They’re demonized and exploited, revered for their youth and reviled simply because they’re young. They are today’s teenagers, the post-millennials, who came of age during Trump’s nightmare presidency, the flowering of the Black Lives Matter movement and #MeToo. In northern California, many of them were born and raised in the culture of cannabis. I recently spent a couple of weeks talking to dope smoking teens aged thirteen to nineteen, and while I found myself concerned about their life styles I also came away confident that they would figure out how to deal with whatever heads in their direction. What follows are portraits of some of today’s teens, plus profiles of adults who interact with kids, especially when it comes to cannabis.
Martin Bolz began to smoke marijuana at 16. Now, three years later, he’s still smoking, though he says he won’t smoke forever. His “marijuana habit,” as he calls it, won’t help him get into the U.S. Air Force. No, he doesn’t want to drop bombs. He wants the Air Force to pay for grad school. “I’m a productive stoner,” Bolz tells me. “I’ve been able to train my mind to do the same things with cannabis that I do without it.”
When asked to describe his relationship to weed, Bolz says, “It’s complicated.” Many if not most Norcal teens deplore weed and praise it, insist they’d like to stop but go on using it. Are they addicted? Depends on how one defines addiction.
A computer science major at Sonoma State University (SSU), Bolz boasts a 3.9 GPA. Recently, the SSU police caught him smoking weed and told him to get off campus. On another occasion, he smoked in front of a cop. “I wanted to see how he might react,” Bolz told me. “He did nothing.”
When his parents caught him using weed—he filled the bathroom with smoke— he had to move out. “I started as a secret smoker,” he tells me. “But everyone knew I was a head. I grew my hair out and my skin color gave me away.” He extends his long brown arms. Bolz’s mother is a Latina, his father part Peruvian.
“Alcoholism runs in my family and I’m afraid of being addicted to booze,” he says. Bolz isn’t afraid of an addiction to marijuana, nor are most of his peers, the post-millennials, who belong to the latest in a long line of demographic groups in the U.S. targeted by the drug warriors.
North Bay teens do more than use marijuana, though over the last year their lifestyle choices have been more restricted than ever before. “The kids are not alright” is a popular media theme. Indeed, today’s kids are often at risk. Ever since the birth of “youth culture” after World War II kids have been rebels with and without causes. Drugs play a part in their rebellion.
Opioids, heroin, cocaine, acid and speed are readily available on Main Street and wherever teens congregate. Marijuana is sold in dispensaries. The pandemic has persuaded Americans, including teens, to do more uppers and downers, pills, salves, tinctures and edibles—and play more addicting video games— than they had ever done before.
“It’s impossible to separate people from drugs,” sixteen-year-old Cadence Sinclair Eastman (not her real name) tells me. “You can’t stop people from having sex, either. The drug war was lost long ago.”
Half-a-century after President Nixon launched the “War on Drugs,” which was a war on people, the drug warriors have lost three generations of Americans to marijuana. The warriors also bolstered the prison industrial complex, arresting and incarcerating tens of millions of Black and Latino boys and men and thereby helping to perpetuate Jim Crow.
If scare tactics don’t persuade today’s post-millennials (aged 1 to 21) to stay away from weed, the drug warriors might as well give up the ghost and do something useful, like provide accurate information about drugs, not try to terrify. It’s now or never.
Sebastopol’s Jeffrey Hergenrather, a founding member of the Society of Cannabis Clinicians, has been recommending marijuana ever since he became a doctor and lived on “The Farm,” an intentional community in Tennessee back in the 1970s. Before then, he smoked occasionally when he was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. Hergenrather has worked with thousands of patients, old and young, parents and children, who have all kinds of ailments and infirmities.
”Cannabis helps young people get through their teen years, which can be stressful,” he tells me. “It helps them focus, alleviates depression and anxiety and eases insomnia.” Hergenrather adds, “It’s unreasonable to expect that teens won’t use cannabis. It’s their drug of choice, and, while new users sometimes get spacy and abuse weed, they usually come to terms with it.” Hergenrather suggests that teens ought to use marijuana in safe environments, that they respect the wishes of their parents and that their parents let them use it at home.
