Douglas Coupland: Growing Up Drug-Agnostic in a Global Pot Capital
This piece isn't a gratuitous drug tell-all on my part. But everyone has a drug story. You have one, too, and it will expand as you age.
In June of 1978 on a Saturday night I was playing poker with three friends. It was a typical Saturday night, and we smoked a joint, during which I drank a glass of water. Within a minute of finishing, I remember getting up from the table, going to the kitchen, getting one more glass of water at which point I turned around, lost my sense of vision and gravity and then blacked out. I learned later that I fell headfirst onto the table with all of its ashtrays and glasses. In doing so I cut a four-inch gash through the left side of my jaw. I woke up (I was told) ten minutes later, at which point I could already hear the ambulance sirens approaching the house. Oddly, I was no longer stoned. I was clear as day and totally lucid.
As fate would have it, my father was the back-up on-call doctor at the hospital that night. You can imagine. His pager called him halfway through a restaurant dinner my parents were having with friends. I can imagine how pissed he must have been to be interrupted, only to hear, Well, Dr. Coupland, it's actually your own son. You might want to stitch him up.*
I wasn't a druggie kid; I wasn't a problem child. I just happened to be smoking pot at that magical moment in Canadian pot history when THC counts in BC bud went from the buzz equivalent of Nyquil to the narcotized equivalent of Oxycontin—a thousand-fold increase in potency that was never actually mentioned anywhere in the press at the time; the press instead focused almost entirely on the pathetic US government attempts to destroy the Mexican weed trade by spraying crops with a herbicide called paraquat. While nobody looked, BC dope growers were quietly hybridizing their crops for THC in the same way monks hybridized strawberries for size and juiciness, and sweet peas for their ability to prove genetic theories. THC counts exploded in the late 1970s. You heard all kinds of lies about the pot that was going around—Maui Wowie or Kona Gold or "the best Mexican" or what have you, but nobody smuggled pot into BC at that time, and that hasn't changed. Almost all bud in BC is grown in borderline industrial conditions, often overseen by gifted horticulturists.*
Pot's presence in Vancouver is everywhere. It took root in the 1960s when the city became Canada's equivalent to hippie San Francisco, and from the 1970s onward, abundant cheap electrical power allowed for an indoor grow-op culture that continues to flourish to this day. The city currently has over 100 medical pot dispensaries, and when it comes to drug law enforcement, the local police and the RCMP have prioritized their focus on the tsunami of hardcore drugs arriving through the city's port. The tacit agreement in the city is no enforcement of the nation's pot laws. In 2011, four of Vancouver's former mayors endorsed a coalition calling for an end to pot-related violence in Canada. "Marijuana prohibition is—without question—a failed policy," they said. Bonus: pot is also legalized in BC's downstairs neighbours, Washington and Oregon, and our upstairs neighbour, Alaska. Extra bonus: massive amounts of weed are grown throughout the province's many secluded valleys.*
Canadian Cannabis: The Cash Crop
My parents still live in the winding alpine suburban slope above Vancouver in the house I grew up in. About 15 years ago, my mother said to me, "You know, I really can't believe there's all this pot growing around here that you keep talking about." So I said, "Allow me to take you on a tour..." And so we got in my car and started driving and I said, "See over there, see all that water beading and humidity in the window? Grow-op. Over there, the unmowed lawn and huge pile of unmoved shopper papers? Grow-op." And so on; there were dozens then. After being forced to reimagine her neighbourhood, one that in the 1970s had once been the embodiment of Brady Bunch puritanism, my mother said, "Well, at least that explains why we don't get any trick-or-treaters anymore."*
Back to 1978: my father came in to Lions Gate Hospital to stitch me up and I'll never forget his expression of disappointment as he stitched up my left chin like it was a cheap moccasin. I was the son who wasn't supposed to be doing this kind of shit, and yet I was. He and I have never talked about that night and probably never will. In families, every member is assigned a role, and as long as we play our role correctly, regardless of the weirdness of that role, everyone is happy. The reason we work so hard to get home for Thanksgiving and Christmas isn't so much that we know what things to discuss with each other; it's because in a properly functioning family, everybody knows exactly what not to discuss with each other. And so my father and I will never discuss that fleeting bad patch simply because I was off-script, and he was right. What was I thinking? The injury, however, largely turned me off pot, but I suppose the scar it left on my chin is also on my psyche. In 2004 I wrote a novel, jPod, in which the main character's parents have a grow op in their basement. A local indie movie I wrote (Everything's Gone Green) also featured parents growing pot. (And all of this was before the TV show Weeds, thank you.)*
I was in kindergarten in 1967. I would have been five-and-a-half, and I remember it being specifically 1967 because it was Canada's centennial year and we were all handed mimeographed outlines of the country's new flag design to colour with a red crayon.
