Journeys in space and time with The Atlantic. Today: America's most famous Beat poet gets high in Varanasi, India.


Allen Ginsberg—Beat poet, self-described "mature middle-aged gentleman," and prodigious pot-smoker—published what he called his first manifesto on marijuana in the November 1966 issue of The Atlantic. He begins: "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."

Ginsberg offers a portrait of America's pre-Summer of Love fear of marijuana, dismisses images of crazed "dope fiends" as "palpable poppycock," and explains why smoking weed in the U.S. often induces paranoia ("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"). But some of the article's real gems are his descriptions of what can be described only as the good life he experienced abroad, on a marijuana tourism trail stretching from India to Morocco and beyond:

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.

Read the full version of Allen Ginsberg's article, "The Great Marijuana Hoax."

Image: Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters

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