Cadence Sinclair Eastman gets her weed from her father, a longtime cannabis farmer and dealer. Part Asian and part white, she’s 16 going on 26. “Parents who are okay with their kids smoking are rare,” Eastman tells me. “When parents forbid it, kids do it more often.” She adds, “I think it’s cool if parents allow, but not cool if they encourage.” Her father insists that she only smoke his weed, which she gets for free and which he also sells to some of her friends, if they’re over the age of 16.
Eastman belongs to the northern California teenage cannabis subculture, but she’s often critical of teens who smoke weed and she’s also uncomfortable with her own use. “Sometimes weed makes me anxious and sad,” she tells me. “When I’m high I forget things and don’t pay attention. Also, sometimes when I smoke with friends I think they’re excluding me. We talk about it. Turns out, they have the same thoughts I have.” Maybe that’s anxiety or paranoia.
Eastman doesn’t use edibles. They put her to sleep. She would rather smoke with friends, than smoke alone, but that has been difficult if not impossible during the pandemic. “Smoking is bad for you,” she tells me. “It kills brain cells and interferes with learning, though I have some friends who say it opens their creativity.”
The pandemic has curtailed much of Eastman’s social life, which has revolved around skateboarding at skateboard parks, where drugs, including cannabis, acid and cocaine are part of the teen scene. Some smoke and skate, others only skate, while still others only smoke. I have observed the kids on several occasions, from Napa to Sebastopol and Novato. Adults are rarely around. There’s sex in the bushes and a teenage male macho culture. Females read books and talk about fictional characters.
Sixteen-year old Debbie, a high school sophomore, smoked for the first time at 13. “It was in a car with a friend,” she says. “I felt natural, organic and fun, not scary. I went home, watched a movie and went to sleep.” Debbie grew up in a family of marijuana smokers and marijuana growers. Her parents told her, “don’t talk about it at school.” Debbie’s neighbors grew and smoked. She was surrounded by cannabis.
These days she mostly smokes on weekends, at home. “There’s a lot of misinformation about cannabis,” she tells me. “Some people think it’s as bad as heroin. I think weed should be legalized.” When she looks around her, she sees the growth of the cannabis subculture: more growing, more selling and more using. “Scaring people won’t work,” she says. “The kids who smoke the most are the ones whose parents tell them not to smoke.”
The Sonoma County Department of Health Services offers a social media campaign to educate teens about the dangers of marijuana. The website, www.cannabisdecoded.org, features a photo of a sixteen-year-old girl who is quoted as saying “When I was getting high I thought I was having a good time. Actually I was missing out on a lot.”
As a teenager in the 1950s, I believed in the anti-pot propaganda I saw and read, the way some friends believed in God. I didn’t smoke until I was 25, when Gus Reichbach, a law student who went on to become a New York State Supreme Court Judge, got me stoned. I giggled, ate ice cream and experienced spatial alteration, though two hours later I was back to normal. More than fifty-years later, I still get high. When I told my older brother—a psychiatrist who prescribed pharmaceuticals for his patients—that I wrote six books under the influence of weed, he said, “You would have written 12 books if you hadn’t smoked at all.”
Like Sonoma County, Marin County, just north of San Francisco, has a program to educate teens about weed. A website shows a stunning indoor marijuana operation that looks more like an ad for weed, not propaganda against it. The Marin Prevention Network explains that the county has “a long history of widespread marijuana use and cultivation,” and that marijuana use among teens has “become commonplace” with “widespread acceptance.”
A while ago, I attended Dr. Jennifer Golick’s hair-raising lectures to students, parents and educators in Marin. “The weed that hippies smoked wasn’t dangerous,” she told an audience at Redwood High School. “Now it is. Marijuana causes mental illness.” In fact, the weed hippies smoked was more dangerous than the weed that is used today. In hippie times, it was often grown in Mexico with toxic chemicals, and it had mold and mites.
