Brave New World of Weed: The Astonishing Potential of a Complex Plant [Reason Podcast]

Journalist Joe Dolce says legalization is opening new frontiers in cannabis use.


"[Some computer coders] use cannabis when they're working," says journalist Joe Dolce. "[And] I've met a lot of people…who use it for physical training—runners and certain athletes, swimmers…It really helps them focus."

Brave New Weed |||

In our latest podcast, Nick Gillespie chats with Dolce, a former editor-in-chief at Details and Star, about his new book, Brave New Weed: Adventures into the Uncharted World of Cannabis. They chat about how legalization has opened up new frontiers in marijuana use, and why Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions won't destroy this burgeoning industry.

"[Weed] is being help people with certain types of medical conditions, not to get high, but to relieve pain…to intensify sex, or other activities," says Dolce. "We have a gigantic pharmacopoeia of prescription drugs, now we're looking to increase the more natural drugs that are available to us."

Subscribe, rate, and review the Reason Podcast at iTunes. Listen at SoundCloud below:

Don't miss a single Reason podcast! (Archive here.)

Subscribe at iTunes.

Follow us at Soundcloud.

Subscribe at YouTube.

Like us on Facebook.

Follow us on Twitter.

This is a rush transcript—check all quotes against the audio for accuracy.

Nick Gillespie: You start the book with a trip to your cousin's house that turned you on to a world that you didn't really know existed. Describe that experience for us and how it got you interested in this topic about the new world of cannabis?

Joe Dolce: Well, I certainly knew that weed existed and I certainly used my fair share; but over the last couple of years, I had really stopped. I was visiting my cousin.

He woke me up one morning and said, "Hey, want to see this new hobby of mine?" He brought me downstairs into the basement and unzipped a couple of Mylar bags in which he had a couple of … Well, he called them "the girls." A couple of young cannabis plants.

Nick Gillespie: These are "the girls in the basement," okay, opening chapter.

Joe Dolce: "The girls in the basement," yeah.

Nick Gillespie: Right.

Joe Dolce: Exactly. Then, we started talking and he starts showing me how he was growing them. He started showing me these amazing macro photographs of trichomes on leaves, and all these details about the cannabis plant that I just didn't really know about. I was pretty far removed from it all. It occurred to me that 'Wow, man. My cousin in rural New England has learned all this stuff about weed, mostly through the internet, and guys at the local grow shop. Maybe there's something to be looking into here. Maybe there was something.' This was long before Colorado, and Washington, and 29 states voted for legal or medical marijuana. It was about five years ago, I would say. It was happening under the surface, but it certainly wasn't happening in front of our eyes the way it is today.

That's when I started. I got interested. He gave me some of this strain, the big part of the story, called 'super lemon,' which is a great strain. It's a strong strain, very stimulating. I liked it a lot. It made my mind tick along, and it didn't get me tired. I felt just a little, not a lot; so I didn't get paranoid. I thought, 'Wow, I better get to know this plant a little better. Maybe I need to reacquaint a little bit more.'

Nick Gillespie: Yeah, and talk about … your previous experiences, because I think we're of a similar vintage. We would go back to a time when you were … Or, when a person was listening to record with a gate fold album sleeve, and maybe rolling a joint there. It was all dust and dirt, seeds and stems. The world out there, even the way that you started talking about it, it's much more like wine, isn't it?

Joe Dolce: Absolutely.

Nick Gillespie: Where people are picking up on different strains. How far along are we into all of that kind of boutique, more … directed types of pot that have different effects on different types of people?

Joe Dolce: Well, we know a lot, actually. We know a whole lot. Yeah, you're right. When we started smoking pot, probably in the 1970s, we were picking stems out. That's no longer the case. Today, pot is a very refined plant and it's grown with great specificity. In fact, even in Northern California now, in certain counties, they're creating a terroir system, which is exactly what they have for the wine. In other words, the soil, the climate, the temperature conditions of one particular small microclimate define the territory, the terroir. They're now bundling certain breeds that these growers in upper Mendocino and Humboldt County have nurtured for 40, 50 years. These are heritage strains that have grown in these climates, so they're now … On the West Coast, you can get a specific terroir, if you will, strain of cannabis by dialing a number. That's pretty impressive.

