I have three daughters, ages six, four, and two, and they are all in bed by eight o’clock at night. My wife, who rises much earlier than I do, retires by 9:30 or ten. I, however, am a night owl, and I find it hard to fall asleep much before midnight. So usually I find myself with about two hours alone in my house, puttering about, wishing I had a better cable-TV package. Late in the day, I don’t have the energy to write, or even to read much. Last night, I ended up watching a 2009 Aziz Ansari stand-up special, streaming on Netflix, while eating a Häagen-Dazs coffee “cup,” one of those cute 3.6–ounce miniatures. Which got me thinking: Why am I not stoned right now?
This was not a new insight; for about the past year, I have been meaning to start smoking pot again. That sounds like a bolder declaration than it is—it’s not as if I were a problem gambler vowing to move back to Vegas. I never smoked much, probably a couple dozen times in college and graduate school. I was never the buyer, always the mooch. In 2002, the last of my stoner friends got his Ph.D. and went off to enrich young minds as an English professor, and after that, nobody was offering. I graduated the following year, got married two years after that, had my first daughter a year later. The drugging, never very lively, had met its natural, fitting end.
So this recent interest in drugs has taken me by surprise, and I don’t totally understand it. As best I can tell, my new thinking goes something like this: I have a couple friends who smoke occasionally, and it would be fun to join them. Since a rather lubricated spell in graduate school, I have pretty much lost my taste for alcohol, beyond the occasional gin and tonic on a summer’s eve; so I’m in the market for another intoxicant. And above all, my own government is practically telling me to smoke.
In Connecticut, as in many states, marijuana is getting sort-of legal. We have not gone as far down Decriminalization Road as Colorado and Washington did last Election Day, but two years ago Connecticut did make possession of less than half an ounce of marijuana, for personal use, a civil infraction, punishable by a $150 ticket. Subsequent offenses carry a $500 fine, but it’s not as if the New Haven police are sniffing around people’s backyards or sending bloodhounds after the scent of weed. I mean, I drive a Honda Odyssey minivan—cops don’t figure there’s anything dangerous up my driveway.
My own parents were a little too old to have really done the ’60s—they got out of college in 1966 and 1967, respectively, and during Woodstock my dad was an army reservist stationed in San Antonio, at Fort Sam Houston. By the time I was old enough to ask if they had ever done drugs, it was the mid-1980s, and while they probably thought Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” sloganeering was idiotic, it was also a pretty frightening time, on the uphill slope of the crack epidemic, and I think they felt some obligation to downplay even their tentative, ’70s-era drug use.
Later, when I was in high school, the stories got a little bit franker, and freakier, although it always seemed to be some friend of theirs who was really high, with my dad (and never my mom) borrowing a hit or two. They would laugh about meetings, ten or fifteen years before, of the child-care cooperative they used to belong to, meetings that stretched on for hours as baked and half-baked parents tried to reach consensus about the politics of disposable diapers and whether it was okay to serve non-organic peanut butter: creamy, easily spread peanut butter was the ultimate bourgeois signifier. I was raised on the crunchy, gravelly kind, with the skein of oil on top.
Hearing my parents reminisce about those years, I once flashed back to a time, when I was maybe six years old, that their chiropractor friend Cheech—let’s call him Cheech, anyway—rolled a cigarette while I was sitting on his lap in my kitchen. As a child, I had figured it was a tobacco cigarette, of which my dad smoked a pack a day, but now, as a teenager, I realized what that cigarette had been. And that knowledge felt icky, even as it made a certain kind of sense. I already took a pretty dim view of Cheech the Chiropractor, who had never seemed like the kind of guy who should be manipulating anyone’s spine. It was unsettling to imagine that he might be cracking bones while high.
