Last year, my boyfriend and I went to West Virginia to visit my mother while she was undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. It was the second time she’d been diagnosed in three years, and the side effects from these treatments were much worse. My previous understanding of cancer had come pretty exclusively from pastel paperbacks, all dignified vomiting and heads shaved in solidarity, but the reality seems more Dante than Nicolas Sparks. A half-joke about supplemental painkillers was soon brought, tentatively, to the table.
Dave pulled me into the hallway. “She obviously wants it and doesn’t want to say,” he said, head cocked to a bullshit-cutting angle. We agreed she had been “bringing it up”— earlier that day she told me a story about her “wild” high school friend, Kim. After sharing a moment of pitying head shaking—isn’t our culture fucked up?—I sent my ex-boyfriend’s roommate a text message; he insists he’s not a dealer, despite the combination-locked safe containing a rotating stock of varietals under his bed. We arranged to “pick up” the next evening. I skipped into my mother’s room to tell her.
“But I don’t have any of that stuff to smoke it with!” I made a confused face to signify that a hip young person would not know what she was talking about. “You know, those big pipe things,” she explained. “Kim has them.”
Once, before I believed pot could be anything besides “the gateway drug” to more serious, skin-crawling-with-imaginary-maggots-substance abuse, I asked my mom if she’d ever smoked weed. She said only once, in an attic when she was in high school. I’d imagined a circle of bell-bottomed bowl cuts passing around a cartoonish joint reminiscent of the one on the cover of Because I Got High, which was soundtracking my friends’ older brothers’ cars at the time. Hearing this implied preconception, I replaced the imaginary jay with a psychedelic bowl and felt sympathetic to her discomfort; I still don’t know how to use them.
My first time was with the aforementioned ex-boyfriend around my eighteenth birthday. I spent that summer working as a cashier at Kmart, while he had weightier responsibilities at the service desk. He was mock-scandalized to hear I had never smoked. Thus, when my pre-birthday shift came to a close, he beckoned me outdoors and presented me with a small jewelry box wrapped in newspaper.
“Is this a joint?” Head cocked to bullshit-cutting angle. I opened it as soon as I hit a red light; it was accompanied by a note with instructions to make sure it went all the way down if I decided to flush it.
That night we met to listen to music in his red Hyundai Elantra, but I was afraid to smoke, so we didn’t. We didn’t kiss, either, which I thought peculiar, given several moments of sexual tension and poignancy. He later told me that what he considered my flippant attitude towards kissing ("I just like to kiss people") was analogous to his approach to pot smoking: he didn’t want to give it up so easily if I wasn’t willing to lend him the same trust.
Although we met and eventually smoked atop several other secluded hilltop locales before I left for college, I was instructed to save the birthday joint for a special occasion. Something to remember him by. I don’t think I could have predicted that, almost four years later, I would be four outfits deep trying to decide what I should wear to buy weed off his roommate.
I wanted to convey a worldly pot-buying nonchalance, that I had come a long way since the days of begging, through hysterical tears, to be taken to the hospital before my tingling right arm fell off. I settled on an obviously vintage dress and ripped tights, which I felt harkened to times and locations when and where marijuana usage was accepted and celebrated.
I showed up on their doorstep smug—he apparently still hadn’t demanded his landlord get rid of the cat-piss smell—but nervous; I’d always been gifted joints in jewelry boxes wrapped in newspaper or been offered hits gratis. I’d never bought weed myself. What if I got ripped off? Should I have brought something smell-proof to transport it in, or is it customary for the not-dealer to provide receptacles? How illegal is this, exactly?
I walked into the haze and videogame explosions one expects of this kind of interaction, with the added tension of my ex-boyfriend suggesting I should pay nothing, explicitly because of the product’s intended recipient and implicitly, I like to think, because of his residual guilt for the messy failure of our relationship; the not-dealer being visibly uncomfortable with this but not knowing how to delicately handle the cancer issue while objecting to free samples; and me insisting on paying fairly, mostly.
