My Favorite Drugs - Cannabis
About three years ago I had a conversation with two friends about marijuana legalization—while also smoking it. The subject was: will marijuana be legal on the national or federal level, within our lifetimes? It was only a friendly debate—but if we had taken bets on our positions then, I would now be very nervous looking back just a short time later.
It was April 2016 and I was in Washington, D.C. for my first Students For Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) annual conference. SSDP is a student activist network with a strong presence in the U.S. and globally, officially dedicated to ending the War on Drugs but unofficially a great place for college students to meet other kids who like the same drugs as them.
I found myself sitting on the hotel roof overlooking the Potomac River in the Rosslyn neighborhood of Arlington, Viriginia, just across the water from the capital. That same day, I had met Steven and Divya, two undergraduate college students studying in Los Angeles and Florida, respectively.
“Weed is something that’s just so ubiquitous in California,” Steven explained, who lived in Long Beach. “It’s not technically legal yet—but really, it is. Pretty much anyone can get a medical marijuana card and buy it in dispensaries, it’s so easy.
“It’s so much a part of our culture too—people just don’t care about weed. There isn’t that anti-drug mindset that a lot of other places and people have. I smoked my first time before I even turned 15, because all my friends, family, and everyone I know smokes.”
I told Steven that his story reminded me of a girl named Savvy, originally from Los Angeles, who I became friends with at college in New York. Savvy was a filmmaker, singer, and a fairly avid weed-smoker, but funnily enough she really picked up the habit after leaving California for New York. Everything he was telling me about his home city echoed the stories Savvy shared with me.
This conversation took place just months before his state would fully legalize the plant by popular ballot through Proposition 64—on the same day the rest of the nation would elect Donald Trump the next President of the United States. For a guy like me—the son of immigrants from military junta Brazil and Soviet Russia, born in New York and raised in New Jersey—the idea of this weed-tolerant, easy-going city by the beach on the Pacific Coast seemed like a fantasy.
Even as I write these words, the culture—and the policy—around marijuana is rapidly changing in both of my homes, New York and New Jersey. Both states saw legislative initiatives to try to legalize recreational marijuana in 2019, though New Jersey arguably came much closer. But throughout my lifetime, marijuana was not on the agenda and not acceptable. Nearly every one of my friends, classmates, and other people I grew up with in New Jersey have been arrested, fined, and served probation or other criminal penalties for marijuana-related offenses. Most people I know encounter law enforcement while driving. Speeding and other minor traffic offenses are often a very easy pretext for police to try to search your person, your possessions, or your entire car for even a hint of drugs.
I myself—by the skin of my teeth—evaded an arrest one Thanksgiving Eve in 2017 on a night out with my friends. Through an unfortunate series of circumstances, a group of police stopped myself and my friends Marcus and Joseph as we were about to get in our cars to drive home. After much grandstanding and brouhaha, they searched my car and found no drugs—but instead a tiny glass container in my inside jacket pocket with “marijuana residue”, which they confiscated.
That night we were lucky the police had much bigger fish to fry on the biggest drinking night of the year. But of the four friends who met and smoked together that night, two of them at different points over the years have been arrested for marijuana possession and battled through police, courts, fines, and a drug rehabilitation program to remove it from their records.
Marijuana use was something you had to hide throughout most of my life. I know many people who went high to school, college, work, the movies, dates, the supermarket, band practice–you name it. Some people are great at hiding it, usually those who have been smoking weed for years and are well-adapted to knowing how to feign sobriety when needed.
Personally, I’m less skilled in pretending not to be high, because weed makes me act like such a goofball. I stutter more, I think harder when responding to questions, I’m more talkative, I drop things, I clown around—all telltale signs. But luckily for me, I also do all of those things almost as much when I’m sober, so most people who know me are just used to me acting strange.
The truth is, there’s no shame in being high. That may be hard to appreciate when you’re told that smoking weed is pointless, lazy, and stupid; when you’re told that smoking weed is an “indulgence” and a waste of your time and money; when you’re told that smoking weed is harmful to your mind and body and health.
But remember that weed, like any drug, is a tool. It’s a tool that can make you more lazy, more creative, more energized, more social, more introspective—all depending on what you make of it. Learning to understand your relationship to drugs is, more than anything, a process of learning about yourself.
