You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Return of Pot

California gears up for a long, strange trip.

Frederick Brown/Getty Images

Opening day at San Francisco's Cannabis Cultivators Club, and the line at the door eats up the whole block. It is a well-mannered line, considering who is standing in it: a bunch of homeless men streaked with grime, a very large and fierce-looking woman in a wheelchair, a gaggle of mulatto transvestites. Near the front of the line, a woman with pronounced buck teeth is straining, with slow and deliberate jabs, to place a feather earring in the ear of the man standing in front of her, a difficult task given that the man has no ear, merely a gnarled nub of cartilage. She giggles; Van Gogh smiles. A tall, gaunt man guards the door. He checks to see that each person has a letter of diagnosis from a doctor, legally qualifying him or her to buy marijuana. The gatekeeper is calm, composed, and so are the men and women that file silently past him. There is a sense about the scene of something captured in negative. It is as if the rotting of late '60s San Francisco described by Joan Didion in Slouching Towards Bethlehem has been preserved in reverse; the characters are the same, but the center was holding.

Inside the club, order seems to reign, as well. The computers are up, the phones are ringing. Reporters chase down sick people in wheelchairs. The reporters are here because today is a news event: the relaunching of the mothership, as the club is known to its grateful patients, marks the coming out of California's medical marijuana movement after years in hiding. Founded in 1992, the club existed in an uneasy truce with the city of San Francisco, selling pot to some 12,000 customers designated as medical patients. It grew to become by far the largest medical marijuana club in the state, serving as many patients in a day as the other seven or so clubs together might serve in a week. Then, in August, 1996, state narcotics agents raided the club and shut it down on a host of marijuana possession and distribution charges. Three months later, California voters, by a margin of 56 to 44 percent, passed Proposition 215: The Medical Marijuana Initiative, making it legal to smoke marijuana in California with the approval or recommendation of a doctor. A local judge promptly gave the club permission to reopen and designated the club's owner, a former (and often-convicted) marijuana dealer named Dennis Peron, as a caregiver (which is to say, pot provider) for up to 12,000 patients.

Today is the first day of the new era, and Peron is eager to make a good, caregiving sort of impression. Dressed in an argyle sweater and blue oxford with a pinstriped tie, he glides to the middle of the room, climbs up on a coffee table ringed with doting patients and speaks: "If we can't get in touch with your doctor we can't sell you marijuana. We are law makers, not law breakers." He then adds, with a mixture of melodrama and mock asides, "We will never abandon you. We will save the people in pain. Once you get your card, you will see the marijuana smoke. Just like the old days. Oh, that smell...."

A cynical listener might discern here an attitude that seems less like that of the nurturing caregiver, and more like that of, how to put it, an old pothead eager for the good times to roll again. The cynical listener would be on to something. Late in the afternoon, when all the reporters have cleared out to meet their daily deadline, Peron hushes the crowd again. "I know a lot of you have waited a long time and you are sick and you have to go through this bullshit. And it is bullshit. Today we have to go through this bullshit for a thousand years of love. I've missed you so much. One week of bullshit, a thousand years of love." One of Peron's deputies rushes outside to carry the message to those who did not make it in that day. "Don't worry," he eases them. "It will be just like before. Just come back tomorrow. Today is the first day so things are a little, you know. Just come back tomorrow."

The passage of Proposition 215 surprised even its most zealous supporters. In the months before the November election, they fought what they thought was an uphill battle against an enemy that tried to portray them as a front for the seedy drug dealers on Market Street. Tough-talking law enforcement officers like Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates warned that the initiative "would legalize marijuana, period!" But the pro-215 activists knew better than to engage in that argument. They stuck to their line: the referendum was simply about limited, medical use of the drug, and then only in extreme cases. They made the debate one of compassion versus suffering, plastering billboards across the state with images of the hollow-faced sick and dying, the bloated and bald Helen Reading, 43, breast cancer; the furrowed and frowning Thomas Carter, 47, epilepsy. "you have just been told you have terminal cancer," reads one poster. "now for the bad news: your medicine is illegal."

Of equal importance in their electoral victory, the pro-215 activists tailored their image midstream; they hired a pinstriped professional, Bill Zimmerman, to run the campaign, and to run it at a conspicuous distance from people like Dennis Peron: "He was pictured on election night smoking a joint and saying, `Let's all get stoned and watch election night returns,'" Zimmerman recalls. "That kind of behavior supports the opponents' view that we are a stalking horse for legalization.... He could ruin it for the truly sick." Zimmerman's images stuck. The New York Times ran a sympathetic portrait of "an arthritic, HIV-positive cabaret performer," under the headline "marijuana club helps those in pain." Sympathetic, and gullible. With its breathy, tenderhearted reporting, the intrepid Times reporters implicitly tried to correct Sheriff Gates. See, the article said, these people smoking these joints are cripples, real ones, and cancer patients, real ones. They are merely looking for a little easing of their pain, not fronting for the de facto legalization of pot.

The truth about the medical marijuana movement is much simpler, and blindingly obvious after a day in Peron's club. The movement is about the compassionate extension of relief to sick people--THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, offers some sick people a cheap, effective surcease from pain--but it is also very much, and primarily, about legalization. The movement may feature billboards of the infirm, but in the offices of its activists you are more likely to find a different poster, a stoner classic: the declaration of independence and the u.s. constitution were written on hemp paper.

Both the hemp poster and the sad faces of Helen Reading and Thomas Carter are, in different ways, part of an overall campaign to make pot wholesome--to turn it into something as legitimate as, say, over-the-counter cough syrup. The medical marijuana movement and the legalization movement share a common language and common idea. Most of the medical marijuana clubs that have sprung up in California in the past seven years are much stricter than Peron's, which represents the outside edge of respectability and adherence to the law. These more proper establishments run would-be clientele through the checklist of rigid protocols a patient must submit to--a signed doctor's recommendation, a detailed health questionnaire, follow-up visits to the doctor. But, if you talk to the people who run the clubs for any time at all, you will notice that mostly what they talk about is not medicine but legalization--the same standard jargon of hemp and drug wars and government oppression and narcs. One of the strictest clubs in the state is in Oakland, a small place run by a righteous young man named Jeff Jones, who is rigorous in following the letter of the law. The law says, basically, that marijuana may only be sold to people who have a legitimate medical need for it--people, in other words, who could be made to feel better by a toke or two. "But wouldn't marijuana make anyone feel better?" I asked Jones. "Now you're getting the point," he answered, approvingly.

Legitimation through medicalization is not a novel tactic in drug history. In their times and places, opium, laudanum, cocaine, nicotine, alcohol and LSD have been packaged as cures. At the turn of the century, middle-class medicine cabinets were stocked with doses of morphine, codeine and laudanum. The tincture of opium in spirits was known as "God's own medicine." Fussy baby? Try Children's Comfort, or Mrs. Godfrey's soothing syrup, a healthy shot of opium in wine. Public health officials estimated at the time that one in every 200 Americans was a drug addict, most of them happy (giddy, even) housewives. And now, we have pot, the medicine.

The medicalization of marijuana is an attempt to recapture something lost, the brief moment of status pot enjoyed in the 1970s. It is hard to recall now how very near it seemed marijuana was to national legalization then. That year, a government lawyer named Keith Stroup launched the first serious effort to mainstream pot, a group called, aptly, norml--the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. With his charming lisp and velvet bowtie, Stroup succeeded in making marijuana normal, even banal, a trajectory wonderfully documented in Dan Baum's Smoke and Mirrors. Within two years, Stroup had convinced eleven states to make marijuana possession the legal equivalent of a parking violation. School drug abuse books "dismissed marijuana as less harmful than tobacco," writes Baum; "one advised kids to use a water pipe to cool the smoke and avoid burning holes in their clothing."

Then Jimmy Carter picked a drug czar, Peter Bourne, who was the Beltway version of Timothy Leary. Bourne convinced Carter to take the first crucial step toward legalization--replacing criminal penalties with civil ones. The president announced his decision in a speech; every sentence on drugs was written by Keith Stroup. "I support legislation ... to eliminate all federal criminal penalties for the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana," Carter announced.

The end came suddenly, crashingly, with Ronald Reagan. The new president picked up Nixon's War on Drugs and added the force of the U.S. Army, the FBI and the CIA. His wife warned parents to "Get Involved," their kids to "Just Say No." The new official drug abuse pamphlet called Parents, Peers & Pot asked, "Is your child keeping late hours? Has his schoolwork suddenly gone bad? [D]oes she look sloppy or dirty?" and blamed this teenage epidemic of sloth and bad hygiene on marijuana. "The mood toward drugs is changing in this country, and the momentum is with us," Reagan thundered in a radio address. "Drugs are bad, and we're going after them." The culture retreated, with a large dose of self-flagellation. For years, the prophets of marijuana lay holed up in dim, seedy head shops, muttering about the narcs. But now, once again, California is sending them a signal.