Nick Gillespie: Yeah. We can look forward to, in 20 or 30 years, maybe, movies like 'Bottle Shock' will be reversed, and it will be French growers coming over here and winning blind taste tests over American pot, or something like that.

Joe Dolce: I think things are moving so quickly it's not going to take 30 years, if that's the case. As a matter of fact, I'm going to Tel Aviv tomorrow. Israel's the capital of cannabis research. From what I understand, they're now growing … It's legal to grow and research cannabis there, unlike the United States. They are now growing on the tops of buildings in Tel Aviv, hydroponic gardens.

Nick Gillespie: Wow. How are the older strains? The legendary strains of the 70s and 80s, things like 'Maui Wowie,' or 'Acapulco Gold.' Are they still in play, or have they been totally superseded by new, better technologies?

Joe Dolce: No, if you can get those real strains, they're amazing. Somebody just gave me … It was someone from Thailand, the other day, that was just incredible. It's hard to know what is real, that's the problem. How do you really discern without genetic testing, if you will, that it really is 'Acapulco Gold,' or 'Maui Wowie?'

Nick Gillespie: Right.

Joe Dolce: How do you know? A lot of people are claiming these things. Obviously it's good branding, but it's really tough to know. You got to know your grower. That's the key. You got to know your grower, and trust that he knows his strains. In a way, it's really nice, if it still comes down to a personal relationship.

Nick Gillespie: Now your dealer is less likely to break your kneecaps, or get his kneecaps broken if he's not … If everything isn't quite up to snuff or anything. Part of what you talked about in the book is that, and with the terroir system and what not, or the Appalachians, controlled Appalachians, there are companies or people, or trade associations that are coming together to certify stuff so it's like fair trade coffee, or other types of products that get designated by a third party.

Joe Dolce: That's a bit in the future, but you can see it's going to come. Look, we have single estate coffees in coffee shops. All over the country, we have this stuff. There's a definite market for single malt scotch, or small brew beers, and single estate coffees. A certain part of the culture likes this … affinity, if you will. They have an affinity for these sorts of finer quality things. Listen, once you get a taste for it, it's hard to go back, I think. It's a really fun pursuit. It is like wine in that way, it takes a lifetime to get to know everything.

Nick Gillespie: Well, and talk about how … part of what you're talking about in the book, too, is that … which I find genuinely fascinating. It seems to completely comport with my experience and the people I talk about, who are moving not just into pot, but into other types of drugs, whether they're prescription or not. People are not, and you yourself, are not using pot necessarily to get stoned out of your mind, and then eat a bunch of Twinkies or Ding-Dongs. There are ways to these drugs are being used and being structured to help people with certain types of medical conditions, not to get high, but to relieve pain, to at other times, to intensify sex, or other activities. What is going on there and what does it say about American society? On some level, are we growing up and recognizing that just as we have a gigantic pharmacopeia of prescription drugs, now we're looking to increase the more natural drugs that are available to us.

Joe Dolce: I think plant medicines have always a part of several cultures. Our pill culture is not that old. It's about 100 years old, really. Before then, all medicines were plant derived. Obviously, we don't trust big pharma the way perhaps we once did. Obviously it's not all their fault that these drugs that they're pumping and advertising on television every day are getting abused, but there's a high potential for addiction and death.

Isn't it great to know that here's a plant, cannabis, that's never killed one person, ever, in the history of reported time. There's a reason for that, a real biological reason for that. We don't have the receptors that cannabis attaches to in the part of our brain stem that controls the heart and the lungs. We are never going to shut down from over-smoking cannabis. You might get very fuzzy. You might get stupid. You might pass out. You're never going to die. That's a really nice thing.

If you could harness that plant and figure out if you use this amount or this strain, or this amount of this cannabinoid, and it helps your pain, it helps your … so many different elements of the central nervous system, the stomach, all across the body. There's a real reason for that, too. Why would you not want to do that? Why would you choose to take something that might be damaging or deadly?

Nick Gillespie: One of the most memorable characters in the book is Dennis, the fairy godmother, or fairy godfather.

Joe Dolce: Godfather.

