Cannabis: Stealth Goddess

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The Pot Book on 1 January 2010

Back around the time he was dying, Timothy Leary kept returning to an odd little game where he’d ask people to rank their drugs. Most of us assumed it was the illness (or the morphine) getting the best of him, because he just kept doing it with everyone.

“Come on, sit down on the bed,” he’d say to whoever happened to be visiting that day. “Get a pen, and list the drugs in order.”

And most people put them in order of least to most intoxicating, addictive, intense, or dangerous. You know—sugar, caffeine, nicotine, pot, alcohol, coke, speed, acid, heroin, DMT… or something along those lines, depending on a person’s individual predilections. There was no “right” answer; some people even created multiple axes, with hallucinogens along one line and opiates on another.

It’s an interesting little thought experiment, and it would be as foolish to underestimate its depth as to underestimate the depth of Leary’s own impact on drug culture. For once you get over the official medically or socially acceptable understanding of how all these drugs should be ranked, you come down to your own. For the bulimic, I imagine glucose would seem a more devastating opponent than opium. Many an alcoholic can still drop acid with less personal risk than taking a single sip of vodka. Others might put any opiate in front of a psychedelic, amphetamine over an oplate, or nitrous oxide and crack at precisely the same level.

Once I had a good year or two to think about it, I realized that for me the drug that would go on top of the list—the “most” whatever-it-is-we-think-of-as-most—is pot. Yes, the pot of my youth as much as the hydroponic subspeciated pot of today’s generation. Pot is the most demanding of drug mistresses—more than even LSD or DMT, whose own voices, though stronger in the moment, tend to wear off once the drug has done its thing. True, if you take acid you’ll never be the same; you’ll simply get used to the fact that your worldview is arbitrary. But LSD doesn’t call for you. LSD doesn’t get pissed off if you spend too long away from it. LSD may change your life, but it doesn’t ask you to.

Pot is different. It’s subtle and seemingly innocuous, but it forces a broadly critical examination of who one is, where one is going, and why. Like no other chemical, it stops time, forcing the question of why one is in motion in the first place. In this sense, pot is the most powerful drug on the block.

Sure, smoking crack can be as permanently devastating as getting whacked in the head by one of its addicts. But smoking pot is more like confronting famed reggae toker Bob Marley who, while singing peacefully about “three little birds,” also means to foment a “movement of ja people” more devastating to the way you live than a mere mugging. Exodus, his landmark album, evokes the biblical delivery from slavery. For Marley, this is both the literal release of the repressed from their bondage, and the mental release of the repressors from the exploitation to which they have become addicted.

This is the truest sense in which marijuana serves as a gateway drug. It’s not (just) the entry point to a world of more potent plants and chemicals; it is the gateway to a mind-set liberated from arbitrarily repressive constructs. For the poor, destitute, or exploited, pot offers the temporary experience of grace, as well as a vision of another, more just society. The quest for immediate relief or revenge gives way to the knowledge that repression itself is a dance that the repressor must ultimately lose. The world goes around, the sun will come up another day.

For members of the repressive society—and this means most of the people with access to or interest in an essay like this—pot serves as a gateway to this same knowledge. The job, money, security, or success to which one has been aspiring is, itself, delusional and based on the exploitation of someone else. Straight life is dualism: the zero-sum game of scarce resources, winners and losers, college admissions, test scores, job applications, and making “something” of oneself. Stoned life is the knowledge that none of this really matters, and that any effort expended in the pursuit of these false goals usually involves some amount of bearing down, forcing oneself, or even resorting to treachery.

For a white kid, getting stoned means seeing the world as the Native Americans did. The Earth isn’t just something you pave over for cars to move faster. Animals aren’t made of “meat.” And the guy who mops up after you at the high school cafeteria wasn’t born a janitor. You live in the same world he does. The longer you’re unable to see it, the uglier it’s going to be for you when you do. Dig?

I had always assumed there was only one possible response to pot’s message, and that was to give up. Either panic, completely quit smoking, and choose the straight man’s hallucination of progress and purpose, or maintain a relationship with marijuana with the understanding that certain activities and attitudes will have to change. Yes, marijuana is a relationship drug. I don’t mean that it’s a medium through which we relate to others, but that it’s a drug with which one ends up having a relationship.

