Private High

There's a message folded into Armentine Duryea's The Sun City Cannabis Club, a self-published murder mystery suspense novel about a drunken granny who stumbles onto a medical marijuana ring in Wrinkle Town. That message, wedged craftily into scenes involving gun-toting, pot-smoking oldsters with black belts in karate who take out corrupt politicians trying to steal their stash, is this: "Old ladies rock, dude!"

The other message is that things aren't always what they seem. Duryea wants us to know that the old bags we spot putzing through Sun City on their golf carts are just as likely on their way home to bake a batch of magic brownies as on their way to bingo. And that Duryea isn't much of a granny herself -- she is, in fact, a couple of guys named Jock McNeil and Paul Cilwa, who for some reason have penned a whodunit about a bunch of pot-smoking septuagenarians out to beat the system, man. McNeil, whose book is suddenly getting a lot of local and national attention, sat down with me to pass the peace pipe and discuss what all the buzz is about.

New Times: So you wrote this novel about an old lady who smokes dope and ends up solving a murder mystery.

Jock McNeil: I'm not promoting it as a marijuana book, but as an action adventure mystery.

NT: It does have the word "cannabis" in the title.

McNeil: It's what holds the whole story together -- the medical marijuana theme.

NT: Speaking of which, let's smoke some!

McNeil: That's terrific.

NT: I've never actually done this during an interview before. Here, you light it.

McNeil: (Coughing.) This whole book thing has been like a muse whispering in my ear. I thought it would be better, since it's the story of two women, if I were to write it under [a pseudonym]. But that whole pen name thing flopped on me, because people started asking, "When can she come for a book signing?" So it fell apart.

NT: Are you a senior-rights activist?

McNeil: Well, no, not specifically. I'm a vigilante seeking truth, justice, and the American way. The hypocrisy of the whole [marijuana] deal just kills me. Listen, don't make me out as a big pothead. I would rather people didn't think of me with beads around my neck and long hair, wearing sandals in Sun City. It's a very conservative community. I don't want to get hassled.

NT: It's not like they can ask you to leave.

McNeil: No, they can't. And the whole purpose of the book is to stimulate conversation and debate. The more people I piss off, the better it is.

NT: You want to stir the pot.

McNeil: Excuse the pun.

NT: Oh, God. Jesus. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make a pun. It must be the dope. Now, why write a book about a pot-smoking granny?

McNeil: There I am in Sun City, and I'm seeing all these granny types, you know? (Points to pipe.) Harsh! But tasty. I've never bitched about a joint.

NT: Well, don't Bogart it.

McNeil: Here you go. (Points out the open door.) I just saw a cop car go by.

NT: Oh, Lord. Here, I'll close the door.

McNeil: I think for the most part, 80 percent [of people in Sun City] are pretty stiff -- staring at their feet, going to church three times a week. Right now we've got people living in Sun City who think Guy Lombardo is a little too hip for them. They're sitting in church right now going, "Oh, my God, am I going to go to hell?" I think Sun City's going to get hipper.

NT: So, are you a marijuana activist, or just an ex-hippie?

McNeil: I'm a bartender from New York! I never got into the hippie thing like that. But I took LSD in '63. Psychoactive drugs have always meant a lot to me. This is good dope! Boy. Very nice!

NT: Thanks. Right now, I can't remember where I got it from.

McNeil: It's very good. And it's made me very chatty.

NT: Good. I won't have to work as hard. Don't tell me things you don't want me to publish, Jock McNeil.

McNeil: Well. Right, okay.

NT: Can I say you're a marijuana activist?

McNeil: Oh, absolutely. I've been -- how can I say this delicately? I was introduced to the wonders of the hemp plant in 1959. And I've always wondered how they can continue to repress it.

NT: Me too! Such a drag.

McNeil: This is all about the people who own the government. It's all about special interest groups. The pharmaceutical industry. The gas and oil industry. It's about gross national product. Those groups don't want it legal, because the plant is so amazing -- you can get more paper products from a hemp plant than from an acre of trees.

NT: Plus you can get really high if you smoke it!

McNeil: That's one reason it's illegal. But because it's free [if you grow it], the pharmaceutical industry can't make any money from it. You can't patent a plant. The American Medical Association doesn't want it because if you were sitting around smoking weed and you said, "Gee, I haven't felt this good in years," there goes the aspirin business. We go into this in the book. It's all about industry and greed. Follow the money!

NT: They're big meanies!

McNeil: It's the repression of -- I've just been thinking about this lately. It's the repression of an alternative perception.

NT: For days! But tell the truth: The real reason that most activists are for legalizing medical marijuana is so they can get their weed easier. They really don't care about easing anyone's pain.

McNeil: Oh, sure, that's true. Now, people have told me, "If you want to sell this book, take the emphasis off the weed." I always say to myself, "Bullshit." I'm about empowering the frightened little old ladies, giving them a purpose in their life. This is a metamorphosis for me, man. I'm 70, you know? You start kicking around your mortality. You start thinking about how much spirituality you can accumulate, and how much you can connect with the oneness. Most people are not hip to this. They're thinking in some regimented, dogma-dominated attitude.

NT: Totally! You don't do that, though. You have your heroine, a septuagenarian, dating a younger African-American guy!

McNeil: Exactly. We always had it in the back of our mind to rattle the community. For the explosion to be most effective -- I just thought of this! -- you want to put it in the nucleus of the matter that's going to ignite it. Sun City is so Guy Lombardo!

NT: Well, except I hear there are some pretty amazing grow rooms there.

McNeil: Not that I know of. There may be. You know, a lot of people haven't noticed this, because it's done so beautifully, but the book is scattered with bastardized Beatle lyrics.

NT: There's also quite a lot of commentary on corrupt politics.

McNeil: And the judicial system -- we whack them pretty good.

NT: Who's the congressman in your story supposed to be? Is it Jon Kyl?

McNeil: No. He's a composite figure of corruption.

NT: One reviewer compared your book to The Da Vinci Code.

McNeil: Yes. And that reviewer has written an interesting book -- she's one of those what-do-you-call-thems.

NT: Turnip?

McNeil: No.

NT: Wig salesperson?

McNeil: No. She's an abductee. She was, you know, she's been abducted [by a UFO]. In fact, Paul Cilwa, who co-wrote this book with me, he's been abducted.

NT: Dude!

McNeil: Something to consider! I just met someone last Tuesday and she's from West Virginia and she works at Wal-Mart. And she's been abducted!

NT: You're scaring me.

McNeil: She was, uh . . . she was . . . now, where was I going with that thought?

NT: We were talking about marijuana. But pot seems so retro these days. I mean, aren't most kids smoking crack?

McNeil: No. Well, some of them, in whatever crappy neighborhood they live in. But that's about money changing hands in the ghetto. A rich kid in Scarsdale might try it once or twice. But pot is still big with kids, but they're trying to repress it. I heard on the radio -- I heard that . . . wait. Where was I going with that?

NT: I don't remember what we were talking about.

McNeil: This is really good pot.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela