photo by Tom Nelson

Editor's Note: David Schmader is a former writer for our sister paper The Stranger, and author of the new, indispensable book for beginning or returning dope smokers, Weed: The User's Guide: A 21st Century Handbook for Enjoying Marijuana. He's also a proud, out pothead. He'll explain why.

I'M DAVID SCHMADER, and I am a pothead.

By this I mean when it's time to enjoy an adult intoxicant, I'll forgo beer, wine, and spirits in favor of marijuana, which, for me, offers a world of nuance, delight and inspiration beyond the more crude effects of booze.

But I'm not here to proselytize, and for a long time, I kept quiet about my enjoyment of weed. It was illegal for most of the time I was enjoying it, and why make myself vulnerable as an out-and-proud lawbreaker if I didn't have to? I also dreaded being saddled with the stoner stereotype, of having my every move interpreted through the lens of "pothead"—a word that suggests Mr. Magoo-levels of forgetfulness and a passivity bordering on the comatose. So what if I used weed not to escape, but to engage with art, ideas, food, and hilariously terrible movies? I was but one man, and couldn't reconfigure society's image of marijuana users by myself. I stayed in the closet.

And I'm familiar with the closet. I grew up gay in the pre-Ellen bad old days, when the only "out" gays were those who couldn't or didn't want to hide it—drag queens, butch lesbians, gay-bar raid victims whose faces wound up in newspapers. These trailblazers might've been the whole of gay representation if Harvey Milk hadn't begged everyone to come out, especially all the non-remarkable queers who'd previously flown under the radar. Only then could an honest portrait of this subculture emerge.

It's the same with marijuana, but instead of butches and queens, weed's visibility parade is led by Cheech and Chong, Snoop Dogg, and unlucky subjects of weed busts. And I love drag queens and Snoop Dogg—but leaving such exceptional outliers to do the heavy lifting of representation not only skews perception, it allows damaging lies to flourish.

The primary source of these lies is, unfortunately, the US government, which has strenuously vilified marijuana and its users for 80 years. In the 1930s, the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics declared that "marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes," and "makes darkies think they're as good as white men." Such slander presented as science was codified in 1970, when the drafters of the Controlled Substances Act classified marijuana as a Schedule I narcotic—a designation reserved for extremely dangerous drugs with "no accepted medical use."

It's hard to overstate the pernicious effects of this Schedule I classification, because by scheduling weed as a drug with no medical benefit it makes it prohibitively difficult to conduct the research that would conclusively prove that weed has a thousand and one medical benefits.

For example, to study ostensibly less dangerous Schedule II drugs like cocaine and crystal meth, scientists just pick up some crystal meth and study it. But to study Schedule I marijuana, researchers must be pre-approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), apply for government-produced marijuana from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and be temporarily deputized by the Drug Enforcement Administration, as only federal drug enforcement agents can legally handle Schedule I narcotics.  

Beyond this bureaucratic hazmat suit is the fact that most funding for medical research comes from the pharmaceutical industry, which views marijuana's medicinal properties as a threat, and has a vested interest in sustaining marijuana's designation as a dangerous narcotic with no medical use.

And as countless patients in medical marijuana states can tell you, weed has a ton of medical uses—from quashing nausea to minimizing arthritis pain to controlling seizure disorders—and in the face of all this cognitive dissonance, with the government's campaign of deceit chafing against the lived experiences of actual humans, speaking honestly about my use and enjoyment of weed seemed like the least I could do.

So I started doing it. I'm a writer who often writes about myself, and being honest about weed use was a lot like being honest about gayness. Both called for greater specificity: Instead of saying I was "on a date," I'd say I was out with a guy. When writing about "celebrating with friends," I began mentioning the bong.

When I started this "coming out stoner" campaign, weed was still illegal where I lived, but I worked at an alternative newsweekly, which encouraged radical honesty, where I'd gotten high with the editor and publisher. Still, embracing the stoner label was a little daunting, and I offset my dread of stereotyping by stepping up my professional courtesy game: I was strictly punctual, ostentatiously well organized, and independently motivated.

And the world turned.

Now it's 2016, and within a five-mile radius of where you sit, there are a half-dozen stores where anyone over the age of 21 can purchase marijuana for recreational use, and several dozen dispensaries where authorized patients can purchase marijuana for medicinal use. Meanwhile, 350 miles east, selling a small amount of marijuana can earn the seller a life sentence, contingent on Idaho's three strikes law—an insane state of affairs summed up with bracing clarity by CNN's Mike Riggs, who wrote, "It should be cruel and unusual, indeed, to mete out life-without-parole-sentences for a drug so mainstream that Colorado is using state-collected pot taxes to build new schools."

We need to strive for integrity in our nation's pot laws, and a good first step is for all of us to start telling the truth about marijuana—which requires moving beyond the marijuana monster myths peddled by the feds.

Myth #1: "It's a gateway drug." No, it's not. The "gateway drug" theory holds that weed users are more likely to try harder drugs—a claim that has little to do with weed, and much to do with weed prohibition. Because the main thing that inspires weed users to try harder narcotics are black-market weed dealers who sell harder narcotics. The prohibition creates the connection.

Myth #2: "People just want medical marijuana to get high." Shut up. The most exciting developments in medical marijuana involve strains that are literally incapable of getting anyone high, opening up a world of treatments for those who don't want their medicine with a side of stoned. (For example, children with seizure disorders.) Also, the "people just want X to get high" argument is never applied to prescription painkillers, which kill more than 10,000 people each year, while no one in the history of the world has ever died of a marijuana overdose. Ever.

Myth #3: "Weed will make you stupid and maybe insane." This one's the hardest to dismiss, not because it's unequivocally true, but because it can be true for weed's most vulnerable potential users, AKA kids. In the world of underage marijuana use, some of the worst of the government's scare stories are accurate. For those whose brains and bodies are still developing, marijuana has the potential to create lifelong problems, from diminished learning capacities to a heightened susceptibility for mental illness, and people under the age of 21 should not smoke or otherwise imbibe marijuana. And maybe even 21 is too young. If I were in charge, people wouldn't be able to smart smoking weed until halfway through grad school.

Speaking of white privilege, earlier I mentioned the numerous weed stores operating legally within a five-mile radius. Now, when I see a legal weed store, I see progress. But if someone I loved were serving a mandatory minimum sentence for dealing weed, I might see a reason to commit arson, and if legal recreational marijuana is ever to be a truly guilt-free pleasure, we need to rectify this nation's pot laws, and do right by those whose lives were ruined by draconian old-school pot laws.

For now, if you are someone who appreciates marijuana, either as medicine or diversion or both, come out. You don't need to become a spokesmodel for weed, especially if you live in a state where it's still illegal, but stop treating your weed-based pleasure as a source of shame, which only props up the pot-vilifying status quo.

Seriously, if I could round up every weed-smoking doctor and lawyer and New York Times-bestselling author I know, and if we had spent the past several weeks rehearsing the "Thriller" dance, we could blow your faces off.


Meet the brilliant and funny David Schmader at Powell's Books on Hawthorne (3723 SE Hawthorne) on Thursday, April 28, at 7:30 pm, as he reads from his book Weed: The User's Guide: A 21st Century Handbook for Enjoying Marijuana.