Like a girlfriend or boyfriend who sees the “real” you, marijuana desperately wants you to shed the artifacts of the Western European colonialists among whom you live, and just stop where you are. Every action has a reaction. Assess the impact. What happens when you throw that plastic bottle in the trash? Where and under what conditions was this videogame cartridge assembled? Which side of what equations am I on?

And even if you make it through those moments of self-questioning and engagement, the next time you’re stoned, they’ll come back. The longer you wait to toke up again, the more surprisingly hard pot will come down on you once you’re fully stoned. If you haven’t made the adjustments she’s requested from you, she’ll want to know why. Yes, pot will give you the greatest gifts she has to offer—but she wants something in return. She wants your soul.

Just as Marley’s music forces listeners to decide whose side they’re on, marijuana forces a kind of duality on its users: live straight, or live stoned. You’re either with me or against me. Oppressor or oppressed. Even if the place the stoner goes is delightfully nondual, this nondual place is decidely different from the duality in which he or she is living the rest of the time. Stoned vs. nonstoned is about as dual as it gets. Even the folks who take a bong hit first thing in the morning know what it’s like to wake up straight. That’s why they’re taking the hit. They’ve agreed to stay with her—and chances are they’re no longer capable of oppressing anybody.

In short, pot raises consciousness, creates a relationship, and—immediately after a peak—forces a self-evaluation. That’s the step that really can’t be avoided. Looking outward merely changes the critical inventory from things intended to persons impacted. Only another hit can delay the inevitable look within, and the higher you go, the more intense a self-examination will be demanded once you crest.

None of this has to be painful or paranoid, of course. If you’re living a virtuous life, if you don’t have slaughterhouse meat sitting on the counter or Mexicans in the backyard blowing leaves into piles for three bucks an hour, you may not have to confront anything awful at all. If you’re a permaculture farmer, a massage therapist, or a folk musician, you’re already operating in a pretty hemp-compatible way. Most kids and students are so hardwired by media and adolescence to think of themselves as the repressed that they don’t even have room to consider their own complicity in maintaining class structure or injustice. For them, peaking simply means the discussion will turn from how good the pot is to how they’re going to go about finding some more.

Paranoia is reserved for the elder, more experienced users—and at that, only the ones who both hear pot’s messages and repeatedly refuse to comply. Who in their right minds would change their lives to conform to what they were thinking when they were stoned? The only time it really seems to matter is when one is stoned, and, well—it’s probably just because pot is so much stronger these days, or because I’m older now and really shouldn’t be taking drugs anyway.

After a few hundred conversations on precisely this subject with pot users and ex-users alike, I’ve come to a conclusion about the mechanism behind pot’s ability to raise and question conscience—particularly in older, more experienced users. To put it most simply, pot stops time. Or at least it creates the illusion that time has ceased to move forward. When you are stoned, you are no longer in motion. Even if you are moving, you are no longer moving toward something—but simply moving.

The lean-forward of your directed, intentional life ceases. You are still doing what you are doing, but the goal no longer exists. The simplest effect of this time-stoppage is to bring focus to the task at hand. There is no goal; there is only process. The stoned farmer isn’t growing pumpkins; he is planting a seed—or, better, clearing dirt with his finger, placing the seed in the impression left behind, and covering it with fresh soil. Then doing it again, with Zenlike attention to detail, texture, and grace. The act in this moment is all there is.

Likewise, however, once time is removed from the equation, goals can no longer be used to rationalize your tactics. Without ends, no “means” can be justified. They must be judged on their own merit. So what are you doing?

For those accustomed to avoiding life’s more existential dilemmas by busying themselves with activity, this slipping out of sequential time can be enough to induce some serious psychic trauma. For them, to just be is hard enough. Especially if they’ve been avoiding who they are for a long while. (Interestingly, I don’t see this happening often in first-time users, however old or even tragically unethical in their daily pursuits. It’s as if pot will induce this set of reactions only in a person with whom she has had a long-term relationship or extended series of flings. Only the people she really cares about.)

