New psychedelics research is on a knife edge of meaning
Prohibition lingers on, but with pocket-sized vaporizers, marijuana users can get high whenever and wherever they please
Members of the Help End Marijuana Prohibition (HEMP) Party lift a banner displaying a parody of U.S. President Barack Obama's election campaign poster. Photo by David Gray/Reuters
Jeff Winkler is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Slate, The Guardian and The New Republic, among others. He lives in Austin, Texas.
It was my first time smoking weed in a public place. I was alone. Vulnerable. Not my finest moment. Inside the lavatory of a movie theatre in Austin, behind the locked door of a stall, I knelt in front of the toilet, stuck my head into its basin, and exhaled with care. I stood up, listened for footsteps. Quiet. I looked around, once more, for surveillance devices. Still none. I took another pull from my hand-held vaporiser, assumed the degrading position for a second time, and blew warm, skunky air into the toilet. I felt like a fucking idiot. Don’t do drugs, I’ll tell my future children. You’ll look like an ass.
My dad tried to tell me that once. After the cops busted me, at 17, for smoking weed, he looked at me and shook his head. Weed isn’t evil or terrible, he said, but it’s not worth the risk. He’d worked hard to raise lower-middle-class kids. We’d have to do the same, or better, to keep our status. A record, some big fines, could easily start a descent. Unless you live in Washington or Colorado, or somewhere else where weed is legal in one way or another, you have to give it up if you want peace of mind, or else get damn good at hiding it.
A whole line of products has developed around the idea of ‘stealth smoking’ and getting secretly high. When Aeon asked me to write a story about sneak-a-toke tools, I decided the subject needed first-person reporting. I bought my own high-tech device, a Magic-Flight Launch Box, with the intent of getting high on the sly in public. I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a nifty contraption. A tiny wood block, slightly larger than a matchbox, with a weed hole in the middle and a removable cover. Push down the rechargeable battery and, voila, vaporised, smoothly inhalable THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive constituent of cannabis). The smell doesn’t linger like regular weed smoke. Afterward, all you need is a mint.
Costing roughly $100, the Magic-Flight is more expensive (but less risky) than many other stealth devices that burn weed in the traditional sense. And it’s cheaper than the e‑cigarette vaporisers (or vapes) that use capsules of THC oil, which are difficult to obtain if you aren’t dangerously familiar with the illicit drugs game. Made in San Diego, the Magic-Flight is a product both of necessity and convenience, and it’s one of the most popular portable vapes on the market. Hippyish, feel-good aphorisms are carved into the wood, as inspirational and profound as the mantras on organic food packaging. The Magic-Flight is drug paraphernalia for the middle class, and comes with a lifetime warranty.
This positive customer review and rank product placement goes against my better judgment. Not because I’m above it. Hardly. The Magic-Flight company simply wouldn’t respond to numerous enquires regarding their product.
Nervous Joey, a local head-shop employee, was no more forthcoming. Nor were the employees of other head shops — of which there are five in an eight-block radius of my apartment in Austin. I didn’t even bother with the city’s other two dozen bong-selling establishments. The exchange with Nervous Joey had been disheartening. I visit his shop fortnightly for all-natural kratom (the opiate-like leaf from Thailand) and remember hearing an out-of-towner tell the cashier that the newly purchased one-hitter would make his son’s weekend-long basketball tournament tolerable. The man had been dressed in conspicuous ‘dad’ apparel and looked so average as to be comical. Like a pothead putting on the costume he imagines a law-enforcement narc might wear when trying to ‘look normal’.
I had asked how Nervous Joey’s shop legally runs an operation that sells a snowflake’s variety of bongs, pipes, vapes, chillums; not to mention a selection of stealth-smoking devices with concealable compartments — dug-outs, one-hitters dressed to look like cigarettes, cigars, operable highlighters and flashlights.
‘I can’t speak to any of that,’ Nervous Joey said. ‘But you’re welcome to check out our art collection.’ Preferring my art to be non-functional, I declined, ambling instead to another head shop two blocks away, where I bought the same Magic-Flight.