Nick Gillespie: Of pot. Explain who he is and why he is so central? Actually, before you do it, let me bigfoot you and just say one of the things that I really find great about this book is the amount of research … Not even research, reporting you did; I mean the conversations you had, the travels you did. It really brings to life a topic which often times either kind of zooms off into mystical abstraction, or it's very dry, and rote. Talk about Dennis Perone and the central role that he really plays in this brave new world.

Joe Dolce: Dennis was this Vietnam vet who had come back from Vietnam who had learned that he was gay in Vietnam. Came back and decided he was going to stop the war, stop the violence, and he was going to do it through cannabis. He's smuggled a bunch of pot back in his bag. No one was inspecting military returnees at the time. He really did, almost single-handedly, begin a whole weed collective in the city of San Francisco. He started in the late 70s, kept it going through the 80s and the 90s, interestingly enough, through many arrests. He was a real. He really liked people.

Anyway, in the early 90s, he decided he was going to put a ballot initiative on the California ballot about medical marijuana. He started, and it was a real rag-tag group of volunteers. It wasn't going quite as well as they wanted to. They were claiming they had hundreds of thousands of signatures, but in fact, most of them were copied out of a phone book, in alphabetical order, also. It was completely visible.

Along comes a guy named Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance, who also had George Soros as one of his backers. He saw this and he saw an opportunity to go for legal medical cannabis. George Soros thought this was a great idea, because he was very involved in the idea of death with dignity. He did not … It was a big cause of his. He was also very against the fact that we were just arresting hundreds of thousands of black people for possession every single year, which we're still doing, by the way. Ethan got George to pony up a bunch of money. He got George Zimmer to pony up a bunch of money. George Zimmer was the owner of Men's Warehouse. Got a few other rich folks to pony up some money. They brought some political mavericks in, and really got the number of signatures that they needed to get on the ballot for this proposition to pass.

That's what changed the game. That's what happened in 1996 in California, and that's when it became legal to use cannabis as a medicine in California. That opened the door. It just opened the door. All the claims that it was dangerous or addictive, all the nonsense that the prohibitionists had been spewing for 80 years were pretty much obliterated in the 20 years that this program's been going on. None of this stuff had happened, none of it at all.

Nick Gillespie: At this point, as you were saying, it's now at almost 30 states. About 60% of Americans are in favor of treating marijuana like beer, wine, or alcohol, which is up from about 35% just a decade or so ago.

Joe Dolce: That's right. Yeah.

Nick Gillespie: Now, by the same token, it's not like things have completely changed. As you were saying, there's still hundreds of thousands of people being locked up every year. Before we get to that, the coming legal battle, because it's still a schedule one drug under the federal drug laws; even in other states where it's allowed. Before we get there, let's for Reason's audience, I would love to talk about the last section of your book, where you talk about the future use of pot, or what's coming on. You talk about the four enhancements that are offered to humans via marijuana consumption. Discuss those a little bit and how those figure into really the potential for marijuana to become a part of our culture that is … It may never be fully accepted, but it will be more like beer, wine, and alcohol, as well as medicine. What are the four enhancements?

Joe Dolce: They're different. I just want to say, as we learn more about the plant, we learn how to dose it. We learn how to use it differently. We learn how to eat it differently. We learn how to vaporize it differently. All these new things really change the game, because we can use it much more precisely. We don't have to go through the same old thing. Also, look, the conversation was pretty much driven by the growers. They were keeping the thing alive, and good for them. They like to get really high. All these things are now shifting as it becomes more of a accepted social thing.

I think pot definitely makes you more receptive to the world. There's no question about it. It opens up some doors. That's great. It can lead you to greater intimacy, for example. It's nice to have a conversation while a little bit enhanced. It's great to have sex while a little bit enhanced. It's sort of a different experience, I think. Not what alcohol does, it's different from that. It's more of a bringing together. I think that's great. We always know that it makes you open to seeing art differently, to hearing music, perhaps, on a different level of depth. I think it's absolutely true that these activities absolutely is one of the things it enhances.

I think it can also be used … Some people really like it for focus. Now, there's a big bunch of coders that use cannabis when they're working. They love to write code and be high. It's hard for me as a writer to use cannabis while working. It's a real shame, but it doesn't work for me that way. Linear stuff doesn't work for me, but I think a lot of people get a lot of focus from using cannabis, which is very interesting. I've never had that experience.

