N O V E M B E R 1 9 6 6
by Allen Ginsberg
HOW much there is to be revealed about marijuana in this decade in America for the general public! The actual experience of the smoked herb has been clouded by a fog of dirty language perpetrated by a crowd of fakers who have not had the experience and yet insist on downgrading it. The paradoxical key to this bizarre impasse of awareness is precisely that the marijuana consciousness is one that, ever so gently, shifts the center of attention from habitual shallow, purely verbal guidelines and repetitive secondhand ideological interpretations of experience to more direct, slower, absorbing, occasionally microscopically minute engagement with sensing phenomena.
A few people don't like the experience and report back to the language world that it's a drag. But the vast majority all over the world who have smoked the several breaths necessary to feel the effect, adjust to the strangely familiar sensation of Time slow-down, and explore this new space thru natural curiosity, report that it's a useful area of mind-consciousness to be familiar with. Marijuana is a metaphysical herb less habituating than tobacco, whose smoke is no more disruptive than Insight.
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This essay, conceived by a mature middle-aged gentleman, the holder at present
of a Guggenheim Fellowship for creative writing, a traveler on many continents
with experience of customs and modes of different cultures, is dedicated to
those who have not smoked marijuana, who don't know exactly what it is but have
been influenced by sloppy, or secondhand, or unscientific, or (as in the case
of drug-control bureaucracies) definitely self-interested language used to
describe the marijuana high pejoratively. I offer the pleasant suggestion that
a negative approach to the whole issue (as presently obtains in what are aptly
called square circles in the USA) is not necessarily the best, and that it is
time to shift to a more positive attitude toward this specific experience.1 If
one is not inclined to have the experience oneself, this is a free country and
no one is obliged to have an experience merely because friends, family, or
business acquaintances have had it and report themselves pleased. On the other
hand, an equal respect and courtesy are required for the sensibilities of
one's familiars for whom the experience has not been closed off by the door of
The black cloud of negative propaganda on marijuana emanates from one particular Source: the US Treas. Dept. Narcotics Bureau.2 If the tendency (a return to common sense) to leave the opiate problem with qualified M.D.'s prevails, the main function of this large Bureau will shift to the persecution of marijuana. Otherwise, the Bureau will have no function except as a minor tax office, for which it was originally purposed, under aegis of Secty. of Treasury. Following Parkinson's Law that a bureaucracy will attempt to find work for itself, or following a simpler line of thought, that the agents of this Bureau have a business interest in perpetuating the idea of a marijuana "menace" lest they lose their employment, it is not unreasonable to suppose that a great deal of the violence, hysteria & energy of the anti-marijuana language propaganda emanating from this source has as its motive a rather obnoxious self interest, all the more objectionable for its tone of moralistic evangelism. This hypocrisy is recognizable to anybody who has firsthand experience of the so-called narcotic; which, as the reader may have noticed, I have termed an herb, which it is -- a leaf or blossom -- in order to switch from negative terminology and inaccurate language.
A marvelous project for a sociologist, and one which I am sure will be in preparation before my generation grows old, will be a close examination of the actual history and tactics of the Narcotics Bureau and its former chief Power, Harry J. Anslinger, in planting the seed of the marijuana "menace" in the public mind and carefully nurturing its growth over the last few decades until the unsuspecting public was forced to accept an outright lie.3
I MUST begin by explaining something that I have already said in public for many years: that I occasionally use marijuana in preference to alcohol, and have for several decades. I say occasionally and mean it quite literally; I have spent about as many hours high as I have spent in movie theaters -- sometimes three hours a week, sometimes twelve or twenty or more, as at a film festival -- with about the same degree of alteration of my normal awareness.
I therefore do know the subjective possibilities of marijuana and therein take evidence of my own senses between my own awareness of the mysterious ghastly universe of joy, pain, discovery, birth & death, the emptiness & awesomeness of its forms and consciousness described in the Prajnaparamita Sutra central to a Buddhist or even Christian or Hindu view of Kosmos which I sometimes experience while high, as for the last two paragraphs, and the cheap abstract inexperienced version of exactly the same thing one may have read in the newspapers, written by reporters (who smoke pot themselves occasionally nowadays) taking the main part of their poorly written squibs of misinformation from the texts & mouths of Chiefs of Narcotics Bureaus, Municipal or Federal -- or an occasional doctor notorious in the profession for his ungracious stupidity & insulting manners.
