The other day, my pal, Akinyele Sadiq, took me aside. “The first time I read Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl I couldn’t make sense of it,” he said. “Then I smoked hashish and understood.” Ginsberg would applaud. Howl can be read and appreciated without the benefit of intoxicants, but they can enhance the engagement with and the experience of the poem. Ginsberg wrote his epic, about a generation destroyed by madness, while under the influence of illicit drugs such as marijuana.
I taught literature at Sonoma State University, but I never urged students to smoke weed. When Homegrown—my marijuana movie—arrived in movie theaters, a first-year student came to my office and asked, “Do you smoke pot?” I said, “No. I don’t.” She shook her head. “That’s not plausible.”
The next day I changed my narrative in class. “I gotta tell you,” I began. “I smoke weed and …” The first-year student who had first broached the subject opened her purse, took out a joint and said, “Do you want to get high now?” The class broke into laughter. I declined, but from that day forward students invited me to smoke weed with them. My stock response was: “You smoke with your friends and I’ll smoke with mine.”
Since they were curious about drugs, I asked them to read some of the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who used opium regularly and wrote “Kubla Khan” under its influence. His pal, Thomas de Quincey, outed him in Confessions of an English Opium Eater. I’ve tried opium and liked it too much. Cannabis is about all that my mind and body can handle. I once told my older brother, Fred, a psychiatrist, that I wrote six books while stoned. His answer: “You would have written 12 if you hadn’t been stoned.”
English and French literature would be a lot less exciting if the 19th-century romantic writers had steered clear of opium and hashish. Beat novels and poems by Ginsberg, Kerourac and William Burroughs would lack pizzazz if it weren’t for the spectacular language and imagery that drugs spawned. Burroughs used heroin regularly and lived until 83, but I don’t wish his lifestyle on anyone.
Jonah Raskin is the author of “Marijuanaland: Dispatches from an American War” and “Dark Day, Dark Night: A Marijuana Murder Mystery.”