Reefer sadness

Amid the potted pilgrims rolling down Parliament Hill from the annual 4/20 Feast of Saint Cannabis celebration was a poster child for traditional Canadian perception of the steadfast stoner.

He looked like a man trying out in-line cinder block skating for the first time. His gait resembled an old picket fence: ancient gaps and lots of sag. His eyes, as he accomplished the curb at Rideau and Sussex, were glassier than free beer night at an optometrists’ convention. His lips hung unwittingly parted, like the proceeds of a divorce.

“Whoo,” he said to no one but himself in a tone of amiable amnesia, “hoo.”

Passersby glanced at him knowingly, but uncritically. Marijuana’s poster child was ripped, but he was no longer an oddity because we have been worn down by decades of propaganda to accept intemperance – even extreme public inebriation – as just another variant of human diversity. Everybody must get stoned.

After decades of being punch lines for jokes about the munchies, the apostolate of pot has evangelized so successfully that it has managed to elevate the social cachet of getting high. On the cusp of legalization in Canada, cannabis cultivation, possession and ingestion have become quintessential bourgeois activities.

Discussion of dope these days is a marketing and branding exercise like all others. Serious conversation around is it more likely to reference federal-provincial tax transfer points than bongs or blunts.

In the process, smoking weed has been repackaged and resold as a pursuit safer than bicycle helmets, more gormlessly harmless than a Justin Trudeau selfie.

High time, some of those unable to resist the lamest of puns might say. But is it? Only, I would insist, if we accept the pot propagandists strictured definition of what constitutes harm.

It is a definition that limits, in a severely self-serving way, the hallowed liberal principle of harm, reducing it to the narrowest circle of individual physical or psychological damage. A recent pro-pot Huffington Post piece in that vein snarked, for example, about revealing the “exhaustive” list of names of all who have died from marijuana overdoses. Surprise! The list was a blank sheet.

So…dope doesn’t kill, and death is now the sole demarcation of the dangerous?

Normally, no rational society would accept that proposition. Yet we are verging very close to it by accepting doper dogma that excludes the broad social harm posed by mainstream marijuana use. We have been induced to ignore the injury that arises when we naturalize national recourse to a substance whose sole purpose and effect is the creation of willful confusion.

It is not an abstract concern. We’re already experiencing its effects in the erosion of our collective capacity for political, social, and cultural discernment. We see it in the painfully contorted vocabulary that has been used to lobby for legalization, and justify getting high.

                                                                                    (Image: Creative Commons, Dustin O’Donnell)

It is now commonplace, for instance, to refer to the “recreational” use of reefer. Seldom, if ever, is the question raised as to how even the widest definition of “recreation” applies to the habit of toxically obliterating awareness, chemically detaching from one’s surroundings, and pharmaceutically retreating into the white smoke of intellectual obliviousness.

Whether we consider “recreation” as physical exercise or mental entertainment, it is a stretch too far to insist that actively becoming numb qualifies. Is inducing sleep invigorating, edifying or even amusing? Is down the new up?

The deflecting rejoinder of the pot lobby, of course, is that the same might be said of drinking alcohol. But to accept the comparison requires overlooking the substantive differences between the substances. I do not mean simply their chemistry. I mean their causality.

I have argued elsewhere that the telos of toking, the purpose of pot, is purely intoxication. Even that needs nuance, though. Political philosopher John Von Heyking provides it in a beautiful essay on Von Heyking alerts us that what pot induces is not authentic intoxication, but mere solitary stupefaction.

Intoxication, he argues in a fine review of Roger Scruton’s book on wine, requires the quality of “relishing” and so the active gesture of “reaching out” to an experience first as sensuality and then as sense memory.

It demands the sustaining of “presence” that the very ingestion of cannabis purposefully removes. To smoke dope is to indulge the desire to become dopey. It’s the only point of every joint.

By contrast, says Von Heyking, drinking a glass of wine opens us to the possibility of “relishing (it) as a result of the reflective distance we experience in our sensory (response)” to it. What we taste in the wine is not just the wine itself, but its aroma, which is ultimately an evocation of place, culture, history. Bluntly, there is a world more to wine or the moderate consumption of any alcohol than simply getting stupid and detached.

“The intoxication of wine, which engages the full personality of the (wine lover), including the eroticism of his intellect, differs in kind from drunkenness as well as the effects of drugs such as cannabis,” Von Heyking says. “Whereas wine inculcates an opening of the soul to another, cannabis and other (drugs) induce the soul’s closure. The intoxicating conversation of a symposium of friends differs drastically from the ‘mutual befuddlement’ of a group of stoned [potheads]. Wine inculcates convivium whereas cannabis aggravates solipsism.”

His words put paid to the infuriating consumer-choice reductiveness that pot sophistry so seductively employs. The quasi-libertarian “you-do-you” attitude that reduces marijuana consumption to a question of individual taste is in reality, as Von Heyking frames it, abdication of our capacities and responsibilities as social beings.

Solipsism is the malaise of retreating into the excluding circle of the self where all that matters is what matters to me. It is much more, and much worse, than raw selfishness. It is a gross assault on the civic virtues of prudence, justice, charity, and above all moderation, that make living in community not just palatable, but possible.

Why? First and foremost, because it is an immoderate undermining of moderation. Turned entirely inward, immoderation explicitly refuses to allow for external means to moderate it. We become the prisoners not just of excess, but of our incapacity to effectively engage with the world.

As use of cannabis aggravates individual solipsism, so its mainstreaming compounds the afflictions of a society already in deep danger of becoming a bewildered aggregate of small circles of the self. If we do not understand that as the most profound meaning of harm, then we are suffering amnesia, however amiable, about meaning itself.

Whoo hoo, indeed.

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