During my second year at college, I was spending many of my weekends traveling back to New Jersey to visit my family and spend time with friends like Joseph—smoking weed of course. At that point in our lives, we were either getting out of a toxic relationship—in my case—or just getting into one, in his case. We were also both pretty dissatisfied with our respective college roommates.
At any college—and I hope, most high schools in America now—there are mandatory classes you take in-person or online that teach you about things like responsible alcohol use and preventing sexual violence. I volunteer myself as Executive Director on a future campaign to implement a training course for all American students—Good Roommate Skills.
My sophomore year at NYU was the last I spent in school housing. I was matched with three other boys, and grew to feel pretty isolated and unhappy that semester. Besides not getting along or connecting very well with them, I was most upset when my roommate asked me not to practice guitar while he was in the room.
’Tis the struggle of a musician—our profession barely nets us enough income to have a place of our own, but no one wants to hear us drill the modes of Eb harmonic minor to the steady ‘CLICK-cluck-cluck-cluck-CLICK-cluck-cluck-cluck’ of a metronome! If only I’d just taken my guitar right down the block to the 14th Street-Union Square subway station—at least then I would have come away with some grimy dollar bills and change for my trouble!
I ended up twisting some arms to get myself out of the school dorm, and in January 2015 relocated across the Hudson River to West New York in Hudson County, New Jersey. It’s a small city up the block from Jersey City and Hoboken. To put things in perspective, it’s about as far from Manhattan as Astoria, Queens, or Williamsburg, Brooklyn—but just getting downtown by public transit often feels like you’re traveling from Connecticut.
That decision sparked a long journey over two years that saw me zig-zag around New York and Brooklyn, constantly moving in and out of different apartments and encountering new casts of roommates each time.
If a genie had appeared to me way back in 2014 when I was still in school housing, and told me the horrors that awaited me once I would move out and go solo, I would have fallen at my roommate’s feet in gratitude and begged him to lock my guitar in a closet for the rest of the year (I’m actually sorry, Andrew—I could have been a better roommate and you shouldn’t have had to listen to my guitar noodling).
Actually, I probably wouldn’t have listened, because I was so goddam stubborn and convinced of myself. And the truth is, if that genie appeared to me today and gave me the chance to travel back in time to talk some sense into 19-year old Alex, I would lock him in the closet. Everything I went through and all the amazing and awful people I’ve met in this god-forsaken city have made me who I am today—better to appreciate the whole breadth of that experience.
But as fall of 2014 became winter of 2015, I retreated further and further from my world in New York—from school, my classmates, my friends, until I was literally alone in a one-bedroom apartment in a town where the only people I knew were my ex-girlfriend’s family—and scarce comfort that gave me.
Joseph was feeling equally isolated in his first year at college, at a small, mostly-commuter state school a couple hundred miles down the Jersey shore. His first roommate was reported to have masturbated and watched online porn—while Joseph was in the room. As bad as that was, Joseph then entered a protracted fight with his housing department to be switched out of the room, a fight in which he succeeded after much tooth-grinding.
Neither of us spent much of our weekends at college that year, instead traveling back to our parents’ homes which were within a twenty-minute drive of each other. We smoked a pretty healthy amount of weed together—usually at his parents’ house, an ancient artifact on a steep hill over a colossal lake in the mountains of North Jersey.
“I feel like your brother’s onto us,” I warned Joseph one night. His younger brother Robert was the only other person still awake in the house as Joseph and I were sneaking off to share a blunt over the lake.
“You need to understand, man,” he said, “he just thinks we’re naturally stupid to begin with, so he doesn’t think we’re acting any different than normal!”
I laughed. That night we watched Led Zeppelin: The Song Remains the Same on DVD, an old concert film from the band’s heyday in the 1970’s. Live footage of their best tunes, morphed into extended jams, is intercut with highly stylized narrative sequences starring the band members in pastoral or supernatural settings. It’s simply the best movie to watch stoned in your best friend’s house, hoping his parents don’t wake up at 2:00am.
Funnily enough, at that point in time Joseph was surpassing me as the “stoner” among our friends. Less than a year ago, he was firmly against smoking weed, and in the past he mocked or criticized me for smoking.
But things quickly changed when he started dating one of his schoolmates, a girl named Velma. To call her a ‘stoner’ was an understatement: she practically bathed in weed. She was a fairly forward personality type, unafraid to speak her mind and influence those around her. In an interesting turn of events, around the time that she and Joseph started dating, her older sister Colette—just as adamant a weed-smoker—started dating my best friend Solange, who had also picked up a heavy smoking routine.
