Reefer Mainstream

Most days, Harriet comes home from work, takes off her bra and gets high.

"I'm going outside," she calls across the house, padding toward the garage in a tee shirt and jeans. The dog follows. Harriet stops to move wet clothes from the washing machine to the dryer, then heads to a work table laid out with an ashtray, a lighter, a small pink bong and a Ziploc baggie filled halfway with pot. She packs the bong once and takes several deep stoner hits, filling the hot October afternoon air with sweet smoke.

There's no phone out here. No computer. No clock that works. Harriet stands at her work table and considers rearranging the living room furniture. Sometimes she writes fiction. No one bugs her out here. Her girlfriend can't stand the smoke. Even the dog's not wild about it. He leaves as soon as she picks up the lighter.

Harriet doesn't keep her pot locked up, and she often smokes with the garage door open -- the cars in the driveway block the view from her central Phoenix street.

But few people know that Harriet smokes pot. And very few, if any, would ever guess.

Harriet is 43. For the past 16 years, she has run her own successful small business. She pays her taxes. She usually votes. She's in a long-term relationship. College-educated. She rarely even speeds on the freeway.

"I haven't had a ticket in a million years. I'm a very law-abiding person," she says.

Except when it comes to marijuana.

Harriet may be a lonely stoner, but she's not alone. Pot smokers are among us: your kid's schoolteacher, your lawyer, the chef at your favorite local restaurant. This particular brand of pot smoker likely doesn't drink much and gave up cigarettes long ago. They don't subscribe to High Times. They feel out of place in head shops. Some are Republicans. They're not very good at rolling joints, but they do know how to make a bong out of a toilet paper roll, if necessary.

They don't want their kids to get high, at least not till they're 18. They'll lie to the kid about what's in that baggie in the underwear drawer. These secret pot smokers don't get busted -- most will tell you they get their pot from "friends," not "dealers" -- and if they do get addicted to the stuff, no one seems to know.

But they do get pot, and they do get high. Some nearly every day, like Harriet.

Harriet first encountered pot in college and liked it right away. Way better than drinking. But she eventually stopped, mainly because no one else she knew was smoking. A couple years ago, an old friend came to town and showed up at a party with some pot. Harriet loved it -- again. She started smoking -- again.

This time it's a solitary pursuit.

"Very few people that I know -- that I know -- smoke," she says. That makes it hard to find marijuana. At first her long-distance friend mailed it. She packed it in coffee, to mask the smell. But that got scary. Then Harriet found a local supply.

"Every time I get it, I'm thinking, Okay, I'll take my phone with me, so that if I get arrested, I can call somebody.' And it's a little nerve-wracking, every time. I have to get a little more, I have to buy it in larger quantities, so I don't have to go as often."

She pays $80 an ounce, and an ounce lasts her a couple of months. "It's really cheap, bad pot. But it works for me," she says.

Unfortunately, cheap pot gives Harriet the munchies.

Harriet budgets her money, so if times (or her waistband) are a little tight, she smokes a little less. She never drives stoned. She never, ever smokes on the job.

Does she ever wonder if her clients smoke? "Sometimes I do. And there was one client where I was almost going to say something," she says.

But she didn't. She never does.

"I'm not secretive about being a lesbian. I'm not secretive about anything else in my life. It's weird. It's not because somebody's going to beat me up. It's because I'm going to get fucking arrested."

It's virtually impossible to quantify the number of people who smoke pot today.

In recent weeks, New Times has talked with dozens of people who use marijuana: from computer programmers and MBAs to parents of toddlers and parents of teenagers. One woman was taking a break from smoking pot while she tries to pass a urinalysis to get a marketing job at a high-tech firm. Another sells pharmaceuticals and drinks a tea called "Urine Luck" that masks the marijuana in her system when her company drug tests. Artists, journalists, teachers, housewives, musicians, a former prosecutor.

With few exceptions, these people appear to live normal, productive, safe lives.

Pot is no big deal to them. Except when it comes to talking openly about it. Then they get a little paranoid.

For years, researchers have tried to quantify the number of marijuana users in America. Each year, the federal government sponsors the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse. People are asked about tobacco, alcohol and illicit drug use. Marijuana is broken into a separate category. In 2001, the survey estimated that 94 million Americans had tried marijuana in their lifetimes, 21 million in the past year.

Paul Armentano, publications and research director for NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws based in Washington D.C., believes this number is a vast understatement because people lie.

"The survey is based on . . . people's willingness to tell the federal government that they engage in illicit activity," he says.

Armentano points to government research that demonstrates that, when asked about tobacco and alcohol use, people will underreport their use by 15 to 30 percent. And those substances are legal.

"In many ways, we really have no idea what these surveys are telling us," he says.