One afternoon, the school had a scared-straight-style speaker come in to talk to our class. She looked maybe 800 years old, but in reality, she was probably more like 17 and doing community service. She said hello and that she wanted to talk about her friend, Karen, and so we all leaned in. She told us of how she and Karen were the best of friends, and of what a good gal she was and then she said: "But then Karen took acid."
I know, using the word "acid" with kindergarten students? Seriously?
But what happened to Karen then? What happened then?
"Karen took the acid. And she got high. And then something happened in her brain and her body froze."
"That's right. She was trapped inside her body. She was a prisoner. She couldn't move, she couldn't speak, she couldn't even communicate by blinking her eyes. She was completely frozen inside her body and yet the doctors absolutely confirmed she would never, ever, ever be able to communicate anything with the outside world."
Screams. Shrieks. Wailing.
I mean, what the fuck were these scared straight people thinking?
...But I have to say, it really worked. We were the only kindergarten year to ever get the "Karen" lecture, but directly because of it my fellow classmates were the drug-wimpiest, most socially low-octane birth cohort to ever pass through the West Vancouver School District Number 45. We were, in the most programmatic sense of the term, scared straight. As a result I've never done coke or acid or ecstasy or MDMA or G or pretty much most recreational drugs. Thanks a lot, Karen.
To this day, if I ever encounter a social drug, all I see is poor little Karen with locked-in syndrome in some forgotten wing of a forgotten rehab ward of a forgotten institution in some part of Vancouver that nobody ever goes to and nobody ever will ...and 30 years after that scared straight lecture I wrote a novel, Girlfriend in a Coma, in which the coma patient is named Karen. I never actually made this connection until writing these words here now. The human soul is sneaky.
Sneaky human soul.
I mentioned that in 1967 we kindergartners we had been asked to colour in the new Canadian flag. It's not an easy flag to draw; the maple leaf in the middle is more of a corporate clip-art logo than it is, say, a US star or a Japanese rising sun. Three decades later when I was on a book tour in the US and Canada and I handed out index cards and red pens to people attending the event and asked them to draw the Canadian flag. I was thinking a lot about Canadian identity then, and wanted to see how people in both Canada and the US saw it in their minds. And... basically, everyone drew a pot leaf because nobody really knew how to draw a maple leaf. The one truly good flag I got was from a guy in Chicago. I was actually kind of touched by the level of his maple leaf's draftsmanship and he said, "I didn't really do it from my head. I was sitting by the travel book shelf and copied one from a book." These days, of course, iPhones and Androids would render this drawing experience pointless.*
Thinking of maple leaves and trees, the house I grew up in has a relatively unusual deep red large-leaved sugar maple in the southeast corner of the yard. For this horticultural reason, the lawn beneath it was possibly the most dense psilocybin mushrooming ground in the suburb. My parents never understood this and my mother would come to me and say, "Brian Rath is in the front yard on his knees? What is going on?" Of course, Brian was shrooming, and I'd have to go kick him off, saying, "Jesus, Brian, my mother's watching you. This looks so creepy." This same scenario happened every year and my parents never made the mushroom connection. (But he said he was doing a "science project.")*
During the 2010 Winter Olympics, well-dressed Europeans were smoking huge spliffs on downtown Vancouver street corners. This was funny because while pot may be tacitly legal here, good taste suggests you ought to be slightly more discreet. But what is discretion? Who knows? Nothing makes a bottle of booze look more like a bottle of booze than a brown paper bag. And what is good taste? It's anyone's call.*
April 20 is Vancouver's official 420 Day (obviously). At 4:20 in the afternoon, the city slows to a crawl while everybody downtown gets, essentially, baked. It's largely something fun, and the radio stations forecast a traffic "carmageddon," which usually adds about three minutes to the average commute.
