Marijuana in the Lives of Americans
by William Novak
This is a book about the personal uses of marijuana, and so I
will begin personally. My first exposure to marijuana occurred
while I was in college, where some of my friends were using it
and making positive claims on its behalf. At first I resisted
any association with drugs, believing, along with most of the
population, that people who used drugs were undoubtedly troubled,
unhappy, and alienated.
And yet, my friends who smoked marijuana did not fit into any
of the stereotypes that had been created by a public anxious about
the new "drug problem." They were not dropouts, or hippies,
or amotivated, or unhappy. They did not progress from marijuana
to "harder" drugs. Nor did they appear to be using marijuana
to avoid dealing with reality or to escape.
I grew increasingly curious about marijuana, and following several
years of equivocation, I finally tried it in 1969, at the age
of twenty-one. I was far too nervous to get high that first time,
but I do recall the feeling of relief that came from knowing that
I had finally, inevitably, lost my marijuana virginity and was
thus joining that half of the world Who Knew What It Was Like,
even if in actual fact I did not.
In time, though, I would find out. A decade later, I was still
curious about marijuana. Having learned what it was like for me,
I now wanted to find out what it was like for other people. This
book was my way of finding out.
For me, marijuana has been an intellectual stimulant, serving
as a useful tool in breaking down certain conceptual boundaries
and categories that, I now see, kept out more light than they
let in. Marijuana also presented a different version of reality
than the one I was used to. Sometimes, when I have been high,
I have felt like a visitor to another land, a land both familiar
and new at the same time, only inches and moments away from the
land I normally inhabit but also remoteand uncharted on any
map I have consulted.
During these visits, I have often wanted to take notes, to be
sent back as postcards to myself in the places I have temporarily
left behind. Sometimes the message on the postcard is a simple
greeting, or a knowing smile. At other times it is a feeling or
an insight I want to preserve and remember, or perhaps a fresh
way of seeing a familiar object, idea or person. Occasionally,
the postcard might describe an experience or an encounter lived
deeply and intensely. And sometimes, the message is a brief one
saying, "Hey, when you get back to the world you normally
occupy, try to recall some of what you saw and felt and understood
while you were here."
As marijuana users are well aware, remembering and retaining the
marijuana experience after it is over can sometimes be difficult,
because the marijuana high carries with it a built-in erasure
factor commonly known as "interference with short-term memory."
But preserving at least some of the experience is important, because
for many smokers the real and lasting pleasure of being high is
to read those postcards on another day, to integrate into one's
"straight" life the texture and illumination of a different
reality, and ultimately, to bring the two worlds a little closer.
That they are often only slightly and subtly different from each
other merely serves to make the challenge of integrating them
that much more difficult.
For me, the existence of these two worlds and the need to bridge
the gap between them suggest the Biblical motif of Jacob's ladder.
In chapter 28 of Genesis, we are told that Jacob is traveling,
and he stops for the night at a place he will name Beth-El. There,
he falls asleep and has the famous dream:
Here, a ladder set up on the earth,
Jacob's ladder represents in visual terms the intention of this
book: to establish a link, a bridge, perhaps even a ladder, but
at least a means of access and communication between two different
states of consciousness. I want to describe the "high"
world in a way that makes sense in the "straight" one,
where most of us spend the bulk of our lives. By drawing upon
the experiences of marijuana users, I hope to provide a realistic
understanding of what being high is like, in a way that makes
sense both to the experienced smoker and to the person who has
never tried marijuana. To this end, I shall say no more about
my own marijuana use, preferring instead to serve as a guide to
the experiences of some three hundred other people. To read their
accounts is, I hope, to become comfortable going up and down that
ladder which links one state of consciousness to another.
its head reaching to heaven,
and here, angels of God
going up and down upon it.
For those who have never tried marijuana, or who have tried it
with no apparent result (a common occurrence), I hope to provide
a reasonably complete answer to the question: "What is it
like?" For those already familiar with the drug, I have ordered
some of its effects and experiences into a cultural and social
context. More importantly, this book provides language and expression
for various feelings and perceptions that marijuana users know
well but may never have been able to put into words. I also hope
that users can benefit from this book by learning from each other
more successful and satisfying models of marijuana use and by
becoming more aware of the experiencesand some of the problemsthat
their fellow smokers report.