The most recent National Household Survey detailing the results by state took place in 1999. At that time, about 5 percent of Arizonans said they had used marijuana in the past month, on par with the national average.

Here in Arizona, local pollsters say they don't bother to ask voters if they smoke pot, because they assume so many will lie.

"People don't tell you the truth," says Bruce Merrill, a pollster and professor at Arizona State University.

At New Times' request, Tempe-based media consultant and pollster Bob Grossfeld added several marijuana-related questions to a recent poll he conducted among Maricopa County voters. Grossfeld polled about 425 likely voters in mid-October. About 20 percent said they had tried marijuana. In a separate question, 20 percent said they knew people who smoke pot now. Only 10 percent said that they would use marijuana if it were to become as legal as alcohol.

Grossfeld says he's not surprised by the results. The population he surveyed -- likely or "high-efficacy" voters -- tends to be older and richer than the average. And he agrees with Armentano and Merrill that many people simply don't tell the truth when it comes to illegal activity.

For the third time in seven years, Arizona voters are poised to pass a statewide pro-marijuana initiative. The first two, in 1996 and 1998, allowed for the use of marijuana for medicinal reasons. They were largely symbolic, since federal law supersedes state law. (The 1998 measure would have reversed the '96 law, so a no vote was actually a pro-pot vote.)

But Proposition 203, on November's ballot, would potentially make a real difference -- and not just for cancer patients -- by reducing penalties for possessing up to two ounces of marijuana from a felony to a misdemeanor -- akin to getting a traffic ticket.

In other words, Harriet wouldn't get arrested.

The most recent statewide polls available show Proposition 203 with 53 percent in favor. Campaign insiders say the numbers have grown closer in recent weeks. Bob Grossfeld's poll put Proposition 203 at 33 percent in favor, 40 percent against and 27 percent undecided. He thinks the measure will pass, but not by much.

Arizona's not the only place ready to change its pot laws. Next month, Nevada voters will decide whether to eliminate all penalties -- criminal and civil -- for possession of up to three ounces of marijuana. South Dakotans will vote on allowing the production of industrial hemp, something several states already allow. And in Canada, a heated public policy battle is raging over whether to legalize marijuana entirely.

The marijuana leaf is more and more a part of our cultural landscape, even in the most uptight corners of Arizona. Last month, political satirist P.J. O'Rourke came to Phoenix to speak at a luncheon for the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank with a libertarian bent. O'Rourke packed a ballroom at the Ritz-Carlton with rich, white Republicans -- most of them headed toward Social Security age. He joked about pot in a segue into a discussion of the farm bill:

"Now, I admit, like most Americans my age, my actual experience with farming was pretty much limited to raising some marijuana plants with a grow light in my off-campus apartment."

That brought down the house.

Yet even with all the public policy reforms and all the jokes, the topic of recreational marijuana use is taboo among those who find the stakes the highest. Plenty of people are willing to talk anonymously about their personal marijuana use, but it's difficult to find anyone in any sort of position of pot-related authority -- from head shop owners (who pretend they cater to tobacco smokers) to Proposition 203 backers (who insist they only want to empty the jails) -- to talk openly about marijuana.

At the Goldwater Institute luncheon, before P.J. O'Rourke took the podium, Dr. Jeff Singer, a physician and longtime supporter of pro-marijuana initiatives, including Proposition 203, insisted that he and other supporters of the ballot measure don't know anyone who smokes marijuana recreationally. The initiative's not about that at all, he said. Sam Vagenas, who's running the campaign, didn't return a call seeking comment for this story.

Former Arizona attorney general Grant Woods surprised a lot of people this year by coming out in support of Prop 203.

"There's some irony here with me," he says. "I hate to admit this, but I'm one of the few people around who has never tried any drug, including marijuana. So it has nothing to do with me personally. But to me, it's just common sense."

He argues that most people who get arrested for marijuana possession eventually wind up with only a fine. So why waste money on jails, public defenders, prosecutors and judges? Just hand over the ticket on the front end.

"A lot of people use marijuana, and it really doesn't have any negative effects upon them," Woods says. "Ultimately, I don't think it's that big of a deal for society. I think we ought to be concentrating on drug traffickers and stopping them, and on addicts, and we should be helping them and not be running around trying to bust Willie Nelson every five minutes."

Nelson, a longtime pot smoker and advocate of legalization, was arrested in 1994 with a joint in his car ashtray. Rumor has it that he once smoked a joint in the White House.

"If everybody in the country was Willie Nelson, this country would be a much happier place," Woods says.

As for Arizona? "There's a lot of Willies out there, I guess."

As it turns out, the best way to find out about pot smokers is to talk to them -- one by one.


Sally has no scientific reason for keeping her pot in the freezer. It just seems as good a place as any.

