America Goes to Pot

Bill Murchison

2/4/2014 12:01:00 AM - Bill Murchison

A drug is by definition a remedy, a treatment, a hoped-for cure. Something's the matter, or anyway not as good as it ought to be. Here, a bit of this will fix you up ...

A lot of what goes on in 21st century America seems a lot less good than it ought to be. Witness in this context the legal-marijuana boom -- the strong public affirmation in places such as Colorado for the right to use pot for purposes left to the user's discretion. Said purposes include the alleviation of physical pain. They include likewise the alleviation of, well, one just can't say -- possibly the alleviation of unfulfilled desire.

Desire being a major component of the modern human makeup -- therefore generally assumed as ripe for slaking -- we probably shouldn't wonder that attitudes toward pot are shifting, and that liberalization of old bans and prohibitions is under way. The president of the United States acknowledges having smoked pot when he was a younger man. It's safe, I think, to suggest that Harry Truman would not have made such a claim. What's the difference now?

We might, if we want to examine such a question, recall the historical moment when the distinctive odor of pot -- a substance thitherto identified with jazz musicians and certain denizens of Mexican border towns -- floated into and over American society at large. We tend to call the historical moment the '60s. Many of us recall it vividly -- not always with affection.

The '60s -- specifically the period that commenced around 1964 and gave off nuclear effects well into the '70s -- advertised dissatisfactions of nearly every variety. If the '50s had simmered with below-surface discontents, the '60s boiled over in all directions. Nothing was good enough; nothing was the way it ought to be, if you asked millions of "students" (so they were often termed) who hated the Vietnam War and bourgeois culture. No authority -- parents, college deans, draft boards, politicians, ministers of the Gospel -- was so high and mighty as to merit exemption from the growing outrage. Draft cards were burned; joints were lit. "Those were the days, my friend, we thought they'd never end," warbled Marianne Faithfull, stroking the sensibilities of a bad time.

Two elements of the revolt conspired to make pot popular: its illegality and -- something significantly deeper -- a fast-accumulating need for escape from social requirements; from -- in too many cases -- reality itself.

Adults who viewed as alarming met rebuke. Why, you hypocrites -- don't you get drunk three days out of four?! The likeness of pot to alcohol, an entertainment and pastime of great antiquity, was frequently imputed. Rarely noticed was the oddness of adding -- if you saw alcohol as an escape, which probably only a minority did and do -- one brand new enticement to zoning out.

The need for withdrawal from reality grew exuberant in the '60s. Human kind, T. S. Eliot had noted wryly, can't bear much reality: meaning much seriousness of purpose, the human task of sorting out good from evil, right from wrong. The '60s saw Eliot and raised him. We disliked reality of all kinds. Nor was pot the only doorway leading out of the predicament. If it wasn't pot, it was LSD; if not LSD, cocaine; if not cocaine, heroin: anything for a quick kick, a drawing down of the blinds upon responsibility, duty and other such quaint conceits.

The drug culture was a fantasy culture in the '60s. It remains such. The quest for escape is inherently immature: not so much wrong, perhaps, as evasive, fugitive, emotionally suspect. You're supposed to get over most such temptations by age 16. That was the general assumption, anyway, prior to the emergence of Counterculture Chic and its inevitable accompaniment -- the disappearance of real-world norms.

We want to encourage erratic behavioral patterns by making pot legal for purely personal use? Why? Cui bono? Who's better off if we do it? Such questions lack resonance. The desire for escape at a moment's notice, for withdrawal into a world of private norms and outlooks -- if that's your thing, and maybe it is, you've come to the right country, at just the right moment.