In May of 2014 I was installing a show in the Vancouver Art Gallery and people smoking weed outside the building's air intake system turned the air in the building into a sweet syrupy goo. It felt otherworldly, like tendrils of a living organism were reaching into the building in search of humans to feast upon. It was sci-fi, like the Andromeda Strain... alien and beyond control.*
In 2000 Martin Amis was touring for his autobiography, Experience. A publisher friend asked if I'd interview him and I said sure, not realizing what a huge amount of work is involved in interviewing. We were to meet at lunch in a Japanese restaurant downtown, but it was the day Vancouver introduced harsh new no-smoking bylaws and there was a baby kerfuffle finding Martin a room to smoke in where he wouldn't be written up by bylaw enforcement zealots. I walked into what appeared to be a closet with a plastic butterfly palm he looked at me and said, "You're really not going to go through with this, are you?"
With relief I said, "Thank you. No."
We then went to score some weed from a friend, Jamie, and then drove off to allow Martin to enjoy his sunny afternoon on a local beach.*
Half a year ago I was on a flight from Toronto to Vancouver and fate put me beside someone I knew socially from home, a man famous for his sunny disposition. I'd had a terrible day and so I asked my friend, "You always seem to be in a good mood, and I'm always in a terrible mood. How do you do it? What's your secret?"
He said, "I'm always in a terrible mood, too. But what I do is this..." and he opened his jacket to reveal a collection of thin plastic tubes with spray nozzles filled with very dark brown liquid, pot syrup, basically. He took one out and spritzed the back of his throat. "My wife and I make it. Try some."
"But I haven't smoked pot in 25 years."
"It's not smoking, though, is it?"
"You have a point."
Spritz-spritz. This was over Lake Superior. The next thing I remember the cleaning staff on the ground in Vancouver were nudging me to get out of my seat so they could vacuum beneath it.*
I've smoked pot maybe ten or 12 times in my life. The last time I smoked it was actually 24 years before the flight from Toronto, in the spring of 1991. I went with friends to see Reveen the Impossiblist at a local theatre. Reveen was one of those guys who calls people up on stage and hypnotizes them and makes them cluck like chickens and that kind of thing. We actually wanted to be singled out by him but he didn't choose any of us. He'd been doing this for decades and could probably tell we'd smoked up from a hundred feet away.
For the first half of the show everything was magical. He guessed the numbers people had in their heads... he... Oh my God, this is the most astonishing thing I've ever seen anybody ever do!
And then came intermission, and the pot wore off and suddenly we were sitting in a room with people who may or may not have been genuinely hypnotized and acting like chickens. Within a minute we bolted out the door. My disillusionment with magic melted into my disillusion with pot and that was that.*
I don't know if people are improved through pot. I think people are helped by pot, but not necessarily improved. I just read the last sentences and they seem like the sort of statements that would rapidly be upvoted/downvoted on Reddit. Help? Improve? Palliate? Damage? Cripple? Liberate? Transform?