Back in the car, Dave assessed the quantity, took a whiff, and assured me I had scored not just a deal but a sweet deal. This was ostensibly because this weed was for my twice-cancer-stricken mother, though I would later find out not-dealer believed I had been using her as a decoy to get high myself.
Imagining potency wafting from the glove compartment, Dave and I went home and made known our intentions to bake brownies. We believed they’d be easier on a mouth and throat full of chemotherapy sores. My mom was clearly pleased, or at least not displeased, that we had ignored her "Oh, you really shouldn't!"s and gotten “the stuff," but she was vehemently opposed to cooking with it. My younger brother, age 13 but "sensitive," would be "so upset" if he came home from school and smelled his mother cooking something the acid-washed youths in a Just Say No video had told him was bad.
“I’m his mom,” said my mom.
Let it be known that this is the same mom who maintained a “secret” (cigarette) smoking habit for, as far as I know, my entire childhood and adolescence. I appreciate that she tried to protect my innocence, but I was maybe eight years old when I woke up to find a scattering of cigarette butts on the grass beside our front porch. Having recently seen, "Harriet the Spy," I mounted an investigation. Checking all my neighbors’ mailboxes and jotting damning opinions on my loved ones in a small notebook (to later be left, “accidentally,” in a location where those loved ones were likely to discover it) led me nowhere, so I turned to questioning potential witnesses.
“Oh, your mom’s smoked since she was sixteen,” my dad told me in the car, loyalties to his ex-wife’s self-cultivated status as the “good” parent apparently nonexistent. “It was probably her.” Years later, I drove past her going in the opposite direction. She was smoking a cigarette out the window of her ice blue Honda-CRV.
The chance of brownies disappointingly slim, Dave began rolling a spliff on my kitchen counter. After instructing her on the proper techniques for maximum enjoyment—inhale twice, hold it in for a few seconds, make sure it goes all the way down if you decide to flush it—he prepared several more, to last after we would leave. We were confident she would have many, many days of restful calm and alleviated pain and warned her not to smoke very much at once, first because the not-dealer had raised his eyebrows and told me it was medical-grade and from Vancouver, and then because after we smoked some fraction of a spliff ourselves—to make sure it wasn’t poisoned—we couldn’t get out of bed.
Three months later, I was back in West Virginia, spending a few weeks at home between graduating from college and moving to Berlin. Since purchasing a one-way ticket to bohemian Europe, I had affected a kind of overcompensatory swagger regarding minor illegal drug use, as if marijuana were the head cheerleader and I a scrawny, second-string kicker she had acknowledged in the hallway.
“Everyone!” I shouted. “Come and see how cool I am!” My mother and I were sharing Subway sandwiches at a TV dinner tray table when I inquired after the spliffs.
“Did you have fun with the drugs?”—the tonal equivalent of a guy pulling the yawn-and-stretch at the movies. The answer, it turns out, was no: My mother had smoked none of what Dave prepared for her. She had kept the remainder of the first spliff in a sealed Ziploc bag in her sock drawer and gifted the rest to Kim.
Disappointed, I decided to make the best of it and Googled “smoking old joint bad.” After reading the grasscity.com community’s thoughts on the subject, I finished off the sock drawer spliff on my front porch when my family went to sleep.
I had never smoked weed alone, but doing it on a floral-cushioned wicker rocking chair while watching the peaceful suburban fireflies in front of my childhood home proved something of a gateway. It was nice! Nicer than when doing it with of circle of potentially judgmental acquaintances, certainly. I had been having anxiety attacks since I came home—I imagine this is true of many young adults, as well as regular adults—so I arranged another trip to see my friendly not-dealer, who was happy to assemble me a sampler of four color-appellated varieties. Despite this being only the second time I had purchased marijuana—and the first time I had purchased it for my own recreation—I felt cool.
I felt significantly less cool, however, a week later, when I had a hunk of it in my hands and little idea what to do with it.