All head shops are the same. Often advertised as ‘novelty’ stores, they display a few gag gifts — fake poo, penis straws, signs that read ‘For Tobacco Use Only’. The predominantly male clientele skulk around the store, never raising voices above a murmur. Only in church, the library, and porn shops are people this diffident.
In 2010, 74,286 people were arrested for pot possession in Texas, the most significant 10-year increase of any state. At the same time that I was using my Magic-Flight and asking head shops about the dissonance of selling paraphernalia advertised as toys, local and federal agents with 12 search warrants raided novelty stores in Austin, Houston, and San Antonio. Six people were arrested on charges of distributing synthetic marijuana. That’s fake weed. It would be funny if it weren’t true.
So while advertising your shop with a giant neon pot leaf is a little conspicuous, I can understand the impulse to stay out of the spotlight. However, the major online vaporiser stores I tried to contact have no excuse. Especially the one with a fishy statement suggesting that anyone nervous about ordering a product should call this number and ‘ask for Aaron’. Out of desperation, I called the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), America’s most prominent marijuana organisation, and asked for anyone.
NORML came through, but not before a few more magic flights in Bat City. That’s Austin: it has a lot of bats. Every night, at sunset, they leave their perch under one of the busiest bridges. En route to the spectacle, I strolled the wide path around the reservoir, finally ducking into a port-o-potty for a few puffs. I felt like a serial masturbator rustling the bushes of a public park. Not so magical. The outside world was just a few feet away. Traffic whizzed by on the road and runners pounded the busy path. Three hits, a drop of Clear Eyes, a mint. Out.
More than 100 people gathered on the bridge. Families, dates, foreigners. I rode the positive vibrations, watching the sun sink and thinking of the guitarist on the other bridge. He was playing something I couldn’t recognise, but its melodic ambience took me back to a time in Jodhpur, India, where the birds and amplified azan rose above the city at dusk. And then, the bats flew. Up close, close enough to touch, they were small and frantic. But from a distance, the eastbound swarm moved with graceful finality, like wisps of a smoldering log. It was beautiful. Even if you were sober.
You’d have to be pretty bold to smoke weed so flagrantly among this group. Of course, there might be secret potheads in the wholesome-looking crowd — you never know these days.
NORML put me in touch with some well-adjusted people, the kind that participate in 5K runs, teach high school and, maybe, watch cage-free bats. Team Hope through Cannabis (THC) publicly advocates marijuana at athletic events and hosts teams for local races, to dispel the idea that pot-users are lazy degenerates.
I once saw a head chef plug in a vaporiser next to the sous vide machine. I asked if it was for molecular gastronomy
‘I hear people say “marijuana makes you slow, marijuana makes you dumb”,’ said Healthy Dave, a THC participant, on the phone. ‘Those notions are still out there.’ We commiserated. Then, as a crass stunt, I suggested getting stoned before a running interview. Healthy Dave said he was too busy. He works in politics and spends his free time advocating for a cause close to his heart. Instead, he put me in touch with Teacher Bob.
Teacher Bob works in a conservative Texas school district, far from Austin, the liberal capital. His high school promulgates abstinence-only sex-ed and drug-free programmes that equate weed with heroin. Teacher Bob knew nothing of a sneak-a-toke subculture. When he’d agreed to talk about ‘stealth smoking’, he thought I’d meant secret smokers such as himself. In Teacher Bob’s case, the stealth was for fear, not only of jail and fines, but also of losing his job. He knew of other well-rounded teachers who smoked secretly. All of them were in the ‘cannabis closet’. That’s what he called it. And not just because he had the pedantic habit of advocates of referring to weed only by its proper name.
‘Cannabis closet’ is an intentionally loaded term. In 2009, Andrew Sullivan, the editor of The Daily Dish blog and a proudly ‘out’ gay man, solicited a series of pot-smoking testimonies from readers under that heading. In the introduction to his subsequent book, Cannabis Closet: First-Hand Accounts of the Marijuana Mainstream (2010), Sullivan wrote:
I wondered whether the humour and laughter around the subject was not some nervous way of coping with the vast discrepancy… Like homosexuality, pot use was … accepted as part of reality, but rarely spoken of in public. It carried a stigma.
