Be careful, Californians: Grass can kill

A warning to the states that legalized marijuana.

Tzvi Fishman

OpEds Marijuana in Israel
Marijuana in Israel

Recently, I received a distressing phone call from my older brother in New York. An old college buddy of his, a longtime friend, was killed in a skiing accident in the Andes. Daniel was a very wealthy lawyer and businessman who enjoyed adventure and sports. As was his custom in his leisure hours, before venturing out to the snowy slopes, he got stoned on marijuana. Speeding down the mountain, either he didn’t notice the tree, or saw it too late, or, perhaps, in a spaced-out hallucination, he mistook its branches for the outreaching arms of his father, ready to welcome him in Heaven with a warm embrace. Whatever the case, he died immediately on impact with the trunk of the tree.

I knew Daniel well. In fact, the first time I smoked marijuana, almost 50 years ago, was with my brother and Daniel, in the dormitory room which they shared at Brandeis University. I was 18 years old at the time, a senior at Philips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, a prestigious private school a half hour drive from my brother’s university in Waltham. Even then, Daniel was wont to drive around stoned in his fancy sports car. But he isn’t smoking anymore.

Before returning to my own marijuana, pre-baal teshuva years, it is appropriate to mention a few other souls whose lives were drastically shortened because of marijuana. My friend, Sammy, was the son of the president of the Jewish congregation on the island of St. Thomas, in the Virgin Islands, where my family lived for 28 years. One summer, parachuting was the cool thing to do. Sammy was high on grass when he jumped out of the small airplane. In the “high” of the free fall, either he opened his chute too late or he got himself tangled in its strings. After a two-day search, his shark-eaten body was found floating in the Caribbean Sea.

Another one of my Jewish friends on the island, Jerry, had a powerful motorcycle. One night, he was stoned like everyone else at a party. On his way home along a winding mountain path, he took a long corner too wide and found himself facing the grill of a truck that was speeding around the corner from the other direction. As he swerved to avoid the collision, his motorcycle flew off a roadside cliff, down into a steep mountain valley. Both he and the motorcycled were totaled.

That same night, as I was driving home stoned from the party, the white car in front of me suddenly turned into a sneaker. I laughed at the hallucination, knowing that many times marijuana will cause visual distortions like this. Often, these can be very funny, triggering bouts of silly laughter.

But the chemical agent contained in the marijuana plant, known as THC, can also affect other centers of the brain, producing a lack of physical coordination and a slowdown in reaction time. The THC can also awaken suppressed and unresolved fears, traumas, and insecurities from a person’s past, triggering attacks of paranoia and anxiety, the after-effects of which can haunt a person throughout his life. A smoker can also have unpleasant experiences (known as downers or bummers in my day) while he is stoned, if he also imbued alcohol either before, during, or after he smoked.

And there is always a danger that some foreign and mind-warping chemical has been surreptitiously added to grass to make it seem stronger.  While I laughed happily on the drive home that night from the party, Jerry wasn’t so blessed. Like Sammy, he was 18 when he died. Smoking marijuana can be a fun high, but, believe me, no one laughed at their funerals.

These three people were killed while stoned on marijuana, bu in and of itself, marijuana can be a killer. In addition, marijuana leads to hash, and hash leads to cocaine, and cocaine to leads to speed, mescaline, LSD, heroin, opium, and assortment of new drugs I have never heard of, including deadly combinations of drugs and alcohol. While many marijuana users deny that a connection exists between grass and heavier drugs, I beg to differ. For over ten years, I was a more than frequent marijuana smoker, and I can testify from firsthand experience that the connection to other drugs is real.  As the saying goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” When you are hanging around with drug-users, in a culture seeped in drugs, like the sixties in America, the peer pressure is enormous to be as cool and hip as everyone else. Here’s a short list of some famous people who died from a drug overdose:  Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Jim Morrison, Lenny Bruce, Janis Joplin, Bruce Lee, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jackson, John Belushi…. Believe me, they all began with marijuana.

