by John Ayre
A few years ago RollingStone magazine asked Vancouver journalist Brian Preston to write a feature on the burgeoning pot-growing business of British Columbia. It was logical territory for Preston. Known to smoke more than a toke or two, Preston had made a specialty of writing articles about quirky religious movements, New Age retreats and counter culture lifestyles for magazines like Details, Playboy and Vogue. The idea of examining how pot is grown and consumed in British Columbia was of course infinitely expandable to the whole world. After all, wouldn't it be worthwhile taking a look at what was happening internationally with this seemingly innocuous drug? What is it about pot which still raises the ire of police and politicians most everywhere? How is it used and tied to religion and life-style in different places? In a wonderful stroke of luck, Grove Press asked Preston to circle the globe to find out. His report, Pot Planet: Adventures in Global Marijuana Culture had some initial intention to be comprehensive. Preston chose some rather obvious places like Nepal, Morocco and British Columbia. Oddly he stroked out some rather essential possibilities like Jamaica, Africa and Mexico, hitting other more tidy and certainly safer places, like Australia, England and Holland.
Preston's research strategy was simply to go to an area well-known for its pot or hashish and connect with the local culture by trying to buy some weed. In most places this was easy. In Australia with its well-known pot centre of Nimbin in northern New South Wales, all he had to do was arrive, follow some potheads home and collect an easy story. Likewise close to home in Vancouver he could just stop by a pot seed supplier called Spice of Life as a way of discovering the nature of different varieties and species with wonderful names like Shishkaberry, Sweet Skunk, Purple Hempstar and Bubbleberry. He went out into the British Columbia mountains to talk to farmers and it's obvious that he preferred mixing with folksy growers rather than unfriendly associates of biker gangs who ran operations nearby which mysteriously escaped the attention of the police. To want to find an easy-going context is natural for a journalist but it doesn't always provide the complete story. Like Hunter Thompson, he should have talked to the bikers as much as the agreeable guys with the shaggy hair and shapeless overalls.
Predictably Preston found out that marijuana use is incredibly varied from place to place. In Nepal the farmers rarely smoked it but fed it to their cows when they were sick to improve their appetite. In Laos the marijuana went into noodle soup for flavour and appetite enhancement. While in Britain he found a feel-good religion built up around pot, the Universal Church of the Holy and Sacred Herb, which endeavoured to return people to a state of consciousness man once knew in Paradise. Preston came across people everywhere who had no ideological commitment but needed pot to suppress pain or improve appetite to override the effects of cancer or AIDS. By the same token, Preston is eager to note and defend marijuana smoking for purely recreational reasons which can be forgotten in the earnestness to push it towards medicinal use.
Even in a book which set out with no high claim to moral seriousness, Preston acknowledges the need to clear away a raft of issues related to lobbying for legitimizing pot's medical use, reefer madness propaganda, police abuse, continued political unease most everywhere over marijuana use and the confusion about whether marijuana inevitably opens the door to harder drugs. Preston does address all of them but usually piecemeal within the context of a particular story. What seems to be simple was certainly never simple. While covering the apparent pothead Shangrila of Amsterdam, Preston has to note that Holland is not as liberal as it so often seems from afar. Officials merely turn a blind eye to personal use, yet increasingly harass and arrest growers. Yet compared with Holland, most places remain obdurately opposed to private consumption. In Canada,for instance, where marijuana is deemed acceptable if used for relieving discomfort caused by major medical problems, there is still official harassment for those who try to obtain it. There are Orwellian dimensions to harassment south of the border where the Drug Enforcement Agency destroys crops in the fields in California rather than bother with formal arrests which will never lead to convictions in court because the local culture is so pro-pot.
Sometimes bordering on gonzo-journalism, Preston's style can be ironic and funny. This helps in certain situations; in places like Morocco or Nepal he nearly forgets marijuana for the other enticements and dangers of the environment. Unfortunately he often forgets that he is writing a book rather than a series of knock-off pieces for a counter-culture tabloid. He sometimes lapses into the rather tired vernacular which Tom Wolfe imitated long ago in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Phrases like "dudes", "sick fucks" and "getting her shit together" abound and undermine the seriousness of his text.
In the end, Preston continues to be perplexed by the fact that a drug, proven innocuous even by comparison with liquor, is so badly maligned. But despite his sybaritic side, Preston admits that marijuana is no cure-all for social evils. He has seen a niece muddy her future with excessive dope-smoking. For many sick people, the use of marijuana is a necessity, a way of alleviating painful symptoms of illness. There is an urgent need for politicians to address this issue despite its contentiousness. For himself, it's a simple innocuous relaxant, better than liquor, softer than any number of drugs. The best of it should be there on liquor store shelves in bright foil packages.
John Ayre and Brian Preston smoked a toke or two as students of Journalism.