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When pot was illegal: the way it was


Marijuana is now legal in California. To tell you the truth, I was afraid that when it was legalized, people would be smoking it everywhere on the streets, making it hard for pedestrians to walk around without getting frequent, hefty doses of second-hand pot smoke resulting in a contact high. Although I like pot, constantly smelling it when I don’t want to was something I worried about.

But I needn’t have. Yes, it’s true that here in Oakland—a town in which lots of people indulge in weed—I do occasionally get a whiff of grass as I’m out and about. But it’s been far, far less than I’d anticipated. Why, I don’t know, but I’m glad it’s so.

If you’d asked me in the 1960s and 1970s if I thought pot would ever be legalized, I’d have said no. There were pushes to legalize it over the years by groups such as NORML, but they amounted to nothing. (Nor would I have ever thought that gay marriage would be legal!)

In fact, by the late 1960s, the legalization of pot seemed further away than ever. I’d begun smoking it as a college freshman in 1963. I smoked a lot during my undergraduate years (and did a lot of other recreational drugs as well). I even dabbled in a bit of dealing, not so much to make money, as just to give myself free grass. It was easy enough to drive down to New York City from my college (Clark University, in Worcester, Mass.), score a pound for $120, divide it into ounces, sell the ounces at $15 each (can you believe it?) and keep two ounces for my personal use. I was not, in other words, a bigtime dealer.

But I was big enough for the Worcester Telegram, the local newspaper, to run a front page headline when I was busted in the Spring of 1968. The two ounces I was caught with turned out to be the biggest drug bust in the history of Worcester, which then was New England’s second-largest city. I was promptly hauled off to jail, in the middle of the night, with six of my roommates in the apartment we all shared (the infamous 5 May Street, where there was a party 24/7), a few blocks from campus.

(Predictably, we were high when we were arrested, and in the “paddy wagon” on our way to the jail, we sang Beatles songs!)

In the end, I got off relatively lightly: a few nights in jail pending hearings, and a $1,000 fine, which my parents paid. But when the whole dreary business was over, I found it had left behind a bruising residue: paranoia. I was terrified of getting busted again. If that happened, I knew I would face serious jail time.

I moved out of 5 May Street in order to live alone and quietly. My new place was on Water Street, in a sketchy part of Worcester, near the produce district. It was a tiny apartment, which I painted lilac and pale green. I adopted two noisy Persian cats to keep me company. I bought a bicycle to travel to and from campus (about 1-1/2 miles away). And I continued to get high, despite the considerable risk I ran of getting re-arrested.

Such was my paranoia that I took extraordinary steps to cover my tracks. Literally. There was a crawl space you reached from the bathroom, next to the toilet. It led to the dirt foundation on which the house was built. I kept my stash buried at the very back of the crawl space, where the ceiling was so low that a big cop couldn’t have even fit. In crawling to my burying place, I of course upset the soil, so that, as I backed out, I would take a small brush and rub it over my tracks. No footprints or kneeprints, nothing to indicate that any human had ever been there.

Back then, my method of smoking was to roll joints in Zig-Zags. My pot wasn’t particularly clean. I would strain it, but it still contained seeds. If you’ve ever smoked pot with seeds in a joint, you know that the seeds can explode from the heat. They go Pop! and fly off, landing on the floor, sometimes a considerable distance away. Every time I heard a seed pop, I’d get down on my hands and knees—stoned, mind you—and not be able to relax until I found the potentially incriminating evidence and disposed of it. I was not going to jail for a damned seed! Every sound from outside on the sidewalk, every car on the street frightened me and caused my heart to leap. Was it the cops again? Did they know what I was doing? I didn’t see how they could, but having been busted once, I could easily be busted again. For all I knew, they were spying on me.

This all sounds pretty insane, but I was hardly the only person in America who felt that way. When I heard the Buffalo Springfield’s great song, For What It’s Worth, with its refrain, “I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound, Everybody look what’s going down,” I knew that “heads” were feeling the same way 3,000 miles away, in L.A. “Paranoia strikes deep, Into your life it will creep, It starts when you’re always afraid, You step out of line, the man come and take you away.”

Some people used to say that smoking pot made them paranoid, but I wonder if it was the pot so much as the fear of being arrested. Much of my generation of Baby Boomers was paranoid in those days, for that very reason. I wonder how this affected their/our subsequent behavior and attitudes. Are there studies on this? Did it impact our political beliefs? Our social relationships? Did it make us more inclined to believe in conspiracy theories? Did it make some of us anti-cop? Anyhow, kids today don’t have to worry about getting busted for pot, and that is a good thing.

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