I am nosing my car into a parking space in a mini–strip mall, as directed by the text message I’d received earlier, when a car pulls up behind me, blocking my retreat.
I’d taken the specified exit off the 55 Freeway in Santa Ana, California, the second-most populous city in Orange County. Erase from your internal screen for a moment the glamorous O.C. you see on television. This part of the province is landlocked, sunbaked, graffitied and nearly 80 percent Hispanic; the annual per capita income is about $12,000. It is high noon. There is plenty of traffic but strangely nobody on foot. I’ve been here only once before, to check out the hook spot where football’s fallen Robo Quarterback, Todd Marinovich, liked to score his black tar heroin, known in these parts as chiva, Spanish for goat.
The car behind me is low-slung and midnight blue. It idles with a throaty purr, an expensive toy that has seen better days and could certainly use a wash. I open the passenger door. Inside is a sandy-haired 30-something; he looks like a typical marketing guy in a white dress shirt. He thanks me for driving all this way.
I get inside. He hands me a chilled bottle of Smartwater and a blindfold.
“It isn’t far,” he says, pulling away.
I bought my first dime bag of marijuana at the age of 12, inside a wooden stall decorated with predictable penknife etchings in the boys’ bathroom on the second floor of my Hebrew school in Baltimore.
My parents sent me to the school three times a week in order to learn my heritage, to give me a sense of place as a Jew in a post-Holocaust world. What they probably hadn’t considered was the fact that their coddled suburban child would be rubbing elbows for all those hours every week with a more worldly urban variety of adolescent that lived across the city line. These were kids from a lower socioeconomic environment, you might say, who rode public buses solo and attended scary schools with black majorities—remember the middle school in the HBO series The Wire? These kids smoked and drank and had a lot more sex (allegedly) than the naive little county mice from Pikesville. Some of their parents worked at night and left them alone in the house. Like Jimi Hendrix was singing around that time, they were experienced.
And I was there to learn.
The point is, any serious smoker will tell you that marijuana—besides making doughnuts taste better, movies seem cooler and sex more intense—opens certain doors of perception. After you’ve smoked the first time (or five), you start seeing yourself a little differently, and this in turn makes you see the world a little differently. Maybe it makes you a little more open to things, a gateway in a positive sense.
Over the past 45 years, in the course of my travels as a person and as a journalist, marijuana has served as a great equalizer, a safe and easy common denominator that has put me on the same sofa, log or grassy knoll as people I would never have sat down with otherwise.
I’ve smoked pot with gangbangers, actors, rap stars, construction workers, bankers, homeless guys and millionaires. I’ve smoked at 14,000 feet in the Nepalese Himalayas with a Sherpa guide; at 36,000 feet in a commercial airliner back in the days when they had smoking sections; at just below sea level on the beach of Marlon Brando’s private atoll with a topless Tahitian translator; in the ruins of a factory in North Philadelphia with a bunch of 13-year-olds while watching pit bulls fight to the death—hey, all of those kids worked shifts selling crack and had juvie records a mile long.
I’ve smoked with a Bedouin and a couple of PLO operatives in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip (we used a pipe made out of irrigation tubing); a captain of a 60-foot catamaran in the British Virgin Islands; a dwarf in Queensland, Australia, who was once famous for being tossed; a television beauty in her Santa Monica apartment; and a pimp in a Lincoln Continental and a hooker on a dark street corner (of course, you never smoke under the lamp).
I’ve smoked pot (and other things) with Gil Scott-Heron and Rick James. I once made Snoop Dogg cough with my own preferred strain, which I go to a lot of trouble to get. I smoked with Woody Harrelson in an underground parking lot using a health-conscientious vaporizer (plugged into a USB port in a hybrid car); as we were finishing, his friend David Blaine showed up and started doing card tricks. (Would you believe that Blaine, on regular outings, carries not just cards in his pockets but also a Sharpie to aid with tricks?) I’ve even smoked with my son—but only after he turned 18 and got his own medical marijuana card.
A number of years ago, I was doing bong hits with the comedian Roseanne after an interview at her house in Lake Arrowhead, California. At one point, after staring for some time into the roaring fire in the big fireplace, she said reflectively: “All hate is just fear. All fear is insecurity.”
This statement floored me, stoned or not. It seemed to sum up all the problems of humanity, the reason for wars since the dawn of time. Ethnic groups, nations, members of the various religious flocks—it is our differing forms and contents that bedevil us. What’s different is always considered bad, scary or threatening. (Unless, it suddenly becomes the thing to do.)
Sharing a bowl with someone, you take the opportunity to share a part of yourself. Some of it is physical—you’re actually sitting together with this person or persons, handing something back and forth. Some of it is neurochemistry. It’s called disinhibition, one of the effects of THC. Given this time together with someone else, engaged in a mutual pursuit, we unconsciously suspend our disbelief. Suddenly our differences don’t seem as important as our communalities. If you can share your spit on a joint, the possibilities seem limitless, wouldn’t you agree?
At last the low-slung, midnight blue sports car comes to a stop, and I am allowed to take off my blindfold, which probably hadn’t looked too weird once I’d decided to wear my sunglasses over it.
