Article — From the October 2009 issue

Tokeville

On the frontiers of federalism and dope

It was northern California in the warm, early spring, and we had been at war in Iraq for years, and the bright protest marches—which had begun in self-congratulation at City Hall and ended in heirloom produce and unpasteurized chèvre at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market—had faded from memory, and a great many people who might in another era have cared about illegal foreign wars or grave threats to civil liberties had been outraged into apathy by the unrelenting malevolent ineptitude of their government and had again become preoccupied with their live-work loft spaces and the vesting schedules of options and how best to “monetize eyeballs.” And whereas their forebears, in a bygone time, might have been found in Golden Gate Park scoring grass from which seeds and twigs had to be charily picked, our contemporaries were pleased to take the state of California up on its gracious proposition of Compassionate Use and relieve their chronic white-collar neck pain with top-shelf industrial-grade medical marijuana, purchased semi-legally and with post office–like convenience in the shabby boutiques increasingly blacking out shop windows all over town. What seemed clear was that the federal government had at some point become a distant and obdurate entity, and yet California, in its generous cannabinoidal dispensation, had achieved an almost alarming level of sensitivity to its subjects’ sense of well-being. So I decided to leave San Francisco for the mountains, or rather the nearer-by hills, where the people were growing this state-sanctioned marijuana and were apparently making a lot of money doing so, and I thought I’d stay around a while and try not to make any enemies.

Despite the rhetoric of the Drug Enforcement Administration and other anti-pot scolds, much of the decriminalized marijuana that is sold at local “cannabis clubs”—at least in the neighborhood where I then lived in San Francisco—can be traced not to Levantine assassins or shiftless Mexicans but to some bearded men and pajama-draped women just a few hours northeast, sitting in the street at the unpatrolled dead end of a six-mile tether of steep county-maintained road. I had come up here, to Washington, California, in Nevada County, because it was as proximately remote as one could get and I had heard that some of these people were growers—pot is almost certainly the county’s largest cash crop, as it is for most of the region—and furthermore I had heard that there was a smart young postmaster who might be able to point me in their direction. When not sitting in the road, the people live in weathered stone dens and tin-roofed shacks that huddle along the peeling shale banks of the South Yuba River. Half a mile of sugar pine and incense cedar above these homes, Highway 20 loops down from Truckee on its way to the bed-and-breakfast districts of historic Gold Country. The hundred-odd citizens of Washington switchback out of the canyon and head west into “Big Town” only when they have no other choice. Big Town is Nevada City, a village of 3,000 people in the sunlit uplands between Lake Tahoe and the Bay Area, and it bumbles along expensively with former hippies made good, or at least wealthy. The residents of Nevada City—who trade in generically mystical trifles and refurbished Victorians—tend to think that the people up in Washington who sit in the road and glower at strangers are a gang of crank addicts and murderers.

Some of them might indeed be crank addicts and murderers, but that is mostly not the case. (The crank-cookers bivouacked by the river were run out of town some years ago by Campground Don.) The people glowering in the road between the Washington Hotel and the Trading Post are just hard up: pensionless hippies and veterans and assorted itinerants here for miscellaneous reasons. But they all have, as the saying once went, turned on and dropped out, indeed dropped out with crowning success, and they regard the outside world with suspicion. “If you don’t smoke pot when they offer it to you,” warned a squinting gentleman named Tiedye Bob, “they’re going to think you’re a narc, and they won’t talk to you. There are a few things you’re going to have to do to get people to talk to you around here: smoke their pot, tell ’em their pot is the best you’ve smoked, and be seen talking to the old-timers.” The chief importance of the canyon’s old-timers is that they do the job of appearing connected to something more solid than their own vagrancy. Of chiefer importance is marijuana. In Washington there is not much to do and nobody to keep you from doing it. But here marijuana provides as much of a footing as it does an escape. Pot, in ways both obvious and unexpected, connects Washington to what’s beyond the canyon—those who consume it and, more important, the government that equivocally permits its use. If either antagonist in California’s pot controversy got its way—that is, if pot were fully legalized or once again criminalized—it is hard to imagine not only how the residents of Washington might fill their days but also how they would think of themselves.

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's "The Last Book Party" appeared in the March 2009 issue of <em>Harper's Magazine.</em>

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