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Higher Authorities: Despite San Francisco's legendary tolerance, white-collar pot smokers are rarely willing to go on record about their use.

Grass Root Politics

San Francisco's cannabis users take a new approach to an old cause

By Todd Dayton

I have to make certain admissions if I'm even going to talk about pot. I am a smoker, and like many smokers, I have an addictive personality. But I think I'm what you'd call a low-grade addict: too straight to be 12-step material and too much a stoner to qualify for--or be willing to pursue--an SUV, stock options or quarterly raises.

This fall I decided to clean up my act, to grow up and face reality. But as is the case for addicts of many stripes, facing reality pretty much means just hiding from it. I made a plan to avoid marijuana wherever I went. I was going to have nothing to do with it.

But what shortly became apparent was that hoping to avoid pot in San Francisco was sort of like trying to steer clear of leathermen at the Folsom Street Fair. My timing was off, as I tried to deherbalize my soul during the harvest season, when Northern California's largest cash crop was steadily flowing into one of the state's most liberal and disposable-income-rich regions. My plans for abstinence went up in smoke.

I went to see a film at an elegant movie palace. And there, down in the basement bathroom, were a couple of guys getting high. And laughing. And saying happy birthday to each other. And saying happy birthday to me. And inviting me to partake. I held out--that time. But there it was again, two rows back in the theater, the faintly audible flick of a lighter, a flash of light and a muffled cough 30 seconds later. The next day, as I was riding the 22 Fillmore, a group of teenagers got on. They were talking loudly and laughing, and then they slid open the back window and lit up a joint. No one paid any attention. The bus driver didn't do anything. Finally, on Friday I was leaving work and smelled a fragrant whiff emanating from a circle of suits. Yes, indeed. The harvest had arrived and it seemed to be stalking my plans for a high-free future.

Call me paranoid, but the devil's weed is everywhere in this town. Clinton be damned, inhaling has gone mainstream. And maybe my effort to clean up my act is just a response to someone else's idea of what the grown-up and responsible thing to do is. After all, plenty of responsible grown-ups are out there getting stoned just like I do.

In a popular mission street bar I ask a bartender about the cigarette-smoking ban. She's not enforcing it--in fact she gives me an ashtray when I ask for one. She says that while she doesn't smoke cigarettes herself, she doesn't really mind people smoking in the bar. "What about pot smoking?" I ask.

"I don't know anything about that," she says, backing away. Conversation over.

A Hayes Valley bartender isn't quite as paranoid. "Yeah, people do it here. Usually back in the corners, away from the crowd a bit. They're not obvious about it. It's fairly common." He says he generally looks the other way. "People do what they want. And if it's not causing problems for anyone else, then it's not really my business."

A San Francisco DJ says that she thinks marijuana is heavily linked to music in the city. "It connects to an idea that's been around a long time, about drugs enhancing the artist's creation. I think there's definitely been this very romantic notion that pot opens up your ears."

"I don't spin stoned," she says, "but a lot of other DJs do. There's the whole school of thinking that says that getting high enhances the enjoyment of the music. People do it outside, where they can. With certain people, it's part of their lifestyle. They bring it with them. Even though it's done most places, people aren't so flamboyant about it that you always see it."

Millions of dollars worth of marijuana flows into the Bay Area during late September and October, stashed in car trunks, suitcases, big brown paper bags. It's the time of year when the Haight Street urchins' sidewalk sales pitches are at their most accurate. But not all of the marijuana on the street arrives from afar.

Tim, a young urban sophisticate who works in retail, has been growing pot in his apartment since he moved to San Francisco in 1992. "It's something I've always actively done as a hobby." But growing his own plants is more than a self-serving activity. "Over the years, I've sold to lawyers, AIDS patients, doctors, accountants."

The income he gets from growing marijuana has been a huge help in his being able to afford to live in San Francisco. "I'm not getting rich," he claims, "but I make somewhere from $12,000 to $15,000 a year, tax free." For those whose financial worth isn't rising according to the stock market, alternative methods of income are becoming a necessity.

Despite marijuana's generally uninhibited presence, users are often reluctant to speak about it. Some people don't want to talk at all and most will only agree to speak anonymously or off the record. It makes perfect sense, since in the wake of the attorney general's medicinal-marijuana raids, a bar or club risks being shut down if one admits to drug use on the premises.

And yet there's a city of functional stoners out there. Part-time burnouts are living the legacy of a three-decade-gone Summer of Love, though unlike many of those who Were There Then, the majority of today's stoners are holding down jobs and paying rent. And voting for medicinal marijuana.

A friend of mine tells this story about a holiday work party he went to a few years back. He went stoned. Someone found out somehow--the red eyes, the incessant grazing at the dessert table, whatever it was. And that someone announced to the room, "Did anyone notice that Rich came to the party stoned?" Everyone stood around looking at Rich, but he was a little too high even to deny it. Rather than condemning him, a chorus of "So did I" rounded the room. Perhaps it was merely a liberal company, not representative of the world at large. But perhaps it's more common than one might think.

For last May's "Million Marijuana March," nearly a hundred thousand activists and aficionados convened at San Francisco's United Nation's Plaza, near City Hall. Supervisor Tom Ammiano, Oakland attorney Robert Raich and others condemned the actions of state and national drug task forces. Said Raich, "If America were [another country], NATO would bomb it due to all the human rights violations of the War on Drugs."

The sentiments may not be new, but with the growing social acceptability of the drug, San Francisco's political leaders are being forced to confront a growing movement whose focus is less on medicinal benefits and more on civil rights. Chris Conrad, a coordinator of the Million Marijuana March, explained the new approach: "We're tying this into the civil-rights movement. Adult cannabis users should have equal rights under the law."

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From the January 24, 2000 issue of the Metropolitan.

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