This past week, D.C. advanced America’s 21st-century war on its 20th-century war on drugs. Now that marijuana is somewhat legal, the city’s African American residents are less likely to be disproportionately arrested for a victimless crime. If the cannabis industry stays out of town, D.C. Council members, who should spend time fixing the city’s public schools, won’t be preoccupied with regulating a substance arguably less harmful than alcohol. And police officers who should be chasing bank robbers and murderers will no longer bust college students carrying dime bags.
All that’s great. But none of these leaps forward will correct the real problem with marijuana: It is lame. Though the culture this drug fosters should not be banned, it should be avoided because it is tacky.
After Congress outlawed weed with the “Marihuana” Tax Act of 1937, bud occupied a place on the outlaw edges of American culture. Introduced to the United States by Mexican migrants in the early 1900s, marijuana became the drug of choice for jazz musicians and Beat poets.
“We always looked at pot as a sort of medicine,” Louis Armstrong said. “It makes you feel good, man. It relaxes you, makes you forget all the bad things that happen to a Negro.”
A drug powerful enough to soothe the pain of Jim Crow was bound to be popular. Since the absurdity of anti-marijuana propaganda was apparent to anyone even marginally suspicious of authority, the drug was championed by a creative underclass. Jack Kerouac was a relatively early adopter.
“To drag on this thing was like leaning over a chimney and inhaling,” Kerouac wrote of smoking “the biggest bomber anybody ever saw” in “On the Road” in 1957. “It blew into your throat in one great blast of heat. We held our breaths and all let out just about simultaneously. Instantly we were all high. The sweat froze on our foreheads and it was suddenly like the beach at Acapulco.” Kerouac’s prose is about as good as marijuana culture gets: uplifting, vaguely transcendent.
Then something went horribly wrong. Baby boomers adopted the drug, making it a symbol of 1960s unrest. Marijuana went mainstream and spawned a lot of terrible art. Buoyed by hippies turned yuppies, legalization became a social issue worth ballot initiatives, but the quality of the films, literature and — pun intended — schwag inspired by sess deteriorated.
Once everyone wanted to get high, it wasn’t cool anymore.
Of course, you may or may not find the dated artifacts sloughed off by marijuana culture absurd: the meandering Dennis Hopper film “Easy Rider,” the unfunniness of Cheech and Chong, the later records of Cypress Hill.
But an argument against marijuana as pop culture is about more than taste. When anything that whiffs of revolution gets coopted and commodified, that’s a tragedy.
Consider Bob Marley. For Marley, a Rastafarian from Jamaica, ganja was part of a religious practice, used in meditation and discussion sessions called “reasonings.” Asked whether the government would legalize marijuana, Marley offered perhaps the greatest zinger in hemp history: “I don’t know if this government will,” he said, “but I know Christ’s government will.”
After he died in 1981, Marley’s greatest-hits collection “Legend” sold more than 20 million copies. But many young people blasting “No Woman No Cry” in dorm rooms and hanging posters of Marley smoking spliffs were interested not in Rasta reasoning but in faux rebellion. Weed became a generic symbol of teen unrest. This was misguided and bizarre.
Then marijuana became a big business. There are now companies chasing billions selling weed and related products over the counter in Washington and Colorado. But not long ago, there were entrepreneurs chasing millions hawking marijuana hats, High Times magazine and one-hitters in head shops. There was “Half Baked,” “Pineapple Express” and the cable comedy “Weeds.”
Even as THC levels in marijuana skyrocketed, the drug showcased in pop culture seemed less potent than the one Armstrong enjoyed. As marijuana went Top 40, it became less dangerous. When candidate Bill Clinton denied inhaling, he seemed sly; when candidate Barack Obama admitted that he’d smoked choom, no one really cared. If the drug is, as legalization proponents claim and more and more Americans agree, little more than an herbal remedy, it’s certainly not worth the vast attention paid to it in the past four decades.
Imagine a band, book or movie devoted to chamomile.
Even drug-dealing, once the realm of the Mafia, became staid. In the mid-1990s, my college roommate sold weed in Ziploc bags from our dorm room while listening exclusively — I wish this were an exaggeration — to Phish and the Dave Matthews Band. This shouldn’t have been illegal. But it definitely wasn’t cool.
Now that toking up is permitted in the 202, one can only imagine how pathetic a D.C. pot scene will be, bolstered by D.C.’s Type-A dorkiness. I’m talking about Capitol Hill wonks revved up after a subcommittee meeting, kicking it at the Palm, taking a toke. Or nonprofiteers giggling over a screening of Redman and Method Man’s “How High” at the E Street Cinema.
Washingtonians are nerdy enough. When they let loose, unleashed by the power of an ancient drug some say is condoned by the Bible, it won’t be pretty. It will be like Anthony Michael Hall in “The Breakfast Club.”
Ideally, marijuana will one day be legal everywhere, but scorned by everyone but glaucoma patients and the terminally ill in need of comfort. Legalization is about what the state permits — not about what it condones. After all, it’s also legal to read Mitch Albom, watch Steven Seagal and listen to Katy Perry.
That doesn’t mean you should.
Justin Moyer is the deputy editor of The Washington Post’s Morning Mix.