These are some of the elements that struck me as essential for
a book about the personal uses of marijuana. I searched for such
a book in vain, concluding, finally, that it did not exist. Indeed,
I used to think that it could not exist; how else could
I account for its absence? The idea, after all, was so obvious
that somebody must have done it already. But nobody had, so I
have attempted to write the sort of book about marijuana that
I have long wanted to read.
There are, to be sure, many good books about marijuana, and I
have read virtually all of them. But what I read was mostly academic
or scientific, dealing with medicine, history, anthropology, sociology,
psychology, or other fields of knowledge. Those rare selections
that were personal tended also to be literary, and usually had
an exotic and false ring to themespecially the well-known and
elaborate accounts of the nineteenth-century French writers, including
Baudelaire and Gautier, who described their experiences with hashish.
But these men, it turns out, did not smoke small quantities of
hashishwhich is made from the same plant as marijuanaas
some Americans do; they ate hashish, and in large quantities,
a combination that can induce florid visions. In addition,
hashish is often more potent, being to marijuana roughly as Scotch
is to beer. There is another difference as well; scholars now
believe that the accounts of the French hashish writers were influenced
by their interest in certain other drugs, notably opium.
In short, then, I could find almost nothing in print that bore
much resemblance to what the people I knew were experiencing and
describing. When asked, my friends and acquaintances spoke not
of dreamlike visions or elaborate fantasies but of simpler, more
direct, and more modest experiences. Often, they would describe
a new way of looking at something, or an interesting insight,
or perhaps a feeling of joy or contentment; marijuana, they seemed
to be saying, was certainly interesting, pleasant, and above all
fun, but it was rarely alien to their normal consciousness.
Before I began to write this book, I had no reason to believe
that the marijuana experiences of these people were unique; now,
after interviewing and corresponding with three hundred marijuana
users of various ages, backgrounds, and social classes, I know
that they were not.
Marijuana in the 1980s
Nobody knows with any certainty how many Americans use marijuana
regularly. Some current estimates suggest that as many as fifty
million people have tried it, of whom about half smoke it with
some regularity. There are probably between five and ten million
people who use marijuana at least two or three times a week, and
this is possibly a conservative guess. In 1977, a Gallup Poll
reported that one American in four over the age of eighteen had
tried marijuana at least once; that figure, the report
added, had doubled since 1973. In the years since 1977, it is
reasonable to assume that the numbers have once again increased
sharply. The consumption of marijuana has grown steadily in each
of the past twenty years, both in terms of bulk and in the number
of smokers; in all likelihood, the trend will continue well into
The financial implications of all this are staggering. At an average
retail price of $35 an ounce, marijuana sales make up an industry
that boasts something like $10 billion a year in sales.
And that figure is estimated to be four times larger than it was
as recently as 1974, when many observers thought that marijuana
use had peaked.
These facts may come as a surprise to those who thought they had
witnessed the fading away of the counterculture of the 1960S.
Actually, what has happened is that the counterculture is merely
no longer visible. Many of the styles, values, and modes
of behavior that once characterized it have become acceptedalbeit
in a diffused forminto the mainstream of American life. Like
the other aspects of the culture that spawned its widespread use,
marijuana has not disappeared either, but rather has grown up
and changed its clientele. One need only look at today's movies,
television, books, political trends, and public attitudes to be
reminded that much of what used to be considered counterculture
is now more or less accepted by large segments of the population.
True, some things have changed. The hippies are gone, the students
are quiet, the communes have mostly disbanded, and many of the
young radicals of a previous decade are now selling insurance
or practicing law. But many of the survivors of the sixties continue
to smoke marijuana, and their number has been swelled by the coming
of age of the seventies generation. While most of the psychedelic
trappings associated with marijuana in the 1960S have fallen away,
marijuana itself remains, playing a significant and in many cases
a prominent role in the personal lives of millions of Americans,
a role that has gone largely unexamined.