I don’t think I even heard about the Six-Day War and the dramatic events which taking place in Israel. Greenwich Village in New York City was the heart of the hippie revolution, and I was right there, in its center, in Washington Square Park...
The first time I smoked marijuana with my brother and his good friend, Daniel, may he rest in peace, I didn’t succeed in getting high. After two hours, both of them passed out in their beds, but I kept smoking and smoking, yet nothing happened. This is known to occur to first-time users. The next time I smoked was a few weeks later in a friend’s dorm room at high school. After five or six joints, I managed to get high. After that, one joint of good grass was enough to get me stoned. At that time, during my last year in high school, I was only an occasional user. But once I graduated, during the summer, I became a full time stoner. That was in the height of the hippie years, “the age of Aquarius,” the time of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Woodstock, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and flowers in your hair. As the song said: “Everyone must get stoned!”

I don’t think I even heard about the Six-Day War and the dramatic events which taking place in Israel. Greenwich Village in New York City was the heart of the hippie revolution, and I was right there, in its center, in Washington Square Park, on the New York University campus, where I was enrolled in the Film School of the School of the Arts. Along with millions of young people all over the world, I was discovering "FREEDOM!" Freedom from the hypocritical establishment and the adult world, with Janis Joplin singing, “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.” 500,000 free spirits are gathering in “Woodstock” in a cloud of marijuana smoke to hear the prophets of the day: Richie Haven, Ravi Shankar, Jefferson Airplane, Joan Baez, Santana, Jimi Hendrix, and the Grateful Dead, and a new, wonderful, innocent, angry, and uninhibited generation is breaking all of America’s once-sacred rules, where everyone over thirty is not to be trusted, and anyone who doesn’t do dope is square and probably an informer working for the FBI.

With his acoustic guitar and harmonica, the sensitive Jewish lad, Bob Dylan, is singing: “The Times They Are a Changin’.” Far, far away, across the Pacific Ocean in Vietnam, young American boys are getting killed in what they see as a senseless war, and students on campuses all over the country are screaming at the U.S. President, “Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?”  Even those nice, clean-shaven boys from England, “The Beatles,” are singing, “We want a revolution right now.”

When the President announces that the war effort will be accelerated with a compulsory draft, I join the 500,000 angry students who march on the White House to protest. The draft is conducted by lottery. Ever young man between the ages 18 and 25 is given a number, and everyone with a number under 250 is to be drafted by law. My number is 72. But, hell no! Like Cassius Clay turned Mohammed Ali, I ain’t going! No way, baby. It isn’t my war. I ain’t going to some jungle to kill Vietnamese children. None of them are threatening America, so what business is it of mine? But the law is the law, so if I don’t hurry up and do something fast, I’ll either be sitting in the penitentiary, or stalking after “the enemy” in the trees in Vietnam, with a very good chance of getting a poisoned arrow shot through my neck, and coming home with the Stars and Stripes flag draped over my casket.   

But I wasn't drafted, I wrote a novel that got published, sold a screenplay that was made into a popular movie, then headed for LA to make it big in Hollywood.

Today, in Jerusalem, what seems like a thousand years later, first thing in the morning, I walk to shul and put on tefillin. Back then in Hollywood, after waking up in the morning, I would roll a joint with the same care and precision that I now wrap my tefillin strap around my arm. Like everyone in California in those days, and probably also today, I always had a stash of Cannabis on hand. It was easy to get and not very expensive. Good morning, California!

I became so used to getting stoned, I could drive stoned, walk stoned, talk stoned, in a completely normal manner, so that no one would ever suspect I was flying inside. The truth is, everyone else was stoned too, the movie executives, the secretaries, the health freaks working out at the gym, the Blacks working in the gas station with their rose-colored shades so you couldn’t see the red blood vessels glowing in their eyes. That’s Hollywood. And New York. Paris. Bangkok, and Berlin, and, unfortunately, there are places in Israel today that are not far behind.