And then, when I was sixteen, a good friend, an aspiring jam-band musician who had done more drugs than just about anyone else I knew, got pretty rattled as he told me about walking in on his father smoking pot. My friend’s mom was out of town, and he was supposed to be in someone else’s basement for the night, practicing with his band. He came home early—he’d forgotten his lucky guitar pick or something—and caught his dad smoking a joint in their living room, grooving to a Santana LP. They had a long father-son talk, in which the dad explained that he only smoked “sometimes,” that the mom didn’t know (but now he would tell her), and that he wasn’t an addict, he just used the drug “to relax.” But after all that heart-to-heart, my friend still seemed disappointed in his father. He wished he’d never found out.
Part of what upset him, of course, was the secrecy: His dad had been hiding something from his son and, worse, from his wife. And my friend, a pretty hip character, may have been unsettled to discover that his dad was a cliché: I mean, Santana? But the real problem was that catching his father in a lie fractured my friend’s sense of the safe household.
Not that total honesty is necessarily much better. At an outdoor Dave Matthews Band concert one summer—1998, I think—in eastern Massachusetts, three friends and I showed up figuring we could buy some weed in the parking lot, only to discover that either we looked like narcs or else DMB fans didn’t do as much drugs as we’d hoped. Nobody was trying to sell us anything. But once inside the stadium, we got lucky: Right in front of us, a boy of about thirteen and his mom—who had that hard haggard-cougar look I associated with so many aging moms from my post-industrial New England town—were passing a joint back and forth. I remember thinking that the son wasn’t much interested, and didn’t seem very high. But the mom kept raising the joint high in the air, like a middle finger to the bored cops walking the aisles, or maybe like a triumphant foam finger at a sporting event, proclaiming some sort of hollow victory. “Whoo! I’m high!” she screamed.
And then she noticed us behind her, a girl and two guys, early-twenties, us guys probably looking pretty good to her right about then. “Hey, you want a hit?” she asked, thrusting the joint toward us. Her son stared straight ahead, his hands stuffed in the pockets of his Patriots windbreaker. I wanted to say no, but either because I also wanted to get high, or because I was afraid, in front of my friends, to be that pussy who turned away free weed, I said yes, and took the first hit, then passed it around. And the mom, thrilled to be able to share her bounty, held both her hands up in the air and shouted—it was so odd, and so wrong—“Oh yeah, I’m a mom who gets high!”
I don't worry that I am ever going to be that parent. The pot smoker I want to be resembles the drinker I once was: occasional, responsible, social, after-hours. And I hope I am raising my daughters with a sane attitude about alcohol and drug use. I want them to come of age in an America where, should they choose, at an appropriate age, they can buy the least harmful drugs the way we all buy alcohol: at cost, from a reputable dealer, without risk of arrest or gunshot wound or being harshly judged. You know, like in the Netherlands. But with no boys around.
But I still can’t figure out how to be comfortable as a dad who smokes pot. I know I don’t want to get high in front of the girls: I don’t want them to see me stupid or out of control. I think that would frighten them. I definitely don’t want to be a cliché. And I don’t want to rob them of the slightly subversive thrill that will come, some day, with hiding their weed from Dad. (One college friend of mine kept his pot in the same cabinet where his father kept his, and that always struck me as a relationship a hair too close, like sharing a condom drawer.)
Actually, sex seems the proper analogy here: My kids will know that their parents do it, just as, someday, we will know that they do it. The legality of it, the moral OK-ness of it, does not, and should not, necessitate total honesty and openness. We all benefit from a little secrecy. When the time comes, I want scant evidence of my daughters’ sex lives, and they really won’t want evidence of their parents’.
By my own logic, then, I should feel okay about a little discreet, late-night inhalation, approximately as illegal in my home state as speeding on the interstate. So long as I keep it out of sight and under control—kind of like how I think it’s okay to drink too much at friends’ parties, when my wife is driving. Right? Well, I can keep striving for consistency, both as a man and a parent. For now, I’m watching my Aziz Ansari videos straight, nothing more than the Häagen-Dazs coffee to jazz me up. But man, what a caffeine buzz.
Mark Oppenheimer is the author of three books, including a memoir of high school debate and a travelogue about crashing bar mitzvahs. He writes a religion column for The New York Times and is on Twitter @markopp1.