What drugs do to us is so broad, and here in 2015 there have never been so many mood options available to so many human beings. But then, what's a drug and what's not? We have legacy substances like pot and opiates, which our species co-evolved with, and then we have psychotropic pharmaceuticals which have exploded in the past three decades and map onto nothing that's ever existed in this universe. Think about this: there is no other place in the entire universe where molecules of, say, Effexor or Wellbutrin exist. None. Nowhere. In the entire universe. That's really insane. And cool.
Many of these new "pharmaceuticals" have turned into recreational drugs, and some recreational drugs have become medicalized. It's blurry. And then there are drugs like Adderall and Ritalin, which some people use to "super focus"... and maybe this is an instance of drugs actually improving people. I love that Bradley Cooper movie, Limitless, in which he uses all of his brain potential to the max. It's the way I felt in elementary and high school, long before the real world beat me down with a stick and I realized that intelligence is also about emotions and empathy.
In the 1990s I began noticing people in altered states of being which didn't really seem "stoned" or "high" but rather, merely medicated in some way. People were suddenly "different." Quieter. Louder. Raunchier. Boozier. More subdued. Gappier. Whatever. But they were recognizably not in moods as we once understand moods to be, and I figured it out that we really had entered the smorgasbord era of drugs, which is actually kind of interesting and not necessarily a bad thing. If nothing else, all those people who formerly would have been hidden beneath multiple blankets in dark rooms were at least out in the world experiencing life. Maybe not to the max, but with better than options that had been available historically.*
I've also known a lot of suicides in my life. I'd say 20. In each instance drugs were involved as direct or indirect triggers, except for one time when it was ambiguous—Brian Rath, the high school shroomer and pothead who was so high he passed out in his van and died of carbon monoxide poisoning from the heater. He was a nice guy, but he was paranoid and didn't trust living around other people and could only live in a van by himself. I don't think it was suicide. I have no idea.*
One thing I have seen many times over the years is younger guys who smoke a lot of pot and it activates (I'm guessing) a genetic predilection for paranoia which, under assault from high volumes of THC, triggers late adolescent THC-induced paranoia. For the next decade these guys (and it really does seem to be guys only) go random and make random/strange life choices and then, by 30, their brains cool down but by then they have to live with the decisions they made while being paranoid, and it's almost never easy.*
Here's a Vancouver story: In the spring of 1997, some kids in downtown Vancouver gave me three pot seeds, like Jack and the Beanstalk. I got home, planted them in little pots and watered them and they sprouted like a third grade class project on bean sprouts. A visiting friend of mine, Ian, looked at the sprouts and said, "Doug, that's not how you grow it. Pot is social, and you can't just keep it by itself. It needs to be around other plants. Pot is very social."
This was before an extended trip to England, and so I put the three sprouts, each in their own pot, down on a rock beside the creek on the bottom end of the property, surrounded by a cedar tree, sweet-scented astilbe, vine maples, moss, and a few other regional plants. Two months later I returned to Vancouver and walked in the front door to learn that Princess Diana had died in a car crash, and this sucked up all of my attention. And then around sunset I looked out over the deck and into the creek area to see that my three little sprouts had morphed into dense shaggy THC monsters. It was a real shocker. I mean, these plants were like plush mink coats of dope.
In the absence of any other plan I continued to let them grow, and by mid-September I harvested them, cutting them off at the base and hanging them upside down (thank you, internet for these directions) and then... and then I tried to find someone in my universe who'd want a huge supply of monster killer pot for free. I didn't smoke the stuff, and nobody else in my universe seemed to smoke pot. I went through my phone book and everyone declined one by one...
...just had a kid
...doing a cleanse
...too old for that shit
...more into mountain biking these days
...pot? Seriously? You?