Sadly, Dr. Golick was taken hostage and murdered by a former patient, an ex-U.S. Army Infantryman, who subsequently shot and killed himself. Marijuana might have helped with his PTSD.
The Sonoma County Department of Health Services works with Panaptic, an organization with a website that says, “marijuana prevention is more urgent now than ever before.” On its website Panaptic says: “Imagine growing up in a state where there are twice as many retail marijuana stores and dispensaries as Starbucks and McDonalds.” Panaptic might drop the military language evident in phrases that boast of “working on the front lines of drug addiction.”
Panaptic’s co-founder, Sarah Ferraro Cunningham, 43, lives in Petaluma and has a Psy.D. in psychology. She’s old enough to remember the ad that went viral that showed a man who fries an egg in a hot skillet and says, “This is your brain on drugs.” That’s not Cunningham’s style. A member of the new generation of psychologists she doesn’t demonize. “If you tell students ‘Just say No’ they will clam up and you won’t connect to them,” she tells me.
Cunningham also told me that she smoked marijuana in college, that her grades dropped when she did and that when she “cut down dramatically” her grades went up. Panaptic—the name means “view from above”— offers consultations, online courses and workshops, all of them focused on marijuana with teens, parents, families, teachers and schools, though it has not worked with any Sonoma County schools recently.
“We emphasize neuroscience,” Cunningham explains. “We can’t honestly say that marijuana causes anxiety, but we can say that it’s more likely to cause it with those who do use marijuana.” What would success in your line of work look like, I asked her. “Success would mean getting teen wheels turning,” she says. She adds, “I’m reluctant to say success would also mean teens not using marijuana.” Indeed, that would doom Panaptic to failure.
Ask 13-year old Jack Black, Jr. (not his real name) who smokes once a week. His father rolls his joints. Last year, Jack Black, Jr. grew his first commercial crop, though he has been helping his father cultivate since he was 8. Three years ago, he witnessed armed police officers storm his house, arrest his father, handcuff him and take him away in a squad car. That’s a real drug education!
“Growing weed is hard work,” Black, Jr. tells me. “It’s a long growing season. You have to give the plants lots of sun, water and compost tea and you have to watch out for powdery mildew.” What does he see in his own future? “I want to grow up and be a marijuana farmer and also have a real job, maybe at a fast-food place,” he tells me. He believes that his father has less rage when he smokes weed. “I’m more chill when I smoke,” he adds. “Though it can also make me tired and sleepy.”
A Sonoma County superintendent of schools who didn’t want to be identified by name tells me, “It’s always difficult to be a teen because teens take risks and get into mischief. It’s more difficult now because they’re not on campus and they’re sometimes hiding in their rooms.”
Last year two Sonoma County students died of fentanyl. “With COVID-19, our big safety nets are gone,” the superintendent says. Last year there were a total of 94 deaths by fentanyl in Sonoma County. Yet another sign that the drug warriors have lost big time.
In his book Smoke Signals, author Martin Lee provides a comprehensive history of cannabis. In a recent email to me he wrote “ironically marijuana is a controlled substance whose use profilerates everywhere in an uncontrolled manner.” He added, “If the objective of cannabis prohibition was to enforce Jim Crow initially, which it did, and to impose a racially-based means of social control since the end of legal segregation, then anti cannabis laws have been a smashing success.”
The Sonoma County DA’s office still seems to regard the use of fentanyl as a crime, not a medical problem, which will only compound social and medical issues.
Colin, a 19-year-old, and a longtime cannabis user who grew up in a prosperous Sonoma County family, has been in therapy for eight years. “I’m introverted,” he tells me. “Therapy has helped with my insecurities.” When a peer pressured him to do drugs he exclaimed, “Fuck off.” Colin looks back at his school years and remembers friends who became addicted to substances more dangerous than weed. “Some moved on to cocaine and ecstasy,” he says. “I’m glad I gave up dab pens. They were ruining my life.” Yes, indeed, the kids are alright, contrary to popular myths that say the opposite.