These are the kind of things I think that we need to open ourselves to, as we go forward. People who have used cannabis for years have always known these things. I think when you think about it with intention and try to do it as such, it changes the experience.

I'll tell you one other thing, I've met a lot of people since writing this book who use it for training, physical training; runners and certain athletes, swimmers. They really like it. It really helps them focus, dig in a little more into the process of it. It's interesting.

Nick Gillespie: Which is all also particularly fascinating because the stereotypes and the cliches about pot is that they're unmotivated, they're lazy, they're unfocused.

Joe Dolce: Yeah.

Nick Gillespie: One of the things that is fascinating and I suspect this feeds into a bit about the racial animists against pot and black people. In the NBA, it's widely understood and in the NFL, as well, that athletes use pot as a way to deal with chronic pain, as well as to recover from training, and-

Joe Dolce: Absolutely.

Nick Gillespie: Just being beaten around. It seems odd that we wouldn't start thinking about that. Everybody has aches and pains, and to the extent that you can take away some of that.

Joe Dolce: They're using it. They're just not using it publicly.

Nick Gillespie: Yes.

Joe Dolce: CBD, which is one of the other cannabinoids, the THC, which is psychoactive, CBD, which is barely psychoactive. Many people say it's not. It's an incredible anti-pain medication. I've been using it for a little arthritis I have. It's extraordinary because it doesn't numb you. It doesn't make you go … It doesn't fog your brain, particularly, of the pain. It just makes the pain less there somehow. It's a very hard way to describe it. It's a different sort of pain relief than you get from the typical pain reliever that we're used to. People in the NBA are using this. There are people all over sports who use this stuff.

Nick Gillespie: Will there be, and obviously there have been a number of celebrities, there have been a number of billionaires. You mentioned Peter Lewis as one, who talked about using pot regularly. What is the game changer in terms of the culture? Is it more testimonies by well regarded people, and I'm making air quotes here, but normal people who use pot, successful people who use pot. Is that what is needed to convince the last 40% of Americans that prohibition is not the smartest move?

Joe Dolce: That's a great question. I don't know the … Obviously, I don't have the answer, but it's happening. That's all I can say. It's happening. It's happening in the hearts and minds of lots of people. My personal prescription is to talk to people. I try to tell … I have no choice, I wrote the book. I'm out. You know what I mean? I'm out.

Nick Gillespie: Yes.

Joe Dolce: Look, 4/20 is coming up. April 20th is a big pot celebration day. Theatrical stuff like lighting a massive three foot joint on the steps of the state capital, that's going to happen.

I think the more important thing is if you talk to a colleague, or a friend who maybe you know loosely, say, "You know what? I really like pot. Here's how I use it. What's your experience?" That seems like a small act, but let me tell you, if all the people who used cannabis were to do that to somebody they didn't know … First of all, they'd find out that a lot more people are using it, first of all. Secondly, they might open some hearts and minds.

Thirdly, the inevitable question is, "Oh, can you get me something good?" Which.

Nick Gillespie: Well, it is fascinating when you talk about that, and one hopes this will have a particular effect in Washington, D.C.—the District of Columbia decriminalize pot. Now, the immediately, there were services that crept up that sell cookies and then gift you pot when you buy cookies. Depending on what kind of cookie you get, you get a different type of pot and it's delivered right to your door.

Joe Dolce: Yeah, that happens all the time.

Nick Gillespie: Yeah.

Joe Dolce: That happens all the time. Yeah.

Nick Gillespie: One would hope that, that the more congress starts smoking, maybe the more they'll relax.

Joe Dolce: Well, we haven't really talked about Donald Trump or Jeff Sessions. This is a whole nother wrinkle in the picture here.

Nick Gillespie: Yeah, let's go there. Right.

Joe Dolce: Who knows what these guys … they're so impenetrable. I don't think Trump has a big issue with weed. He has said in the past that he knows people who use it. It's no big deal, okay. Then he appoints this guy like Jeff Beauregard Sessions, who's a pretty law and order type of guy. He has never said a nice thing about cannabis. He thinks people who use cannabis are quote, bad guys; which is half the American population. There he is, and he can do some insidious things. He can do big, big scale stuff.

