A generation of hypocrites

Photo Illustration by Tina Flynn

Jamie O’Neill teaches English at Butte College and writes frequently for the Sacramento Bee and San Francisco Chronicle.

Lenny Bruce, comedian/social critic/heroin addict, said that marijuana would be legal in his lifetime because every lawyer he knew smoked the stuff. Bruce died of a drug overdose nearly four decades ago, and marijuana is still illegal. Not just in the United States, either. In a case that went before the Supreme Court of Canada, our enlightened neighbor to the north just decided to keep marijuana illegal up there, too.

When I was attending high school back in the American heartland a little more than four decades ago, this country didn’t have a drug problem. There were heroin addicts in the big cities, but the nation’s drug of choice in those days was alcohol—beer or boilermakers for blue-collar workers, Scotch or martinis for suburbanites.

Lots of lives were destroyed by abuse of those particular drugs, of course—marriages trashed, careers blighted, health impaired. Still, it all seemed manageable. Booze was taxed, and the behaviors associated with its abuse were largely secret family matters. And, though many of those incarcerated were charged with offenses they probably would not have committed were it not for alcohol, the alcohol problem seemed socially manageable, even if it was, far too often, personally unmanageable.

One of my own first attempts at aping adult behavior, and rebelling against it at the same time, got me arrested for being drunk and disorderly at age 16. I consumed too much cheap wine (La Boheme muscatel, as bad a taste as can be put in one’s mouth) at a party with older kids. Later that night, I was caught puking my guts out in an alley.

My dad came to get me out of jail at dawn, and he was none too happy about it. I remember stumbling home in his angry wake, colder than the morning, as I bounced off of snow-buried parking meters with the symptoms of my first hangover settling heavily over me.

The national character changed after the Kennedy assassination. Pundits were fond of saying the country had lost its innocence. Whether or not that was true, it is indisputable that youthful rebellion went into high gear with sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. By the time I was in grad school, drinking alcohol had become a political statement that linked the drinker with the “death culture” of war, polluters and imperialists. Pour a whiskey at any “counter-cultural” gathering, and most people there would shun you as too uncool for the room. Marijuana, LSD, cocaine and a range of other drugs were touted as “doors” to perception, and unnumbered rock ‘n’ roll seers counseled us that drugs were the keys to those doors of personal enlightenment.

So, like many, if not most, I donned bell-bottoms, grew my hair longer and switched, for a time, to the demon weed, bogarting those joints and getting down to seeds and stems every now and again. Truth be told, I never liked the stuff much. The highs were unpredictable because the stuff was unpredictable. One buy might be Maui Wowie, and the next might be mostly oregano. It seemed a rather anti-social drug, appealing to my self-regarding generation but leading to jokes that were funny only to the person telling them and to insights that were profound only to the person having them, but only so long as he was high.

By the time our youth had run its course, we’d spent a number of nights high. Many of us had hallucinated, found God, then lost Him again when the drugs wore off. Others of us had leapt from tall buildings in a single bound. Mostly, though, we left a legacy to the generations that came after us; though we had grown up in a largely drug-free country, they would grow up in a drug-addled country, a country that remains addled to this day.

For instance, it’s easy to find video of the new governor of our state smoking dope when he was younger, and though the vids aren’t available, the governor of New York, another Republican, has admitted to smoking dope, as has the mayor of that state’s largest city. Newt Gingrich smoked dope, and so have about half the field of candidates seeking to be the Democratic Party’s standard bearer in the ‘04 election. Our current president, while cagey on the subject, is generally believed to have been one who used cocaine to enhance his alcohol highs, and those who believe that Bill Clinton “didn’t inhale” have surely smoked their share of dope, too.

All those politicians, along with an uncountable number of the nation’s teachers, social workers, doctors, lawyers, long-haul truckers and judges, have used marijuana, sampled cocaine or tried LSD. Most all of those people have broken the law, and most all of them have never paid a price for having done so.

Others weren’t so lucky. In 1997, just to take a recent year at random, more than a half-million people across the nation were busted for possession of marijuana. These are people who had their lives derailed, their prospects dimmed and their “permanent records” blemished for having done no more or no less than Clarence Thomas, Al Gore or any number of other lawmakers had done. This is hypocrisy on a grand scale, a legacy of my hypocritical generation’s popularizing of drug use and its failure to then rethink our insane drug laws.

A measure of that insanity and hypocrisy is found in the fact that, from 1965 through 1998, 11 million of our fellow citizens were arrested for marijuana violations. Given the rates of use—nearly 60 percent of the population admits to having smoked marijuana—those 11 million were arrested principally for the crime of being less lucky, or less well-connected, than their more fortunate co-offenders. And, though we are told we are in constant threat of terrorist attack, the U.S. Justice Department still has discretionary time to prosecute Tommy Chong for selling bongs on the Internet.

According to the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, nearly one in four persons (23.7 percent) imprisoned in the United States is currently imprisoned for a drug offense. The number of persons behind bars for drug offenses (458,131) is roughly the same as the entire prison and jail population in 1980 (474,368). The cost of incarcerating so many prisoners for drug offenses now exceeds $9 billion each year. That’s an expensive exercise in hypocrisy, but the cost of that hypocrisy seems to be charged discriminately. The people paying that cost are, disproportionately, young, black men.

And our own fair state of California, so often at the forefront of national trends, is a leader in this hypocrisy. We lock up a higher percentage of our citizens for drug offenses than any other state. California now has twice as many people locked up for drug offenses as its entire 1980 prison population. That, of course, helps explain the exponential growth in the clout exercised by the state’s prison guards, a special-interest group with more sway than the state’s teachers.

Thirty years ago, in a small town in Oregon, I watched from a diner as two local cops harassed a young hitchhiker, making him empty his backpack on the ground. Then they had him turn his sleeping bag inside out as they played their flashlights over everything. A steady rain soaked the kid’s things. Apparently, there was nothing to be found. The cops drove off, laughing, leaving the hitchhiker to repack his now-drenched belongings and to face the long, wet night ahead.

When Lenny Bruce predicted legalization of marijuana all those years ago, he clearly neglected to take into account all the money and power accruing to those who enforce anti-drug laws, to those lawyers who defend or prosecute the accused, and those who find well-paid employment guarding those who are locked away. Lenny Bruce, the quintessential hipster, was naive. He failed to see that a generation of utter hypocrites was then arriving on the scene in those years after the nation lost its innocence.