The U.S. is in the midst of a profound social shift. According to an October 2018 Gallup poll, 66% of Americans now support legalization of marijuana, up from 44% in 2009 (and 14% in 1969!). One in three Americans currently live in a state where pot is completely legit for adults, and with New York and New Jersey poised to join the legalization bandwagon, that number is likely to drop to one in two. National legalization is one of the more mundane talking points among the 2020 Presidential candidates, and the U.S. House of Representatives recently took a break from pondering impeachment to pass the SAFE Banking Act to ease restrictions on financing of marijuana-related ventures. The recent vaping scare notwithstanding, cannabis has gone from taboo to mainstream in the generational blink of an eye.
Are We Rolling Into Post-Prohibition with a Clear Head?
It’s that generational aspect of this marijuana moment in America that is most intriguing to me. As I celebrate more than 30 years of a sobriety that very much includes abstinence from pot, it seems that every other Baby Boomer I know — from my 65-year-old Alaska-homesteading sister to high school classmates moving gleefully into Parrothead-themed retirement communities — is reliving their doobie-driven youth with medical or recreational pot. Meanwhile, my Generation Z nephew tells me that he and his college friends consider marijuana as indispensable as their iPhones.
Everyone I’m related to seems to be smoking, dabbing, growing, marketing, or otherwise celebrating cannabis. As I anticipate another family Thanksgiving turning into Weedsgiving, I have to wonder: Are we rolling into post-prohibition with a clear head?
It’s not like we’re strangers to the dangers of substances in my family. It all goes back to the patriarch, our charming drunken newspaperman of a dad, a man who always had a pint and a half-written novel in his top desk drawer. By the time he died in the mid-1980s, he couldn’t write, or walk, or remember more than 30 minutes at a time. Alcohol had taken it all away.
That was about when I got sober, having followed far enough in dad’s footsteps to know I had to stop. Our mom quit her Gallo Vin Rose and Marlboros not long after, and my sisters dialed their partying back to near zero as well. Our younger brother? He was always the straight one anyway, his only apparent vice a cigar once a year, smoked in his California backyard to avoid bothering anyone.
Fast forward to 2017. We’re standing in that same backyard a year after voters across the Golden State approved Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, and 20 years after California pioneered medical marijuana. I’ve come to Bakersfield for my niece’s pop-up wedding shower, but I’m the one who gets a surprise: my clean-living little brother, his ever-sensible wife, and our earthy-sane older sister all sharing a joint amid the streamers and hydrangeas.
Is It Purely Medicinal If You Also Get High?
“It helps unkink my back just like it does Nancy’s,” my sister Adrian says, nodding toward our sister-in-law, “though at home I prefer my pipe.” Since Alaska legalized in 2015, she says, her little town of Haines is considering a future as a marijuana tourist destination.
Brother Matt exhales and scratches his beard. “Honestly, it just helps me concentrate when I’m working on software, and then lets me ease up after.”
What a bunch of potheads! I think, but don’t say. Instead I nod and listen and try to parse the difference between the toke you take for an ache and the pill you might pop for the same, or the puff that relaxes versus the bourbon that unwinds. Is it purely medicinal if you also get high? Is that pipe ritual upon waking the equivalent of a morning espresso — or a morning vodka?
I wonder what our parents, gone now more than 7 and 30 years respectively, might say about this latest chapter in the family history. Mom might chuckle at the sight of adults indulging in what she’d always known as a dumb kid pursuit, the province of the runaways she counseled at the shelter where she was lead social worker all those years. Dad might raise a glass of port — his drink of choice near the end — to anything that eases the pain that living sometimes brings. “And you say it’s legal now?” they would both ask, looking around anxiously. “Marijuana, legal. Imagine that.”
A little over a year later, in the fall of 2018, we gather all the generations together for a once-a-decade family reunion at our sister Melody’s Airbnb in the Berkshire Mountains. Massachusetts has just legalized recreational marijuana, and Melody’s turned her green thumb to the task of growing.
Melody got sober the same time I did, and doesn’t herself partake. But the bounty of her harvest has the extended family abuzz. In pairs and trios, our siblings and spouses and offspring step out onto the smoking porch. Niece Kelly huddles with Melody to craft a listing for the inn as the Berkshires’ newest “bud and breakfast,” complete with a crystal bubbler pipe in each room.
Matt tells us what his wife and daughters have known since the early 1990s: that he smokes daily but didn’t want his sober sisters to find out; he’s now relieved to be out of the cannabis closet. When Melody hands out jars of bud for folks to take home as a souvenir of the weekend, our formerly militantly straight-edge nephew sheepishly claims one. “My friends got me a pipe for my 21st birthday,” he says. “I named it Zelda.”
“Fitzgerald?” I ask, shaking my head at the enduring appeal of addiction and madness.
“No, from Nintendo,” my nephew giggles. In his tween years, he spent hours composing electronic music for video games, and now I imagine him doing the same with Zelda and his Massachusetts weed, which he tells me “all of New York knows is the best.”
On the way back to the city, I’ve designated myself the driver. Everyone else in the rental minivan is in various states of sleep or stupor, except for Adrian, who gets a little speedy after the third bowl of the day. She’s telling a story about the elders she works with back home, how gummies are getting this one off of painkillers and CBD ointment turns out to be just the thing for that one’s bad knee.
Half-listening, I have a vision of the senior center of the not-so-distant future. Old people who are my age now, swaying in their wheelchairs and walkers while aides pass among them, dispensing wafers and puffs of vape. A visiting DJ plays “Sugar Magnolia,” some Marley and a touch of Wu Tang. Staffers smoking up on their break outside create a welcoming cloud for the teenager who walks in with a water pipe wrapped in cellophane and ribbons for grandpop. A visiting daughter rubs sweet-skunky oil into her mom’s hands, fingers entwining. The world beyond is raging, but everything here is chill.
I get a chill.
I drop off the rental car and head straight to an AA meeting. I’ve never been happier to raise my hand.
“I’m Mickey, I’m an alcoholic, and I’m celebrating 33 years clean and sober.”