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We Were Smokers Once, and Young

Jonathan V. Last, non-toker

Jan 27, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 19 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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As Colorado’s new law permitting—encouraging?—the recreational use of marijuana went into effect, many of our country’s finest journalists felt the need to share the details of their experience with the ganja. Some came to celebrate the state’s new liberality, others to condemn it. 

Tom Labaff

Tom Labaff

Yet the stories from both camps followed a similar arc. The writers goofed around with marijuana in high school and/or college, many with their own modest version of President Obama’s Choom Gang. Then they grew out of it. Their non-pot-addled adult lives were proof either that doping up didn’t do them any harm or that toking and leading a grown-up life are incompatible.

What struck me most about the remembrances, though, was the blithe self-assurance these people must have had as kids.

It drives me slightly meshugah when people say that “everyone” does pot. Growing up, I never touched the stuff. And neither, so far as I know, did the vast majority of my friends.

In high school, we didn’t have especially sophisticated objections to marijuana. Like all forbidden fruit, it had a certain allure. What kept us from doing it was fear. Get caught sneaking into your girlfriend’s bedroom and her parents (and yours) might bring the lumber. Get caught with drugs and you could go to jail.

At least in theory. It never occurred to us that governments might go to the trouble of having laws but not bother to enforce them. Instead, we assumed that if we broke the law by purchasing or possessing narcotics, there was a nontrivial chance we’d get caught. In which case The Authorities would throw the book at us, thus ending our dreams of attending a Good School and someday getting a Good Job. A system that winked at illegality and bestowed success on the high and sober alike—that world we simply didn’t imagine.

Today, our naïveté looks more foolish than charming. Yet in our defense, this was the early ’90s, before America elected three consecutive druggie presidents. It was, as Ken Burns might say were he narrating the miniseries version of our lives, a more innocent time.

Besides our cowardice, the other thing that kept us away from drugs was resentment. Because the one trait shared by all the kids who did toke up—the motorheads, the hippies, the waste-oids, the preps—was a repellent sense of entitlement. They believed the rules that bound us did not apply to them. It didn’t help matters that they turned out to be right.

At university, a different sort of fear kept us away from drugs. A bit more than half of my college class majored in the hard sciences, and although there was plenty of drug use going on at school, nearly all of it was outside the sciences. And that’s because most of the core courses in the sciences were graded on a C curve.

That curve was the central fact of our undergraduate lives. When the median grade is a C, it means that the vast majority of the class isn’t struggling over the dean’s list. They’re fighting to stay in school. Because roughly a quarter of every class fails, and two course failures are enough to get you the boot.

In my department the professors had a nasty habit of increasing the randomness of grades by rigging the exams to decrease the spread. So, for instance, on a test with 100 possible points, the high score might be a 35, the low score a 2, and the mean a 19. Keeping the spread narrow increased the odds that even a top student could fail. Meaning that no one was ever truly safe from the curve, no matter how smart or diligent.

Under such a regime, rock ’n’ roll was an intolerable waste, sex was but a rumor, and drugs were a time-sapping indulgence likely to get you sent home. We had a term for the kind of coddled, slow-witted kids who could get stoned and still stumble into A’s. We called them history majors.

I took two lessons from all of this. The first is that there’s no moral turpitude at the university that can’t be remedied by the C curve—a corollary of which is that the debauched world of Charlotte Simmons is probably a direct consequence of grade inflation.

The second is that, as much as I resented the entitled mindset of the kids who did smoke, I’ve come to admire it. The essence of Empire, as the Brits once explained it, was that an Englishman could walk down any street in the world with the same confidence he might have striding through Piccadilly Circus.

Entitlement is unbecoming, but self-possession is a fine thing. And while I’ve never regretted passing up drugs, I sometimes wonder if I abdicated the empire of my youth.

 

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