Marijuana gets the green light

By Anna KingMay 25, 2014

Marijuana Nation – One Man’s Chronicle of America Getting High by Roger Roffman

It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.

— Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, 1932.

THE MATTER BEFORE Justice Brandeis when he made his dissenting opinion in New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann was the manufacture of ice in Oklahoma. More recently, and dare one say more happily, the same “laboratory” logic has been applied to marijuana. The fortunes of this drug, as measured by its legal status in various US states, have experienced a stunningly rapid rise. In 2012, pot smokers in both Washington and Colorado sparked their bowls to the news that recreational pot use was legal, at least as far as state law was concerned (although pot shops in the northwest state have yet to open due to red tape). While it remains a federally proscribed substance, the Federal government recently decided that it would not prioritize prosecutions for marijuana-related crime. In other words, states are getting the “hall pass” described by Brandeis, at least for the time being.

A crop of recent books by investigative journalists have mapped marijuana’s new terrain, including Emily Brady’s excellent Humboldt and Greg Campbell’s gonzo, hands-on Pot Inc. Both examined the debate surrounding the decriminalization of medical marijuana. Roger Roffman’s Marijuana Nation joins this year’s harvest of books on the subject, following Alyson Martin and Nushin Rashidian’s insightful A New Leaf: The End of Cannabis Prohibition (which, as its title suggests, looks at pot through the lens of the 18th Amendment) and Peter Hecht’s meticulously reported Weed Land: Inside Marijuana’s Epicenter and How Pot Went Legit, which focuses on the weed wars of California (with a nod to Colorado).Early April saw the arrival of Tony Dokoupil’s The Last Pirate: A Father, His Son, and the Golden Age of Marijuana, a colorful tale — interspersed with journalistic research — of his memories of his father’s life as a pot lord in 1980s Miami (“Every morning my personal hero woke at about nine, taking a habitual line of coke off the antique dresser next to the bed”).

Like The Last Pirate, Marijuana Nation straddles memoir and reportage. While Dokoupil’s book is crammed with squalid glamour of The Wolf of Wall Street variety, Roffman depicts himself as an endearingly nerdy young soldier in Vietnam, whose first puff of marijuana leaves him puzzled as to its appeal. He buys a pack of joints from a teenage local and smokes one in secret, alone, notebook in hand to record his experiences:

Sitting on the cot, I tried to discern any changes in sensation, however subtle. I thought of myself as emulating the Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann whom I had read about in a college course. Hofmann had first synthesized LSD-25 in 1938 and carefully documented his self-experiments with the drug in the early 1940s.

Roffman is rewarded only with the rather lackluster desire to take a nap, followed by a vicious bout of the munchies. In short, his first foray into the world of weed is a certifiable damp squib. He has a much more “successful” second experience — not in Vietnam but in Berkeley (naturally). Lounging back on plush carpeting and throw cushions, a female friend tempts him by putting Roberta Flack on the record player while her partner roles them a joint.

Roffman is a well-known figure in the cannabis world; he appears as a character in Martin and Rashidian’s New Leaf, who quote his speech from the podium the night marijuana in Washington was legalized for recreational use. Unlike Brady, Campbell, Dokoupil, Martin, and Rashidian, Roffman is not a journalist but Professor Emeritus of Social Work at the University of Washington and, according to Marijuana Nation’s introductory note, has been working in the field of drug use for 45 years.

He has previously published academic and semi-academic books on the subject of pot, including Cannabis Dependence (2010) and Marijuana as Medicine (1982). The latter is another genre-bending book; its back jacket blurb states that it “bridges the gap between scientific journals and street drug literature.” In this early ahead-of-its-time book, he argued for the medical benefits of marijuana, surely a brave thing for a social worker to have done in print in the early 1980s. Advocating throughout for patient knowledge regardless of the law, he also includes his own recipe for pot brownies at the end of the book (“sauté the amount of finely ground marijuana […] in a small amount of butter until it is slightly brown”).

