Las Vegas Sun

February 21, 2019

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Scott Dickensheets: Our reefer madness makes author see red

My period of drug abuse sprawled across four harrowing seconds in 1982.

It happened on a beautiful spring morning, on a bench at UNLV, outside the history building. I was sitting with some hippies, a joint appeared, and I finally tried what, until then, I’d assiduously avoided. I half-inhaled, started choking, and had a flash vision of myself as a reeking drain on society, locked into an extended adolescence as I cursed my parents and refused to get a job — then, through an act of steely will, I pulled myself back from the brink of stonerdom. Refused a second puff, stayed clean since.

Later I went into journalism, so I can’t say I didn’t become a drain on society, but as I look back on that moment, I’m still struck by something: I actually knew some hippies in 1982. The marijuana thing? Never gave it a second thought.

My next guest, author Michael Konik, might think there’s more to it than that. His new book is the weed-celebrating “Reefer Gladness: Stories, Essays and Riffs on Marijuana,” out from Vegas’ own Huntington Press. (He’ll be in town tonight and tomorrow to promote the book. Details later.)

Konik says he abstained from marijuana well into adulthood. “I avoided the people who used it. I avoided the whole culture,” he tells me from his home in Los Angeles. “Quite simply, I looked down on druggies.”

A trip to Amsterdam, where pot use is open, rebooted his thinking. “The country still seems to function; it doesn’t fall into a smoky fog of indolence. Indeed, things are going pretty well.”

So, almost 40, he smoked it for the first time. Let’s fast-forward through his decisive about-face, his decision to research the subject seriously enough to write a book — history, politics, biology, chemistry — and bring this discussion back to me.

If Konik were to unpack my four-second experience — in particular that sense of myself about to slide into a life of munchie-intensive lassitude — it would sound remarkably like his own pre-conversion attitude:

Before he tried it, “I was conditioned by a lot of lies,” he says, “fearful from a lot of erroneous preconceptions, concerned that I’d turn into a psychotic zombie or inert, Sean Penn-like character stoner — and that was not my conception of myself.”

Same here. This is where the personal meets the political, as those fears are internalized from a culture that’s criminalized what Konik and others insist is an essentially harmless substance. One that — with a more tolerant attitude toward legalization — could have very real medicinal, social and even taxable uses.

“Its most powerful effect on me,” he says, “is that it tends to slow down time. As we get older, life goes faster and faster, and you wonder where the time has gone. Marijuana makes it feel like life isn’t racing away from me, so there’s time to enjoy being alive.”

Arrayed against this attitude, of course, is a vast infrastructure of drug laws, legal policies and just-say-no advocacy. It should be noted that it’s not just the killjoy elite — drug czars, puritan scolds — either. Plenty are simply well-intentioned cops, politicians, educators and parents.

Including me. In my house, the kids know mom and dad will drop a dime to the cops (I’ve retained the gritty street lingo of my drug period) the first time we see a bud or seed. Our tolerance is zero.

Somewhere between Konik’s position and mine, there’s possibly a workable middle ground, and perhaps his book will nudge us in that direction.

“The book is, to me, a very nonconfrontational, adult, intelligent discussion of a pressing issue,” he says. It’s certainly not a polemic. It’s a mix of exploratory essays and short fictions that depict the range of characters who use the drug.

“The impetus behind ‘Reefer Gladness’ is not to catalog the list of hypocrisies that attach themselves to this subject,” he says. “It’s meant to be a work of literature. Literature has the ability to let us look at a subject in a new way.”

Konik is no stranger to Vegas; he wrote the classic collection of Vegas gambling tales, “The Man With the $100,000 Breasts.” Despite the city’s embrace of certain vices, he expects from the city some “push-back, resistance and impassioned skepticism.”

That’s OK, even necessary. “It’s a discussion that Las Vegas as a city needs to have, that Nevada as a state needs to have and that the country needs to have.”

If you want to join that discussion, Konik will sign his book today (7 p.m., Bluebird Café, 2025 Paradise Road) and Saturday (4:20 p.m., the Borders bookstore in Summerlin, 10950 W. Charleston Blvd.).

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