What was this criminal vision of marijuana presented by the Narcotics Department for years in cheap sex magazines and government reports? Who invented the myths of base paranoia close to murder, frothing at the mouth of Egyptian dogs, sex orgies in cheap dives, debilitation and terror and physiological or mysterious psychic addiction? An essentially grotesque Image, a thought-hallucination magnified myriad thru mass media, a byproduct of Fear -- something quite fiendish -- "Dope Fiend," the old language, a language abandoned in the early sixties when enough of the general public had sufficient personal experience to reject such palpable poppycock4 & the bureaucratic line shifted to defense of its own existence with the following reason: necessary to control marijuana because smoking leads to search for thrill kicks; this leads to next step, the monster Heroin. And a terrible fate.
In historical context this recent excuse for repression of marijuana seems to the author so irrational that it is impossible to disprove. Yet public confusion may warrant some precise analysis: A) There are no legitimate sociological/medical study documents warranting the Narcotics Department's assertion of causal relation between use of marijuana and graduation to opiates. B) There never had been any hint of such association before the two classes of drugs were forcibly juxtaposed in black market by said department; Anslinger testified to that in 1937. C) A greater percent of opiate users started with bananas, cigarettes & alcohol than started with marijuana -- no causal relationship is indicated in any case. D) The number of millions of respectable Americans who smoke marijuana have obviously not proceeded on to opiates. E) In test sociological cases, i.e., societies such as Morocco and India where marijuana use is universal, there is very small use of opiates, and no social association or juxtaposition between the two classes of drugs. What juxtaposition there is in America has been created and encouraged by the propaganda and police repression tactics of the Narcotics Bureau. (Pharmacological Basis of Therapeutics 1965, and 1965 California Atty. General's Report both characterize the claimed causal relationship as "unproved.")
IN SOUND good health I smoked legal ganja (as marijuana is termed in India, where it is traditionally used in preference to alcohol), bought from government tax shops in Calcutta, in a circle of devotees, yogis, and hymn-singing pious Shaivite worshipers in the burning ground at Nimtallah Ghat in Calcutta, where it was the custom of these respected gentlemen to meet on Tues. and Saturday nights, smoke before an improvised altar of blossoms, sacramental milk-candy & perhaps a fire taken from the burning wooden bed on which lay a newly dead body, of some friend perhaps, likely a stranger if a corpse is a stranger, pass out the candy as God's gift to friend and stranger, and sing holy songs all night, with great strength and emotion, addressed to different images of the Divine Spirit. Ganja was there considered a beginning of sadhana (Yogic path or discipline) by some; others consider the Ascetic Yogi Shiva Himself to have smoked marijuana; on His birthday marijuana is mixed as a paste with almond milk by the grandmothers of pious families and imbibed as a sacrament by this polytheistic nation, considered by some a holy society. The professors of English at Benares University brought me a bottle for the traditional night of Shivaratri, birthday of the Creator & Destroyer who is the patron god of this oldest continuously inhabited city on Earth. "BOM BOM MAHADEV!" (Boom Boom Great God!) is the Mantra Yogis' cry as they raise the ganja pipe to their brows before inhaling.
All India is familiar with ganja, and so is all Africa, and so is all the Arab world; and so were Paris and London in smaller measure in high-minded but respectable nineteenth-century circles; and so on a larger scale is America even now. Young and old, millions perhaps, smoke marijuana and see no harm. And we have not measured the Latin-American world, Mexico particularly, which gave the local herb its familiar name. In some respects we may then see its prohibition as an arbitrary cultural taboo.
There has been a tendency toward its suppression in the Arab world with the too hasty adoption of Western rationality & the enlarged activity of the American fanatic Mr. Anslinger, retired from the Narcotics Bureau but now US representative to the UN World Health Organization Narcotic Drugs Commission, a position from which he circulates hysterical notices and warnings manufactured in Washington's Treas. Dept. to the police forces of the cities of the world -- so I was told by a police official in Tel Aviv, an old school chum who laughed about the latest release, a grim warning against the dangers of Khat, a traditional energizing leaf chewed by Bedouins of Arabia & businessmen & princes in Ethiopia, as well as a few traditional Yemenite Jews.
