A Lament for Criminality
I smoked weed for the first time under a starry sky in deep woods down east. It was at a party, all teenagers, at the cabin someone’s mom owned. It was the summer before my last year in high school. It was Jesse who passed it to me, helped me light it, talked me through my first coughing fit, passed it to me again, then said nothing but positive things for me – nothing shitty, nothing implying that I had been immature up to this point for not having done it sooner. Obviously there is a lot of hierarchy and cockfighting in high school, but Jesse was never like that.
I met Jesse in middle school, when he was consistently in at least a few of my classes for several years in a row. I was pretty low in the hierarchy at that time, but he defended me. Then, in high school, I became more popular, and me and him didn’t share classes any longer. I’d guess he became a stoner in Grade Ten. As I recall, he was never a very good student (I helped him sometimes in Grade Six), teachers and school administrators were always giving him shit; he was frequently considered disruptive or whatever else. He may have been suspended at least once, I don’t know. But I suppose probably at least some of the authority figures pegged him as a stoner before he ever even necessarily became one – with all that that implies.
I have a job these days; I listen to a lot of talk radio while I’m there, CBC and CJAD mostly, and they have been discussing the issue of weed legalization all the time – for years now, obviously, but with much more frequency in recent weeks. Most of the hosts, most of the guests, are awful, for a lot of reasons I could get into. But I just want to talk about one of the most common sorts of rhetoric, both from the Liberal government and from “the experts”, mostly lobbyists for public health groups – namely, that we need to protect “kids” from this substance. To hear Liberals talk, there will be no more kids smoking weed after their plan is realized, and to hear some of the lobbyists, well, they have suggested an age as 25 for the right to buy.
There is never any discussion of why youth smoke weed, or what they want. It simply doesn’t factor into the conversation. The assumption is that they just want to do anything bad, and that they need to be protected from these impulses, and from the dangerous effects of weed on their developing brains.
So, to be clear, it’s not that I necessarily disagree with the idea that repeated weed smoking as a teenager might fuck with your brain chemistry in a noticeable way. And I know that smoking is bad for anyone, as a rule, whether it’s marijuana or anything else. There are other medical issues to talk about, too. It’s just that, I don’t care. To speak of protecting anyone from marijuana is ludicrous when there are much worse dangers that this society not only does nothing about, but in fact enshrines as important – and the real way to protect people from these dangers would be to do something that no politician, no school administrator, and no public health official would ever endorse, which is simply to let people do what they want to do. Including, maybe especially, youth.
The problem is school. Well, the problem is a lot of things, but school is a part of it. One of the objectives of school is to shape youth into future productive workers for the economy, future good citizens obedient to the law. A lot of us know from an early age – it’s not hard to find out – that the system is fucked, however you want to call it. That the lifestyles of the successful are built on the suffering and exploitation of those further down the hierarchy, and yet many of the people at the top are still miserable themselves. It is an absolutely intelligent response to have no desire to want nothing to do with that, but school doesn’t just reward success, it also makes you afraid of failure. It shows you images of what you will become if you don’t perform and obey. Go to jail, be homeless, just simply end up a “loser”. For obvious reasons, they never talk about friendship, crime, and the sharing of resources as possible ways to live.
I was never a stoner in high school. After getting colossally and ecstatically high the first time, I didn’t have another toke for three months, and then not again until about four months after that. Weed only became a somewhat regular thing in the very last few months of high school, probably because there were just more parties to attend than ever. But nonetheless, I was well-set on a path of “ruining my life” long before I smoked weed. I had been skipping school when I could get away with it, sneaking out of my house, stealing food from supermarkets (for myself, and for my friends, because we didn’t have much money of our own), partaking in petty vandalism, doing the bare minimum in school to get by, cheating when it was easy and I knew I wouldn’t get caught, and generally prioritizing fun and friends over career propsects in every imaginable respect. Neither weed nor alcohol had anything to do with this.
So an important thing about Jesse is that, not two weeks after he helped me with my first joint, he actually died in a car crash, along with two other guys I didn’t know at all. It was a huge tragedy, for the whole town and everyone who knew him. But there was some hypocrisy, obviously. Teachers mourned him, too, because he was likeable, and even those who didn’t like him still understood the situation was sad. But in talking about who he was as a person, what he actually liked doing with his time, his value was suddenly being assessed in a completely different way than might have otherwise been the case.
Jesse was possibly on track to become a “drain on society” – not even necessarily a person who doesn’t work, but a person who takes more than provides, supposedly, when taxes and healthcare and all the rest are calculated. This is a common narrative about people from small towns on the East Coast, a common narrative about stoners, a common narrative about anyone who doesn’t prioritize work over life.
Life is not (necessarily) short, but it is limited. At some point, it ends. The way we should be living our lives is, perhaps in part, in order so that we can live long ones, but more importantly so that we live enjoyable ones, which are filled with activities we want to do, people we actually want to spend time around. Alas, I think that every time we obey laws that we think we would rather break – and which can probably get away with – we are conditioning ourselves to obey again in the future; we are setting ourselves up for submission, and perhaps too for isolation and alienation. But it can go the other way too. We can cultivate the best part of ourselves by refusing, as much as and whenever we can, what we hate, and prioritizing in our lives the things and the people that we enjoy. And this needs to start early. If that includes smoking weed, then so be it.
My first 4/20 was in high school, and like many other days, I skipped school and instead spent the first perfect sunny day of the year by the river by my friends. I didn’t smoke at all – I was back on my straightedge – because I didn’t want to, and it was fine, and still fun. Because I was with my friends, and we were outside, and we didn’t have anything to worry about.
Many years later, I went to my first 4/20 in Montréal. I didn’t know that it was happening until I was already at the mountain with my date. Again, we didn’t have weed on us, but it was cool anyway. It was sort of cool just watching other people having a good time, mostly young folks, probably skipping school or otherwise not giving a fuck, playing good hip hop from speakers and being stupid with their friends. When we climbed the mountain, we saw people huddled around small bonfires wherever we went, goofing off with their friends, climbing trees and climbing steep faces. I liked the blatant criminality of it, the good clean fun aspect, the fact that there were no cops to ruin anyone’s day.
I liked the fact that people were smoking weed with their friends, doing it collectively and in the open, rather than inside their living rooms, on couches, in front of video games and TV shows, maybe just by themselves. But weed doesn’t really need to be a part of this story at all. Whenever people are doing things that they enjoy, that fulfills their needs, without coercion, that is a good thing in and of itself. That’s how life should be all the time. There’s a lot of people out there who will say that it can’t always be that way – and maybe it can’t be, so long as those naysayers still exist and some of them have guns. But it is definitely possible for the rest of us to find each other, break out of our isolation, and live as freely as we possibly can.
But back to weed, by way of conclusion. I am in a lamentful mood, because this might be the last 4/20 that is criminal, and it’s obvious that weed being criminal is part of what made it an object that had something to do with counterculture. I wonder if anyone will want to still gather on the mountain, even take the risk of skipping school to attend, once weed is legal, taxed, and corporate. I am certain that all the people who made money selling and growing weed, and thereby afforded themselves a slightly more dignified and rewarding means of making money in this society, will struggle to figure something else out. Meanwhile, a bunch of capitalists have already set themselves up to dominate the market as soon as the hat finally drops. It looks a little bleak, from my perspective.
So if you‘re having a good time today, and a part of you is wishing it could be like this all the time, just know there are a lot of us out here who also want that. We’re blazing it, talking about how to live our own way. 4/20 forever!