Just Say Yes: What to Make of the Marijuana Memoir

Maybe it was only a matter of time.

just say yesIn recent months, the New York Times has ramped up its coverage of marijuana, covering everything from how Colorado’s marijuana taxes may have to be returned to residents, to Obama’s trip to Jamaica, to op-ed essays like this one, simply called “How I Buy Weed.” The writer, 68-year-old Catherine Hiller, is the author of the forthcoming book Just Say Yes: A Marijuana Memoir, that will be published – as if the puns weren’t already laid on thick enough – on April 20, or 4/20.

Sigh.

Yesterday Hiller was featured in another profile piece in the NYT, and while I find her book’s rather obvious title and clichéd release date somewhat tiring, I’m interested in what Hiller represents and in what she has to say. She seems to recognize the social and racial disparities that make it acceptable for her to be featured in two articles about her illegal drug use, and she knows that it’s because of her position as a middle-aged white woman that she’s allowed to publicly admit, and even to celebrate, her daily marijuana use, without facing any immediate legal ramifications.

Catherine Hiller

In response to a critic who said that Hiller’s marijuana use is evidence of her living in a “cocoon of white privilege,” Hiller defended her position by arguing, “Maybe I won’t get stopped. But I wrote this not because of my privilege, but because I think it’s absurd that anyone would get stopped for this. Whatever I can do to legalize it, I will.”

I think this is indicative of the larger shift that’s taking place around marijuana use. The strength of the argument for legalization is being reinforced by a growing acceptance of white middle-class marijuana use, especially among aging baby boomers. While black marijuana use continues to be demonized (see the horrendous comments on this right-wing article about the levels of THC in Michael Brown’s body when he was killed by officer Darren Wilson last August), white marijuana use is seen as either titillating and fun or shockingly banal, depending on who’s writing about it.

Lately, white pot use is seen as pushing the envelope. It’s become exciting, even artistic, for viewers to look inside the lives of regular pot users, as though white smokers were some kind of exotic beast and High Maintenance was a kind of osprey cam, with everyone milling around to see what might happen next. Emily Nussbaum, in The New Yorker, called the web series “luxurious and twisty and humane, radiating new ideas about storytelling.” And, in the same magazine, Nick Paumgarten praised the pot-smoking ladies of Broad City as embodying “the freedom, debauchery, ineptitude, and fellowship that people, particularly young women, must give up, or at least hide from view, in order to function as adults.” Portraying women smoking pot, eating pizza and having sex was, for Paumgarten, nothing less than “sneak-attack feminism.”

Hiller seems to be tapping into this feeling – the idea that there is a sense of liberation inherent in “coming out of the cannabis closet,” if you’re white enough and middle-class enough to do so without fear. She’s even started her own website, www.marijuanamemoir.com, that is less about the author or her book than it is, as the site puts it, “a place for your weed memories and reminiscences. It’s for those who have ever enjoyed lighting up and would like to share their stories.”

(So far only a few people have. Under the suggested topics of “The First Time I Got High,” “My Most Memorable High,” “Close Encounters with the Law,” “Scoring,” and, somewhat amusingly, “Everything Else,” there are only four or five entries apiece at most.)

But Hiller’s book isn’t totally without meaning or utility. What she represents is someone who has consistently used marijuana for over fifty years and who hasn’t, as she put it, “hit rock bottom.” “My story is the the story of so many people who use each day,” she says. “And so what? What’s the issue? What will it lead to?” Her celebratory, even emancipatory tone makes me feel like there’s a Twitter campaign around the corner, with a hashtag like #stillsmokin popping up on self-promoting tweets (“Smoked for twenty years and I’m still employed!!! #stillsmokin”) in the same way #blacklivesmatter or #yesallwomen digitally gathered activists around a cause.

Life-Magazine-1969-10-31It also reminds me of the late 1960s, when white smoking became so banal that it was featured on the cover of LIFE magazine on October 31, 1969. “At least 12 million Americans have now tried it,” the cover read. “Should it be legalized?”

Obviously that never happened, though the widespread decriminalization laws that swept the country from 1973 to 1978 occurred almost exclusively because the face of marijuana was painted a pale shade of lily white. And now the same thing is happening again: if history is any guide, the whitening, and subsequent banalization, of marijuana use will generally lead to greater acceptance of the drug, reflected primarily in state laws.

And now, with her new memoir (which, yes, I am planning to read), Hiller may be the movement’s new face. She’s not using marijuana for any medical cause: “I just like the feeling,” she says. And her desire to use her book and website to liberate “secret smokers” may not be far off. Because of the overwhelming layers of race and class privilege that correspond to her drug use, Hiller as the new face of marijuana reform will probably lead to far more changes in laws than the faces of, say, Snoop Dogg or Michael Brown.

Hiller sees her movement as comparable to the drive for gay marriage. “It’s hard for people to change their mind-set after so many years,” she said. “But look at marriage equality and how that happened so fast. That was unheard-of five years ago. So maybe smoking pot will be completely normal, and no one will raise an eyebrow when they find out somebody smokes.”

The woman who landed a book deal from smoking marijuana wants people to stop raising an eyebrow about pot use? I highly doubt that, but perhaps.

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