The last time I was out at a dive bar was March 6, 2020. The SXSW music and cultural festival was canceled, wrecking Austin's tourism economy. A sense of chaos and impending doom hung in the air. I went home somewhat aware of how the world was about to change.
And, for the next month, all I did was smoke weed, cook Italian food, and watch The Sopranos. My social life evaporated. I spent a lot of time on my back porch, dogs and chickens frolicking in the distance, rolling joints, listening to Blondie and Destroyer, refreshing the New York Times "coronavirus live updates" tab, as if that would do much of anything.
I wasn't the only one. At the beginning of the pandemic, the City of L.A. declared dispensaries essential businesses. Actor Seth Rogen announced to the world that he was smoking "truly ungodly" amounts of weed to endure quarantine, prompting headlines aplenty. Leafly reported that national pot sales boomed throughout 2020.
Amid an impressive amount of worldly despair, smoking weed made our lost pandemic year not good exactly, but more joyful for many people—myself included. Minimizing the role weed played in helping people endure the pandemic would be letting the drug warriors win.
Weed wasn't just part of a smorgasbord of things I looked forward to; it was sometimes the only weekend plan I had. As any devoted stoner will tell you, it's not just about watching Pineapple Express or The Big Lebowski or any of the other great movies in our esteemed canon; getting really stoned is a way of exploring your own mind when other forms of adventure are verboten. People need play, and when that's been taken away from you, you must make do with the plaything of your own mind.
I was able to easily smoke with little fear of consequences because the two places I lived during the pandemic (Austin, Texas, and Brooklyn, New York) have chosen not to lock people up for possession of small amounts—a trend even conservative places like South Dakota and Mississippi have embraced.
When I first moved to Austin, this wasn't the case; in fact, City Council unanimously voted to end arrests for possession of small amounts of weed in January 2020. If I'd chosen to live a few miles south, in Hays County, the risk of severe consequences would have been much higher: Hays still technically treats marijuana possession under two ounces as a misdemeanor that carries the threat of up to six months of jail time, though the county has announced plans to experiment with a "cite-and-divert" program for low-level offenses.
In the short time I've lived in New York, weed possession has gone from a tolerated but not technically permissible act to one that's finally legal, signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo on March 31. Soon I will be able to grow up to 12 cannabis plants in my house; visit dispensaries to buy and cafes to imbibe; and have the peace of knowing I live in a place where the authorities have decided I ought to have more ownership over my body and mind.
For those who don't get high, it's hard to understand why others do. Some people have eaten an edible before and had a Maureen Dowd-esque encounter with the gates of hell, scaring them off for good. Others have tried but nothing's happened, and they haven't persisted in their pursuit. Others are understandably too content with booze to experiment with the range of possible delights.
But smoke a joint and taste a lime curd tart or my famous goat milk pie; it will taste 30 times better than it did before. Turn on a Frank Ocean album. Lounge in chairs in the yard, on a crisp fall night, passing a joint around with friends. Marvel at the stars, noticing the cold air sliding across your nose and cheeks.
Some people toke because they enjoy becoming more attuned to sensory joys. Others do it for the heightened relaxation—a little block of time at the end of your day when you can truly calm down and forget about the mounting to-do lists. And, for those with social anxiety, who may have to work a little harder to enjoy even small gatherings, smoking with others can give you a deeper appreciation of other people's weird quirks, vulnerability, humor, and fascinating backstories.
The pandemic brought personal, social, and economic pain. Some people lost family members and weren't able to attend their funerals. Others found themselves facing job loss, credit card debt, debt, dashed dreams, and stalled careers. For families spread across the globe, border restrictions and the unpredictability of travel have taken an enormous toll.
But throughout that heaviness, my ability to roll a joint and go out onto my patio and gaze out at other people's fire escapes and newly minted home-office spaces and planes landing at LaGuardia, increasing in volume as the months skate by, has added happiness where it felt like there was none.
For just a few minutes of the day, I would allow myself to forget about the pandemic and the lockdowns, the pace of vaccinations, the uncertainty of when I would see my family again. I'd allow myself to really enjoy that Blaze Foley song I'd heard years ago. Reclining into the comfort and dimensions of my own mind always felt like a restorative function, a good use of my time—time that seemed to stretch on and on with very little to distinguish it from what had come before.
For decades, drug warriors not only denied people this escape and enjoyment, but they patted people down, locked them up, and separated them from their families over pot offenses. President Joe Biden, who opposes federal legalization (unlike much of the rest of the country), still can't quite wrap his head around the idea that actually, weed has enormous benefits that people ought to be free to reap.
I could write a paean to my bike or to cocktails, both of which made the pandemic less awful. But a paean to the act of getting high feels more fitting since this private, peaceful, solitary act is still one that some people still seek to condemn, as if this little bit of respite in a time of hardship is any business of theirs at all.