A young, star-crossed boy, newcomer to drugs, surrounded by three very strong, persuasive women who were cannabis rock-stars…he never stood a chance! Fortunately for me, Joseph picked up plenty of great tricks during his time with Velma and the girls. Most notably among them was the introduction to my life of the waterfall bong.
A waterfall bong is an ingenious application of Newtonian physics for getting really fucking high. It is a bottle of water with a small hole in the bottom and a pipe inserted through the bottle cap. You put your weed in the pipe, fill the bottle with water while plugging the hole, and screw the cap on top.
Then, you light the weed while letting the water drain through the hole. As the water drains, it pulls the smoke down into the bottle. When the water is completely drained you remove the cap, and pull on the bottle now filled with smoke. One hit of this may be all you need, so be cautious!
Ideally, the bottle will be glass and not plastic. Please, try not to put fire, smoke, and plastic in proximity with your lungs. Supposedly you can buy a glass drill bit and do this yourself with the right tools. When Velma and the girls showed Joseph this device, they used a glass Arizona Iced Tea bottle and were able to simply create a hole with a small hammer.
Joseph recalled to me how these Arizona Iced Teas were selling like hot cakes at the WaWa convenience stores by his college, helped in part by him sharing the innovation with his friends:
“Somehow, now everyone figured out what you could use it for and they’ve been buying a ton of them! Everyone’s using a waterfall bong at my school.”
“Do you think the store knows what the students are doing?” I asked.
“I have to wonder if they do,” he said, “that all of a sudden these young people are showing up in droves and asking specifically for this glass Arizona Iced Tea!”
Joseph made me my own waterfall for my birthday that year. But through my constant relocations, it was lost over the years. I forgot about it for a while, then a couple years later I asked if he could make me another one.
His face fell. “They don’t sell them anymore,” he reported.
I shook my head. A strange era had come to an end.
When I look back on the people who have meant the most to me over the years, I realize I met nearly all of them were because of a shared interest in weed. I first met Georgia, a filmmaker and singer, in my freshman year college dorm after she posted up ‘Musician Wanted’ fliers. This led to an awkward but endearing first encounter where she played me a folk-pop song on her dad’s acoustic guitar, and I showed her my then-favorite band, the death metal-meets-cinematic-adventure of Between the Buried and Me.
I had actually just formed my own music project around that time, Death Is A Business. I released a CD of four songs I spent my last year in high school making (production was actually disrupted by Superstorm Sandy for a couple months back in 2012!). I was ready to become a rock star, drop out of school, and tour the world.
To be young and restless. That didn’t happen, but in less than a year I did form a band and we played our first show at the Bitter End in Lower Manhattan a few weeks after the school year ended. And that was the second time I ever saw Georgia, seven months later, when she arrived in her slightly mismatched clothes carrying a faded backpack.
“You actually came!” I cried.
“Well, of course,” she said. “What the hell else do I have to do tonight?”
I had frantically messaged every contact in my phone to come out—though despite all my promotion efforts, I still ended up paying the promoter about $70.00 out of pocket for unsold tickets. New York is a tough town.
But I forgot all about that after myself, my bandmates, and our other friends all trekked back to my dorm to enjoy some cheap beer—courtesy of Juan, our only friend over 21—and sticky green weed, courtesy of Georgia.
“It’s meant to be shared!” she said with a wave of her hand. That kind gesture on a hot summer night sparked a long, beautiful friendship between us that would take us eight hundred miles south to her namesake state of Georgia, two hundred miles north to Boston, all over New York and New Jersey, and culminate in her singing lead vocals five years later on my heavy metal album—the same band that she once came to watch at a random bar on Bleecker Street.
Georgia and I ended up doing lots and lots of drugs together throughout our adventures, and I even credit her for indirectly sparking my foray into drug policy activism. Our second year at college when I still lived in the dorms, I spent a night with her and her close friend Rick, who was a far more avid drug-user than either of us.
We three sat in a darkened courtyard outside after sharing a smoke in my room, and the topic turned to the legalities of weed at our school. “New York has medical marijuana, right?” I asked Rick. The state had in fact legalized medical cannabis just months before in July 2014. “Does that mean if you need medical weed you can possess it in the school dorms?”