The excitement of a new dawn is felt on this opening day of the club, and it is hardly dampened by the dim, fusty interior. The place is divided into three spacious, though windowless, rooms and looks like the messy common room of a college dorm, with bits of origami and amateur "art" hanging from the ceiling, mismatched couches placed askew, ranging in color from bruised to rust to dung. The first person I run into is Andrew, a middle-aged black man with clipped dreads. "You're a journalist," he observes, when he sees me taking notes. "I keep a journal." Having established this common bond, he feels comfortable showing me some of his work. "Before I started writing, life wasn't worth two puffs of coke," he explains as a prologue. I expect to see some more revelations in the journal, maybe some bad poetry. But all I can make out on the first page is "shorts suck" with a crude drawing of Andrew in boxer shorts.

I try to change the subject, and ask him why he's here. He suffers from a disease not mentioned in the posters, but which turns out to be a relatively common ailment among the club's patients. "I have insomnia," he explains. "Also, I get migraine headaches." Before I can ask Andrew's last name, my arm is grabbed from behind by a woman I soon find out is Pebbles Trippet, a Berkeley activist who wants me to listen to an on-camera interview she's doing with the TV equivalent of High Times.

Pebbles is a woman who once was conventionally lovely, with clear blue eyes, a straight nose and long blond hair. She has preserved these features of young beauty--the eyes, the long hair--but added a layer of must and cobwebs and wrinkles. She is draped in what looks like an old rug with pockets, a tattered rainbow lei, cracked leather sandals and mismatched socks. The effect is jarring, like a skeleton with pretty hair. "I am a medical marijuana user," she declares to the camera. "I have self-medicated for decades. They have tried to jail me in three cities--Contra Costa County, Sonoma County, Marin County."

I ask her what's wrong, trying to sound sympathetic.

"I get migraine headaches."

How does smoking marijuana help?

"I use it as prevention. I have not had my weekly headache since childhood. It has to be really good bud, and it relaxes me. It takes me to a higher spiritual place. It's part of my religious belief; it's a sacrament. Herbs and humans need each other. I'm a nature worshiper, and I can sanction anyone who uses Mother Nature's herb."

Pebbles introduces me to her friend Buzzy Linhart, a roly-poly, balding man with stiff whiskers the color of straw. Buzzy is wearing an eye patch. "If not for marijuana, Buzzy might well be blind," says Pebbles.

I ask Buzzy if I can see his doctor's note.

"I have to update my doctor's letter. I gotta go back to Berkeley and see if he's, uhhh, in the country."

Pebbles presses him, "Tell them about your disease."

At this point Buzzy launches into a dialogue I have great difficulty following: "I found my old pal marijuana saved my life ... the love herb ... gather the earth back together ... Reagan ... prostitution laws." Suddenly, he says, "This is important. Write this down," giving me hope I will get something useful. "Do you know who was the co-author of Bette Midler's `Got to Have Friends'?"

Uh, no.

"Buzzy was the co-author. Tonight, she's opening in Las Vegas. People like her should not forget the people who launched their career."

I make a mental note. Buzzy and Pebbles have taught me an important lesson. People who get high are very difficult to interview, for several reasons: (1) They can't complete a thought. They speak in strings of non-sequiturs; they dig for socially heavy meaning but can only come up with verbal scraps--snatches of movement jargon from the summer of love, stoner observations overheard in the parking lots at Dead shows, stray dialogue from "Gilligan's Island." (2) They are paranoid. During our interview, Pebbles often strays out of the camera's range to stand very close to me and look at my notes. This is distracting because I do not want her to see, say, my description of her outfit. I resolve to write in very small letters. It is also distracting because it affords me an uncomfortably close view of her teeth, the kind of teeth I will see many more of in the days to come--brown and rotted with smoke, the color of dead flowers, and covered by a slimy film.

