In a few short days (on October 17th, to be precise), Canada will officially legalize marijuana, being the first country in the Northern Hemisphere to do so. If you are over the age of eighteen, you will be able to buy pot legally at a provincial dispensary. Gone are the days when that knock on the door after midnight meant running to the bathroom in panic and flushing your stash down the toilet, only to find out it was the pizza delivery guy who you had phoned during a bout of the Mad Munchies and who you had forgotten about. Luckily, he too had more than just hot pizza in his bag.
Will the thrill of participating in an elicit activity now be gone? Will those times spent laughing hysterically with friends in an all-night diner over burgers, fries, and apple pie with gobs of ice cream on it just be a faded memory? (See Robert Creeley’s brilliant poem, “The Wicker Basket” on this subject). Will the paranoia of being watched by other diners who regard your antics censoriously be mitigated by the paranoia of being stopped at the U.S. border and asked if you have ever smoked marijuana, invested in pot stock, or worked for a pot company in these “heady” times?
Who can forget the first-time smoking pot? “WOW,” you said, (or “far out,” if you are of my generation)! Suddenly, everything was new and a first! You would start to think of all the things you could do that would be better on pot, and then you went out and DID THEM. You wrote entire novels in your head, thought of the most profound philosophical ideas, danced with the Great Creator, and then promptly forgot everything.
My first experience occurred in college. I was attending Dartmouth, a staid Ivy League institute where the vogue was to drink yourself senseless on beer every Friday night. No one smoked up except for my roommate, Fred, from Massachusetts. He introduced me to pot, and after I was properly stoned, showed me the cover of the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely-Hearts Club Band album while playing me the same. My life was irrevocably altered. Being high made me a motor mouth; Fred was unaware of the monster he had unleashed. For over two hours, I riffed non-stop on the works of writers and thinkers I had recognized, people like Lenny Bruce, Carl Jung, E.A. Poe, Aleister Crowley, Huxley, Joyce, Lewis Carroll, and many others who came to inform my life: cultural icons for an entire generation. And the music! Genius! Who can forget “A Day in a Life,” that wry commentary on how we are stifled by the establishment. We both looked at each other knowingly when we heard the lines “I went upstairs and had a smoke,” followed by the dreamy, other-worldly music. The evening ended up with us going to see the then newly released Roman Polanski movie, “Rosemary’s Baby.” We made the mistake of smoking another joint in the theater and sitting through the movie, utterly terrified. To this day, I can never look at raw liver, even in a supermarket, and I have a hard time watching Mia Farrow in those Woody Allen movies.
However, the best part came back in the summer of 1970, just months before I dodged the draft and came to Canada from the U.S. I was with my best friend, Lee, from high school and two other friends, Redbone and Hick, who was a trained concert pianist, soon to become a street person. We had heard rumours that there was going to be an outdoor rock concert to rival Woodstock somewhere in New Brunswick, Canada. It would be called Strawberry Fields, and everyone who was anyone in music would be performing. Since we had all missed Woodstock, we felt duty-bound to go, so we decided to hitchhike from Buffalo to New Brunswick via the New England states. Somehow, we always managed to get rides, though we were four long-haired, rather bedraggled guys. In those days, a car door would open, and even before the niceties of polite discourse, someone would stuff a hash pipe in your mouth or pass you a joint. So, we staggered from one ride to another. Our last one was with a lovely middle-aged lady who lived on a farm and who invited us into her home and made us fresh blueberry pancakes before sending us on our way with muffins hot from her oven. It was a kinder, gentler world back then. She dropped us off in the downtown of Bangor, Maine where we learned in a bookstore that the concert had been cancelled since, ironically, the Canadian authorities were afraid of drugs crossing their border.
We walked to the outskirts of the town to pick up the highway and head back home when it started to rain. A drizzle quickly turned into a downpour, so we made our way to an old barn by the side of the road to seek shelter. We crawled into our wet sleeping bags while the lightning played across the sky, the rain came down, hard, and the persistent sound of thunder cut into our fitful sleep. At some point, we were awakened by powerful flashlights illuminating our faces.
Two State Troopers, Maine’s finest, had found us, based on a report they had received from the farmer on whose land we were trespassing. However, instead of running us into jail, one of them said:
“You can’t stay here, you know. It’s against the law. However, get in the car and we will take you to a place where you will probably be welcome.”
They drove for about three miles and dropped us off in front of a house that looked like some haunted mansion from Victorian times. Tentatively, we knocked on the door until a young man with shoulder-length hair opened it, bidding us to come inside. They had had a power outage due to the storm, so they had candles lit everywhere. There were five of them, four men and one woman. It was she who had inherited this house, and she and her friends had driven from California to live there. Some of them were musicians, and others were actors. They were going to turn the barn into a theater and perform there. The house had more than 10 bedrooms.
We sat in the living room by the huge fireplace. There was a baby grand piano by the hearth. They brought us trays of food and told us to help ourselves. We scarfed and gorged until we were full. Then, they brought out an ornately covered silver serving dish. When they removed the top, we saw about a half kilo of finely crushed marijuana with several packs of rolling papers. They told us to help ourselves. It was the finest we had ever smoked, and we fell into a mellow state and talked far into the night about nothing and everything. Then, one of the lads brought out a trumpet, another a guitar, and another two sets of bongos. My friend, Hick, went to the piano and began to brilliantly improvise while the guitar and trumpet joined in, filling the corners of the vast house with the music of Ellington, Gershwin, and others. Lee, who had a crazy ear for rhythm, had picked up some bongos and started to keep time. Through the window, we could see the night sky lit up by lightning. The peels of thunder somehow kept time with the music that was flowing throughout the room.
It was a night of magic. We stayed there for two days, graced by their hospitality, before setting out on our journey home.
Some years later, I was watching a show on PBS. They featured the town of Bangor, Maine, and suddenly I was looking at a shot of the very same house where we had spent that memorable night! The announcer spoke a bit about its history, and concluded by saying that it was now the home of the writer, Stephen King, who had purchased it some years ago.
All this to say come October 17th Canada, once known as the land of vast landscapes, cold winters, moose crossing signs, frozen horse turds that substitute as hockey pucks on rural lakes, poutine, beaver tails, and kind people who never quite seem American even though they mostly sound like one, will shortly be the hippest land in North America.
Therefore, the next time you are at a U.S. border crossing and are asked the Overwhelming Question about your recreational habits, just smile, wink, and say:
“WE’RE CANADIAN, eh?”