What with the recent state-by-state recreational pot legalizations, I thought I’d look up my buddy Billy Weed from fifty years ago, and see what he’s thinking these days. I found him retired, living in a drafty old farmhouse in western Tennessee, enjoying feeding the cardinals, woodpeckers, and other pretty-birds.

Billy was the kid across the hall in my freshman dorm, who, sometime in April, got drunk for the first time and playfully, clumsily, put a huge scratch in my Peter Paul and Mary record.

He and I were best of buddies. Billy’d tell me: “When you’re the fourth boy in a small-town Nebraskan family, here’s how it works: the first boy is Pete Junior, the second is unlike the first. The third is similar to the first, only a bit more freely removed, and the fourth (me) naturally tries to be anything other than like the first three. So, from the start, I was a perfect candidate for being an alternate-lifestyle sort of guy. Like losing control on a gravel road: your right wheel catches the gravel, sending you left across the road, where you oversteer back to the right, eventually ending up in either ditch.”

Billy and I both pledged Beta Chi, and ended up roommates in the fall, sharing a large basement room next to the pool table and pinball machine. Next door was this upperclassman named Tim English, a mousey-looking guy who lived in a world all his own. He turned us on to an East-West record where each side was one way cool instrumental, and smoked both of us out for the first time with some low-grade Mexican weed, which was certainly strong enough for the girls we went out with.

Billy and I spent the rest of our undergraduate years having quite a bit of fun. He’d walk around campus wearing his tire-tread warachi sandals, below a pair of tweed overalls. He left with a degree in English Literature and a firm conviction that the traditional American culture was doomed, that your average American was indeed quite ugly, that the consumer culture had no future, and everything anyone ever thought up after smoking herb was obviously the absolute truth, and the solution to all national, international, and interplanetary problematic situations.

Tim Leary’s ‘Turn on, Tune in, and Drop Out’ instructions captured the direction the counterculture took, which was back to the land. Short of a total revolution (which just wasn’t gonna happen), by far the best thing to do for yourself, your girlfriend, and your society was to just go away, drop out of sight.

Billy managed, by sleeping in chairs in the Law School lounge, to pinch a nerve in his lower back, preventing him from being one of the 58,000 GIs killed in Vietnam; freeing him to hitchhike through every state in the Union, getting picked up by only the best of people, many of whom felt like sharing a joint with him, and subsequently having a meaningful conversation.

Whenever I ran into Billy, he’d share some of these rolling conversations with me like: “It was about ten at night, going down the southern Oregon coast, this long-haired dude named Sammy picked me up, and I’ll never forget, in the glow of the dashboard lights of his VW bug, Sammy went on and on about how good a Camel straight tasted after smoking herb. When the alligator-clipped roach was gone, we both lit up our Camel straights, and, yes indeed, they tasted excellent! Must have been the added chocolate.”

I recently emailed Billy, asking for comments about the state pot-law relaxings, and he replied: “We all knew it would happen eventually. Fifty years is probably about the right amount of time for a slow change. Very rarely does anyone ever force some one to smoke reefer. Accidental ingestion of cooked weed is dangerous, however. This was always intended to be a voluntary act, and for some people, there’s absolutely no reason to smoke: it just doesn’t do anything for them. But for others, it’s a world-changing event. For many it’s their first genuine spiritual event.

“For us, fifty years ago, it was the perfect antidote for a society gone completely bonkers. It was a glorious gateway to the entire natural world. The significance of the weed event can’t be underestimated. One interesting aspect is how the first smoke in a while is always so meaningful, but repeated smokings just don’t yield the same result ( indicating that weed is not all that addictive). Legal weed could follow the same path as lotteries did: initial popularity followed by a slow decline. This nation was built on alcohol: Barack is right; weed is much less dangerous. Some types of traffic accidents may increase, not because of out-or-control caffeine or alcohol-crazed speedsters, but because stoned people will slow down, park anywhere, and stop and smell the flowers.”

Billy continued: “These fifty years of stoner ostracism have ironically contributed to stoner ideological purity, and a strong and healthy music/street culture in this country, but it’s also done a lot of damage:
1. Excluding the stoner intelligencia from teaching has allowed America to drop from first to worst globally in education.
2. Locking up all these pot smokers gave us the world’s highest incarceration rate.
3. Leaving the straight world to govern itself has given us by far the weakest democracy in America’s history.
4. Over fifty years we’ve destroyed the Middle Class, giving us a wealthy ten percent, and a poor fifty percent.” CEOs, instead of making 40 times the average wage, now make 400 or 4,000 times regular salary.
5. We’re firmly hooked into a Forever War against Terrorism.

Billy finished by writing: “The weed situation here for the past fifty years has been a long, slow, natural, national, fart.” And I’m not sure what he meant by that.