I decide to move on, determined to find out how the process works, how one gets a doctor to write a note and then procures a coveted membership card from the club. I move to the back room. Everyone here is smoking, although smoking is forbidden on the first floor, and none of them has a membership card yet. I sit down next to Lily White and Billy Swain, two friends who met at the club three years ago. Lily says she has eye problems and sciatica, a pain in her leg and thigh. I ask how she got her doctor's note: "I asked my doctor to prescribe marijuana. He didn't want to do it. But all he needs to know is that I need it. I'm the patient. The doctors should know it's our life, it's in our hands, not the doctor's hands. Why, are you thinking about becoming a patient?"

I tell her I have no serious problems.

"The majority of people are facing something, anxiety or depression," she comforts. "You know what problems you got. Even if you just want to hang out. You got to approach it as honest as you can. Do you like what you see, or don't you?" Billy Swain agrees: "It's not so much that you have to get your doctor's permission. They have to say yes to you. The doctors should cater to you. You have to figure out if you're bored, if you need a social outlet. This is a happy place; there's a lot of hugging."

A burly ponytailed man named Fred Martin joins the group. "Can I have a toke?" he asks Lily, and a toke is offered. A former Hell's Angel, Martin lost the bottom half of his right leg in a motorcycle accident. Now he works as a professional activist, usually across the street from the White House, where he yells at President Clinton as he jogs by, "Hey, I'll inhale for you." Fred offers his opinion on how I can join the club. "You women have a way of persuasion," he says, grinning, so I can admire his fine, mossy brown teeth. He picks up a pamphlet called Medical Marijuana: Know Your Rights put out by Peron, and reads it aloud: "`Talk with your doctor. Marijuana has been shown to: aid in stress management.' Don't you ever get stressed out?" he asks me. I look at him blankly, and he takes advantage of the silence to launch into the potspeech, something about Thomas Jefferson getting high, the Constitution on hemp paper, the War of 1812, Nancy Drew ....

At this point I had to stop. Total objectivity is a futile goal for all reporters, I realize. But there are times when personal circumstances so intrude on a reporter's judgment that they must be revealed. In this case, it could be that I have a boyfriend who drives me mad with his marijuana ravings, or that my uncle eased his cancer pains with marijuana, or that Dennis Peron is my best friend. As it happens, none of those things is true. What this reporter must admit is that at this point, I was very, very high. I had been sitting in this back room for quite some time and a cloud of smoke had risen level with my nose, giving me an acute case of contact high. I was not exactly hallucinating, but it seemed to me that everyone had stopped what they were doing and were staring at me. That Billy, Lily, Fred, even Van Gogh, were watching to see what I would do next. I decided it was time to go.

The next morning I returned to meet Dennis Peron. His office is behind a bolted door with no door knob, in a corner of the building. Inside is the combination of seedy and healthy living peculiar to California hippies--bits of weed and papers strewn about the stained carpet, alongside organic kemp meal and bottles of Arrowhead spring water. Dennis is like that, too, tanned but wrinkled, a wiry face and neatly combed white hair. I ask him why he started the club, and he begins, instantly, as if a switch had been thrown, to spin a heart-wrenching tale: "The club is a eulogy to my young lover Jonathan, who died of aids. We were lovers for seven years, and I miss him every day of my life. He died a very painful death. He had KS lesions all over his face, and we would go to a restaurant and people would move away from him. I always dreamed of a place Jonathan could go and smoke pot and meet people with aids and not feel such stigma. It started out as a eulogy and has turned into a mission of mercy for the most powerless and gentle members of society."

The story is completely rehearsed, emotionless. As he tells it, Peron flips through Post-it notes on his calendar, stops to shout to his coworkers to find out when his next radio interview is. It is only when I ask him who is responsible for Proposition 215 that I get his attention. "Me. You're looking at the guy. I am not an egomaniac, but it was my pain that changed the nation. My loss inspired me to do something for this country."

Like most tearjerker myths, Peron's leaves a few things out. Such as the fact that he was a notorious San Francisco drug dealer for decades before he started the club; he ran the Big Top supermarket, a one-stop drug emporium, and the Island Restaurant, which served pot upstairs and food downstairs, and was in and out of jail several times.

Later, when I tell Zimmerman about Peron's version of the story, he laughs for a good ten seconds before he explains Peron's role. "After two months it became clear that Dennis was going to fail miserably, that he wasn't keeping up with projections." They needed 800,000 signatures in five months to qualify the proposition, and Peron only had a few thousand. "By the time we were finished he had provided less than 10 percent of the signatures. There is no limit to that man's ego."

