The High Life
Camilla Camilla BrannstromTHE FACT THAT THE FLIGHT TO AMSTERDAM IS SCHEDULED TO DEpart at 4:20 p.m. balances on the cusp between appropriate coincidence and good omen, because 420 has become a number representing celebration in the marijuana subculture. Some say it's because 420 is the police code for a pot bust. Others say it's the number of ingredients in the herb. Who knows, maybe it has something to do with that nursery rhyme about four-and-twenty blackbirds. In any case, during the weeklong 12th Annual Cannabis Cup, sponsored by High Times magazine, there will be huge partying at 4:20 every afternoon, and also at 4:20 every morning, with live music, from blues to reggae, at Melkweg, a nightclub several yards away from police headquarters. The MC will be an invigorating standup comic from San Francisco, Ngaio Bealum, whose parents were both in the Black Panther Party. "You know," one of his routines goes, "when we were kids, we didn't have bongs. We just had to fill our mouths with water and suck real slowly." He describes smoking pot while drinking coffee as "the poor man's eight ball."
Usually you can spot the folks at LAX who are traveling to the Cup, but I'm surprised to overhear a retired 62-year-old grandmother say to her 49-year-old companion, "I was so stoned I couldn't get off the toilet." The two women will be staying at a youth hostel. They're looking forward to checking out the coffee shops, which are open until 1 a.m. In 1976, the Dutch Health Ministry decriminalized marijuana, and some years later licenses to sell pot were given out to the coffee shops, the same ones that had already been selling pot and hash. Customers can choose from an actual menu of marijuana varieties, then sit down at a table and smoke their purchases. They can also buy coffee. Cup attendees are given "passports" with pages for each of the coffee shops that they can get stamped as they sample the offerings. Every participant to come back with a completed passport (in this case, a group of seven college students from Buffalo) wins . . . more pot, of course. The grandma I met at LAX seems exhausted. She's spent the day schlepping from coffee shop to coffee shop by streetcar and on foot, unaware that one coffee shop, the Green House Cafe, offers an energy drink for those who've been smoking too much all day. "This is like the march to Bataan," she complains. "I've had my first bad high here."
Most people aren't complaining about the nonstop orgy of pot smoking. In the funky Quentin Hotel lobby, a gigantic painting of Keith Richards watches over the guests as they sit at wooden tables, cheerfully chatting while they smoke joints and drink hot chocolate. Joints are shared with cab drivers. The pot smoking continues at the opening banquet. High Times editor and Cannabis Cup founder Steve Hager refers to marijuana as "our sacrament." He labels pot smokers "the most repressed minority group on the planet." This year, in a sort of countercultural version of Roots, icons of the Beat Generation -- Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs -- are being posthumously inducted into the Cannabis Cup Hall of Fame. Hager asserts that "Beat culture is the bedrock and foundation that provides a continuity of tradition as counterculture continues to evolve." He demands respect for "the elders of our tribe" and requests a moment of silence in memory of Beat patriarch Paul Bowles, who died just days before the Cup got under way. Even the pot smoking is temporarily halted.
At the Pax party-house on the second afternoon, we gather in a ballroom with a bar, a stage, rows of chairs, and some tables at the back. Onstage, Neal Cassady's widow, Carolyn, and their son, John, are paying tribute to Cassady. Seated at one of the tables are three psychedelic relics, Robert Anton Wilson, John Sinclair and Stephen Gaskin -- all sporting white beards and mustaches, all there to honor a different Beat icon each day. While passing around a joint, they recall the specific years that they started smoking pot.
Wilson is the author of 32 books. The latest is an encyclopedia of conspiracy, Everything Is Under Control. Wilson does six drafts of everything he writes, alternating between straight and stoned, the final draft always while stoned. Onstage, John Cassady is gesturing toward his mother. "This is the gal that started the Beat Generation," he says proudly. Wilson smiles and mutters, "I thought it was Burroughs, but what the hell." Wilson started smoking pot in 1955.
Sinclair founded the White Panthers in Detroit and was the spiritual leader of a hard-rock band, the MC (Motor City) 5. The cover of his book Guitar Army features a photo of him smoking what had been a cigarette but was morphed into a joint because he didn't want to send the wrong message to kids. When a Dutch TV correspondent questions him about his cigarette smoking, he replies with a snarl, "It's none of your business." Sinclair started smoking pot in 1963.
Gaskin is leader of the Farm, an intentional community in Tennessee made up of people who left San Francisco in a convoy a few decades ago. He is challenging Ralph Nader for the Green Party presidential nomination. At the upcoming debate, he plans to delineate and praise Nader's accomplishments, then add, "But I can bring out the hippie vote." His platform includes health care for all and the decriminalization of marijuana in such a way that it will "not fall into the hands of tobacco manufacturers." In Gaskin's administration, he says, there will be mandatory drug testing to find out who has the good stuff. His Secret Service agents will be urine-tested to be sure that they have a high enough THC level. But what if he wins? "First I'd shit, and then I would kick ass." Gaskin started smoking pot in 1962.
His wife, Ina May, president of the Midwives Alliance of North America, predicts that she would be "an unruly First Lady." She would turn the Lincoln Bedroom into a birth center for the poor. She would grow hemp in the Rose Garden, all meals at the White House would be vegetarian, and she'd teach a Secret Service agent to braid her hair. When asked if she has intern concerns, she replies, "No, we'll do the blowjobs in every room." Her husband will be left to explain to the media, "I can't control her. You try."
The Cannabis Cup has become a big event in Amsterdam. In 1993, there were 52 attendees; this year, more than 2,000. But the centerpiece is still the competition in which the coffee shops enter their finest wares to be judged. In the early years, there were celebrity judges. Later on, anybody attending the Cup could be a judge, and that resulted in equal-opportunity bribery in the form of free pot. But this year the coffee-shop owners themselves are the judges, and the 16 brand-name entries have been coded, so that it will be a blind competition. "We truly don't know who's gonna win," Hager promises. The only complaint is that coffee-shop owners are expected to smoke too much cannabis.
For many, the first joint they smoke automatically becomes the winner, because everything after that one is difficult to distinguish. There is no surcease of euphoria, no time to savor one strain of marijuana or anticipate the next. This is not like wine tasting, where the wine is spit out between tastes. At least in the aroma-therapy booth coffee beans are whiffed between each new fragrance, to neutralize the olfactory sense. Ultimately, though, a winning strain of marijuana, Super Silver Haze from the Green House coffee shop, is selected. It is the ultimate irony of this whole affair that an herb that promotes a sense of cooperation is this week being inhaled in such an aura of competition.
Ah, but I am jaded. Indeed, my cannabis cup runneth over. An issue of High Times once included a questionnaire asking, among other things, "Is it possible to smoke too much pot?" A reader responded, "I don't understand the question."
Paul Krassner's Impolite Interviews (Seven Stories Press) and Pot Stories for the Soul (High Times Press) have just been published.
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