Basically I couldn't give away a five-grand trove of kick-ass weed. Donating it to hospices was too weird for technical reasons, and in the end I took it to my parents' house to incinerate it in the family fireplace and watched it go up the chimney. Buyers' market.*
We all know what gay-dar is, but there is also something called drug-dar, and I don't have it. To this day I can walk into any social situation and have no idea of the quantity and quality of drugs everyone is taking. I just take everyone at face value, while they must look at me and say, "Doug has no drug-dar," and they move on to the next person more likely to map onto their drug wants and needs. It makes me feel foolish not to know whatever the signals and cues are.*
I drink a lot. At the moment it's still charming but I'll probably have to quit someday. I like drinking because it's predictable. Regardless of the source, I know exactly how to nurse a buzz along for hours. It's wonderful. In the dozen times I smoked pot, it made me feel different every time—why would I want that? Besides, who knows how strong it's going to be, and who knows what synthetic agrotoxins are, or aren't, mixed in with it?*
I smoked cigarettes from 1979 to 1988 and I loved it. I was a good smoker, but I blew out my left lung cliff jumping in Howe Sound during my senior high school year, and when I die, it'll probably be because of something to do with my lungs. They're just not the best lungs (lung-and-a-half, really), so I quit smoking on Halloween 1988, and I have several slip dreams a week. I still smoke; I just haven't had a cigarette since October 31, 1988. Dear tobacco: I miss you.
This piece isn't a gratuitous drug tell-all on my part. I'm illustrating that everybody has their own drug stories that play out across their lives. You have one, too, and it will expand as you age.*
I fly a lot, and for years I'd fly over the US looking below at the roads and buildings and think... ski hill? Shopping mall? Golf course? Industrial park? And... and then... and then there were always these strange things down below that looked like electron microscope images of viruses but they were... I had no idea. Poultry farms? Amazon distribution centers? University campuses?
They were prisons.*
People seem to love pot. That can't be denied, and legalized pot is obviously at the tipping point in the US and Canada, but why did it take so long? Everyone touts how much tax money can be made from regulating the stuff, and they're obviously correct. But I think a co-factor in the current pot legalization warp is that Americans are seeing that 1.5 percent of their population is currently living in a jail cell and the citizenry is understanding that this is simply nuts. Remember, Prohibition in the 1920s and 1930s wasn't so much about booze being evil; it was more of a simple solution to stopping the complex problem of domestic violence and to make life safer for women. To look at booze by itself is not the most useful way to look at Prohibition, and ditto for pot.
The sick thing about prisons is that, to a point, incarcerated people are very good for the economy: prison jobs, legal fees, construction contracts, and political pork. As a bonus, when a government has you criminalized, they then have a permanent, excellent tool for controlling you. From an evil point of view, criminalizing as many people as possible is very very good for capitalism and for those in power. Until it unravels.
In 2015 taxpayers woke up to the fact that industrial-grade incarceration is too expensive. Too many people in jail, too many people about to go into, or back into, jail... and the tax base can't support it any more. There's a finite limit to how many citizens you can incarcerate before the system falls apart—and that magic number would appear to be about 1.5 percent. Many of these incarcerated 1.5-percenters are incarcerated on pot charges. Decriminalize pot and suddenly you empty your prisons. Your tax bill is lowered, and many of your people are freed and once again their lives become useful and meaningful.
