In high school, I drank because that was what you did, huddled around a keg of Genesee Cream Ale in the woods on New York state land or downing Southern Comfort or Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill in a darkened park. The trick was finding bottles sweet enough to temper the sting of alcohol. But neither the illegality nor the drinking held real appeal. A child of permissive academics, I never got in trouble; my parents asked only that I be safe, which was much less fun. They would have been more upset to find I’d voted Republican than that I’d chugged a beer.
In college, in Connecticut, the drinking age was conveniently raised each year as I aged. I enjoyed my fair share of grain alcohol punch in dining hall parties after spending many hours in the library. The liquor helped ease my social anxiety, allowed me to face the intimidating achievements of my classmates and sometimes let me temporarily forget my conviction that someone had made a mistake in admitting me.
After graduation, I worked in publishing and had an expense account with which to wine and dine the authors whose books I published. I needed a go-to drink. A serious drink for the serious persona the young version of me wanted to project. I settled on Scotch and soda, though I liked ordering it better than I did imbibing.
Then I married an alcoholic. My future ex-husband drank only wine and never got drunk, becoming only funnier and more charming with each glass. Eventually I understood there were three of us in the relationship, and that I ranked beneath the wine. Now, I can’t help tracking the consumption of my friends. Most of the time, I’m the one with the problem.
In middle age, I’ve learned to enjoy good wine, pricy tequila and martinis that are just a little dirty. I will sometimes indulge in too many cocktails (two) if they’re delicious, but alcohol keeps me awake at night and makes me feel terrible the next morning. Often I choose, sadly, to abstain.
My parents were devoted children of the ’60s, and the smell of marijuana was familiar. For a time in college I would get high in my room and then eat a box of Wheat Thins. I don’t remember where or how I scored the weed, especially since I barely had money to go out for late-night pizza and my friends were all good middle-class kids; it tended to be the louche scions of wealth who dealt drugs.
Perhaps because I’m a control freak, or perhaps because my body is neither capacious nor rapacious, I’m at best a substance dabbler. Over the years, each time I smoked a little pot, I would become paranoid and uncomfortable. Decades ago, I decided it just wasn’t for me.
But when weed was legalized in Washington, I hoped it would change my life. I knew the industry had become scientific and technical and that different strains would have more predictable effects. Perhaps I could shed my neurotic self and become a laid-back pothead. I grabbed a couple of friends and made them accompany me to the cannabis store. I told the clerk, looking straight into his dinner-plate pupils, I wanted something to turn me into a puddle of relaxation. He sold me some pot, I tried it at home and, after an unpleasant evening by myself reading Oprah magazine and freaking out (Dr. Phil is so mean! Are people really wearing that?), I gave away the stash.
What I wanted was to quiet my racing mind. What I wanted, really, was to be put to sleep so I could wean myself off the hypnotic chemicals I ingest nightly.
Over the past few years, I’ve shopped at different weed stores, talked to various “budtenders,” and have purchased spendy tinctures and treats with the hope I will eventually find one that will allow me to doze off without first feeling out-of-control high. Sadly, I am the Goldilocks of pot: nothing is quite right. When I go pot shopping, I see a bunch of middle age folks seeking, I suspect, the same thing. I’m fascinated by the consumerist world that has grown up around legalized cannabis, the way products and venues pop up, usually with bad puns in their names (for the record, most puns are bad).
Part of me is thrilled that our state was, with Colorado, the first to legalize. The West has always been a tad more tolerant and laid-back than the white-knuckled East. Now we’ll see if the feds crack down on this burgeoning source of tax revenue.
I have given up my quest for a soporific strain that doesn’t turn me into a paranoid munchie-seeker. I’m glad people are making delicious edibles, though I’m too chicken to chow down on them. I’ll maintain my status as a failed pothead and hope that those who want to continue to partake will be able to do so responsibly and legally.
Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University. She is the author of one novel and five books of nonfiction.