Nowadays, everyone wants a stake in the cannabis industry. However, long before there were high-end marijuana lifestyle brands and things like digital dispensaries, there was David Bienenstock.
Bienenstock is, one could say, an OG of weed journalism: a writer, video host/producer and erstwhile High Times editor, he's now written two books and contributed regularly for years to GQ, Salon, The Guardian, VICE, and other publications on cannabis-related issues. We caught up with Bienstock about his latest book, How to Smoke Pot (Properly): A Highbrow Guide To Getting High. We asked him about how the coming end of prohibition and rapidly-changing social norms are altering his work - and why it's up to all of us to keep cannabis weird.
Tell me a bit about what you were going for with this new book.
I didn't want to write a memoir: I wanted to write a book that would channel my experiences and allow people to understand this culture through the people who best represent it. There are so many ways to look at this plant: medicinally, the science behind it, the culture, the etiquette, its links with creativity.
I feel so honoured and privileged to have had so much access to this culture as a reporter, and tell a lot of stories that really weren't being told. We're seeing the flourishing of new cannabis media, and it's wonderful: a signpost of our progress. But when I started there was a lack of good reporting about cannabis. It was an honor and a privilege and a responsibility to represent the culture.
Looking back over that and finding the lessons learned was fun.
Were you a writer first, and then a cannabis writer? How'd you get involved?
I say sometimes that cannabis is the gateway to social justice. Growing up white and middle class, my direct experience with oppression was as a part of [cannabis] culture. This plant is so beneficial, yet there is this terribly damaging, oppressive system around it. It made me understand that we have to see that oppression is everywhere, and share those struggles with everyone else. While it only became a career for me when I got the job at High Times in 2002, it had been a huge part of my life for much longer than that.
I would never call myself a connoisseur: but the enjoyment I got out of it helped me as a younger person. It profoundly helped me socially, and to help understand myself better, and be more comfortable with myself.
What are some of the best life hacks you've learned as a lifelong smoker?
The quickest, most efficient one is this: keep your wallet and your keys in exactly the same place every single day, as soon as you come home. The second: always have a pen and paper handy to write down your highdeas [aka "awesome ideas that occur to you only while high."] You could forget the best idea you've ever had! People try to make you think that if it's a really great idea, it'll come back to you, or say that you just, "thought something was a good idea because you were high."
Nope. Look at Carl Sagan, who tells us we can forget things not because they're not worthwhile, but because you have nine other ideas trying to crowd into your mind-space. That analog experience of writing your ideas down will keep you in a much more creative space than technology.
The title of your book - How to Smoke Pot (Properly): A Highbrow Guide To Getting High - carries this implication that there's an improper, or lowbrow way to get high.
The title is a little tongue-in-cheek, and that comes across when you read the book. If cannabis is important to you, you should learn a lot about it, because that experience will enhance your experience, and make you a good ambassador. It's a fascinating subject: it intersects with politics, criminal justice, food, art.
The biggest idea in the book is that we have a strong, vibrant underground culture, and we need to keep the values of that culture as we move toward this post-prohibition era. We need share them with everyone else, and not allow the establishment and Wall Street to come in and co-opt our culture and place their values on it. We have more to teach them, rather than the other way around. And, as it says in the book, cannabis should transform capitalism - not the other way around.
On a cultural level, we need to make sure all of these ideas about equality and questioning power, and working cooperatively remain identified with this plant, and that it doesn't become just another consumer product. On the flip side, we have this opportunity to create a really progressive new industry: everyone making a living wage, small businesses instead of huge corporations, good environmental standards, rights for workers, responsible marketing. If we can do all these things, we can, in five years, use it as a model to say, "why can't every other industry be as progressive?"
It's on us to push, not only for the culture that we want, but the economy we want. It's going to be an ongoing effort.
There's a whole section of the book called 'keep pot weird.' You warn people that even as we all get super-psyched for legalization: 'let's not be in such a rush to fully embraced a totally fucked-up system that's still keeping us down and locking us up for no good reason.'
If society was in a good place, then maybe there would be something wrong with being weird, but our weirdness is our badge of honour: a gift to share, teaching us to laugh at ourselves, to be playful, to be in the moment. [These are] all things that our society lacks, and really needs, and those are things the plant teaches us.
I think that one of the defining aspects of this culture is to be very, very skeptical of the government, corporate America, the establishment: all these institutions that targeted us viciously in this senseless, oppressive system. We can forgive, because that is a value the plant teaches us, but we should never forget or allow them to dictate the terms of our culture, because we've been proven right, and they've been proven assholes. Putting the assholes in charge would be a missed opportunity, allowing everyone to have their basic rights.
If we allow marijuana to become McDonalds, we will have lost it.
What practical steps can cannabis consumers take to keep marijuana weird?
To get started, find the activists in your community who are working on this issue right now and ask them how you can help, and do it in a sustained way. Wearing a t-shirt and posting things on Facebook is great but if you really want to commit, you'll meet people who share your values, and are taking a really active role in pushing back against prohibition. They are the best representatives of our culture.
Don't try to figure out everything for yourself, look for the people who have a track record in your community and lend your talents to them.
What's the positive side about the massive change we're seeing in cannabis as we know it?
Less and less people getting arrested, and people having safe access to a life-saving medicine: those two things are tied to each other. The corporate media wants to focus on the Green Rush because it's new and exciting: they can focus on the kind of people that they like to cover and not look at all the damage that was done by prohibition. They'd rather talk about how money could be made than social justice, because that's a huge critique of our society: how did we ever wage this senseless war in the first place?
Yes, it will create jobs. It will be better than the black market. There are monetary savings. But we also have to never stop pushing this as a social justice issue.
That's what will help us move forward as a society, to learn the lessons of how and why this happened.
David Bienenstock's newest book, How to Smoke Pot (Properly): A Highbrow Guide To Getting High, can be found at your local, independent bookstore, or get it on Amazon.
banner image: David Bienenstock