High Minded: Is Pot Smoking Hobby, Medicine, or Crime? Is Pot Smoking Hobby, Medicine, or Crime?

Posted by Tess Lynch and Beth Hoeckel

Moonrise by Beth Hoeckel
Enter High Minded, where Tess Lynch revisits previously forgotten epiphanies, drags her lazy, leaden body on adventures and—whoa. I think this pudding's texture might improve if I added a handful of popcorn and some, like, canned blueberries:

A friend of a friend wrote me an email the other day detailing how he'd recently incurred a 25-percent spike in his health insurance premium because he admitted to smoking pot on the questionnaire. He called his insurance company and asked them to explain why checking a box that indicated he'd inhaled weed anywhere from one to four times in the past two years constitutes a liability. Had he done himself any proven physical harm by getting high? "We'll never know," the representative told him. He then asked whether he could prevent the charge by listing edibles or vaporizers as his preferred weed delivery vehicle. The representative said she'd never heard of that.

We live at a weird point in time when a doctor can prescribe you a really awesome but federally-illegal drug that causes your health insurance to skyrocket. Aren’t doctors and health insurance agencies supposed to be in cahoots, at least enough to come to a consensus on whether the medicine you take does you good or harm? But weed isn’t really considered medicine. Not yet.  

Almost half of America wants marijuana to be legalized. The legal crusade against pot has slowed its roll in recent years, and both the penalties for possession and the number of prisoners incarcerated for it are on the decline. In California, you're more likely to be fined or ignored for smoking pot. But in the Bronx a couple of months ago, officials whisked two children away to foster care after police discovered a third of an ounce of pot in their mother’s apartment. She was not, however, charged with possession. There’s something funky about that.

How cool is it to live in a state that permits medical marijuana? Very cool. But California has not entirely been cleared of pot’s residual seediness. Two robberies hit marijuana dispensaries in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park last year. Legalizing anything that hasn’t been previously legal is terrifying (see: Boardwalk Empire), and whenever these cultural glitches hit the system, people tend to get a little spooked. We’re not always sure where we stand; it’s not completely clear whether we’re breaking a law that could land us in prison, or just occupying the alternative-medicine booth of our country’s proverbial fairgrounds. Are we criminals, or are we just a harmlessly dippy collection of folks who want to toss some Frisbee (not ultimate Frisbee, too hardcore) and support the late-night food delivery market?

I emailed Ellen Komp, deputy director of California NORML, to confer. "Marijuana use is understood to be widespread and joked about in the media and around the water cooler, but many are afraid to ‘tell,'" particularly "professionals, parents and others who have the most to lose by doing so," Komp says. “I've seen ramifications for workers when they're scapegoated for workplace accidents (although studies show drug screening does nothing to improve workplace safety); I've seen contentious divorces turn into custody battles when one spouse wants to smear the other as a pot smoker; I've seen neighbors 'narcing' on each other.” And health insurance is already wicked expensive, even if you’re sober with two good knees and no allergies.

If smoking pot were like being gay in the military (stoner gay soldier metaphor overlap notwithstanding), pot smoking would be entering the "don’t ask, don’t tell" era of our nation’s history. Since this constitutes a marked improvement from the Rockefeller Drug Law days, we tend to feel kind of cheeky that we’re allowed to get away with as much as we do. Still, I wonder how many people actually believed that woman in the Bronx was unfit to care for her children based on the fact that she may or may not have purchased something called "Rainbow Dutch Marmalade Berry" to occasionally smoke out the bathroom window. The problem with navigating this space between cultural acceptance and legal disdain is that you can forget that more than half of America thinks what you’re inhaling while you watch Family Guy should be super-illegal, and that you’re always just one joint away from a near heart-attack-inducing police "knock-and-talk."

What can we do, other than manage our anxiety over the situation with the drug of our choice? Komp says that one of the natural steps toward legalization is for functional and responsible pot smokers to talk publicly about doing it. Komp’s contribution is keeping a blog archive of history’s most important potheads featuring, prominently, Carl Sagan. I do my part by extolling the benefits of chocolate-covered potato chips twice a month.

But only recently has that conversation migrated off the computer screen. In preparation for my 10-year high school reunion, I assembled a pretty decent fictional history of my most recent decade, with some editorially-truncated periods of time ready to be presented as having been spent "thinking." But when I showed up, I was surprised to learn that some of my former classmates knew what I had been up to (smoking pot and writing about it), and that some of them were sort of into it. For a while now, I’ve maintained a dual citizenship between the stoner world and the sober one. It’s one thing to make weed jokes on the Internet, to refer to your habits without actually using your face to talk about them. It’s quite another to attend an event where you wear a name tag and discuss what you now do with your life when what you you do with your life is write about your monogamous drug relationship with marijuana.

In the not-so-distant past, I might have felt obligated to tell these people that I was writing about pot smoking from an entirely theoretical perspective: "Of course I’ve never smoked pot," I would explain to John and Melissa’s name tags, "Other than one time at a party, I'm just using my imagination. That’s not illegal, is it? Wait, is it? You guys want another Stella Artois?" We’re lucky to have come so far in such a short amount of time. It makes you wonder where we’re going.

I asked Komp to dream up her own post-legalization utopia, the best we could hope for in a world after prohibition. Among her ideas: redistribution of law enforcement potentially leading to reduced violent crimes; increased tax base from sales and excise taxes; hemp-friendly resorts and bars, including coffee shops where patrons could stop by to decaffeinate and stare at napkins for hours if they wanted to; advanced transportation, maybe, fueled by hemp oil.

Legalizing marijuana may seem insignificant compared to all of the other more immediate problems at which we are staring, our foreheads morphed into Grand Canyons of frustrated confusion. Sometimes, it can almost seem like we have already legalized it. That is, until another stoner falls from the tightrope of cultural acceptance and into some harsh legal waters most reasonable observers would confront with an alarmed "for weed"? Hitting the bowl on the ninth hole, inching too close to a pizza delivery guy's overly-sensitive nose, running out of Febreeze—all have landed our kind in the sand pit of trouble. That’s a dangerous situation, and I’m told we’re a pretty paranoid people to begin with.

I’m toking up in a much more weed-tolerant world than I was when I graduated from high school. Is it greedy to hope for better? In California, you can walk down the block and purchase a Nutter Butter coated in medicated chocolate. In two or three or ten years, that might not be a purchase that could ruin your life.

In the meantime, the pothead’s greatest hurdle (ugh, who wants to do sports right now?) is bridging the gap between her local hip-hop station’s radio announcements concerning the bowl she's smoking at 4:20, and attending her own arraignment. Part of it is accepting, and being able to talk about, what pot does for you. The other part is waiting for the federal government to catch up. Good thing we can distort time with some fine Skywalker. We could be waiting a while.

Find High Minded every other Friday at GOOD. Collage, as always, by Beth Hoeckel.