Fletcher Knebel was a respected Washington columnist and the author of Seven Days in May when, one afternoon in Mexico in 1968, at the age of 56, he got his first taste of marijuana. Later he wrote about it fondly: “Warm sunlight poured over Tepoztlan. Cathedral bells tolled, distant dogs barked, birds skittered through the laurel trees, and by twilight, after only four drags on a joint, I had attained a blissful attitude unknown since first love.”
Marijuana, he declared, was “beautifully adapted to people at the tag end of life who get a bit bored with the repetitive rhythms of survival. It has brought me new friends, a rediscovery of music, an awareness of the riches of the senses, a self-knowledge, an inner contentment, and a feeling of excitement seldom felt since I was a child.”
In the fall of 1977, while I was researching a book about cannabis, I met Fletcher Knebel at his home on the wooded outskirts of Princeton, New Jersey. We went back to his office and sat in deck chairs overlooking the swimming pool, and he rolled up some of his Colombian. It was the eve of his 66th birthday. I was 35.
“Old age is the real-time to be smoking,” he told me. “Because it’s not hard for young people to be flexible, but the longer you live the more deep-set each habit pattern gets. It’s a standing joke that elderly people are rigid in their ways. And therefore to smoke, say, from age fifty on is just wonderful, to keep you more supple in your attitudes, and thereby enjoy life one helluva lot more.”
He said dope had liberated him from his inhibitions. He never liked to dance; now he cut loose. He used to become anxious about sex; not anymore. He got away with sneaking tokes in restaurants and on planes. One night he saw 500 images of his wife, each one smiling.
Fletcher Knebel: pot pioneer. He thought the federal government should provide free ganja to any taxpayer over 50. He thought hospitals should give it to the infirm.
That conversation took place almost four decades ago. Today he is long gone from this planet, and I am eight years older than he was then. And I agree with him: Our golden years might be the best time of all to get gilded.
A recent survey showed the fastest-growing market for marijuana to be people over 55. Some of us are seeking medical relief rather than cerebral elevation. But the real healer, in my experience, is the lift-off itself.
Here is why I believe getting high is good geriatrics.
It renews and rekindles us.
A hallmark of the stoned state of mind is the ability to look at familiar surroundings or circumstances with fresh eyes, as if seeing them for the first time. Everyday scenes can take on insightful new perspectives. This is a natural for seniors who want to feel reinvigorated and engaged instead of falling into the ruts of old-fogeyness.
It intensifies our experiences and feelings.
As we age, we tend to think we’ve seen it all. We can get wearier, warier, hard to impress. Sensations can dim; emotions can flatten. Maryjane defies that decline. It opens the doors to intensity, intimacy, candor, elation.
It allows us to see the big picture.
MRI scans show that marijuana enhances connectivity between different areas of the brain. This heightens our awareness, reveals new dimensions, lets us see the whole playing field. Wouldn’t it be satisfying as we mature to come up with overarching visions of how we’ve run the race?
It stretches out time.
When we’re herbally awakened, sights and sounds often seem more vivid and eventful. A walk in the woods will feel longer if we’re transfixed along the way by nature’s miracles. When the wonder and awe kick in, time stops.
It encourages gratitude.
Marijuana isn’t for everybody. But tokers know why tokers toke: Because it leaves us feeling that everything is all right. We sense a perfection in the world, however messy the details. A puff on the pipe can give me a surge of all-consuming all-is-wellness that I can’t help but see as spiritual. Being actively aware of our gratitude is life-affirming, life-sustaining. Why would we want to keep on kicking if we weren’t happy with what we had?
It instills within us a lightness of being.
We’ve all had our share of bad luck. The love of my life came down with Parkinson’s disease twenty years ago, and I’m still taking care of her. Throughout it, weed has helped to lift her mood–and lift my mood–to an altitude of acceptance and resilience. As she nears the end of her journey, this doesn’t feel like a tragedy, what’s going on in our house. We have lived full lives. Look at how a few drops of cannabis oil can bring back her pretty smile.
It awakens our inner rebel.
Mischievousness is part of the cannabis package–the spectrum that includes lightness, gratitude, timelessness, vision, intensity and renewal. As marijuana becomes more legal, as the habit goes mainstream and the industry turns corporate, we old-timers will still savor the illusion that we’re rebelling, misbehaving, every time we light up. Even if the cops let us waltz down Wall Street sucking on foot-longs, we’ll reserve the right to duck back in the alley.
Here in the crowning stages of our lives, we aren’t going to hold onto health and happiness if we play it safe every step of the way, if we do only what authorities tell us to do, if we muffle our instincts for joy and delight.
Ever since we were teen-agers, we’ve been told that marijuana is bad for us. Now the dirty secret is out. Look at all the new research. Marijuana is GOOD for us.
Tom Huth is a former Washington Post reporter and the author of the recently published memoir Forty Years Stoned: A Journalist’s Romance.