I have no clue where we are, other than inside a run-down commercial building that seems to be under renovation. We find two guys in a room with a small vat of marijuana oil, inside one of the several secret labs in northern and southern California where a company called DankTanks.Net is working on the latest in marijuana technology.
If you’re anything of a stoner, maybe you know that weed concentrates have become big lately—in the latest vernacular, you’d say a particular batch is dank as fuck, hence the name of the company. Sold in medical marijuana establishments, concentrates are a West Coast phenomenon that is slowly moving across the country. To some extent, you could say that concentrates are to marijuana as cocaine is to coca or as heroin is to opium; a natural plant once refined, though not nearly so powerful or addictive—and a potent medicine in many people’s estimation.
To make concentrate, the trimmings from the harvest of buds (previously sold cheap) are run through machines that use butane or propane (not so healthy) or CO2 (more organic) to distill out the active ingredients (cannabinoids and THC, the first known for their medicinal properties, the second known for getting you high). DankTanks uses cuttings from three strong, popular strains familiar to medical marijuana patients in California: Sour Diesel, OG Kush and Headband. Other forms differ in texture and strength depending upon the weed source and the expertise: wax, butter, oil, shatter and crumble.
There are several ways to smoke concentrates. You can be fancy and use a glass bong, a blowtorch, a special nail and a bunch of glass accessories—it’s called doing dabs. Or you can use different electronic-cigarette-like vaporizers designed to accommodate concentrates; the best models are from Grenco Science, iCloud and TriStick Technologies. Conveniently, DankTanks thread onto a variety of e-cigarettes. The water vapor is supposed to be better for your lungs than smoke; the high (even with sativa-based products) is a little different, more of a hash high that affects your body and makes you a little sluggish, not so cerebrally intense. There are several big differences: Concentrates don’t look like weed; products range in color from gold to dark brownish green. And concentrates don’t smell skunky like pot. In fact, they hardly smell at all. Also, the vapor is more ephemeral than smoke—it dissipates quickly into the atmosphere. Concentrates, manufacturers like to say, are stronger and more “discreet.”
We sit talking as the guys, all partners in DankTanks, melt a large, flat slice of wax, mix in grapeseed oil and vegetable glycerin and load the bullet-shaped tanks using syringes. All three men are in their early thirties. Two say they have degrees in marketing; the third says he used to own several medical marijuana stores. He has an obvious side effect of a serious medical condition, now under control. He explains how his patients, especially the older ones, especially ones who might be residents of assisted living facilities, really appreciate the DankTanks/e-cig format. One tank holds 1.6 milliliters of oil, retails in medical marijuana stores for $75 and is good for an estimated 200 hits. It also eliminates the need for grinders, lighters, ashtrays and other smoking (and cleaning) paraphernalia necessary to smoke weed. “You just screw on the tank and hit the dank,” he says with a smirk.
In time it is determined, in the way things are usually determined in these situations, that I would perhaps be amenable to, and even interested in, ahem, sampling the product. (What the hell were you waiting for?)
An e-cig is proffered. I take a few puffs. The vapor is light and pleasant smelling, though it does tend to make me cough—the medical marijuana expert explains that the molecules of water vapor tend to expand in the lungs.
A mindful silence falls over the room. The guys catch a rhythm filling the tanks, somebody’s indie rock playlist flows through portable speakers.
I watch them work. I think about how cool it is to be nearly 57 years old and still learning new things. I guess you could say that over the course of my lifetime, marijuana has been my only hobby. Granted, I go places and meet people for a living, which is what most people do in their spare time. In my own spare time I don’t play golf, collect shit or fly planes. Sports injuries have left me unable to play any more games. Writing takes a lot of hours. Factor in a lifetime, enthusiastic commitment to fatherhood, and you might conclude, as I have, that I don’t have much time for anything else. (Well, there is occasional dating, hill walking, and media viewing on a large-screen TV: Man cannot live by marijuana alone.)
Once opened to me, the doors of perception have led to more experiences and life lessons than I could ever have imagined back in 1968 or so, when my friends and I were giggling across the temple parking lot, bound for Amy Joy Donuts, smoking a joint on the way. What could be a more perfect journey? A short walk leading to a good high and a huge cinnamon roll. Later in life, those are the kinds of things you remember.
I’m not sure if our puritan nation will ever legalize pot. Legislating morality has always been a slippery slope in the United States. For now, we have Colorado and Washington, and we have medical marijuana in 20 states plus Washington, D.C. And we have the eternally unfettered imagination of humankind—always finding a new way to get high. Sitting in the folding chair in the DankTanks Production Lab, watching the guys work, I imagine myself in the future: an old man in a nursing home, puffing on my high-tech electronic pipe.
A harried woman in a white uniform sticks her head into the door of my room. The health care system is a mess. She has one of those nurse-caretaker personalities; she feels like the whole crumbling shebang is resting on her ample shoulders. She uses a patronizing tone: “How are we doing today, Mr. Sager?”
I’m sitting at my computer writing something. I can tell she doesn’t give one shit about how I’m doing. I look over and smirk.
“Dank as fuck,” I tell her.
*Editor's Note: A previous version of the article described Santa Ana as part of California's Inland Empire. That reference has been removed. (h/t DAhlstn)