Peron does seem to be driven by an egotist's perverse, almost pathological need to shock. He believes he is infallible. He believes, actually, that he is literally a saint. He says things with no regard to the consequences, or perhaps too much regard. The most famous example is a quote he gave to The New York Times last year, a quote that was folded into the opponents' commercials, and cost Zimmerman countless hours of damage control: "I believe all marijuana use is medical--except for kids," he said. I ask Peron now if he regrets that quote. He stands up and glares at me. "no way do I regret it," he shouts. "I believe 90 percent to 100 percent of marijuana use is medical."

Needless to say, this attitude makes Peron's medical judgments less than scientific. He seems to judge medical need haphazardly; his only guiding principle is deference to the patient. For example, drug czar Barry McCaffrey, in his hostile December press conference, held up a chart he attributed to an ally of Peron's listing the medical uses of marijuana, including such dubious ailments as writer's cramp, aphrodisiac and recovering lost memories. "Aphrodisiac, that's ridiculous," Peron says, recalling the list. "They are just so uptight they had to throw in some sexual thing." What about the lost memories? "That's all right with me. Some people have demons, and they have to chase them away."

Narcotics agents busted him in August precisely for this laxness; among other things, they sent in an undercover female agent with a diagnosis of a yeast infection, and Peron sold her marijuana. He still does not understand why that's a problem. "I said to her, `I'm kind of embarrassed, this is a woman's thing, but maybe it helps the itching.' I'm not going to second guess a woman. I'd be putting down every woman in the world if I denied her medicine."

By the end of our talk, I have a better understanding of the process, although I'm not sure I have more faith in it. Peron is more careful than he used to be, more out of concern for narcs than for his patients. At his press conference, McCaffrey threatened to prosecute doctors who recommend the drug. This threat has ironically provided Peron with an easy excuse. "Everybody's being tricky," Peron says. "It's a semantic game forced on us by the federal government." The club operators ask only the minimum level of cooperation from the doctors: they check that the doctor is registered with the state licensing board, call the doctor, identify the club and check that the letter of diagnosis is real. Only if the doctor voices an objection will they deny the patient a membership card. It's an excuse, but not a great one. The other clubs still require a signed recommendation from the doctor. They also check with the doctor every six months or so to see that the diagnosis is still valid. Once a patient has a membership card from Peron's club, he has it forever.

The doctors who cooperate fall into three main categories. (1) Serious illness doctors. In cases of aids, cancer, glaucoma and epilepsy, there is substantial anecdotal evidence, although no thorough scientific research, that marijuana helps. For aids patients, it stimulates appetite; for cancer, it eases nausea associated with chemotherapy; for glaucoma, it relieves eye pressure; and, for epilepsy, it helps prevent seizures. (2) True believers. There are a handful of doctors who believe in marijuana's capacity to ease a myriad of symptoms. Most do independent research and monitor their patients carefully. (3) The skeptical but convinceable. Here is where the practice gets fishy.

Some doctors are wary of marijuana's effects, but willing to defer to their patient's wishes. Ironically, Proposition 215 permits them to cede control over marijuana much more than they could over, say, allergy medicine. An allergy medicine prescription has to be signed and numbered and tracked, with the number of refills designated. Marijuana merely has to be approved, and an oral approval will do. Dr. Barry Zevin runs the Tom Waddell Clinic in San Francisco, serving the poor and underserved. He says hundreds of his patients have asked him for letters of diagnosis to use at Peron's club. In 10 percent of the cases, mostly aids and cancer, he hands them over confidently. In 10 percent he advises against it, such as when the patient is severely psychotic. And for the rest he is not sure. But he will never deny a patient, even a psychotic one, a letter of diagnosis, and he is not sure he would ever make clear his objections. Because of his uncertainty, Peron's laxness suits him: "I try to educate my patients. I say, `The last thing in the world you need is marijuana. The last time you smoked it you became psychotic.' But if they still want a letter, it's a dilemma.... I prefer it to remain a gray area, where I don't need to make a decision." Even if Zevin persists in objecting, he may be won over. "Knowing them, they would have some advocacy," he says of the club operators. "They would call and say, `Would you reconsider? We have some research that shows marijuana helps hangnails, and I think this person ought to get it.' It's a process of negotiation."