Though not quite the same, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) movement has succeeded in equating its cause to that of the civil rights struggle. Sullivan uses the gay middleman to suggest the same for weed. It’s a rhetorical trope increasingly used by weed proponents. However, even if we acknowledge the inherent prejudice of the first pot prohibition laws, it’s still dubious as an argument. When the former congressman and presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich invoked Martin Luther King Jr at the 2011 Seattle Hempfest, the comparison rankled.
Teacher Bob uses weed to manage his post-traumatic stress syndrome (he is a two-tour Iraq veteran, ‘not some crazy hippie from the hills’) as well as the side effects of some of his prescription medications. But he made it clear he also likes the stuff. I asked why he and the other teachers would risk their livelihood for a hush-hush toke or two behind closed doors. In reply, Teacher Bob cited Henry David Thoreau. ‘It’s an act of civil disobedience,’ he said.
It would’ve been nice if I’d conceived such lofty justifications for sticking my head in a toilet.
While it made me uncomfortable when they thanked me for my efforts, I sympathised with The Cause advocated by Healthy Dave, Teacher Bob and others who object to the punitive stigmatisation of a safe intoxicant. Choice is great! But it is dishonest to suggest that choosing to ingest a drug is anything more than that. To compare it with ending the persecution of homosexuals or the fight of black activists seems like an insult to those legacies. Why not just come out and say: ‘Weed gets me high and that’s OK’? Or, to borrow more superficially from the LGBT movement: ‘We’re blazed! Unfazed! Get used to it!’ Might it not be better to embrace weed with nothing other than the be-here-nowness of a pothead? That’s most people I know, anyway. People like my pal Chef Devon, who seems pretty content.
Chef Devon was totally down — excited, even — to get high with me before his shift. Also I could observe a functioning pothead in action. Watch a stoner do normal things. What a novelty.
‘I’ll use my real name,’ said Chef Devon, yanking the one-hitter from his mouth. ‘I don’t give a shit.’
Chef Devon’s not ashamed of his habit, though he doesn’t advocate politically. When I asked him what he thought of proponents equating weed to gay and/or civil rights, he looked at me like I was talking stoner nonsense. He’s got other things to worry about. Not yet 30, Chef Devon oversees one of the premier restaurants in Austin. I’d bet good money that anti-pot politicians have been in ecstasy over the food he’s prepared for them while high as hell. Chef Devon works his ass off. He’s a consummate professional and a total sweetheart. He’ll give you a pull if you ask.
Every restaurant I’ve worked in is the same: the staff get high, openly and without shame, especially after the last rush. I once saw a head chef plug in a vaporiser next to the sous vide machine. I asked if it was for molecular gastronomy. The general rule for servers is that if you are high during service, keep your shit together. And for god’s sake, carry a mint. Once, a cop visited our restaurant on some sort of business. Nearly all the servers ran to the back.
There’s an old joke we in the food service industry repeat: if there were mandatory drug testing for us, America would starve.
There’s no such thing as a sneak-a-toke, or stealth-smoking ‘subculture’. But there is a weed culture, of sorts, in America. It’s confusing and contradictory. Having been in Austin for a year now, I can name only one person who doesn’t partake. Roughly half the country has tried weed. States are rapidly decriminalising grass. The federal government just announced that it would not challenge the new Colorado and Washington laws legalising recreational use. Weed is now part of a mainstream culture of recreation. Fast-food companies such as Jack in the Box and Taco Bell have developed advertising campaigns that all-but-explicitly market their products directly to ‘stoner culture’. Even America’s mom-approved doctor-sage, Sanjay Gupta, MD, has come out as a pot sympathiser. As the prime-time provocateur Bill Maher wrote in Rolling Stone magazine’s inaugural ‘Weed Issue’ in June this year:
There’s no going back. We’ve reached a tipping point, legal marijuana is here to stay — it’s just a matter of how fast it will happen across the country.