I don't particularly think that's going to happen, but I do think they'll be targeting some people who are breaking the laws, or who abuse the laws in the Colorado and California. They're going to make some big busts. They're going to send some tremors through the industry. I predict that will happen based on absolutely no evidence whatsoever. It just seems like an obvious thing to do. The guy's going to want to flex his muscles.

Trump's all about law and order. Pot's always been one of the first things you can crack down on with law and order. Why? Because it's big and it stinks. It's easy to catch. It's just that's what history in America has done. I don't think these guys are original enough to recreate a great idea. I think they're just going to copy an old idea, basically. I think there will be some pushback, but I do think that it's going to be also a likely shut-down at this point, don't you?

Nick Gillespie: Yeah, I agree. Although this is … I've been lately thinking about the novel, 'All Quiet on the Western Front,' where the protagonist dies after the armistice is signed. I think in many ways that the pro-pot forces have won the war, but there's still a surrender to be signed and a lot of damage can be done in the mean time.

Joe Dolce: That's exactly right, yeah.

Nick Gillespie: It may be fascinating, also, to see that somebody like Jeff Sessions, who as a senator from Alabama, was always talking a lot about federalism and returning control to the states. It will be ironic if his moves-

Nick Gillespie: Gets a state like Colorado. Yeah.

Joe Dolce: Republicans use that when they're not in power, and the democrats use it when they're not in power.

Nick Gillespie: Yeah. I'm just saying the irony of somebody like Governor Hickenlooper in Colorado, who was originally against legalization, a democrat, but is now saying like, "You know, I've got to admit, it's working out pretty well."

Joe Dolce: 134 million extra in taxes in his state. Yeah, I think he's pretty happy. No increase in crime, no increase in drunk driving or whatever driving you call it. No major problem at all, and huge tax revenue. The tourism in Colorado is through the roof. Arthur Frommer, who's what now, about 89. The godfather of American travel.

Nick Gillespie: Yeah.

Joe Dolce: He said that canna-tourism is going to be the next biggest boom in American tourism.

Nick Gillespie: It's going to be something like Colorado on five grams a day, or something like that?

Joe Dolce: Yeah, why not? What a beautiful place to go and use cannabis. What a great idea, by the way.

Nick Gillespie: John Denver was way ahead of his time.

Joe Dolce: We were all there.

Nick Gillespie: Do you, as a final question, do you think, and this may be way premature, but will the cannabis revolution … because again, what's your book is about is … I don't actually want to diminish it, all that it's simple pleasure and the infinite pleasure of getting high and just checking out for a while; but your book is actually … It talks about that, but then it talks about all these other uses of pot. We seem to be in a stage now where we're reading more and more reports about Wall Street bankers micro-dosing with LSD or psilocybin and other drugs. There is serious groups, like MAPS, are trying to do serious research about psychedelics and other types of drugs. Do you think we're entering into a new phase where maybe it took us 100 years to get used to pills, and then going back to something that is even more wide-ranging-

Joe Dolce: Without a doubt.

Nick Gillespie: Than simply getting prescribed.

Joe Dolce: There's a huge, huge movement into psychedelics. I don't think pills and pharmacology is the same thing. We're looking at shifting, moving consciousness, and playing with that, and there's open interests in that. Look, we're a secular society, despite what they say. The experience of divine is far less available to us than it once was hundreds of years ago. It seems to make sense that we are a society also that is very chemically astute. We are a technical society, and that some of these incredible pharmaceuticals, LSD … It's also things that are grown, psilocybin, and ayahuasca.

We all know people who are experimenting with these substances, and a wide range of people, and a vast variety of professions and socio-economics. It really cuts across society. People are interested in exploring the limits of human consciousness, I think. They want to scratch the surface. Frankly, that the US government or any government should say, "You are not allowed to do that," is … It's indefensible. It's intellectually preposterous. It's against every supposed right we have. Think about it, it's preposterous.

Nick Gillespie: It's increasingly difficult to police because people can…

Joe Dolce: You cannot police it.

Nick Gillespie: Yup. It brings us back to your cousin's basement.

Joe Dolce: Exactly.

Nick Gillespie: Where it's happening all around us, whether you want it or not. We will leave it there.

Joe Dolce: Thank you.