By Bruce Barcott
You may be familiar with Andrew Sullivan: author, essayist, editor, public intellectual. The British expat, long ensconced in America, all but invented the professional blog with The Dish, his influential platform on politics and culture that thrived from 2000 to 2015.
You may not know Sullivan as one of the intellectual pioneers of the legalization movement. But back in 2009, when adult-use legalization was a dream still years away, Sullivan devoted an extraordinary amount of space in The Dish to serious considerations of legal, regulated use. That work was later collected in a groundbreaking book, The Cannabis Closet, edited by Sullivan and Dish editor Chris Bodenner, which collected the stories of everyday, non-stereotypical cannabis consumers. (You can still find it online, published by Blurb.com.)
Sullivan will be speaking at the International Cannabis Business Conference in San Francisco next weekend (Feb 13-14), along with an eclectic lineup that includes Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, Tommy Chong, and former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders. I caught up with him in a phone conversation a couple weeks before the event.
I wanted to know what got him thinking about legalization seven years ago. “There were two things,” he said. “One was my own experience in the AIDS epidemic. I know people alive today who wouldn’t have survived without cannabis. It allowed them to tolerate the crazy amounts of medication we were given in the mid-nineties. I found it intolerable that the government would actively prevent people from saving their own lives.
“The other thing was this: I’ve always had a libertarian instinct. I genuinely believe people should be able to treat themselves as they see fit. Especially if it’s not fatal, and has been shown to be safe.”
The Cannabis Closet was one of the first books to present cannabis use as something other than the main ingredient in a stoner comedy. That came about, Sullivan said, “because we wanted to counter the stereotypes. We wanted to relay the experiences of completely middle-class American pot smokers.” Sullivan has often written of his own experience as a gay conservative Catholic, and he saw parallels between the LGBTQ struggle and the cultural presentation of cannabis consumers. “The parallel with the gay story is there,” he said. “There are a lot of stereotypes” that kept the drug war at a fever pitch.
In a way, he argued, the connection between cannabis and comedy has undermined the fight to address legalization as a serious issue. “The humor is an obstacle,” he said. “When people talk about weed in the United States, they giggle and make munchies jokes. Nobody ever makes jokes about someone doing heroin. There’s been a strange disconnect between the way people talked about it, and the way the law and public debate was constrained around it.
“I’m a huge fan of stoner comedy and stoner culture,” he added. “I don’t mean in any way to disparage them. But in some ways it’s become an unwitting way of deflecting, of missing the point. If it’s only funny, then why the hell are we locking up god knows how many people a year for merely possessing it? Let alone the racial question, which is overwhelming and shameful.”
Long known for his biting political commentary, Sullivan is closely watching the legalization initiatives moving toward the November 2016 ballot. “That’s the key, the November vote,” he said. “The marriage equality parallel is interesting. Once we only had Massachusetts” as a marriage equality state, he said. “We knew if we went to federal court and only had two or three states behind us, it would be a harder push.” By the time the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide with its 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision, some version of marriage equality existed in 38 states and Washington, D.C. A similar dynamic could play out with cannabis legalization, Sullivan said. “Once you get a critical mass—especially adding a state like California—then I think we’re in a whole new ballpark.”
It’s been a year since Sullivan announced the retirement of The Dish—fifteen years left him fairly exhausted—and since then he’s been thinking and writing a lot about “the culture we live in, which is a culture of mass distraction,” he said.
“Nobody is safe from the endless torrent of Tweets, emails, Facebook updates,” he said. “We’re in a constant distracted state of mind, and it renders us more tired, depressed, and irritable.
“I think the new popularity of weed is related to that,” he said. “I think people feel the need for space in their lives that is calm. They need something that will get them out of that constant reactive, on-edge feel that information overload is providing us. I think we’re self-medicating, and I think weed is particularly effective in tricking our brains into escaping that constant state of alert anxiety.
“It’s become incredibly hard to stay sane in this culture. Our heads are jerking with distraction. No one even takes a shit anymore without looking at their phone.” I laughed. “I’m serious,” he said, chuckling, “this didn’t happen ten years ago. We took a shit easily ten years ago, enjoyed the moment. That’s what I think weed does. Gets us off the phone and allows us to enjoy the moment.”
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