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You might remember Ken Kesey from of his 1963 novel ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ and its famous film adaptation. By the time the movie was screened in 1971, Kesey was already causing a stir among conservative Americans. Kesey was quite a piece of work. He was the kind of guy to whom if something was weird, he would probably try it.

He volunteered as a guinea pig for the testing of a psychotropic drug that was later to be known all over as LSD or just acid. And he just loved the stuff, happy that he got paid to do a fun thing like getting high. For the tests, he had to be kept under observation in a hospital ward. One night he crept out of his bed, broke the lock of the infirmary and stole as many vials of LSD as he could lay his hands on.

Fortunately there was no inventory list and Kesey’s raid went unnoticed. For the rest of his hospital stay he was perpetually zonked out of his mind and even on days he was not administered the drug, leading the researchers to draw entirely erroneous conclusions. And Kesey? Yikes, he was hooked. Some say that Kesey put some of his experiences inside that hospital in ‘cuckoo’s nest’.

The merry pranksters

In 1964, Ken Kesey and some friends took off on a cross-country ride in an old bus that they painted in psychedelic colors. They named the bus ‘Further’.

Ken Kesey became one of the symbols of the counterculture hippie movement which began in the 1960s. By the time I became a part of the counterculture scene, it was no longer that counter. Heck, I had pot-smoking professors in engineering school. Everyone, including me, was stoned. While I drew the line at an occasional Saturday night pre-movie joint of Trichy weed, the other guys were doing pills like mandies (Mandrax), lippies (Lippitone), dexies (Dexedrin) and other stuff that I don’t recall now.

In 1970s Chennai in southern India, where my engineering school was situated, you could get powerful ‘downers’ and ‘uppers’ over the counter fairly easily. All you had to do was find a bent pharmacist and mumble a phony doctor’s name to him which he made a note of and then charged a rupee a pill. A rupee those days was huge.

The go-to guy, whom chaps from our college went to, was a pharmacist near Moor Market a cavernous building right next to the central rail station, that housed hundreds of tiny stores crammed together, selling second-hand books, household stuff and even stolen goods. The guy himself was a heavy user, stoned out of his mind on mandies most of the time.

Mandies and Lippies were very strong sleeping pills and the kick came when you resisted the drowsiness. If you took two of them, they could put you in such a tailspin that when you finally stopped resisting the snooze and let go, you ended up sleeping the next 48 hours, dead to the world. I tried a mandy once but found that when I spoke, the words came out funny. If I wanted to say,’ lets go for a movie, man’, it sounded like, ‘leh wo foah yayy mooo, meeeyain’. After that one time, I decided that those kicks were not for me. Talking like a retard was not my scene.

Dexies on the other hand, kept you awake. I tried dexies too but like mandies, it was just once. Boy, did they keep me awake. I was stark, raving awake. The downhill after the drug wore off, was really downhill. I slept for a whole day. Pills were very much in the scene at college, oh yeah. Guys took dexies going into class and mandies and lippies coming out of class. At any given time of the day, around half the population at engineering school was staggering around.

I didn’t mind getting high on weed occasionally those days, but I had to be in complete control, sitting down in my own dorm room, listening to music (bands like Jethro Tull, Jefferson Starship, Uriah Heep, Pink Floyd were great music to listen to stoned). I definitely would not venture out in public where I might end up acting like a jerk.

Here’s the thing about marijuana, for those who have never tried it – even the crappiest music sounds fantastic. Every tinkle, every note and every beat is sort of embedded into the consciousness like some sort of osmosis. Lyrics sound intelligent and deep. If you are lying down, the bed will seem to float up after a while. Even the lousiest Sovexport-like movie will seem like an edge of the seat masterpiece.

If you are tired or depressed or you are preoccupied with too many worries when you take a pull from a chillum someone is passing around, don’t go for it. Just as it enhances the good, grass will amplify the bad too and your trip is quite likely to turn into a nightmare.

Weed also makes you hungry as hell. You’ll want to eat just about anything you can lay your hands on. And if someone fishes out a Hustler and you leaf through it, marijuana will make you really horny. If you are with someone and she is stoned too, sex after a joint is just beautiful. You will turn into the world’s greatest lover. Yucky stuff that you wouldn’t dream of doing to her, will seem natural for you to do without even a single cringe. Even cross-eyed, skinny and bad breath will seem sexy to you. No, maybe not bad breath.

In the end, after the effect of the marijuana wears off, you will fall into a deep restful sleep and if you haven’t had one too many joints, you will wake up quite fresh, without any hangover at all.

There are many who consider marijuana a harmless drug. I do not think so. There are long-term side effects from regular marijuana use. Besides medical issues such as BP, lung cancer and pulmonary problems like bronchitis, prolonged use also makes you lethargic and unconcerned about your future and at the same time, impractical and unrealistic. It makes you edgy, impulsive and easily excitable. It also plays havoc with your long-term memory.

Nowadays I see how marijuana is becoming more and more socially acceptable and easily available and legislation is being tabled all over North America, to legalize it’s use. Frankly, I do not think that legalizing marijuana is a responsible thing for governments to do.

