Reefer Madness: An Early Encounter with Anti-Weed Hysteria by (3 Stories)

Prompted By Marijuana

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My marijuana story starts with a woman named Martha Lupton Schneidewind. She was my high school journalism teacher in West Covina, Calif. – a tall, birdlike woman who wore wool suits and ladylike scarves and had a quick, scampering walk. She was kind, loquacious and, to my insensitive teenage self, amusingly absurd with her chirping voice, outdated phraseology and fussy attire.

During the mid-1960s teenage drug use was a huge bugaboo in the suburbs, marijuana in particular. One day Mrs. Schneidewind entered the journalism lab and mentioned that several West Covina policemen had just lectured on marijuana for the high school faculty – a lecture that included the lighting of a joint. If teachers could detect the whiff of weed, the reasoning apparently went, the school could then report the miscreant to the cops and boost the city’s anti-pot crusade.

“It’s unusually fragrant,” Mrs. S. remarked without irony when a fellow student journalist asked about the weed. “Not at all unpleasant.”

Within a few days I was assigned to write an editorial about marijuana for our campus paper, the Spartan Shield. Mrs. Schneidewind didn’t indicate any angle or point of view the editorial should take, so I figured I had free rein.

I hadn’t smoked weed yet – that wouldn’t happen until the spring of my senior year – but my brother Dan had already been busted for possession and, like most teenagers, I was intrigued by anything that could make masses of grown-ups so freaking scared. There was a naïve glamour that accrued to drug culture in those days, an excitement that even drug virgins like myself could appreciate just from listening to the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” or Grace Slick’s piercing vocal on “White Rabbit.”

To write the editorial, I referenced a booklet I’d found at the Free Press Bookstore, a hipster haven in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles. The booklet had a glossary of terms about marijuana (“bomber” was a big fat joint, “pinner” was a thin joint), and I clumsily incorporated those terms into the editorial to simulate a streetwise, insider’s perspective on pot culture.

It didn’t occur to me at the time, and I have no proof, but I now suspect the marijuana assignment originated with the West Covina Police Dept. I say this because when I finished the editorial and submitted it to Mrs. Schneidewind, she sent it to the assistant principal Barbara Buch for approval. Miss Buch, I now believe, was deputized by the W.C.P.D. to arrange the editorial.

Now, Miss Buch (rhymes with “spook”) was a bizarre lady. Although it was her job to monitor the dress code of girls on campus – skirts had to be no more than an inch above the knee – her own sartorial style would have to be described as Aging Stripper. She wore buckets of makeup, shaped her eyebrows like caterpillars, and favored sexy blouses and wide patent-leather belts that emphasized her oversized bosom. According to a persistent campus rumor (never proven), Miss Buch was a former Playboy Centerfold.

I never spoke with Miss Buch, but a day or two after submitting my marijuana editorial I was taken aside by Mrs. Schneidewind. From her desk drawer, she pulled out my typewritten copy and showed me the additions Miss Buch had made to my editorial – additions that totally altered what I’d written.

Among her gems was this unforgettable line: “The marijuana user may embark on his drug experiment innocently enough, only to come out of his ‘high’ with needle marks on his arm.”

I’d never smoked pot or tried drugs of any kind, but I recognized this as standard anti-drug hysteria. “That sentence needs to come out!” I said. “I didn’t write that and it’s not true.”

“I’m sorry,” Mrs. Schneidewind replied. “But this is final. The editorial will run this way.” Worse yet, it ran that way with my byline attached.

Looking back, I imagine Mrs. Schneidewind felt trapped — that if she had resisted Miss Buch’s edict and defended my integrity as a journalist, her job would have been at risk. I never knew Mrs. Schneidewind to be dishonorable or heavy-handed on any other occasion – in fact, we remained friends and stayed in touch until she died — so I’m certain this is true. But my sense of betrayal at the time was sharp and painful.

A few months later, I smoked my first joint with Flip Farrall, another member of the Spartan Shield newspaper staff. Most weed came from Mexico back then, and when you bought an ounce it was mostly seeds and stems. Very weak. I remember taking long draws on the stuff, trying my best to inhale properly. It took a while to get the hang of it. And no, fergawdsakes, I never woke up with needle marks in my arms.

Today, I still occasionally get high and also use cannabinoid-based medicine for sleep and pain. I feel grateful that marijuana prohibition has finally come to an end in California. I wish Fraulein Buch had lived to see the day.

Profile photo of Edward Guthmann Edward Guthmann


Characterizations: been there, funny, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Profile photo of Risa Nye Risa Nye says:

    I love the way this young journalist reacted to the badly edited version of his work, while at the same time understanding the difficult position of his beloved teacher. This really captured the time period, when reefer madness was a common hyped-up reaction to kids who were just beginning to experiment with smoking those “seeds and stems.”

  2. What a great story… Evocatively written. We didn’t have too much reefer madness in the late 60s /70s here in the Bay Area… we had drug education. They stopped that at my high school when they realized that they were telling us how to do drugs and we figured out that drugs wouldn’t kill us done properly 😉

  3. Profile photo of John Zussman John Zussman says:

    I’m impressed by the empathy you show for your teacher—perhaps more than she deserves. She was, after all, negating the core principles of journalistic integrity by not only altering what you wrote but also insisting it be published under your byline. I’m glad this incident didn’t dissuade you from actually becoming a journalist! Perhaps it even gave you extra motivation. Great story.

  4. Profile photo of Suzy Suzy says:

    Just discovered this terrific story after reading yours of this week about 1968. Love the way you incorporated “hip” terms you had read so you would sound streetwise. I was expecting it to lead to you being busted. But having your editorial rewritten was almost as bad. Did you get any feedback from your schoolmates about that “needle marks” sentence? At my school, we would have ragged the author mercilessly! Looking forward to more of your stories.

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