The Unmaking of a Counter Culture

Cannabis has officially gone mainstream in California

If you or a loved one struggles with Cannabis Use Disorder, check out my podcast Dreams & Ashes: Confessions of a Recovering Pothead

A friend sent me this rather stunning aerial photo of UC Berkeley’s Memorial Glade yesterday, on 4/20. The Cal campus was once the site of the famous Free Speech Movement rallies, and has a long history of counter-cultural activism. When I was an undergrad, our libertarian student club used to sell completely regular, non-marijuana-laced brownies here on 4/20 as a light-hearted fundraiser. If people wanted real (potent!) pot brownies, they could go three blocks down Telegraph Avenue and buy them from “Patches” — the well-known dealer of sew-on patches depicting hippie peace symbols and pot leaves, along with a more profitable illicit offering of marijuana edibles. Patches somehow evaded police (or else paid them off) as he doled out his dense, dry chocolate chip cookies from a paper bag underneath his table.

Sometime in the 10 years since I graduated, Patches folded up shop. I doubt he was arrested. More likely he was pushed out of business by the dozens of legal dispensaries in a 2-mile radius. Today’s Cal students, even those under 21, can get weed as easily as they can order a Blondie’s pizza, with their smartphones, from the comfort of their dorm rooms. This was no doubt a comfort for many who have been locked down over the past two years. Meanwhile, Telegraph Avenue continues its transformation from a hub and icon of the counter-culture to an extension of the University of California’s corporate technocracy, with new highrise apartments seemingly going up every month.

Back in my day, 4/20 celebrations still had a whiff of transgressiveness. There was strength in the number of students who assembled on Memorial Glade to toke up in unison at 4:20 pm on April 20, but you still wondered in the back of your mind whether UCPD might show up and start handing out tickets, or if your new friend from stats class might secretly be a narc. The glade was sparsely populated enough that you could lie back and enjoy a picnic with your friends. No longer.

Now, you’re expected to join the muddled mass of bandwagon tokers. I can only imagine the peer pressure for incoming Freshmen: “You mean you didn’t get high on 4/20?”

Is this scene (captured by drone) not the perfect emblem of what Philosopher Clown Slavoj Zizek called “our postmodern world of ordained transgression”?

With state legalization firmly entrenched, and federal decriminalization looking exceedingly likely, we are on the verge of the transgressive act of getting high in public being decreed as the new norm.

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From one angle, this appears to be a victory for the old counter-culture. Didn’t the 1960s radicals get everything they wanted and more? Yet I can’t help but see — curmudgeon that I am — how it represents a subversion of the core ethos of the sixties, through the co-opting of outward symbols of liberation in the further enslavement of an already dull and docile population. Theodore Roszak appears to have been prophetic when he warned in his classic book The Making of a Counter Culture that mind-altering drugs threatened to suck the energy out of the lively movements springing up against our technocratic society. What once held potential as a tool of spiritual awakening now looks like another questionable mode of self-medication among many other pharmaceutical options. Thick clouds of incense waft up to the heavens, but is it a pleasing aroma unto the Lord?

The California Grizzly Bear that adorns our state flag was once a frightening prospect for trailblazing 49ers and pioneers in our early days of statehood. The ferocious apex predator hasn’t been seen in the wild here in over 100 years. It was hunted to extinction by men who believed in California’s destiny as a vanguard for genuine progress — a new way of living on America’s westernmost frontier. Ever since, we’ve seen glimpses of defiant Californa Grizzly Energy in our feats of environmental engineering, lively protest movements, and innovative garage-startup culture.

It’s disheartening to think that our dynamism is being dulled and diverted by drugs. We’re due for a revival of Grizzly Energy — the original fuel behind the California counterculture.

I am Californian — hear me roar.

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