It was late September in 1993, and my friends and I were at a campground to enjoy a weekend away from the world. It was unusually cold as I shrugged my way out of the tent, and after answering an insistent call of nature just inside a line of trees to the east of our campsite, I set about the work of getting the fire going again. One by one, my friends emerged from their own tents in various stages of disrepair – the previous night had been a doozy, and more than a few of my crew looked and felt as if they had been devoured and shat out by wolves – to warm themselves by the flames.
Once the coffee was going and the blood was flowing, a joint the size of New Jersey began making the rounds, as was tradition, a soothing balm for the tragically hung-over among us. After a fashion, I happened to notice a man two campsites over giving our little campfire circle a long, hard stare. One didn’t have to be stoned to be paranoid about smoking marijuana twenty years ago, and my first thought was, “Cop.” I quietly told my friends to cool it, cool it, something’s off with that guy, and everyone immediately began doing the I-Ain’t-Doing-Nothin’ Shuffle.
When the man started walking towards me, I began to do an inventory in my head of the cash I had on hand, the cash my friends had, in the event I wound up needing bail money. He presented himself before me, put out his hand, and introduced himself.
I hope I’m not intruding, he said. Not at all, I told him with trepidation flying around my head like I was Tippi Hedren. I offered him some coffee while my friends milled around the campsite pretending they weren’t baked and had important stuff to do, casting furtive glances my way as they waited for the hammer to fall.
Listen, he said, I noticed you guys were smoking a joint.
Uh-huh, I replied.
I don’t know anyone who smokes weed, he said.
Uh-huh, I replied.
My father has cancer, he said. It’s bad. He can’t eat because of his treatments, and that’s as bad as the cancer. His doctor pulled me aside last week and mentioned marijuana as something that could help him.
Uh-huh, I replied.
You don’t know me, he said, but I was wondering if you could give me some, so I can see if it helps him. I don’t know anyone else I can ask.
I was still. This is either a set-up, I thought, or this guy is for real. As a NORML supporter, I knew full well that what he was asking for could help his father, but the very last thing I needed was a drug arrest on my record. I took a moment with his eyes, and decided to make a leap of faith. I told him to wait there, went into a tent, dug our little green bag out of a backpack, and handed a portion of the contents to him. His face broke out in sunshine, and he shook my hand again. While in the tent, I had also grabbed a pen and an English Lit notebook that happened to be down in the pack.
Here’s my number, I said, scribbling. If that helps, call me, and I’ll introduce you to some friends of mine.
A few weeks later, he called me. I introduced. Months later, he called again to let me know his father had passed. Thank you, he said in a voice clotted with emotion. Thank you, thank you. It really helped him.
Though the statute of limitations ran out long ago, the fact remains that by writing this, I have admitted to committing at least two crimes…which, twenty years later, is finally being exposed as nonsense. What began decades ago as a manifestation of institutional racism, combined with timber and petroleum interests looking to crowd hemp out of the pulp and fuel market, combined with “Law And Order” politicians riding the so-called “War On Drugs” into office, has metastasized into glaring legal paranoia that has consigned tens of thousands to prison and ruined millions of lives.
I helped a sick man feel better, and enjoyed myself besides. For doing that, both I and the man I met at that campfire twenty years ago felt like furtive criminals as we sealed our pact to make his dying father feel good enough to eat something as the cancer chewed away at him. Twenty years later, I remember that exchange with the deepest fondness and pride. Unjust laws are not made to be followed, but are made to be defied and broken.
Colorado and Washington State have already slapped aside the failed notions of Prohibition that have been dead for a century to fully legalize a substance so infinitely less lethal than tobacco and alcohol that it scarcely bears mention. Alaska, Oregon, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana and Nevada are soon to follow, and the push is on in Delaware, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Maryland, Rhode Island and Vermont to follow suit. If successful, that represents nearly a third of the country, and one hell of a diverse cross-section, as well…and, if successful, the real work can begin: freeing those in prison convicted of crimes that are not crimes any more, and should never have been crimes to begin with.
Since the Colorado law went into effect on New Year’s Day, the nation has been afflicted with moralizing pabulum from the likes of David Brooks of the New York Times and Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post. To wit: we smoked weed, but think of the children!
I think of the children who have grown up fatherless or motherless because a parent dared to ingest something that grows up out of the ground. I think of the generations of Black families fractured by the racist application of wrong-headed laws. I think of the children of sick people who have watched their loved ones waste away in starved, screaming agony from cancer or AIDS because they did not know any weed dealers, or were too frightened to try and find one, or were never told the stuff could actually help.
What is more caustic to this society: marijuana (which is already everywhere anyway, and that is fact), or thousands upon thousands of people consigned to the tender mercies of the penal system? Marijuana, or thousands upon thousands of people suffering and dying in needless and entirely preventable pain?
Res ipsa loquitur, as the lawyers say. The thing speaks for itself.
Plant that bell and let it ring.