In Marijuana Nation, Roffman recounts the life experiences that led him to develop his opinions about cannabis. It opens with a scene from the Vietnam War, where a 24-year-old soldier has been convicted for marijuana possession and sentenced to hard labor in a military prison; Roffman is on the adjudicating board and finds the sentence too harsh for the offense. As a social worker dealing with soldiers’ wartime PTSD, he was well-positioned to realize early on that many were self-medicating with marijuana in order to cope — in other words, doing the same as they did with alcohol; the latter was celebrated, however, or at least not condemned, while the former was punished:

Ironically, there was an unspoken assumption that soldiers in the combat zone could make reasonable decisions about drinking, when it was safe to cut lose, even to get dead drunk […] Getting high was different.

Roffman was not alone in this observation; self-medication with marijuana is at the heart of Tim O’Brien’s classic Vietnam tale The Things They Carry. Cannabis and tranquilizers are two of the indispensible “things” carried in the ill-fated Ted Lavender’s already overburdened pack.

Marijuana Nation also contains insightful first-hand accounts of key moments in the recent history of cannabis. Many books about marijuana, including, most recently, New Leaf and The Last Pirate, have drawn attention to one key moment in particular: a certain pot poisoning, Quaalude-prescribing, cocaine snorting scandal in the late 1970s. Roffman adds a personal angle. He describes his friendship with the-then White House Drug Czar, Peter Bourne. Bourne was involved in the debate surrounding the US government’s spraying of the toxin Paraquat onto illicit Mexican marijuana fields, in order to eradicate the crops; the chemical was slowly making its way into the lungs of Americans. Controversy followed, as the pro-marijuana lobby accused the government of poisoning US citizens. In 1977, Roffman and Bourne attended a party held for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). In Roffman’s account of the evening, the following occurred:

After making certain that all in the room were committed to this event being off the record, Keith [Stroup, Founder of NORML] invited Peter [Bourne] to do a few lines of cocaine and Peter accepted. There were about ten people present, several of whom were journalists.

Even though Roffman was at the party (and delights in name-checking Hunter S. Thompson among the attendees), he keeps deliberately vague the question of whether he witnessed the alleged coke snorting in question (Bourne has always publicly denied it happened). Roffman notes that the scandal — followed by Bourne’s resignation after it was revealed that he wrote a phony Quaalude prescription for a colleague — led to the marijuana legalization lobby losing a key advocate in the White House.

Marijuana Nation, though, also conveys Roffman’s ambivalence about marijuana, recording both his push for marijuana decriminalization and his insistence on recognizing the downside of marijuana use. “A campaign to undo the egregious inequities of criminalizing pot possession should not pretend there were no potential risks in the proposed alternative,” he writes, going on to recount various tales of marijuana dependence, including his own evolution from marijuana-virgin to frequent user (leading his wife to stage a one-woman intervention).

Coupled with his brother’s addiction to oxycodone and other opiates, Roffman’s qualms catalyze him to set up marijuana check-up clinics for self-described cannabis addicts (these clinics are described in both Marijuana Nation and Cannabis Dependence), as well as advocating for taxes raised by legal marijuana to be spent on education programs warning of its potential for harm.

Marijuana Nation is, ultimately, an apologia for Roffman’s academic opinions and work, and a personal account of the drug’s recent history. When warning against drug dependence, his tone is always good-natured, more avuncular than didactic. He sees the good and bad in cannabis, much like the poet Baudelaire before him. The Frenchman warned against pot’s addictive qualities in “The poem of Hashish,” where he notes that the drug renders its user “enfeebled” by the “habit of his bondage” while also acknowledging its transformative effects: “everything, in fact, the totality of beings in the universe rises before you with a new and hitherto unsuspected glory.”


Anna King is a consultant at the United Nations and a writer for The Interdependent, the online publication of the UN Association of the United States.

LARB Contributor

Anna King is a consultant at the United Nations and a writer for The Interdependent, the online publication of the UN Association of the United States. She has also written for Time Out New York and the New York Review of Magazines.


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