Updated: May 20, 2013 7:54PM
Growing old has drawbacks — you tire easily, you start to look like hell and you get jostled by packs of young folk sporting full sleeve tattoos, braided beards and Polynesian ear lobe discs, all earning what you earn at their entry-level tech jobs.
But aging has good aspects, too. The technology that youngsters shrug off still will awe an older person — when I first used an iPod, it made me proud to be a human being, to be part of the same race that made this.
You also live to see shifts in society that you never expected to see — accepted gay marriage, for one. Or recycling. Recycling used to be a fringe fetish embraced by shaggy, save-the-earth oddballs — think how veganism is viewed today. Now it’s a widely held truism, almost a secular religion — my wife would no sooner throw a used aluminum can into the garbage than her great-grandmother would fry up a rasher of bacon before heading out to synagogue on Saturday morning.
Or pot. I’m looking at the front page of Thursday’s Sun-Times, and there is a big drawing of the same seven-lobed cannabis leaf that kids in my high school would ink on their jeans, with the headline, “HIGH HOPES,” the news being a medical marijuana bill passed the Illinois House and is truckin’ on down to the Senate, so people with cancer and AIDS who find relief smoking dope while law enforcement more or less coughs into its fist can finally do so legally.
This isn’t happening in a vacuum. California is years ahead of us (1970s default technology: laxer pot laws = progress). When the boys and I were staying in Venice Beach in 2009, we couldn’t walk down the boardwalk without passing a phalanx of beach bums in decorative white lab coats holding signs saying, “The Doctor is IN!” with the aforementioned Mary Jane leaf, directing pedestrians into “clinics” tucked between T-shirt shops where, for a price, your condition demanding immediate access to reefer would be speedily diagnosed — and everybody has something — and the required prescription written out.
My boys were aghast — my parental pride diluted by an echo of my old teenage self, saying, “Geez, where did these kids come from?”
Pot shows just how random and strange our society is when it comes to what is forbidden and what is accepted. Booze cuts a swath of death and destruction through this country, an enormous, multi-billion dollar problem destroying the lives of tens of thousands. Yet certain realms of alcohol tighten (drunk driving, winked at in the 1970s, nudges up against pedophilia now). Others grow even more lax — I see now they’re having cake frosting-flavored vodka commercials on TV; at least they kept the Hello Kitty character off the bottle, for now.
Pot is to drugs what masturbation is to sex. You don’t admit doing it. As the most notorious alcoholic in Chicago, having written a book about my battle that anyone can read, I still find myself reluctant to say whether or not I smoked a marijuana cigarette 30 years ago — and if it happened, it’s been that long — because my boys might read it and ... what? Suddenly decide to pattern their lives after me? Fat chance. Parents worry because pot can be a serious problem; I do remember a marijuana addict in rehab with me at the Chapman Center in Highland Park, though I did look at him with a certain, “Pot addiction? Really?” Then again, it’s easy to dismiss another’s obsession if you don’t happen to share it.
What I’m trying to say is this: The drug war has utterly failed, an enormous waste of money and human life. Part of stepping away from that is decriminalizing marijuana, and it’s a sign of what a tough time Americans have with any kind of change — we can’t get rid of the penny either — that we have to start with permitting people dying of cancer to do what we should permit for everybody, and even then it’s taken us years and years.
My mom just called. Her home, Colorado, is even beyond California, having passed Proposition 64, making possession of an ounce or less of pot by adults over 21 legal for recreational use and giving a new meaning to “Rocky Mountain High.” Or rather, returning to the old meaning. The joke I told my folks at the time was, “I really should get out there to see you guys more, and will, once this pot legalization thing works itself out.” That certainly would take the edge off home visits, or so I speculate; it has been 30 years.
“So, are you and Dad checking out the new marijuana boutiques?” I asked. “Ah, no,” my mom said. “I don’t think so. No.”
Of course not, Mom. That would be wrong, wink-wink. My gut tells me that America with legal pot — whether for sick people or the general population — will be difficult to distinguish from America with illegal pot, except instead of costing money, for cops and prison, it’ll generate taxes. Someday our descendents will look at the banned pot era with puzzlement, the way we view when it was illegal to dye margarine yellow. Or maybe it won’t be puzzlement. Maybe they’ll just be high.