"Don't say what a mess my freezer is," she says, as she opens the door, revealing light cream cheese, salmon steak, English muffins, edamame and several bags of Starbucks coffee beans. There, under a box of spinach, is Sally's stash.

Sally's in her late 50s, and she's practiced law her whole career. She knows firsthand that the legal profession is filled with stoners -- law students, prosecutors, judges.

But finding smoking buddies can be tricky. For Sally, marijuana is a purely social pleasure. She's single, but she never smokes alone. She's careful not to reveal her little secret to the wrong person. Not only could she be busted, she could be disbarred. Or worse, she jokes, the State Bar might try to cure her.

Sally tests new friends gingerly.

"You can talk about how stupid the drug war is, and everybody agrees," she says. "And about how many kids we've got locked up for smoking dope. And then you say something like, Boy, if I got locked up for every joint I've had, my ass would never get out.' And then the other person says, I know.' And it's this kind of a secret passing along.

"And at some point, you say, Would you like a glass of wine, or would you prefer a joint?' But you do this sort of feeling around first to make sure they're comfortable with it."

Sally hasn't tried to mix work and pot since she clerked in law school.

"With pot," she says, "you get hungry, horny and sleepy. And none of those are conducive to work."

Now Sally waits for friends to come in from out of town. She takes time off, and they binge.

"When they come in, then we just know we're going to get baked the first night they're here."

And the first morning. "As I'm cooking breakfast, he'll bring it in and say, It's probably time.'"

Sally and her friends don't go out. They stay inside her central Phoenix apartment. Sometimes she'll have a series of dinner parties for different friends who smoke-- she doesn't introduce her smoking pals to each other, fearing it would make them uncomfortable.

And often, if no one's around, Sally's supply will sit in the freezer for a month. When she does spark up, she prefers a pipe. Or, in a pinch, a toilet paper bong.

Doesn't the toilet paper roll catch fire?

"You have to know how to do this, hon," Sally says, explaining the intricacies of lining the roll with foil and poking the holes just so.

Sally has a steady supply. "I have a friend who is a lawyer who has a sibling who always manages."

The quality varies, but that's okay with Sally, who can't handle really strong weed anymore.

"The super-duper stuff -- a couple of hits and you're catatonic. This is a social thing. Who wants to be catatonic?"


Robert is clean-cut, in a nicely ironed, muted Hawaiian shirt, his hair buzzed and mustache trimmed. No wonder the 49-year-old gets funny looks when he goes to Trails to buy screens. Last time, he just knew the clerk was wondering if he was a cop.

Robert laughs, shakes his head. If that clerk could only see the hippie pictures. Just out of high school, living on the East Coast and working in a factory, Robert roomed with a bunch of guys who kept a huge candy bowl on the coffee table filled with weed. Everyone -- even those operating heavy machinery -- smoked several times a day.

"Everyone did. It was more about who didn't -- at least in our circle of friends."

His friends all still smoke, Robert says, but like him, they've slowed down.

"I got married, grew older. More responsibilities," Robert says. Like a wife of 18 years, a 16-year-old daughter and a new house in Gilbert.

"The only time I do it is in the backyard at home, alone, when I know I'm going to be alone for at least an hour or two."

What does his wife think? Robert pauses, considering the question. Frankly, he's not sure she knows. She hasn't smoked since they were dating, as far as Robert is aware.

Robert works in sales; he's held down the same job for the past three years. The only person at work who knows he smokes pot is the co-worker who sells it to him.

He would be devastated if his daughter knew he smoked, more so if she started herself.

"If I found out that she started smoking it, I'd be disappointed in her," Robert says. "She's better than I am. She's got a 4.5 grade average, cheerleader -- she doesn't need that right now."

Marijuana is only a small part of Robert's life these days. "I don't even really crave it. Sometimes, I'll be sitting around by myself and think, Hey, this would be a good time to get high.'"

He's much more focused on his golf game. "Now there's an addiction," Robert says.


Hal's parents were hippies.

"There was this one time when I was in fourth grade, and my mom pulled out this bag of weed and put it in the refrigerator. She said, Don't tell anybody we have this. Nobody needs to know.'"

Hal thought his mom had some expensive gourmet herbs. He figured out the truth at 16, when he shared a joint with some friends on the Encanto Park golf course. Hal was a junior at Brophy Preparatory Academy, the fanciest Catholic school in town.

"It was kind of demystified for me early on. It was no big deal," Hal says of pot. And pot has been part of his life since that day on the golf course.

Hal smoked through college and his first job, as a landscaper. Then he smoked through graduate school at Arizona State University. Now, at 29, he works for the state, spending grant money for a small agency. Hal figures he smokes two or three times a day.

"Sometimes, I get up and smoke before work, but mostly just on a Friday," he says.