But the real future of the wholesome marijuana movement is not in the hands of the sick; quite the opposite. People like Pebbles and Buzzy and, for that matter, Dennis Peron, are what they seem to be, relics of the past. I also met the future, and it was Starbucks. All over California, a new breed of young entrepreneur is busy these days opening up a new kind of head shop--excuse me, water pipe gallery--clean, safe, family-friendly places, with track lighting, juice bars and cafe lattes. In these places, what used to be known as a bong is now called art. And it costs as much.

In West Hollywood there is a street called Melrose that is determined not to ever, ever, not even on its worst hair day, look anything like the stretch of lower Market where Pebbles and Buzzy and Dennis get high. If Melrose met lower Market in an alley, it would call for a cop. On Melrose, trendy couture shops and MAC lipstick counters and retro diners ache for the B-list kitsch stores in their midst to disappear. So the merchants of Melrose must be thrilled by a store called Galaxy. With Galaxy, owner Russ Ceres has managed to turn something cheesy into class. Galaxy is the new wave of head shop, a place where smokers (ostensibly of tobacco) buy the finest of paraphernalia in the most dignified of settings. Gone are the Harley T-shirts, scorpion rings, fake silver chains; gone is the dimly lit bong room in back. In their place is a fluorescent-lit studio space, juice and coffee in front, water pipes displayed lovingly in glass cases, piece by precious piece, each accompanied by an embossed placard bearing the proud artist's name. Finally, bong pipes have reached equality with art, something deserving a room of its own (and a little wall space, and good lighting and maybe one day soon a show at the Whitney). "We are striving for a new level of intelligence," explains Ceres. "We want to take the Beavis and Butthead out of the image."

Ceres has a vision, and the core of his vision is bye-bye to Buzzy and Pebbles. With his sandy hair and J. Crew good looks, Ceres is a 27-year-old picture of healthy living, a younger, fitter version of Dennis Peron. "My worst nightmare is a seedy hippie place with tie-dyes that attracts the kind of crowd that crawls out of the woodwork," he explains. He pauses to frown, briefly but sharply, at his Thai iced coffee. Too much milk. "We are trying to upscale the atmosphere, to create more social acceptance for smoking. This is a positive place, where lawyers and doctors can go and wear nice clothes, like a cocktail lounge." He leads me over to the water pipe display, to show off some of his finest pieces--a rose and teal swirled eighteen-inch glass pipe, a twenty-one inch fashioned to look like the human aNATOmy. "People who know nothing about smoking are amazed at the artwork," he confides. "Sometimes they'll buy a piece just to display it on their coffee table."

The amazing thing about Ceres's vision is the total absence of rebellion. For those of you who suspected that the counterculture was really just a mass, commercialized culture masked, Ceres is the culmination of your theory. He does not reject middle-class norms, or even pretend to. In fact, he embraces all the modes of mainstream life--money, status, power. In his ideal America, marijuana would be anodyne, better than medicine. More like one of those cheerful balms that help take a rough corner or two off life--like a latte grande with skim, or a Disney theme park. It's not about revolution and sensual experiment. It's about family values. Drug laws bother him not because Big Brother is tying us down, but because "they break up families. They prevent children from communicating with their parents." In fact, his most cherished customer is "a 60-year-old man who came in and looked at me sternly and said, `Son, it's about time a place like this opened up. I'm tired of the tension this creates between families.'" Perhaps it's because the man reminds him of his own father, a white-collar vice president who, Ceres is pleased to report, "is very proud of me. He thinks it's great."

Part of Ceres's plan is to promote young entrepreneurs like him, people with a "sense of vision." One such person is the L.A. craftsman John Brown, the hands behind the Homemade brand of handcrafted water pipes. Brown works out of his parents' house in Brentwood, in a spotless room with hardwood floors, rattan furniture and a fish pond out front. On the day we meet the place hums with domestic tranquility, a lawn mower, a caged bird chirping somewhere. Brown is of the surfer school, buzzed yellow hair, slouchy jeans, says he's 21 but looks 16. He, too, began his business after a personal encounter with hippie sloth. "My old partner was a great kid but a real hippie. He followed the Dead shows and became real lazy and irresponsible, living on the road, spending all our capital. I have nothing against hippies, but I wouldn't want to work with one."

The experience seems to have left him with a bad taste for all things natural. Despite the company's crafty name, Brown prefers only synthetics. And he approaches his work with the enthusiasm Alexander Parkes must have felt when he discovered the myriad uses of plastic. "I consider myself a master of acrylics," he says, with deadpan pride. "I believe in the durability of acrylics. I use only the highest-quality acrylics, and I've experimented with the acrylics until it worked at perfection. I have made the perfect pipe." He demonstrates, by dropping the pipe on the floor, banging it on the table, showing how the stripes on the base look different if you view them at different angles.