As a female, one can smoke fairly often without ever having to purchase or prepare the stuff one is smoking. Even if you do know, deep down, in a visualizable way, because you have seen your tousle-haired European boyfriend roll many joints and many more cigarettes wide-eyed American strangers have mistaken for joints, how paper and plant and small rolled up piece of cardboard come together to create jay, the dexterity required for this particular skill is not of the watch-and-learn variety. This life lesson will only become embarrassingly clear after you have purchased a not insignificant quantity of marijuana and made known your stash to a group of similarly cautiously experienced friends at a small gathering one sticky summer evening.
I realized quickly that simply having $40 worth of marijuana would not get me high. Not owning “one of those big pipe things”—and unwilling to scour headshopfinder.com to source one—I thought initially that I could use the Google to teach me how to roll a joint, even going so far as to pick up papers along with my weirdly flavored iced coffee at the gas station.
When push came to roll, however, I just couldn’t do it. The online cannabis community offers many resources to the doobie newbie, but that didn’t matter; after I shut my bedroom door, gathered my supplies, laid them out neatly on my carpet, and prepared for minor frustration but ultimate success (I’m reminded of my collage phase), I just sat there.
I don’t know why, really; the only thing I can think of now is fear of failure mixed with the sense that I was being a poseur, but at the time I just remember thinking, “I can’t do this!” I could not imagine breaking that marijuana into small pieces, placing them evenly inside a rolling paper, and licking it closed. I was no longer the independent woman smoking weed in a rocking chair on the front porch.
Apparently seeming a poseur only mattered in the privacy of my bedroom, though, because I began carrying a bud in my purse at all times, should the dual opportunity to get some of it off my hands and seem like a cosmopolitan buyer-of-drugs arise. At said small gathering, I thought it had, but that evening ended with the four of us driving to a Speedway to buy papers, coming back to a shed behind my girlfriend’s parents’ house, rolling a loose, limp joint that fell apart and spilled half its weed on the ground, and eventually trying to smoke out of an apple.
Weeks passed. Despite continuing to make faux-casual mention of having marijuana in my possession—the part of the weed-smoking process most indicative of coolness, I think—I eventually found myself days away from transatlantic travel with almost an entire summer’s stash of weed. That I had wasted my money was not so much a concern to me as the fact that I would be wasting the pot; I didn’t know when I’d be back in the States, so I felt like I needed to get rid of it.
Many of my friends try to distance themselves from stoner culture by trying weed and feeling relieved to dislike it. The line between smoking a hip amount and smoking too much seems blurry, literally and figuratively, a-ha, and some people want to avoid it altogether. “I just don’t feel anything when I do it! Really!” asserts the otherwise hard-partying Hannah, smiling at how special is her snowflake. “I get really paranoid,” affirms two-time Tony, with a weary headshake denoting some mild past trauma. “I had a bad experience,” says your roommate Ryan, referring to the basement party at which he ate an ill-advised number of brownies, cried, and vomited in an inappropriate receptacle.
These stories seem fundamentally different from first-time-I-got-drunk stories, which are generally understood as rites of passage into young adulthood and told with the self-deprecating understanding that one’s former naïveté has been replaced with happy-hour-hardened experience. Alcohol is allowed, expected, legal; marijuana is subversive, for experimentation, the chief characterization of “a phase.” Drink too much and you’re part of the club; smoke too much and you might as well hang up a glow-in-the-dark Grateful Dead poster. That’s a club, too, of course, but not one you want to be in.
Often, there’s a need for weed and no one wants to ask the guy they know, hoping to distance themselves from the kind of people with guys they know, but this was a different symptom of the same illness: I couldn’t stand having it in my possession.
Not much had changed then, actually, in the four years since I’d received patient inhalation instructions in the passenger seat of a red Hyundai Elantra. After making the eleven-hour drive from West Virginia to Connecticut and surviving freshman orientation, my birthday joint remained inside its jewelry box in the top drawer of my standard-issue dorm-room desk. Weeks passed, as they do, but I never offered to share it with any potential new friends or busted it out when life as a tall person on the top bunk became too stressful.