"I usually come home, smoke after I come home. Make dinner, play with the dog. Smoke some more, watch some TV and go to bed. Just like somebody having a drink."

Hal's wife, who also has a master's degree from ASU, works as an academic counselor and smokes with him. He's never smoked with his mom -- he's not sure she knows he does it -- but whenever Hal gets together with his dad, who lives out of state, they toke up.

Access isn't much of a problem.

"We had one guy who was kind of more the inner city type of dealer, the guy with the Monte Carlo -- that kind of scene. We kind of got sketched out by that after a while. Now we get it from one of our friends who we know from ASU."

Sometimes, Hal buys an ounce and sells it among his friends. Sometimes, he just gets a quarter to keep at home. He and his wife spend between $100 and $150 a month on pot.

They plan on kids someday, and Hal figures he'll stop while they're trying to get pregnant, and encourage his wife to stop, too.

"I don't know after that. I guess it's hard to say without having that responsibility," he says. Hal knows it might get tricky when the little ones get older.

For now, pot is really important to Hal.

"It's so much a part of my lifestyle that I can't imagine being married to someone who didn't, or was against it. I have some friends who don't, but they're cool with me sparking up next to them."

Being friends with someone who's anti-pot would be totally unacceptable to Hal. Like being friends, he says, with someone who's pro-life.


Denise, 48, is an elementary schoolteacher in an East Valley public school. Her friend Rebecca, 49, teaches college. Both are single moms with teenage daughters; they met at a church singles group.

Rebecca buys her pot from Denise, who gets it from an ex-boyfriend.

They both worry a lot about their daughters. The girls aren't ready for marijuana, Rebecca and Denise say, but does that mean their mothers shouldn't tell them the truth -- that when you're a grown-up, there's nothing wrong with smoking pot?

Both women started experimenting with marijuana at 15, although in Rebecca's case, it turned out to be catnip. It was a snobby thing at their East Coast high schools -- the stoners were better than the redneck beer drinkers.

When Rebecca was 18, her father found a plant and a grow light in her bedroom. He was terrified of getting busted, she recalls. When Rebecca's daughter was 7 or 8, she came home from school with a list of bad drugs. Marijuana was right next to heroin and cocaine.

How do you explain the difference to a 7-year-old? Seven years later, Rebecca's still trying to answer that question. She knows her daughter suspects her. The teenager has found pot in her mom's underwear drawer and didn't seem completely convinced when told it was herbal tea.

"It does bother me. I don't like not being honest," Rebecca says.

Both Rebecca and Denise have trouble finding the time -- and space -- to get stoned. Rebecca figures she smokes once a month, Denise a little more often. Once when they went out hiking -- Denise tried to teach Rebecca to use a compass.

"The time we painted my cabinets," Rebecca recalls.

One of the oddest things for Denise is sitting through antidrug lectures by the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) police officers. She changes the subject as soon as the cops leave the classroom.

Denise knows there are people out there who would find it "disgusting" that a 48-year-old mom and teacher smokes pot. As for her students' parents?

"I think they would be very uncomfortable."


Even though Christians are supposed to be forgiving, Jackson wouldn't dare tell any of his friends at church that he gets high.

"No matter how Christian I could be, it would always be in their mind, Hey, there goes that pot smoker guy.'"

So Jackson, 27, goes to church every Sunday, reads the Bible every day and gets high several times a week. His wife, also a devout Christian, has never smoked.

"It's Don't ask, don't tell,'" Jackson says. "She doesn't want to know about it."

After work, after the house is clean, Jackson slips into the garage and smokes. Out of respect for the wife, he's ditched all the "nifty paraphernalia," like the three-foot bong he used to keep in his bedroom closet at his parents' home.

During his senior year in high school, a cousin gave him some pot; Jackson's parents always ignored the towel stuffed under the door, he recalls. During college, home -- or a parked car -- was the only place he could smoke. Jackson graduated from Grand Canyon University, a private religious school with strict rules. There are two kinds of students at GCU, according to Jackson -- the "laid-back Christians" like him, and the "real hard-core Bible thumpers," like his freshman-year roommate. The roommate was constantly trying to get Jackson to quit smoking.

"One of his biggest arguments was, Would Jesus smoke a joint?'" Jackson says. Jackson admits he agreed with the roommate, that no, Jesus would not have smoked a joint.

In any case, Jackson figured that Jesus wouldn't expect him to be perfect.

Jackson still gets a good deal on pot from that same cousin who gave him his first taste. But someday soon, he says, he's going to quit. After all, he's already cut down to several times a week.

"I had fun with it, and there's a time to say, Hey, this was neat,' and walk away," Jackson says.

"It's just the direction I'm heading with my life in general. I mean, here pretty soon, I may turn vegetarian."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.