Back then in Hollywood, after waking up in the morning, I would roll a joint with the same care and precision that I now wrap my tefillin strap around my arm.
The point is, to use a metaphor from Rebbe Nachman’s story, “The Turkey Prince,” I was “under the table.” I was there, a smoker for years, so I know what I am talking about when I say that marijuana can kill.

The truth is, and this also applies to teenagers in Israel, in other Jewish communities around the world, the main reason I smoked marijuana wasn’t only to be cool and be in with the crowd, but rather to silence the uncomfortable sense of uneasiness I felt in my body and brain. It was a feeling I lived with for years, ever since high school, and maybe before - an inner tension, a feeling of angst, what psychiatrists call “general anxiety,” bordering on depression - a feeling of constant inner pressure that getting stoned seemed to soothe, until the high wore off and you need another joint, or beer, or tranquilizer, or “high” of some kind. My habit was what the “Jefferson Airplane” band immortalized, singing, “One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small. And the ones that mother gives you don’t do anything at all. Go ask Alice when she’s ten feet tall.”

Back in those days, in Hollywood, I always felt that something was missing in my life. No matter whatever new attainments I had, whatever new successes I achieved, whether selling another screenplay, or buying a classier car, after the initial high wore off, I felt empty. At first I thought that if I sold a script for more money, or had a bigger write-up in the “Hollywood Reporter,” or rented a cooler, more expensive apartment on the beach, then I would finally be happy and the anxiety would go away. But it never did. With every conquest and success, I needed more and more successes – and more and more grass to quiet my nerves.  I got stoned to alleviate the bummer feeling, as Simon and Garfunkel sang, in order to “feel groooooovy.”

Now I know what was missing. My holy Jewish soul wasn’t getting the spiritual nourishment it needed. Whatever worldly treasures I fed it, the pleasure didn’t mean a thing to my soul. Because, as the book, “The Path of the Just,” explains, the soul belongs to a totally different world. The holy Jewish soul doesn’t receive any pleasure from fancy sports cars, fame, discotheques, or drugs. The Jewish soul needs Torah.

But, of course, I didn’t know any of that at the time. I had no inclination that the source of my inner malaise was spiritual. If someone had told me then, I wouldn’t have had any idea what the hell he was talking about. I would have thought he was crazy.

That brings us back to today. It is no secret that a great many young people in Israel, in both secular and religious communities, have become regular users of marijuana. Some are in jail, others in public rehab programs, while the majority fool themselves into thinking that the police won’t one day knock on their doors and present their parents with a search warrant signed by a judge.  

I haven’t smoked marijuana for the past 35 years. When I became a baal tshuva and discovered the joy of Torah, I didn’t need grass anymore. I discovered that the greatest high in the world is being high on Hashem. Today, unlike the Sage in the story “The Turkey Prince,” I don’t advice parents to go down “under the table” to be like one of the gang and start smoking grass in order to relate to their children.

No does it help to get down on them. Yes, we have to try to relate to them on their level, and not on ours, but by emphasizing their good points and strengthening their will to change. We have to be patient and trust that they will eventually grow tired of being “turkeys.” We have to understand that they too are suffering from an uneasiness inside that marijuana helps them to silence, and that they are not just smoking to be rebellious or cool.

The young generation, the generation of Redemption, has been blessed with high-powered souls. Young people today are searching for the brilliant light and soaring high that are destined to appear as the Shechinah returns to Zion. In the meantime, they grab at whatever substitute thrill that they can in order to feel the powerful emotions they yearn for, including the feeling of serene oneness which comes through the cleaving to G-d.

We have to guide them by example, by radiating the joy which comes through living a true life of Torah, but they have to rediscover the highs of Judaism for themselves. Our sons and daughters are wonderful and talented kids. But they should know, from someone who was once there, under the table, and who, by the grace of G-d, escaped – be careful - grass can kill.

Note: This article does not refer to marijuana taken for medicinal purposes by those in severe pain, if it can help them.