“You would definitely first need to prove you need it with a medical card,” he said, “and even then I don’t think they would allow to just smoke weed in the dorms. Probably you could only take it in a concentrated form.”
In fact, for years the New York medical program covered a limited range of medical conditions and only allowed certain concentrated forms to be sold, not “smokeable flower” (what us common-folk call herb, weed, or bud).
“What if you were caught with it but you said you needed it for some medical condition?” I pressed. “Would they let you off even if you didn’t have a card?”
He smirked. “I think you’d be shit out of luck.”
“Look, if you really wanna know the answers to these questions you should just go to the SSDP meetings.” “What’s SSDP?” I said.
“It’s Students For Sensible Drug Policy.”
You really need say no more than those four words. I sat dumbfounded and slightly stoned, in the cool courtyard: There’s a student organization on our campus working on this and I didn’t know about it?
Georgia and Rick had attended a few of the campus SSDP’s meetings that year, but it wasn’t until a year later that I actually joined up with it. Predictably, the small but excited membership was very excited about drugs—but there was some good work going on too.
Most of the meetings during the first semester I attended were educational ‘Just Say Know’ presentations on the safety and risks of different drugs. We talked about what happened when you combined ‘molly’ with an SSRI anti-depressant (spoiler: not good), how drugs like ketamine are used differently in medical and recreational settings, and appropriate dosage levels for drugs like LSD or mushrooms.
Typically by the end of the hour these structured lectures would devolve into a trading of personal stories and experiences using the different drugs—not unlike this book. There was always free food, and it wasn’t just pizza and soda—we had Ethiopian, Thai, Mexican, and Indian, to name a few.
I quickly took on organizing and leadership roles with the small group, and within a year I took over the organization as President. Between 2015 and 2017, my involvement with SSDP at NYU twice took me to my state capital in Albany, as well as Washington, D.C., Portland, Oregon, and Boston. In June 2016 I connected with a psychedelic and drug-oriented online magazine, psymposia.com, who published my first piece of drug journalism—sparking the journey that led me to write this book now in your hands.
But long before all that happened, Georgia also set in motion for me a series of events that led me to cross paths with another person closely involved with the anti-drug war movement, though of a more radical stream.
Once upon a time I had scarce access to weed dealers as a still doe-eyed college student in New York, so Georgia referred me her own, a man named Aaron. Aaron lived in Brooklyn and he would take the train to meet me downtown for a sale. He was always pleasant, but I didn’t think much more of him.
In spring 2015, I booked the first concert with a new lineup of my band, Death Is A Business. The show was scheduled for a Sunday afternoon in July at a then-new club, the Bushwick Public House. Surprisingly, of all the places I played in Brooklyn with my band in that time period, this is one of only two that are still open.
The band had gone through several changes already; that year my college friend Ahmed replaced Marcus on lead guitar, my longtime-friend Tom from New Jersey left an opening on bass guitar, and for drums we hired a Mexican immigrant named Juan Pablo. He was the most interesting addition to the band, as he spoke very little English but played very fine rock and metal grooves. Finally, my five years of Spanish classes between high school and college came in handy!
So one day in June 2015, I left my student job at the NYU gym to travel to the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn to retrieve a stack of concert tickets from my promoter. I had worked on-and-off with this promoter for about a year, since I’d first arrived in New York. “So how does this work?” I asked my contact Jason when he first approached me.
“It’s simple,” they explained. “We book tons of shows with touring bands, all over the city, all throughout the year. All you need to do is sell at least ten tickets, $15 each. You give us $150.00 before you get on stage. You sell any more than that, you keep it!”
“Sounds great!” I replied. It was the same pernicious pay-to-play scheme I signed up for with the Bitter End—though it was arguably even more dubious to pay $150 to play at an obscure club in Brooklyn for an even more obscure band from Minnesota.
Thankfully, I somehow avoided ever paying these guys a dollar out of my own pocket, even though I never made the ticket minimums they asked of me. I credit that to a lucky breach in oversight. But my advice to musicians new to New York, or anywhere else for that matter: run like hell from these people.
And so that same day, after I grabbed my tickets, I took another two trains to travel an entire mile and a half within the same neighborhood to pick up weed from Aaron’s house for the first time. And laying across his couch, smiling at me with his feet kicked up and not a care in the world, was a handsome man who, for the next two years, would bring a world of joy and pain into my life. And of course, lots of drugs. His name was Arthur Loeb.