"If baseball is the opiate of the masses, why aren't opiates given to the masses?"
This was possibly the most cogent question posed to Jonah Raskin on Thursday at Canessa Gallery after he read from his new book, Marijuanaland: Dispatches from an American War, published by High Times Books. The poser of the question was a young man who spoke with what was (in the context) calm, Harvardian breviloquence about how his family had no problem with his pot-smoking despite their own abstinence from the herb.
He had asked it as a follow-up to a somewhat less calm (and significantly less breviloquent) comment made by one of the older members of the audience, which was that the government -- the Man, what have you -- wants people to enjoy baseball because when you're at the game, enjoying yourself, you're not thinking of how little money you make. (He's apparently never pushed his debit card to its withdrawal limit trying to buy garlic fries and a beer at AT&T Park.)
The audience at the North Beach gallery seemed to be of a mind regarding pot and the ongoing debate over its legalization in California. Strange, however, was that attendees were either very young (in their 20s) or retirement age. What did the absence of people from their 30s to their 50s mean? Do working-age adults not do drugs? Do they simply not have the time to tune out, or do they just prefer booze? Or do they only go to readings if it's David Sedaris or that guy who writes about stuff white people like?
Anyway, what Raskin revealed in his reading and in his book -- in stories of California's history of growing the crop, and in facts about the industry today -- might make one wish it had come out before last November's election, when Proposition 19 (which would have legalized certain activities related to cannabis and allowed its regulation under certain circumstances) failed.
California holds the terminally unhip distinction as the first state to criminalize pot. It was 1913, and the plant was associated with dark-skinned people from lands where it originally grew. It was easy for a (buzz-killer) government to make a (racist) public renounce all the fun it could be having and relegate, in its (unexpanded, Sylvester Squareballs) imagination, the drug and its consumers (artists, writers, jazz musicians), to an underworld of preposterous reefer-madness paranoia and trashy pulp-fiction cover art.
The 1960s saw the transference of the drug's association with "dirty Mexicans" to "dirty hippies," followed by the near-paradisiacal era in the late 1960s and '70s, when pot was de facto legal. But it's the examination of today's growing industry that makes Marijuanaland (and Raskin's discussion of it) a good, possibly even an important, read if you want to know what's going on in an industry whose net worth in California alone experts place at $19 billion to $40 billion.