Odd that the war on drugs is ending up being cured by drugs.*
There's another co-factor in the legalization of pot and this factor is called Dow. Or Cargill. Or Dupont. Or Bayer. Pot became as potent as it now is because of hybridization, but hybridization has probably reached its limits, but then what about genetically modified pot? Think about it. I'll bet you a hundred trillion dollars that at this very moment, Dow, Monsanto, Dole, Coca-Cola, BASF, Archer-Daniels Midland are throwing every spare dollar in their budget at maxing out some super new GM pot that has so much THC it drips like a chocolate fountain, but that's not necessarily why they'd be GM'ing pot. They'd be GM'ing pot so that it requires less refrigeration during shipping. Or maybe it'll be pot you can irrigate with saltwater. Or maybe it'll be pot that's resistant to Roundup and glycophosates, or pot that grows a hundred feet tall. But the moment they come up with the right combo, is the moment pot goes legal in hold-out states like Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. Imagine: GM pot that can sit in freight containers for up to 180 days without refrigeration with no noticeable decomposition! GM pot is most definitely waiting in the wings to take over from GM corn.*
I just googled "GMO pot" and the first hit was a blog article saying that another news article elsewhere that stated Monsanto had created GM pot was a hoax. Genuine LOL.*
It also occurs to me that the days of pot being sold through medical dispensaries is soon to vanish, if not in a few years, then maybe 15 or 20. Pot will become more of a daily consumer item, and as such, it occurs to me that all of these GMO firms must right now also be lawyering up on every level and lobbying like crazy as they prepare for the inevitable. They're likely at the point of creating names and brands of pot that have yet to actually be GM'd. I'm curious to see if the names they go for are grocery-like (Ranch Dressing) or if they go scientific (Wellbutrin). This makes me think that in-house marketing teams are probably already on the case, too, identifying discrete segments within the pot user base, as well as trying to locate new ones. Old-school hippies. Moms. Emos. Country & Western listeners. Superpatriots. Jocks. Hipsters. Warfare PTSD sufferers. Telemundo viewers. Rapper wannabes. Young professionals. Jimmy Buffet fans. Deadheads—now there's a superbrand just waiting to happen. Of course, not everyone's going to want the same packaging, and remember, whoever gets market share first is probably going to be the most successful and endure the longest. Think Marlboro. It's a Klondike just waiting to start, and it's going to be brutal.*
Smoking is actually a pretty clumsy THC delivery system that we use simply because we're familiar with it. Even pot brownies seem hokey in 2015. All sorts of new aesthetics and product categories are likely to emerge. I suspect the future of pot is probably in spritzed pot, like I had in the plane from Toronto to Vancouver, or in THC taste strips, like breath freshening strips. Or vaping. What will its legalized pot packaging look like? The first wave of pot products will probably resemble borderline medical products currently existing, like the tubs of creatine or protein that weightlifters buy at protein shops. The next wave will resemble packaging and labeling in the style of craft beer breweries. The third and long-term packaging may be packaging that looks like Wrigley's gum or Pepto-Bismol. Boring. Quotidian. Part of the landscape. Hi, I'll get two Gatorades, a pack of peppermint Chiclets, and a pack of Parrot Head Spritz vials.*
Two years ago I was in a second-hand store in Chile and saw a really strange-looking metal vase—quite low-slung and not like something you'd put roses into. I asked what it was and was told it was a spittoon.
I'd heard the word used before, but I'd never thought about it much let alone visualized what a spittoon looks like. But up into the middle of the 20th century, American men in both public and private spaces feel the need to spit, they would look at a spittoon and say, "Good. A spittoon. Now I will expel the combination of mucous and tobacco residue inside my mouth into a receptacle on the floor, and I may or may not hit the mark." And then they'd do it.
Like many things from the 20th century, spittoons seem not just barbaric but they also tax the level of credulity of what a reasonably civilized society might consider OK and not OK (apartheid, bathing suits for women, gay anything).
I think pot is at the magic spittoon moment where suddenly it's too hard and too wilfully clueless to pretend that reality isn't reality—whether it's fiscal reality or social reality. I dislike pot. It has literally left me quite scarred. It's permanently damaged people I care for.
But then so has booze. And gambling. And greed. And genetics. And cars. And psychopharmaceuticals. And gravity. And ageing. And the law.
I think people are more smart than they are stupid. If they can handle everything else, then they can probably handle pot—it's a very small leaf to throw into the salad of life. Everything will be just fine.
Douglas Coupland, one of Canada's preeminent authors and artists, has been relentlessly chronicling the future of mass culture for 25 years and has usually been right. He is currently Google's Artist in Residence at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris.
Follow Douglas Coupland on Twitter. Lead image by Ben Ruby.