The other day, in a seaside cafe here, veteran cannabis journalist David Bienenstock gamely fielded my attempts to catch up on a subject I have failed to appreciate for far too long: the coming end of marijuana prohibition.
Earlier this month, the backers of a California initiative to legalize the recreational use of marijuana (including Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and tech kabillionaire Sean Parker) said they had gathered enough signatures to make the November ballot. In the same week, the federal government dropped its long-standing case against Oakland's Harborside Health Center, the largest medical pot dispensary in the country.
California, with a thriving medical marijuana industry, already produces and sells more pot than any other state, including Colorado, Washington and Oregon, which have all legalized adult recreational use of marijuana. In California, we could see a tenfold increase in what is already a billion-dollar-plus industry, and this despite the continuing federal classification of marijuana as a dangerous substance with no medical value.
Right now, a majority of Californians favor legalization. Latino voters, who strongly opposed a failed legalization measure in 2010, are increasingly leaning toward it as well.
The stars, finally, seem aligned.
"This is California's time to reemerge as the center of the cannabis economy and the center of cannabis culture, and that's what's so exciting," said Bienenstock, 40, who has just written a modest but charming weed primer, "How to Smoke Pot (Properly): A Highbrow Guide to Getting High." A former High Times editor, Bienenstock, who lives near Santa Cruz, writes Vice's "Weed Eater" column and produces Vice's very funny cooking show, "Bong Appetit."
Personally, I am not a weedinista. I hate feeling stoned. I don't think pot will save the world, and dependence, especially with younger users, can be a problem. But I do think, in some settings, it can work miracles.
A year ago, probably after hearing me knock pot smokers one too many times, David Downs, a San Francisco cannabis journalist, who is married to my niece, sat me down and explained something I hadn't known. There are two important components in marijuana. The primary psychoactive ingredient in pot is THC, which also has medicinal properties such as pain relief and nausea reduction. And there's CBD, a non-psychoactive ingredient that has been shown to be helpful for many ailments, including epilepsy, cancer pain and anxiety.
Increasingly, researchers are investigating the health benefits of CBD. Growers, in turn, are meeting consumer demand for pot strains that are high in CBD and low in THC.
You can achieve a tremendous benefit from high-CBD marijuana and never feel stoned.
This was a revelation.
I recommend Bienenstock's book for people who want to know more about pot because it's far more than a how-to guide.
It covers the history of cannabis, the biology of the plant, the many ways it is processed for human consumption, and some of the medical applications of its various compounds, which are only now starting to be accepted by the American medical establishment.
(Dr. Sanjay Gupta's groundbreaking 2014 CNN special about a young girl whose uncontrollable epileptic seizures were radically diminished by CBD is often cited as a watershed moment. The girl's family only became aware of CBD, Bienenstock said, after watching the reality show "Weed Wars," featuring Oakland's Harborside dispensary. No medical professional had ever suggested they look into CBD.
"How to Smoke Pot" offers tips about pot etiquette (yes, do pass the dutchie on the left hand side; no, don't ever joke about being a cop) and how to handle being too high (lie down, stay hydrated, and remember that no one has ever died from a marijuana overdose).
Bienenstock is versatile; he also has advice on how to get a job in the incredibly diversified cannabis industry, how to make marijuana-infused butter, how to roll a joint in a windstorm. I saw him light one in a windstorm, a slightly less impressive feat.
He takes pains to explain why it's so important to be vigilant and patient when ingesting edible forms of cannabis, which take effect much more slowly and make you much higher for far longer than smoked cannabis. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd's infamous 2014 misadventure with a cannabis-infused candy bar in Colorado is Exhibit A in how not to do it.
But above all, the book is a heartfelt plea to keep pot weird, a call for those who have worked so hard to bring an underground economy into the light to struggle against the forces of capitalism that would reduce an inherently spiritual substance into just another marketable commodity, like Twinkies.
"Marijuana should transform capitalism," Bienenstock said, "not the other way around."
I doubt that will be possible. Every month, it seems, the private equity groups, the technologists with their delivery apps, the PR firms hold yet another conference extolling the investment opportunities for the pot industry. I am on the mailing list of at least two fat glossy magazines dedicated to cannabis entrepreneurship.
For members of a long besieged group, who for years have risked their livelihoods and freedom to provide a drug that is far safer and far more beneficial than alcohol, this is a moment that is fraught with worry for the future.
"Prohibition, for all its evils," Bienenstock said, "acted in a way to protect this underground economy from capitalism."
If Californians vote to legalize marijuana six months from now, they will be validating what many already know to be true: Pot is no longer the counterculture.
It is, quite simply, the culture.