What this means is that great numbers of marijuana smokers are
no longer part of the younger generation. People who were in their
twenties when they first smoked marijuana as students in 1968
are now in their thirties, and many of them are ambitious professionals
who work in banks, schools, offices, publishing houses, advertising
agencies, law firms, hospitals, and in politicsincluding the
White House. As these people have grown older, their reasons for
using marijuana have changed, as have their patterns of use. Clearly,
it is no longer helpful to attribute the popularity of marijuana
to the alienation of the young, or to American foreign policy,
or to political protest movements. To learn the details of America's
love affair with marijuana, it is necessary to turn to the only
people who have known them all along: the smokers themselves.
Not surprisingly, the dramatic increase in the consumption of
marijuana during the l970s has had an effect on the public debate
about marijuana, which is now far less heated than it once was.
First of all, marijuana smokers themselves now have access to
levels of power and public opinion that were hitherto unavailable
to them. In addition, nonusers of marijuana are far more likely
than before to have direct knowledge of the drug and its users.
As a result, as more people smoke marijuana without noticeable
bad effects, fewer people are worried about its alleged dangers.
The issue, in short, has become dramatically less polarized, almost
as though the advocates and opponents of marijuana had struck
a bargain: "We'll stop making our optimistic and inflated
claims about how marijuana is really good for you if you'll stop
exaggerating its potential hazards and dangers." While no
such negotiating actually took place, both sides in the debate
have significantly relaxed their respective positions.
The best indication of this moderation can be seen in the changing
marijuana laws. As this book goes to press, the possession of
marijuana has been changed from a criminal to a civil offense
in eleven states. In 1973, Oregon became the first state to eliminate
criminal arrest and jail penalties for the possession of small
amounts of marijuana, and to substitute a citation-enforced civil
fine, roughly equal in seriousness to a parking ticket. (Subsequent
studies in Oregon have revealed that the residents of that state
now smoke about the same amount of marijuana as they did before
the new law.) Ten other states have enacted similar reforms: Alaska,
Maine, Colorado, California, Ohio, Minnesota, Mississippi, New
York, North Carolina, and Nebraska. In addition, President Carter
has called for the federal decriminalization of marijuana.
Political change, of course, is directly affected by personal
attitudes. Ten years ago, most people who used marijuana did not
tell their parents about it; these days, marijuana users are as
likely to be concerned about what to tell their children. In
the 1960s, those parents who discovered or were told that their
sons and daughters were using marijuana were often outraged or
horrified. Today, many parents are aware that their children use
the drug, and while they may not approve of it and may have little
idea as to how often their children indulge, neither do they seem
to be expending much energy worrying about it. They have simply
learned to live with marijuana, as they have learned to live with
premarital sex, rock music, and other phenomena of the 1960s that
have become part of mainstream culture.
The Purpose of This Book
This book focuses on the individual user and attempts to answer
certain basic questions. First, what happens, exactly, when a
person smokes marijuana? How does that person feel? What does
he or she experience? And second, how do marijuana users really
use marijuana? When and where and why and how often do
they smoke? What do they get out of it? Does marijuana helpor
hinderthem personally, socially, mentally, creatively, or in
other ways? Do marijuana users experience any special problems
or conflicts? Does marijuana seem especially appropriate in certain
situations and activities, and inappropriate in others? What do
smokers think about marijuana and their own use of it, and how
does it fit in with the rest of their lives? And finally, now
that marijuana is being increasingly accepted as a legitimate
recreational activity, where might the new lines be drawn to separate
use from abuse, and what might it mean to use marijuana wellor
These are not new questions. Some have been asked before, but
most often in terms of laboratory calculations or technologically
measured responses, or, at best, through questionnaires. Seldom
have they been asked in subjective and personal terms, in open-ended
conversations with marijuana smokers in their own homes. Even
less often have marijuana smokers had the opportunity to answer
these questions in their own words, rather than in the technical
terms of the social scientist, or the specialized language of
computers or statistics.
This does not mean, of course, that social scientists, physicians,
and other researchers and experts have nothing important to tell
us about marijuanamerely that they can't tell us everything.
