My father busted me smoking cannabis exactly once, on the Fourth of July, 2003. I say “busted” in the sense that I was trying to not draw attention. Though I was a legal adult, this was in New Hampshire in the early 2000s, so nothing marijuana-related was legal.
I had always been a nerdy kid (adding to the invisible forcefield that shields white dudes like myself from all suspicion) but had discovered cannabis a few years earlier, I found out I really enjoyed cannabis the summer I turned 17. That year, when my dad found me smoking weed on his porch on the Fourth of July, was the year that I discovered I really, really enjoyed smoking cannabis on the Fourth of July.
Let me try to explain to you why, and let me try to explain why, almost 20 years and a legalization wave later, I cherish both this memory and this activity. Some people go camping or boating or do outside stuff on the Fourth; it’s nice to have that privilege and those that do should enjoy it. Some other people use the occasion to pursue still-illegal drugs; I know folks who whip out the cocaine bullet or drop some acid on special holidays like the Fourth of July.
For me, apology-free marijuana use is the chemical intervention for this holiday, which every thinking American should greet with deep ambivalence, if not solemnity. Celebrating the power of an empire on a holiday originally meant to mark righteous rebels’ success over an empire is more than a little dissonant. Smoking weed is less and less a rebellious activity every year, but at least (for me) it triggers reflection. The Fourth of July is as good as time as any to celebrate the death of bad laws outlawing a personal choice that, for most people, is mostly free of consequences — aside from those imposed by society as means of control.
Not that I could have quite articulated all this on that day. At this particular time, I was in that awkward liminal space familiar to middle-class white America, a legal adult with a (menial) job, but still living in my parents’ house in the summers between years of college.
I had just turned 21. Some friends were pursuing prestigious internships and some very close friends were off doing NOLS in Alaska, soil-sampling in Montana, or working on a camp in Minnesota — adulting. As for me, I was living at home and stocking shelves in the same grocery store I’d been working at since I was 18.
I felt a bit of a loser and was feeling even more trod upon than usual. That particular Fourth, I had drawn the bad straw and ended up on shift at the store (as I recall, it was particularly dead and I was particularly salty about hanging out in a supermarket pretending to work hard when everyone else I knew was out enjoying FREEDOM!) and so had to do without the cookout and pretending not to enjoy the fireworks, things I very earnestly enjoyed.
But since I was 21, and since I was at least working and hadn’t dropped out of school, I could have a beer with the old man.
(We were very straight shooters, our family, and with reason; if you must know, the old man spent about 20 years judging in the local district court.)
I remember coming home from work that night and sitting on the porch. Everyone else was somewhere else; it was just the men of the house. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I remember it was an adult conversation — insofar as nobody was being patronized — and I remember thinking how nice it was to be treated like an adult.
By then, the daytime heat had dissipated and a cool breeze had kicked up. I was playing the Pearl Jam cover of Jackson Browne’s “Patriot” on the boom box. “I am a patriot, and I love my country/because my country is all I know,” Eddie Vedder warbled. “Wanna be with my family/people who understand me/I got no place else to go.”
“What a great song,” we agreed. “What a nice night,” my dad said. I agreed. The only thing that was missing was getting stoned.
Some time earlier, I had bought a quarter-ounce from one of the “bad kids” I worked with at the grocery store. Every “bad kid” has at least a couple good kids like me keeping him in business. It was one of those magic bags that seemed to last ages, no matter how much I smoked (which wasn’t that much).
I thought it would be really fun to get stoned with my dad. We had talked about it, but always in the negative. For him, the last time was about 25 to 30 years prior, sometime in the 1970s. He was okay with cannabis in principle, he said, and didn’t agree with prohibition on any level — regulation, sure, but outlawing it was dumb — but there was too much at risk for him under the letter of the law. (All true!)
After a while, my dad excused himself to retire for the night. My parents’ bedroom was on the second floor above the porch, something I knew very well. Whether it was the beer, the nice night, or the nice conversation, I was feeling loose and free and felt it was the time. I restarted the Pearl Jam CD and lit up a joint. I think I had maybe five minutes of serene bliss before the screen door to the porch swung open.
“Chris!” my dad said, but not in the “here comes trouble” tone I was so used to. “Dad?” I croaked, trying not to cough or laugh, joint still smoldering in my hand, terpenes on my lips and fingers. “Are you smoking dope?” he asked. “Uh, yeah,” I said. He sighed — a good sigh. Amused, resigned. “Don’t let your mother find out,” he said, and then disappeared back into the house. I had a few more puffs and then put it out.
I don’t really view this story as widely relatable. The fact I had a parental home to smoke pot on is evidence enough of my own privilege. I share it mostly because I think about it at this time of year, and I think the sentiment is widely shared. A plant grown in the ground that provides momentary release from physical and psychic stress is a gift from whatever goddesses guide the universe; the ability to enjoy that plant without stress and consequence is the fruit of human labor and suffering, the victory of a political struggle.
You could fill a phone book with essays on what the Fourth of July means, or what patriotism means, or whether either is any good. This isn’t that. This is about small moments of personal freedom, of enjoying measures of self-determination that harm no one else and bring you joy. That joy is probably best shared collectively. I hope you’ll have someone else with whom you can share this joy today. If not, enjoy the solace and reflect. Much has been accomplished but there is much yet to be done.
TELL US, what strain are you smoking to celebrate the holiday?