Take for example, cigarettes. It might sound crazy now, but back in the 1930s, doctors actually recommended smoking ‘to remain fresh and alert’. Even ads seemed to suggest it. It remained this way till the late-80s when cigarette ads were finally banned. The ubiquitous Peter Stuyvesant ad on the back cover of every Time Magazine issue ceased appearing. So did other ads, some very interesting, like the Camel ad showing a doctor recommending Camels and the Virginia Slims ad campaign.

In 1931, doctors promoted cigarettes

Camels being touted by a doctor in this 1931 ad. Click on the image to read the text (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia)

You've come a long way, baby

Virginia Slims –  the ‘You’ve come a long way, baby’ ad campaign (click on image to read the humor in the text)

Peter Stuyvesant cigarette ad that appeared on the back cover of Time Magazine for decades. They stopped in July 1986

Peter Stuyvesant. This ad appeared on the back cover of every single issue of Time Magazine till 1986 when cigarette ads were finally banned (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia)

The late screen icon, James Dean, in a Marlboro ad

Clean and healthy living never had a chance. Having a screen legend and icon like James Dean modelling for Marlboro got millions of teenagers across America hooked.

Today, in Quebec, retailers are banned from even displaying cigarette packets on shelves. They now have a kind of door with hinges that hides the packs from the eyes of a customer standing at the counter. The aim is to keep children from seeing the cigarette packs and wanting to smoke. Seems a bit stupid if you ask me but any effort to reduce smoking is welcome. Look what banning cigarette ads, prohibiting smoking at public places and the constant campaigning has done – cigarette smoking in North America has fallen from 45% of all adults in 1950 to 19% in 2010. I am one of the 19%. I left smoking a year back. Yay.

closed cigarette shelf

A convenience store in Quebec. Notice the wall at the back. Hidden behind those wooden boards are shelves of cigarette packs (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia)

Then there was hooch.

Back in the 1970s, the Indian state of Tamil Nadu where my engineering school is situated, was dry. Regular liquor brands were available on the black market but penniless college kids like us couldn’t afford it. And as 1920s America showed us, soon as the prohibition started in 1972, we had our own Al Capones and Dutch Schulzes and a bootleg liquor called Arak began to flow freely.

Just outside the Velacherry gates of my college was a sprawling village that had a hooch den. It was a ten by ten wooden platform in the center of a clearing in the palm trees. On it in one corner sat a massive lady with huge jugs (not earthenware jugs, silly) and she had a look that said ‘you get out of line by even a micro-inch and you’ll get your butt kicked out of this place’. She had a massive drum on the ground by her side, from which she ladled out glassfuls of the stuff to her customers.

Everybody called the woman Amma (mother, in Tamil). She operated the den under a single light bulb that was connected by a long wire which traveled overhead supported by branches and palm fronds to a nearby hut that had electricity. The lamp threw long scary shadows.  Scrawny, inebriated villagers staggered up to the woman with their hands clasped together in supplication, imploring her for one last slug for the road, signaling that they had run out of cash. For her financial well-being, Amma was mandated to keeping them hooked but she decided who could have one more and who could not.

arak den

An arak den in India (Photo courtesy: Lastworldtours.com)

Students like us were given the red carpet treatment by Amma. Somehow she felt legitimized and honored by our presence. Rickety steel chairs were hastily arranged for us and we were served the Arak in glasses that had been equally hastily washed in a nearby stream, whose water didn’t exactly originate in a Swiss mountain spring. Twenty pairs of drunken eyes then watched us spellbound as we downed the stuff. If one of us made a face like a grimace, there was raucous laughter all around.

The liquor was colorless and if you looked closely at it through the wall of the glass, you could see stuff floating and some of the stuff even swimming on their own propulsion in it. If you were desperate to get high as we sometimes were, then you closed your eyes, took a deep breath and downed it in one shot. I am lucky to be alive and disease-free, honest.

But in all this, there never was any of the real hard stuff like LSD, crack or heroin going around in our college dorms. At least not in my time there. Thank the Lord or I would have tried that too and who knows, I might have gotten hooked.

Eventually after five short years of bliss, merriment and the occasional groping of girls from Stella Maris in darkened cinema halls (which I shall tell you about some other time), I graduated with a bachelors in Mechanical Engineering with honors. I recognized that I had to earn a living and I left all the stuff we got high with, behind. Thereafter I touched only beer occasionally. No, make that every weekend, in generous amounts, till June 2014, at which point I stopped even the beer. I am now a teetoatlah. Yay.

What made me pull back from the brink of addiction while so many of my classmates succumbed, one even plunging to his death when he climbed out on a 3rd floor window ledge of our dorm completely stoned, lost his footing and fell out head-first? I had had a tumultuous childhood that at times, looked like a train wreck. I had very little time for an ‘upbringing’ like most other kids had. By 12, I was in a harsh boarding school environment, tortured, bullied, victimized and forgotten. If anyone had to rebel and implode, it should have been me.

But I came through. I think my keeping my wits together had much to do with the company I kept at college, the circle of friends I had who matured with me through engineering school. Like me, they all experimented, got high but knew when was enough, caught themselves before going overboard and we all made it through.

Like the Virginia Slims girl – I’ve come a long way, baby.