Professor Alfred R. Lindesmith in The Addict and the Law (Indiana University Press) has already objected in public print to the Department's manipulation and attempted quashing of various medical-juridic reports; the impartial LaGuardia Report of 1944 was rudely attacked by Anslinger; a President's Judicial Advisory Council Policy Statement (1964) has characterized the activities of the Bureau as exceeding legal rightfulness in "criminalizing" by executive fiat & administrative dictum those addicted to addicting drugs who for decades have been prevented from going to a doctor for treatment unless it was under the aegis of Lexington Jail, and thru police channels. Memory of the British East India Hemp Commission report, the largest in history, done in the 1890s, which concluded that marijuana was not a problem, has been ignored;5 & memories of our own Panama Canal military reports giving marijuana a clean bill of health have been unavailing in consideration of the Bureau;6 thousands of intelligent citizens have been put in prison for uncounted years for possession or sale of marijuana, even if they grew it themselves and only smoked in private; youths have been entrapped into selling small or large quantities of the grass to police agents and consequently found themselves faced with all the venomous bullshit that an arbitrary law can create, from the terrors of arrest to the horror of years in jail; the author receives letters of complaint and appeals for help, from many US cities, from acquaintances, fellow litterateurs, even scholarly investigators of the subject writing books about it, as well as from one energetic poet founding a fine project for an Artist's Workshop (John Sinclair in Detroit, sentenced to six months for letting an agent buy marijuana for the second time); Ken Kesey, the novelist, is now in exile; 21,931 arrests for marijuana from 1963 to 1965 reported from California alone, according to Prof. Alfred R. Lindesmith. The whole scene is so shrouded in bureaucratic mystery that there are no national figures available anywhere.
One becomes awed by the enormity of the imposition. It is not a healthy activity for the State to be annoying so many of its citizens thusly; it creates a climate of topsy-turvy law and begets disrespect for the law and the society that tolerates execution of such barbarous law,7 and a climate of fear and hatred for the administrators of the law. Such a law is a threat to the existence of the State itself, for it sickens and debilitates its most adventurous and sensitive citizens. Such a law, in fact, can drive people mad.
It is no wonder then that most people who have smoked marijuana in America often experience a state of anxiety, of threat, of paranoia, in fact, which may lead to trembling or hysteria, at the microscopic awareness that they are breaking a Law, that thousands of Investigators are trained and paid to smoke them out and jail them, that thousands of their community are in jail, that inevitably a few friends are "busted" with all the hypocrisy and expense and anxiety of that trial & perhaps punishment -- jail and victimage by the bureaucracy that made, propagandized, administers, and profits from such a monstrous law.
From my own experience and the experience of others I have concluded that most of the horrific effects and disorders described as characteristic of marijuana "intoxication" by the US Federal Treasury Department's Bureau of Narcotics are, quite the reverse, precisely traceable back to the effects on consciousness not of the narcotic but of the law and the threatening activities of the US Federal Treasury Department Bureau of Narcotics itself. Thus, as the Buddha said to a lady who offered him a curse, the gift is returned to the giver when it is not accepted.
I myself experience this form of paranoia when I smoke marijuana, and for that reason smoke it in America more rarely than I did in countries where it is legal. I noticed a profound difference of effect. The anxiety was directly traceable to fear of being apprehended and treated as a deviant criminal; put thru the hassle of social disapproval, ignominious Kafkian tremblings in vast court buildings coming to be judged, the helplessness of being overwhelmed by force or threat of deadly force and put in brick & iron cell.
This apprehension deepened when on returning this year from Europe, I was stopped, stripped, and searched at customs. The dust of my pockets was examined with magnifying glass for traces of weed. I had publicly spoken in defense of marijuana and attacked the conduct of the Bureau, and now my name was down on a letter/dossier at which I secretly peeked, on the Customs search-room desk. I quote the first sentence, referring to myself and Orlovsky: "These persons are reported to be smuggling (or importing) narcotics...."
On a later occasion, when I was advised by several friends and near acquaintances that Federal Narcotics personnel in NYC had asked them to "set me up" for an arrest, I became incensed enough to write a letter of complaint to my congressman. He replied that he thought I was being humorless about the reason for my being on a list for Customs investigation, since it was natural (I had talked about the dread subject so much in public); anyway, not Kafkian as I characterized it. As for my complaint about being set up -- that, with my letter, was forwarded to the Treasury Dept. in Washington for consideration and reply. Thus, the reply received December 22, 1965: "I would advise you that I have been in touch with the Bureau of Narcotics and am of the opinion that nothing has been done in your case that is illegal or inconsistent with law enforcement practices designed to enforce the narcotics laws." In this case it was police request to arrested friends that they carry marijuana to my apartment and to that of the novelist William S. Burroughs.
The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.
Copyright © 1966 by Allen Ginsberg, first printed in The Atlantic Monthly, November 1996, reprinted with the permission of The Wylie Agency, Inc. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1966; The Great Marijuana Hoax; Volume 218, No. 6; pages 104 - 112.