Illustration by Mike Lee
BY SOME FLUKE OF BRAIN CHEMISTRY, when my brother, Daniel, smoked marijuana, he didn't get high. Still, he smoked it whenever he got the chance. Because while it didn't add euphoria, it did subtract some of the pain of chemotherapy. Marijuana, in case you haven't heard, is not a drug but a highly evolved plant that grows on all continents but Antarctica. Ounce for ounce, the more than 30,000 varieties are some of the planet's most valuable resources, producing, among other things, highly nutritious flour; clean-burning fuel; a softer, more durable fabric than cotton; and for most people, a sense of euphoria, which is illegal.
Each year, no one dies from using marijuana.
So after Danny died on December 17, 1978, and after I'd gotten drunk, for the first time, immediately following his funeral on the 19th, I decided I was ready for a taste of euphoria, legal or not.
My mom, who never smoked pot herself but had been paying for Danny's, divided up the leftovers among Danny's friends who'd been living with us, sleeping on our living-room floor. My friend Richie had also been staying with us and hadn't tried pot yet, either. We decided that December 28, 1978, was a good day to ruin our otherwise perfect lives with marijuanic euphoria. Because we were 16. Because we had no morals. Because my brother had just died. Because we had tickets to see Richard Pryor.
The 28th was a gorgeous day -- blue, unbroken sky, mountains quilted with fresh snow, the high-desert plateau dry and bright. So we filled a backpack with some sandwiches, a Thermos of hot chocolate and two joints, and headed west on Avenue K. We took 60th Street West south over Godde Hill and Bouquet Canyon Road up to Lincoln Crest in the Angeles National Forest -- a serious test for a '78 Dodge Omni. We left the car there on the shoulder and hiked through the snow up to the highest peak for miles. It was warm; the snow was beginning to melt. We sat on our jackets and drank hot chocolate; stared a thousand feet down through the mountains to the desert floor. We smoked a joint rolled in bright-red strawberry-flavored paper -- careful to inhale as one of Danny's friends had instructed (more air than smoke, so as not to choke) -- then sat emptily watching the desert, waiting to be filled with euphoria.
"Do you feel anything?"
"I'm not sure. I don't think so."
We ate lunch. We talked. We smoked the second joint.
"Maybe. I can't really tell."
On the way down the mountain, I started to feel good in a strange way, a way I wouldn't have guessed I might feel. I hadn't felt good in any way for a long time.
"I think I feel something."
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Six hours later, Richard Pryor was talking about his childhood, mostly. It was the first time I'd seen him, or any standup comedian, perform live. I listened and watched and laughed my ass off as Pryor painted the Long Beach Terrace Theater stage with ghosts of his life, one image dissolving into the next, disarming the derogatory, shattering the petrified, focusing the collective mind of the room on the clear, bold present.
Here was by far the best teacher I'd had since sixth grade.
THE MOST DANGEROUS ASPECT OF pot smoking, incarceration, has become one of the most lucrative private industries in America. And despite the state of California's passage of Proposition 215 in 1996, California resident and author Peter McWilliams (Ain't Nobody's Business if You Do) will be sentenced -- on March 27, under federal law -- to up to five years in prison for his role in the crime of conspiring to "manufacture" marijuana to treat his non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (same kind my brother had) and AIDS, in accordance with Prop. 215. Beyond the epigram "In the war on drugs, a red cross is just another target," McWilliams has posted the details of his misadventures at Petertrial.com. He plans to ask 9th Circuit Judge George H. King to sentence him to home detention -- McWilliams would not be allowed to leave his house except for medical or legal reasons; an electronic transmitter would be shackled to his ankle such that his ankle's whereabouts would be easily monitorable. McWilliams hopes that e-mail and snail mail from others will help; if you're interested, please read the guidelines.
ACTIVIST TODD McCORMICK WAS renting Peter McWilliams' house (it's rundown, but it's in Bel Air, so the dailies dubbed it "Marijuana Mansion") when he was arrested for various federal crimes -- cross-breeding hemp without a license, conspiring to alleviate pain, something like that. Read all about it by downloading McCormick's book, How To Grow Medical Marijuana, available free in Adobe Acrobat (PDF) format at Growmedicine.com. (You'll need Adobe's Acrobat Reader to open the file. It's also a free download.)