Unfortunately, the history of marijuana research includes numerous
attempts to make the facts conform to certain prejudices on the
part of the researchers, although in some cases, the researchers
have changed their minds in the face of the evidence, in other
cases, the studies have been discredited. Recently however, marijuana
research has been conducted on a more impartial plane, and some
social scientists, including Erich Goode, a sociologist, and Charles
Tart, a psychologist, have conducted important research by communicating
directly with marijuana users themselves.
Despite some progress in recent years, the degree of ignorance
about marijuana (and other illicit drugs) on the part of the nonusing
public remains formidable. It is comparable, perhaps, to what
most Soviet citizens might understand about the nature of a free
and democratic society, or to what Americans might know about
alcohol if they had never taken a drink, been to a bar, or seen
an advertisement for beer or liquor.
There are various reasons for this ignorance. For many people,
marijuana is an unknown quantity, and they fear it. In addition
marijuana's identification with different fringe and minority
groups during the twentieth century has made it appear less than
respectable. The fear and ignorance about marijuana that reached
its zenith in the late 1930S, in response to the Federal Bureau
of Narcotics's carefully orchestrated campaign of hysteria, has
not entirely abated Most important, the marijuana experience is
not easy to comprehend for many Americans, representing as it
does a break from the reality with which most people are familiar.
It differs, too, from more familiar American alternatives to conventional
reality such as dreams, insanity, and alcohol intoxication, to
which smoking marijuana is sometimes naturally, though
Marijuana is different: its users can almost always function
normally under its influence and can, if they wish, conceal the
fact that they have used it. As one observer of the subject has
put it, the only way to know for sure whether somebody is high
on marijuana is if he tells youand perhaps not even then.
How This Book Was Written
The bulk of this book is based upon lengthy interviews I had with
marijuana users during 1978 primarily in Boston, and also in New
York and California. In each interview, I first asked some general
questions, and then encouraged the person I was speaking with
to lead the discussion into areas of his or her personal interest.
These interviews were recorded and transcribed, and I sent a copy
of the transcript to the people I interviewed, inviting them to
elaborate on or to clarify anything they had said, or to add anything
they had thought of in the aftermath of the interview.
Most of the interviews lasted close to three hours, yielding an
average of some twenty pages of transcript. The majority of those
I spoke with chose to get high during the interview, which usually
facilitated their recollection of previous high experiences. "It's
like mountain climbing," one smoker told me. "When you're
standing on a peak, you get a clear and unobstructed view of those
peaks you've already climbed." Being high also served to
encourage some of the people I met with to be more relaxed and
more personal during our conversation. In all, I spoke with a
Finding them was easy. I inquired among those smokers I knew,
who in turn led me to others. I was in the especially fortunate
position of having a long list of people who were not only willing
but actually eager to speak with me; a number of users, upon hearing
of my book through reports in newspapers, radio, and television,
contacted me and requested interviews. Many told me that they
had never before had the opportunity to reflect openly and at
length about what was an important part of their lives, a source
of considerable pleasure and, in a few cases, a source of anxiety
and conflict as well.
Each interview provided fresh material; I found less conventional
wisdom about marijuana, at least among its users, than I had anticipated
After the first twenty or so interviews, it became clear that
the subject was a larger one than I had realized and that my sample
would be neither broad enough nor varied enough for what I wanted
to accomplish. And so I began work on a second front, soliciting
letters and written statements from marijuana smokers in all parts
of the country. To do this, I placed classified advertisements
in about twenty national, regional, and college publications,
saying, more or less in these words, "Author writing a book
about the personal uses of marijuana wishes to correspond with
people who have ideas, experiences, and anecdotes. Anonymity guaranteed."
An ad in Rolling Stone was particularly successful, resulting
in about fifty letters. Query letters in High Times (a
monthly magazine for users of recreational drugs) and the New
York Times Book Review led to another hundred letters. Local
radio and television publicity, including a syndicated radio announcement
based on an article about my work in the Village Voice and
broadcast on FM stations in several cities, generated the rest
of the letters. In all, I received about three hundred responses,
of which approximately two-thirds turned out to be useful. I answered
each query with this reply:
The Marijuana Book
The book will be published in 1979 by Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
You can help by answering as few questions as possiblein as
much detail as you can.