I was scared.
Eventually, I found myself hanging out with three people who would not go on to be lifelong friends, or even merit nod-based acknowledgment in passing on the sidewalk, when one of them mentioned wanting to smoke. (If I remember correctly, they had been talking about humanism and ancient Greece, subjects about which I still know very little but can imagine are made more lucid by marijuana.) I mentioned I had a joint and said they could smoke it. Free weed not being particularly commonplace, ringleader was skeptical. “Really?” he asked. What kind of person goes to the moderate lengths required to obtain marijuana and then gives it away to someone they’ve just met? “Really,” I said, keeping the box for myself. “I really don’t want it.”
A few days before my flight to Berlin, I went to lunch at a place called Taste of Asia with my father and stepmother. Conversation turned to my sex-writing, drug-taking dark side, and at some point during the crab rangoons, my dad asked if I smoked weed. Well, he asked if I smoked “weeeed,” in the jeering, nasal voice parents use to convey that they’re “cool with” whatever bad things we youths are up to.
I said, truthfully, sometimes, then thought it pertinent to ask, casually, "Do you want some?" Look at me, I'm moving to Europe, I’m so progressive, I offer drugs to my elders. My stepmother burst into laughter and flushed cheekedness, and my father chuckled before saying: "Well, be honest!"
She was happy to take some of it off my hands, and I was happy to entertain an image of myself as a kind of visiting weed fairy, bestowing the gift of “Chill out, it’s fun!” upon loved ones who, because of preconceived notions about location or age or logistics, couldn’t give it to themselves. Still, she didn’t want it all, and by my last day in West Virginia, I had resigned myself to the fact that my medical-grade Agent Orange might have to go to waste. I could have given it back to not-dealer, sure, but that would expose my progressive bohemianism as an act. If I wasn’t going to reap any medicinal benefits, I at least wanted to look cool.
My mother was undergoing radiation at that point, so she’d been welcoming casserole-toting visitors all summer. It was fated, then, that on the eve of my departure I would return home from some sad-but-excited good-bye session to see an old white Chevy Conversion van parked in the driveway. Could it be?
I opened the front door to vicious air-conditioning and a raspy, familiar voice. “Well, hi Lauren!”
“Hey, Kim,” I said. “Do you want any weed?”
In Berlin, Dave lives across the street from Görlitzer Park, a former railway station that was bombed out during World War II and which we sometimes call “the weed store.” At all hours of the day and night, conspicuous persons loiter in clusters spaced about eight feet apart and ask passersby—including elderly in sensible windbreakers and parents accompanied by children being transported in/on various wagons, strollers, sleighs, tricycles, miniature horses, etc.—if they want any weed. I’ve seen both accept.
It’s not particularly good weed, but buying illegal drugs in the middle of a busy footpath in broad daylight as rosy-cheeked babes skip past singing German nursery rhymes is infinitely better than having to ask six different friends if they, ahem, “know a guy.” Also nice is the dealer-to-dealer dynamic; when an interested party approaches a seller, he defects to the dealer who has gone longest without a score. I think there are peaceful borders between groups of dealers based on country of origin, and there are definitely problematic racial and immigration issues at play, but here that’s not the point. Rather, take away: 1. Except for periodic “raids” done presumably to help the Polizei maintain an air of legitimacy, it’s very relaxed, and 2. The drug dealers take turns!
After following my mother’s orders to make sure my younger brother was busy “gaming” in his room, I took Kim onto our front porch. It was a beautiful early-August afternoon: suburban lawns a resplendent green, giant oak tree casting long shadows over flowerbeds, the sound of an adolescent basketball game thumping rhythmically down the street. A quick glance towards the neighbors’ houses told me the coast was clear, and I was able to cut her a deal.
Lauren Oyler is a writer based in Germany.