Kids are immune to this effect. Like baby turtles on the beach hatching from their eggs and running instinctually toward the water, kids have a forward momentum intrinsic to their very being. A sixteen-year-old is leaning forward just for the very fact that he’s not full-grown. Adults, however, make their own momentum. If adults are moving toward anything other than death (or maybe childbirth), it’s by their own design and a product of their active will. Stoned, however, time stops. The self-generated momentum ceases, and whatever that motion was helping hide comes to the surface.

Most users experience this on a simple, literal level. They think of it as if marijuana is a little angry that they’ve been working so hard and taking so little time to enjoy her offerings. They feel that marijuana is letting them know that they need to balance the work/play ratio a bit better; they’ve become too serious. Some who get this message decide pot is a “bad influence,” urging them to be more decadent, earn less money, or make some other irresponsible decision. It’s enough to make many adults quit.

People who think of themselves as committed artists, activists, or intellectuals often have a more layered experience of this same phenomenon. The marijuana session becomes an invitation to stop and evaluate the integrity of their work or its consistency with purported intentions. It’s the moment that the upcoming gallery show means less than the paint on the canvas or the sensory quality of the image. And it’s a dangerous moment for any artists already struggling with their motives or even just plain motivation. In fact, in my own informal polling, the impact of marijuana on motivation was second only to “paranoid effects” as a reason for quitting the drug altogether.

Given all this, what I had most trouble understanding were the kinds of people—old friends from my college days, for instance—who could work as stockbrokers or corporate lawyers all day for months on end, and then charter a jet out to a rock concert or the Burning Man festival and smoke pot for a week. Not only did they seem capable of surviving pot’s introspective zone with nary a guilty flush, they could go back to work Monday morning and continue to push “interest free” mortgages or other shamelessly predatory financial instruments.

I finally decided to spend a weekend with them to figure out their formula for maintaining such a decidedly arm’s-length relationship with a drug that so many others experience as all-or-nothing. And the answer turned out to be a second drug, cocaine (actually coke mixed with methamphetamine—”speed”), that they were using along with the pot. No big wonder, then, how they avoided the timelessness and purposelessness of pot: just create some fake time with speed and synthetic purpose with cocaine. They wrestled pot to the ground and turned her into an unwilling party drug. I can only hope she gets a few of these people alone some day.

But for me and countless others who’ve taken the time to think about it, pot is a drug that requires a level of respect, trepidation, and devotion that most people aren’t prepared or expecting to give her. And while regular use can dampen the immediately felt impact of pot’s invitation to exchange promise for process, this doesn’t mean the drug isn’t making its very presence known.

Take the work of two of Hollywood’s most famous daily pot smokers, the late Robert Altman and Oliver Stone. Altman’s movies imitate the stoned mind wandering from synchronicity to synchronicity, contenting themselves with pattern recognition and requiring their narrative-bound audiences to do the same. Stone’s, on the other hand, bring us with him into the paranoid scenarios of the stoned mind daring itself into increasingly nightmarish territory—as if the ability to play in these regions somehow purges them of their power. Given his almost obsessive return to this dark side, the paranoid vision seems only to be gaining more hold over his awareness. Then again, it’s hard to spend tens of millions of dollars on a piece of violent entertainment without the spirit of weed objecting on some level.

Which all goes back to my initial sense that marijuana is the stealth queen of all drugs. Any user knows how big a wallop LSD or DMT is going to deliver and typically prepares accordingly. A difficult trip may not be expected, but it’s not completely unexpected, either. Marijuana, on the other hand, presents a peculiarly deep set of contradictions for its users—particularly for adults, and particularly for those who have the privilege of living with a disproportionate share of the world’s riches. By stopping time, pot offers, just like an orgasm, a little preview of death—and you know what they say about a rich man, a camel, and the eye of a needle.

Is it coincidence that this same genus very likely holds answers to our energy and environmental challenges? Hemp agriculture could likely solve both the energy and CO2 crises at the same time, with an astoundingly good biomass-to-fuel ratio, excellent carbon absorption, and the opposite of topsoil depletion.

At the very least, we should render unto marijuana the respect this plant drug deserves. Cannabis, in both its function on the psyche and its potential uses on the planet, offers us a new relationship to the death and decay so many of us spend so much time avoiding. Maybe a few more people need to have some harrowing experiences with her to realize this.