No names will appear in the book, but it would help if you told
me your age, profession, sex, and so forth.
Please feel free to duplicate this sheet, and to send it to anybody
you know who might respond to it.
1. When do you smoke, where, and how often? With whom? Do you
smoke mostly under certain circumstances? Are there certain moods
or settings that you find particularly suitableor unsuitablefor
2. How (if at all) has marijuana affected your values or personality?
(Please be as specific as possible.)
3. Is marijuana an issue between you and any of your friends?
Between you and your parents? You and your children? You andyourself?
If so, can you explain the nature of the problem, and your solution,
4. Have you invented or participated in any special stoned activities,
or stoned games?
5. Could you go into detail and explain how, exactly, marijuana
affects you with regard to any of the following activities: sports,
playing music, listening to music, dreaming, sleeping, sex, socializing,
thinking, watching television, going to work or school, feeling,
introspectionor anything else?
6. How, if at all, does marijuana affect your creativity?
7. Have you had any insightshowever trivial or wrong they may
now seem (or however wonderful)while under the influence?
8. Have you ever had an especially bad/good/interesting marijuana
9. Where do you think things are headed with regard to marijuana
use in America?
l0. Is there any difference, for you, in the effects of different
kinds of marijuana?
11. Are there any myths or misconceptions about marijuana which
you would like to see corrected in a book like this?
12. What would it mean to use marijuana "well"or
Thank you very much for your assistance!
Because I encouraged my correspondents to go into detail on particular
subjects that interested them, not all of my questions were answered,
and I did not receive many responses to any one question. For
this reason, and because my sample was arrived at by means that
were anything but scientific, I have refrained from making quantifiable
judgments except where I was fairly certain that I was correct.
Readers interested in such things as the most common effects of
marijuana are referred to Appendix II, where I have included conclusions
from several other studies.
The people represented in this book are self-selected. They tend
to be unusual in the following respects: marijuana is probably
more important to them, and they probably use it more often and
more consciously, than is true for most smokers. Those users who
responded by mail tended to be between the age of fifteen and
forty; having grown up in a relatively free climate with regard
to marijuana, the younger smokers were less nervous about telling
their experiences to a stranger than were the relatively older
users. A number of college and graduate students are represented
in this book, along with some high school students, mental health
workers, teachers, writers, artists, musicians, housewives, office
workers, salespeople, mechanics, broadcasters, computer programmers,
restaurant workers, drug dealers, journalists, and prisoners.
Among the people not fully represented in this book, in terms
of their probable statistical representation among all marijuana
smokers, are, most significantly, users under the age of about
fifteen. This is really a separate group of smokers, whose use
and misuse of marijuana appears to be rather different from that
of the larger population. The statements and the generalizations
about smokers in these pages do not necessarily apply to this
group. Also not fully represented in this book are smokers over
fifty, members of minority groups, blue-collar workers, civil
servants and politicians, latter-day hippies, and, so far as I
am aware, homosexuals. Women and men are represented about equally.
Except for occasional changes in grammar and style for the sake
of clarity, quotations from users appear virtually unedited. At
the back of the book, I have included in full some of the more
interesting and informative letters I received. With both the
letters and the interviews, I have omitted or slightly altered
any details that might reveal the identity of the person being
quoted. In a few cases, where an individual makes several appearances
in the book, I have provided a pseudonymous first name for the
sake of continuity. Scientists or other experts quoted from either
conversations or written work are referred to by their full names.
A Note on Language
With some exceptions for the titles of books and articles, I have
used the spelling "marijuana" throughout. I have not
distinguished among such terms as "high," "stoned,"
"wrecked," and so forth, and neither did most of those
who communicated with me. A few years ago, there were clear delineations:
a smoker might first "catch a buzz," and then get "high."
If he or she continued smoking, or if the marijuana were of good
quality, the next stage might be "stoned" and then "wrecked,"
followed by "wasted"although few smokers want to
alter their consciousness to that extent. These days, most users
employ these various terms casually and more or less interchangeably,
which is how they are used in this book.
