With medical marijuana laws on the books in 23 states and recreational pot use legal in a few more, it's fair to say American society's perception of weed has flip-flopped in the new millennium. The plant that was notoriously demonized by reefer madness campaigns and targeted to feed racially-charged mass incarceration is now enjoying a well-deserved renaissance. As a longtime cannabis connoisseur and former prisoner of the drug war, I've watched the decriminalization wave with equal parts pleasure and astonishment. This month, stoners will celebrate 4/20 with a sense of growing personal freedom and at least a little bit less of the paranoia that haunted generations past.
As marijuana goes mainstream, David Bienenstock—former High Times editor, VICE columnist, Bong Appetit producer and go-to pot expert for Big Media—has penned How to Smoke Pot (Properly): A Highbrow Guide to Getting High, which hits shelves Tuesday. He offers detailed illustrations of the basics, like how to roll a joint in the wind, but also asks tougher questions, like where pot belongs in polite society in the post-prohibition era. Characterizing weed as a miracle drug, Bienenstock views being high as a destination that enhances life's finer moments by helping people live more meaningful lives and driving creativity. Like all fans, he believes weed is a much safer alternative to alcohol and many pharmaceutical drugs—but only if we smoke it the right way, and with the right mindset. We called him up to talk about the book and the state of pot culture in 2016.
VICE: How and why are people getting pot smoking wrong now?
David Bienenstock: The title of the book is a little tongue and cheek in a way. But Bill Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and he didn't know to inhale, so maybe everybody can use a few pointers on the mechanics of it. This is about what it means to be cannabis enthusiast/supporter at this particular moment in time, when so much is changing in how society views it. I think that the underground cannabis culture actually has a lot of really important things to teach the rest of society. When we make this paradigm shift from the underground, I want to make sure that we keep what's good about the underground marijuana culture alive. There's been this idea pushed by the media that, OK, here comes Big Business and Wall Street to "legitimatize" marijuana. Well, marijuana is beyond legitimate—it's an amazing medicine, and it's a sacrament to a lot of people.
I was involved in the weed smuggling industry in the late 80s and early 90s, and eventually got a 25-year prison sentence for LSD trafficking. What did I miss when I was in prison until 2014? It seems like I got out right on time.
You can be in Colorado at a legal marijuana store purchasing marijuana, paying taxes on it and being an upstanding citizen, and you cross the border into Kansas and you can have your children taken away for using this plant medicinally right now. There's been so much oppression on this culture, yourself included and so many people I've come in contact with through my reporting.
When I first started reporting for High Times, writing about marijuana politics and society, it was a really depressing job. Most of what I was reporting on was terrible busts and people whose lives were being needlessly ruined. Anybody who knows the truth about marijuana understands that the War on Marijuana is not about marijuana—the War on Marijuana is about racism and oppression and filling for-profit prisons. It was a very difficult job, and the fact is this still goes on.
Every intelligent person I know understood that marijuana prohibition was wrong from the time they were a teenager. This change in society has come from true grassroots political activism and from a community that was suppressed. So many people risked or lost their freedom to make this change. I think that everyone who participates in cannabis culture has been part of one of the biggest civil disobedience actions in our country and our world's history, and we're finally starting to see victory.
What do you make of the recent study that suggested weed basically makes you a loser?
Ronald Reagan basically said, I now have absolute proof that smoking even one marijuana cigarette is equal in brain damage to being on Bikini Island during an H-Bomb blast. And oh, it's going to do this and that or it's going to make you impotent, give you lung cancer. And all of that has been proven wrong. I just don't think that there's any credibility when it comes to studies like that. My experience in reporting on this culture for the past 15 years would say quite the opposite.
We can't get a study in this country to find out if it helps soldiers with PTSD when there's so much evidence. They're blocking all of that research, and yet if you want to come up with some cockamamie study to show the harms they'll throw all the money in the world at you.
Does legalization make pot less interesting to write about or to smoke? I mean, the drug lost some of its mystique, right?
