,
and so they write it off, saying, 'I'm the kind of person who
gets high on life.'"
"Getting high on life" is by now so well known a catch
phrase that many smokers simply smile knowingly when they hear
it and make no attempt to respond. The phrase has become for users
roughly equivalent to "some of my best friends are Jewish."
It's not that smokers don't believe that it's possible to get
"high on life"; on the contrary, many smokers hold that
getting high on life is the whole purpose of smokingthey regard
marijuana as a tool that can eventually be done away with. But
smokers are skeptical of people who claim they get "high
on life," first because the phrase is glib, and also because
it is usually untrue. Smokers find this response particularly
annoying, because the nonsmoker who voices it implies that he
or she knows what being high is all about, while at the same time
confirming that getting high in the first place is a good idea.
While marijuana smoking no longer constitutes an automatic community
of adherents, there is still an ethic among smokers that marijuana
is to be shared whenever possible. Some smokers, particularly
the older ones, are wary about the prospect of legalization, which,
they fear, might destroy the last vestiges of community among
users, replacing it by rampant commercialization. This sense of
community has something to do with marijuana's illegal status,
but it goes well beyond that, into the personal realm, as Sarah
The greatest feeling in the world is when you don't have any dope
of your own, and you meet somebody and they offer you some. There's
something about smoking another person's dope that is highly enjoyable,
and usually gets me more stoned than normal Somehow, if it belongs
to somebody else, and they are sharing it, you partake of a different
energy, which enhances the experience.
The bond that exists among smokers makes it difficult to conceive
of a marijuana tavern, unless someone is perpetually buying a
round of joints for the house. Marijuana and capitalism work well
together when it comes to advertising and distributing marijuana-related
products, such as rolling papers, pipes, and other paraphernalia,
but many smokers prefer that marijuana itself be distributed more
personally. A nineteen-year-old girl explains what she likes about
the present system:
Most of what I like about pot is that it's a sharing thing. Ninety-nine
percent of all the people who smoke will go to a party and share
their dope, strangers and all. No one I have ever met would smoke
his own stash and not offer it, and that's a nice thing in 1979.
Occasionally, the communal aspect of smoking marijuana will manifest
itself more intensely, and for the person encountering it for
the first time, the experience can be memorable. A young man from
Nevada who spent two weeks at a Methodist youth camp remembers
vividly his first contact with other smokers:
The love, the sharing and the camaraderie were overwhelming. Some
of these people are still good friends. For me, it was the first
taste of that invisible bond which seems to exist between pot
smokers, or at least those of the consciousness-raising type,
akin to the communion of "water brothers" in Heinlein's
Stranger in a Strange Land.
Marijuana is an incredible social agent, often without anything
else that the people have in common. They meet and become friends
because they had that one thing in common which led to "do
you want to get stoned?" And the answer is usually yes.
Relating to Other People
Smokers often speak of becoming more aware of routine "social
games" when they're stoned. They find themselves relating
slightly differently to other people, often more directly than
usual; this, in turn, makes them more conscious of the barriers
that might otherwise be present. In other words, marijuana functions
not only as a window but as a mirror as well, and by reducing
an interaction to its essence, smoking sometimes separates the
basics from the extraneous in human relations.
Smokers in social situations often report gaining a better understanding
of other people, and many users recall a lasting impression, insight,
or awareness of a friend or relative that first surfaced when
they smoked together. Martha once got stoned with her husband
Karl's brother, and the occasion gave her an insight into his
character that she still finds valuable:
I remember saying to him, "Sam, do you have any sense of
what your daughters will be rebelling against in the next few
years?" And he replied, "Why do you suppose they will
rebel against anything?" And this struck me, and made me
realize that Sam had never rebelled against anything or anybody
in his life! The next day, this insight seemed pretty ordinary,
but I notice that I have always remembered it, and ever since
then I think I have understood Sam a little better.
On another occasion, Martha found herself smoking with Sam's wife
Alice, in the presence of Karl:
During the conversation with Alice and Karl, I realized that she
was being very self-conscious, and kept stepping back out of herself.
I looked at her and thought, "That's a whole new way of looking
at Alice." I had never seen her insecurities so palpably
before. I mean, it wasn't that I couldn't have verbalized it,
but I didn't attach the same weight to it until that evening.
I suddenly understood that her insecurity was a key to her personality,
and then I also understood how it was a big key to my own, as
well. I understood, too, how she and I clashed because both of
us are insecure, and that each of us was always waiting for the
other to give the cue of reassurance that actually never came.
That's the type of insight I get when I'm stoned, and for me it's
Marijuana can strengthen existing friendships, and it can also
lead to new ones. A Boston photographer recalls that in his high
school days, he would often go out for a walk late at night and
smoke a joint. After a few nights, he bumped into a fellow he
knew from school, a casual acquaintance who was out doing the
same thing. The next night, the two of them were walking together
and they found a third classmate, walking around by himself, and
During the day, all three of us hung around with different groups
of friends. But for about three weeks straight, we would walk
the streets together at night, meeting at a regular time at a
certain corner in Brookline. That was nice, and it was very special;
we became friendly and comfortable with each other. But we never
became friends during the day.
There are smokers who pride themselves on being able to tell at
a glance whether a person they don't know is also a user, but
this isn't always as easy as it may appear. A college freshman
who had smoked extensively for five years was surprised to learn
how many people smoked in the restaurant where he worked. It was
a franchised steak house, part of a chain, and to his surprise
he found that his coworkers were all heavy smokers, and a few
were even part-time dealers. He was even more surprised to learn
that the manager and assistant manager of the chain were high
whenever they visited the restaurant:
It was all quite a shock to me, finding out how many people actually
do get high. I found it intriguing, the kinds of people I met,
people I would not think of at all in terms of smoking dope.
For example, there was the director of the restaurant chain. A
respectable man, he had a wife, three kids, and was earning forty
thousand dollars a year. He lived in the suburbs, drove a big
car, the whole bit. He'd come into our place and pull out a beautiful
gold cigarette case, packed with twenty or thirty joints. I used
to have this idea that smoking was done by the younger generation,
so I found it a little strange that guys like this were also doing
To get to his job at the restaurant, this student had to travel
nine miles in an area with no public transportation. He didn't
own a car but soon found that marijuana was good for more than
his own private trips:
I quickly learned that dope could be used to barter, and that
it could get you anything. I would hitchhike a lot, and I always
carried a few joints, and offered them to the people who picked
I was surprised at how many people, even before they commented
on the weather, would ask me if I had any dope. I made a lot of
friends that way. Soon it would be no problem to get rides, because
one of these people would be driving by and would recognize me,
and pick me up. And before long, they were driving me to work.
It was like having a team of forty chauffeurs.
1. Two variations on the contact high: Some smokers find that
if everybody in the group is high, they don't get as high as usual,
because the frame of reference is altered accordingly. Similarly,
one occasionally hears of a "contact low," which results
from smoking in a group where such behavior is not approved of. (back)
2. Martha's experience of "seeing" the other woman's
insecurities is similar to Judy's report of "seeing"
her husband's defenses. This image of abstract facts and concepts
becoming visible is very common among smokers. (back)