Curiously, there is no adequate word in our culture to describe
the opposite of being high. Users speak of "coming down"
after being high, and of being down, straight, sober, and even
normal, but nobody seems very satisfied with these terms, which
don't really express what the user means: simply the absence of
A "joint" is a marijuana cigarette. A "toke"
is a puff; the word is also used as a verb. To "turn on"
once meant to smoke marijuana for the first time; now it simply
means to get high, which is also known as "partying"
by younger smokers. A "roach" is the butt of a joint,
universally thought to be the most potent part of the cigarette
(although this has never been established for certain); the word
is thought to have come from the butt's resemblance to a cockroach.
A "lid" is a measurement of marijuana, either an ounce,
or slightly less, depending on the year and the city; today, the
expression is used more in the West than in the East and appears
to be on its way out. A "head," which comes from the
epithet "pothead," refers to somebody who smokes marijuana;
among many smokers, "head" refers to anybody who smokes
more than they do.
Throughout this book, I have used the pronoun "he" as
a convenience in referring to smokers of both sexes.
The single most popular expression among marijuana smokers is
"oh wow!" In writing this book, I have done my best
to avoid using this phrase. Instead, my purpose has been to suggest
some of the thoughts and feelings that lie behind "oh wow!"
and to investigate and describe some of the many things the words
Marijuana smokers refer to marijuana in a variety of ways, with
"pot," "grass," "smoke," and "dope"
being the most common designations. "Herb" and "weed"
are popular in some circles. Older names for marijuana include
"jive," "goof-butts," "muggles,"
"gauge," "Mary Jane," "loco-weed,"
"tea," "reefer," and "boo." The
botanical name of the most common type of marijuana is Cannabis
sativa L.; more often, it is simply called cannabis.
On the subject of names, a Boston poet had this to say:
I've always been partial to "cannabis" as a name for
it; "kif" and "bhang" are pretentious and
pedantic, although they sound wonderful. "Hash" is hash;
"grass" and even "marijuana," I find, are
two words that folks even at our callow level of hipness shun
to use. "Shit" is a word we use mid-Saturday evening
at some stranger's apartment in Central Square where we're stopping
off on the way to somewhere else. A joint is circulating, and
we decide we don't care what we sound like, and the word has to
be used with an adjective like "good" or "bad"
or, better, "dynamite." If we happen to be near MIT,
it might be, "toroid... y'know what I mean?"
Then there's a whole set of poetic synonyms, most of which I've
forgotten, like silt, gelt, wacca-wacca, dog, wind, bull, wand,
shazam, pussy, wing, volt, dirt, moon, and so on. But mostly:
the weed, stuff, and of course, dope. "Dope" has an
interesting history: it began as the word parents and teachers
used derogatorily to ward off its use by kids; the word caught
on sometime in the '60s, at first humorously, as if to try on
the bourgeois characterization for size, then in self-satire,
then with just a slight waning-to-infinitesimal giddiness, then
finally, more routine use, no longer ironic. It's almost all used
up as a word, but the more I have the stuff, the more I'm not
altogether certain it's a bad designation. But that's still an
open question. One way or another, each word we use has its own
shape, its own set of resonances, its own social context. I like
"cannabis," especially in phrases like "Oh yes,
he uses cannabis." A name's a posture.
1. Biblical quotation: Genesis 28: 12. From Everett Fox, "In
the Beginning: An English Rendition of the Book of Genesis,"
Response 6, no. 2 (Summer 1972): 75. Revised, 1979, by
the translator. (back)
2. For a comprehensive consideration of the French hashish writers,
see Lester Grinspoon, Marihuana Reconsidered, pp. 55-85. (back)
3. Gallup: Marijuana in America (Princeton, N.J.), Report No.
143, June 1977, p. 1 (back)
4. Social scientists: See Erich Goode, The Marijuana Smokers,
and Charles Tart, On Being Stoned. (back)
5. For more on names by which smokers call marijuana, see "R.,
the Dope Connoisseur," "What Do You Call This Stuff?"
High Times, March 1979, pp. 18-19. (back)