On the one hand I love outlaw culture, and I define outlaw culture as breaking the law that you think is wrong. Not being a criminal, but being an outlaw. I really respect outlaw culture. I think the people who broke those laws with honor have been a big part of this civil disobedience movement, but to me knowing people like you who were in prison while I was enjoying a joint—that made it a lot less fun. And I think anybody who really stops to thinks about it would feel the same way.
To me what will be fun is when no one is in jail because of marijuana and no one is getting arrested for marijuana, and minority communities aren't being overrun with police enforcement and stop and frisk and all this bullshit from the War on Drugs. We're making tremendous progress pushing back the War on Marijuana and we really have to keep going.
OK, which candidate is best for pot lovers in 2016?
I support Bernie Sanders on many issues, and Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate—I don't think he has as much of a chance to win as Bernie Sanders, but both of them are very positive on this issue. If you look at the Clinton administration, when medical marijuana was passed in California, they threatened doctors with losing their licenses simply for recommending it to people. And on the Republican side, it's just a non-starter. So I would say if you're looking for a candidate for president who is even, just, and positive on this issue and has a real track record, it would be Bernie Sanders or Gary Johnson.
What do you think of dabbing? To an old-school pothead like me, it seems kind of intense and maybe even a little problematic.
One metaphor would be like the difference between drinking a beer and drinking hard liquor. It's the same drug, but it's in a much more potent form and you need to be mindful of that. The people who are very into dabs are people who are not usually causal or occasional marijuana smokers. They're people who smoke a lot of marijuana or ingest a lot of marijuana.
I personally don't think that should be people's initial way of experiencing cannabis. With that said, I think the people who enjoy that really intense experience of cannabis, absolutely, that's your choice. You just need to be aware of the fact that it can be very potent. I think for newbies, for people just coming into marijuana, stick with the plant, cultivate a relationship with the marijuana plant in its raw form, in its beautiful flower buds.
Do you worry about any of the classic pot-smoking methods fading away with all the fancy edibles, vapes and stuff they have now?
I think there's a place for everything. Like making the Bong Appétit show for MUNCHIES, for instance, we've had these super fancy dinners with chefs making edibles and really high end strains and that's all wonderful. But I'll smoke an apple pipe in an alley behind a bowling alley with you any day of the week. It's all good to me. I don't think anything is going away. I dislike this idea that marijuana culture is going to change for the better if rich people get into it and if it becomes more expensive and elitist.
Big question, but here goes: Is weed losing its edge in American culture?
We just saw that admission that the Nixon administration targeted marijuana to go after minorities and the anti-war left. I've been saying that for 15 years. People who have been in this movement for decades longer than me have been saying it the whole time. As marijuana spreads more and more people are able to experience this plant, and especially able to experience it outside of the paranoia—that doesn't come from ingesting marijuana, it comes from the fact that you might get arrested. I say in the book that if 800,000 people a year were being arrested for possessing avocados then everyone would say guacamole makes them paranoid.
What do you think about New York and other states with super restrictive laws when it comes to medical marijuana?
We've always had politicians who were worried about being soft on crime or soft on drugs, but now they're worried about being soft on compassion and soft on providing medicine to these families who need it. But the system in New York State is not predicated on how do we provide the most help to the most people—it's predicated on how do I remove this political threat of being seen as insufficiently responsive to these families while providing the least help to the least number of people.
What's next for pot in America?
This plant is a huge threat to the pharmaceutical industry and anybody who is looking at this sort of next phase of ending the War on Marijuana needs to keep that in mind. If you look at the number of pharmaceutical drugs that can be reduced or replaced by medical marijuana and you look at the amount of money that could potentially cost the pharmaceutical industry, they're not going to give up this fight easily. That fact is the untold billions and billions of dollars they stand to lose if marijuana becomes a first line treatment for all of these conditions makes them very aggressive in trying to limit medical marijuana access and medical marijuana acceptance.
Check out David's book here.
Follow Seth Ferranti on Twitter.