Anti-marijuana messages are silenced by youth’s real-life experiences
A house lost amid Elk Grove’s urban sprawl offers more than meets the eye. The gray-beige paneling and brick façade are neat, if not a bit weather beaten. A cheery ceramic disc hanging by the front door proudly proclaims the last name of the homeowners. Inside the doorway, beyond the painted portrait of a wedded couple and past the big-screen television is a sliding-glass door, through which one is led to a pot smoker’s paradise.
An enclosed outdoor canopy conceals various smoking paraphernalia, lighters and lawn chairs. Welcome to the family weed shack.
While Don’s parents own the house, he and his friend Nick are free to toke there so long as they remain inside the weed shack. They are not the only household heads: Don’s mother also indulges, a secret her son discovered years earlier when he walked in on her one day burning a fatty. Don had never noticed anything different with her; she was always just like all the other moms.
In fact, Don and Nick—whose last names we’ve withheld—say they were given their first tastes of marijuana by their respective mothers, although both were quick to add the choice to use was made of their own free will.
Such permissive attitudes would seem to run counter to conventional parental wisdom—it would have even during those heady years immediately prior to Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign, when everyone and their, well, mother seemed to be getting high. Nick and Don are also products of elementary school anti-drug campaigns that beat into kids the notion that marijuana is evil, that to be a truly solid citizen one must live drug-free—wacky tobacky included.
Explaining the ills of pot is fine with Lisa Mondiel. She’s with the California Coalition for Youth, which maintains that marijuana’s properties make it a mind-altering drug and—worse—a potential “gateway drug” to harder substances.
Numbers back up the coalition’s contention: 62 percent of adults over the age of 26 who began smoking marijuana before the age of 15 admitted to cocaine use during their lifetime, while 9 percent reported heroin use, according to an Office of National Drug Policy study. Those who initiate use of marijuana at any age are more likely to use cocaine and heroin and become dependent on drugs, ONDP found.
Don and Nick disagree that marijuana is a gateway drug, although they admit that during their three-year pot-smoking career, they’ve taken Ecstasy, snorted cocaine and eaten magic mushrooms. They certainly dispute the notion that they’re addicted to pot.
“We don’t need to smoke,” Don says firmly. “When I don’t smoke for a while, it just comes up in my head, ‘I haven’t smoked weed for a while. Bummer.’ But it’s not like I have to get high immediately. It’s one of those things that doesn’t have withdrawals. You don’t get depressed.”
They also adamantly distance themselves from stereotypical “potheads.”
“People just need to come home and take two hours out of the day, whether it’s to meditate or run or just smoke pot,” Don says. “For us, smoking pot is easier than running a mile.”
Nick adds that they usually engage in some activity after burning one, as opposed to potheads who sit around all day and, well, just smoke pot for hours on end, with brief interruptions to crash and consume munchies.
“That is their life. They have no other way to entertain themselves, I suppose,” Nick says. “Then there are those who use marijuana as a tool, to smoke and do other things afterward. It’s pretty much just like smoking a cigarette.”
The nonchalant attitude toward marijuana extends to young people who don’t even partake. Take 20-year-old Adam, who consented to an interview as long as his first name was changed and his last name was not used.
Adam speaks highly of his housemate. Laid back and easy going, Adam’s housemate works two jobs, has a girlfriend, owns two trucks and keeps up with his Sacramento City College schoolwork. For the most part, they appear like two regular college chums roughing it on their own in their quiet south Sacramento neighborhood.
There is one slight twist to their tale of congeniality, however: Adam’s housemate smokes marijuana. Adam does not.
“Living with someone who smokes marijuana is pretty much just like living with any other Californian,” Adam says. “I don’t live in a drug den. I live in a house. I have a roommate who smokes pot. It’s pretty much just two guys living without their moms.”
The neighbors have never complained. The cops have never busted down—let alone knocked on—the front door. The house does reek of marijuana while Adam’s housemate smokes, but Adam doesn’t really mind so long as the fans are on and an air freshener is handy.
He simply shrugs at negative connotations directed at potheads.
“Someone who is drunk is more likely to break something than someone who is high,” he says with a laugh. “He just sits on the couch and watches some TV. Sometimes he vacuums. Someone who is drunk will puke. I’ve never seen or heard of anyone who has thrown up from smoking too much marijuana.”
Theirs is a story that could just as easily be told from the opposite perspective, from the stoner with the same no-BFD attitude sharing what it is like living with someone straight (in terms of indulgence, not sexuality). For Adam’s part, living with a pothead has made him neither a proponent nor opponent of the substance.
“It’s something that can be abused, but it’s not heroin or something like that,” he says. “I have a job, I go to work. He has a job, he goes to work. It doesn’t affect your day-to-day life all that much. Everyone has a hobby or a vice.”
Pot smoking is one popular hobby. The ONDP conducted a poll that showed roughly 32 percent of graduating high-school seniors in 2006 were smoking—or had at least tried to smoke—marijuana during the past year. That would indicate there are tens of thousands of young users in the Central Valley, with many more who will join their numbers once they figure out how to score.
So the anti-drug dogma is not sticking with the younger generation, especially among those like our head cases who have experienced first-hand evidence to the contrary.
Looking back at their earlier days of innocent education about drug usage, Don and Nick explained that marijuana never really was given much attention except that it was “bad.” Both believe if kids actually were told the truth about marijuana rather than just that it’s bad, there would be fewer questions that need to be answered by self-experimentation.
Ironically, Mondiel sees eye to red eye with Don and Nick. As the program director of the youth hotline, she often gets calls from parents who panic about their child’s newfound friend Mary Jane, and from friends of teens who are worried about their friend’s marijuana usage. The main cause for concern is marijuana’s reputation for being “a bad drug.”
“Kids need to know all of this information about marijuana,” Mondiel says. “You can’t just tell them not to smoke just because it’s ‘bad.’ And I don’t even want to say it’s bad, but just that there needs to be more information so kids know exactly what kind of substance marijuana is.”
Much to the contrary of the push to demonize marijuana, Mondiel suggests that anti-substance-use organizations would be better served focusing on alcohol abuse.
Now it’s Don in agreement.
“I tried driving home drunk once; it was one of the most horrible fucking experiences in my life,” he says. “It was only around the corner, maybe 50 feet. I had to stop and say, ‘All right, that’s enough.’ I mean, I know how most people perceive pot as a mind-numbing drug. It’s a common misunderstanding that if you’ve smoked a lot of pot, you can’t drive. But for people like us, there’s a tolerance to the drug. You won’t get any more high than the first time.”
The key, everyone interviewed for this story agreed, is to preach responsibility.
“I think if we had open communication between parents and kids, letting them know that certain behaviors are OK and setting boundaries with them, it might work better,” Mondiel says. “More information on the actual substance rather than just saying it’s bad leads to a better informed decision. You can’t say marijuana is illegal for being a drug because cough syrup is a drug, too, and so is Excedrin.”
Believe it or not, Don and Nick practice responsibility inside the backyard weed shack.
“We’ve had kids about 14 come in here with people and I’ve actually cut them off,” Don says. “I mean, you have all of high school to figure out whether you want to smoke weed or not. I’m not going to be the one who gets you started on it. You have to be ready for it in your mind. And you need to know what’s enough for you.”
If Adam has learned anything from living with a pothead, it’s that you cannot have a generalized opinion about them.
“These aren’t bad people, the ones I know,” he says. “They’re not the ones who go to schools and sell to 12-year-olds. Those are the ones who need to die. But, I mean, they’re over 18. They have the right to be their own dumbasses.”