But that’s no small ‘matter’ for the rest of us ‘across the country’. The arrest stats, especially for black people, are not encouraging. One of my friends, an unfailingly productive pothead, became a statistic this year. Caught with a one-hitter and portable vape, he’s looking at 12 months’ probation and fines. He’ll have to drive seven hours from one pot-wary state to another, all for the privilege of taking a piss test. In the meantime, he will drink liquor and snort coke. Neither is detectable in urine after a few days, but both are more fatal than weed. Facing punitive repercussions for something that is effectively harmless, he’s now gone ‘stealth’ with truly dangerous intoxicants.
It’s going to be more difficult to spot the narcs. Especially if all these ‘out’ potheads are wearing ‘dad’ jeans
And the arrests will continue, with Texas lawmen and local busybodies responding to pleas of leniency with: ‘Does this look like Colorado, son?’ Teacher Bob said he doesn’t even try to argue for sensible drug policy in his town. He goes to Austin for that. Such entrenched cultural attitudes are why I’m skeptical of the conventional wisdom that the pothead’s plight will improve overnight. Healthy Dave said he thinks the popularity of stealth-smoking devices will decrease as marijuana becomes accepted in mainstream society. But these are cultural norms, ingrained for more than a century. The out-and-out stoners, the criminals and derelicts on the edges of society, will probably continue, more or less, as they were. So, too, those upstanding citizens who can afford pot-state vacations and triple-digit fines.
For those in between, it’s going to be a bumpy road. Potheads who go public will still be stigmatised or, in Teacher Dave’s case, fired. Those in the business or just generous with their supply — Nervous Dave, Chef Devon, friendly dealers — will have to be vigilant around the seemingly ‘normal’ people coming to them for advice or a taste. It’s going to be more difficult to spot the narcs. Especially if all these ‘out’ potheads are wearing ‘dad’ jeans. And what of those adult newbies who can’t keep their shit together after a few maiden voyages?
It’s all so confusing and contradictory. Like the hippy-dippy phrase engraved on the side of my Magic-Flight: ‘Love is always stronger than fear.’ This, from a company that doesn’t return messages.
San Marcos is the only major stop halfway between Austin and San Antonio. It’s known as a uni town and, less advertised, a Mexican mafia base camp. By the time I got there, I’d been high in public a lot: at the Red Lobster seafood chain for its annual Endless Shrimp promotion; at a screening of the 1927 classic Metropolis. Good times. To get to San Marcos, I drove 45 minutes south. My destination was beside the Texas National Guard Armory, where, behind barbed wire fence, I saw war machines. The Magic-Flight was packed at the very bottom of my travel bag.
A river slithers through San Marcos. People rent inner tubes. From the road, you can see sunbathers on the banks. It’s a popular destination. You float past trees that arch from the shoreline, shading herons, turtles and visitors who pass under a bridge over which trains still roll. The whole adventure takes about 45 minutes. Beer is allowed, glass is prohibited, but the signs don’t say anything about weed.
Halfway down the river, I exhaled deeply and sunk into my inner tube. I tipped my head back, submerging my crown into the river, the waterline at my eyebrows. As I peered downstream, my viewpoint was distorted, in an upside-down, funhouse sort of way. The water became an undulating glass ceiling. A canoe drifted by. It was transfixing. Even if you weren’t high.
It wasn’t until the second round of floating that I finally took out the Magic-Flight. A wholesome family of four was about 25 metres downstream. No biggie. Just after I pulled the vape from my lips, however, distant sirens began to wail. That was enough for me. I put it away and lay back again instead.
I’ll probably get high again, as high as I did the night I returned from the float trip. Maybe higher. But when I dipped my head halfway into the stream to see the warped perspective, I was completely clearheaded. Fully without fear or paranoia or concerns. Nobody’s suspect. Nobody’s advocate. No drug’s dependent. It was sobriety as transcendent freedom. I turned off, tuned out, uplifted completely. For the moment, that was good enough.
Published on 13 September 2013