Like Ceres, Brown believes he is onto something much larger than water pipes. "I got into it because of the age," he says, launching into MTV-speak. "I can feel the energy around me, how important it is. It's not a '60s thing anymore, it's not weed, it's not grass, it's the chronic. It's got a new name, a new lifestyle. It didn't go away. It just became modern."

Modern lifestyles require modern comforts and modern designs, and lucky for Brown and Ceres, they can find all they need, conveniently, in the new line of hemp products. While Brown was perfecting his acrylics, a parallel industry was sprouting nationwide to fill all his other worldly needs. Displayed in full glory in Hemp Times, the upscale improvement on High Times, the industry is dedicated to proving "an eco-friendly philosophy can equal big money." This month's issue, for example, features an inside look at the fashion show at Planet Hemp, New York's hemp megastore, where looks range from "Evening Elegance" to "Campus Classics." There is some attempt at a rebel yell--in one ad, a barefoot Keanu Reeves look-alike in an open hemp shirt squints dangerously from a busy street, as an army of blue suits passes him by. But mostly, the magazine is dedicated to proving you can tune in, turn on and cash in. "America's hemp products industry doubles its multimillion dollar grosses every year," the magazine's editors chirp.

There is hemp oil ("a `taste delicacy,' says Daniel Claret, one of North America's premier gourmet chefs"), hemp plaid ("and stripes too!"), hemp housewares and a hemp portfolio ("organize your life with hemp"). In the Hemper's Bazaar, you can find all the latest hemp fashions; women in bias-cut skirts cock their hips with Kate Moss haughtiness and tease each other's hair to prepare for a night out in their spaghetti-strap Corona hemp dresses. There are profiles of winning entrepreneurs, like Mitch and Jill Cahn. "Fed up with the whole Wall Street thing," Mitch explains, they turned to making hemp hats, and found they could "gross over two and a half million."

When all the buzz has faded, there is something a little bleak about the new pot atmosphere. Not that it might lead to legalization; that doesn't much bother me. But the air of sanctimony; the puffing up of marijuana into something more than it is. Jill and Mitch Cahn are annoying not because they are hucksters, but because they insist on believing that they are something more, that they're saving the earth by doling out hemp hats at Phish concerts. In the end, a head shop is just a head shop. The woman behind the counter at Galaxy looked as zoned out and faded as any bong salesgirl I've seen; and as Ceres was showing off his display of art pipes, one of his new intelligent clients was stealing my wallet.

For the sick, this blithe reverence for the herb seems especially grim. I suppose if you are a terminal aids or cancer patient, smoking pot every once in a while, even every day, can't hurt much. But knowing, even with medical certainty, that THC stimulates the anandamide neurotransmitter says nothing about what it does to your general well being. Pot may be medicine, but getting high every day is still getting high every day. And it can't be good for Dennis Peron's depressed stragglers and veterans on SSI to sit around getting high every day.

Spend a few days hanging around Peron's club, and you can get awfully sad at the pretense that all the wretched souls--the sick and the sick at heart--can be fixed by a hug and a toke. "There, there," said one of the nurses, stroking the arm of a woman who seemed hysterical and confused, maybe even mildly retarded. "I have a great idea. Let's go upstairs and have a smoke." It was a blind idolization I came to associate with something I saw in Peron's office: a framed photo of a robust, blooming pot plant propped up against an actual plant, withered and dying. My favorite patient at Cannabis Cultivators was Miguel Ciena, a 42-year-old with bone cancer, liver disease and aids. I liked Ciena because he was straight with me about what he was doing. He searched for no rationalizations, either for himself or the movement. He said he needed the medicine, but that he could do without it. He offered that he'd been smoking pot for twenty-eight years, long before he'd gotten sick. He didn't think it was too much to ask for patients to get a real recommendation from a willing doctor. And he thought the state was crazy to give Peron back his license after he'd failed them so badly the first time. I liked him most because he articulated what I had begun to feel: that human compassion was a complicated thing, different from giving a hungry kitten some milk. "They smile at you, but I wouldn't say they were caring," said Ciena. "Compassion is telling it like it is."