The Daily Heller: A Few Words From a Hippie Who Never Smoked a Joint in His Life

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“If you remember the ’60s, you really weren’t there.” That phrase is oft-quoted to those who lived through the generation and the counterculture mantra coined by LSD guru Timothy Leary: “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”

Despite being deep into hippie culture, I avoided weed or psychedelics, and have deluded myself that I thus thwarted any associated memory loss. I can vividly recall the counterculture era in all its split-fountain shades and black-light spectra. But after spending hours engaged with Head Together: Weed and the Underground Press Syndicate,1965–1973 (Editions Patrick Frey)—a chaotic collection of covers, articles and ads reproduced from dozens of non-designed, poorly produced, emblematic underground papers—and reading author David Jacob Kramer’s illuminating introduction in this profusely illustrated book, I realize there was a chunk of ’60s youth culture I had unknowingly (and perhaps regrettably) missed.

The Los Angeles-based Kramer, born in 1980, a generation after the day the music died, has turned out a brief but revealing history of the period, peppered with quotes from many of the key editors, publishers and stoners of the era. Although Head Together is by no means a definitive legacy of the underground press or weed culture, it is an illuminating snapshot (Kramer’s word) of a history that I lived through and have chronicled from my sober POV in my memoir Growing Up Underground. It gives truth to the lie that just because I could lay claim to two of the three hippie keywords in “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll,” having made the choice not to bogart that joint removed me from a major chunk of the ’60s experience.

The design of the book takes a little getting accustomed to—it is printed on such lightweight paper that you could roll it up and smoke it. Head Together is not an exact replica of an underground paper, but it nonetheless feels that its design is like a run-on sentence. Since all of the illustrations are clips from actual newspapers, the layouts are very raw and untidy, with the notable exception of the comics artists, who were on the whole trained draftsmen. Otherwise the papers were made by amateurs who lacked innate design talent.

Kramer’s most admirable feat is how in his essay he weds drug culture and smoking marijuana to the left-wing revolutionary focuses of the day—the Vietnam War, Black Power, Feminism, police brutality, racism, organized religion, the rise of cults, and prime enemies like J. Edgar Hoover and Richard M. Nixon. As a tactic, propagating the power of weed, he says, was aggressively and positively both mind-shattering and world-changing as an atomic bomb.

The bomb in which all this energy was harnessed was the Underground Press Service (UPS), founded by activist and pot entrepreneur Tom Forcade of High Times magazine. UPS began with five leading underground papers—which grew to 500 around the U.S.—that maintained their own identities while sharing their respective contents. UPS enabled national distribution through a network of small “head shops” (now politely called “dispensaries”), where dope-smoking apparatuses were sold. Quoting John Sinclair, leader of the political band MC5, “Dope was like the link between the neo-beatnik culture, which we had been involved in prior to 1966, and the new hippie culture, which was just beginning to spring up.” Smoking pot had other significant consequences; it was construed as an act of solidarity with the draftees in Vietnam, where most soldiers “were being introduced to weed for the first time, along with PTSD,” Kramer notes.

Weed sales and possession were already criminalized as early as 1913 along the Southwest American border towns, as Mexicans fled their own Civil War; the plant was outlawed in California and Texas, and the laws were used to enforce racist persecution elsewhere in the U.S.

On another throughline, Kramer discusses an acrimonious rift within the Liberation News Service (LNS) that supplied weekly content to papers around the globe. As LNS founder Ray Mungo is quoted as saying: The two factions were at violent odds, the political wing he called Vulgar Marxists and the potheads he called Virtuous Caucus. Many of the “freaks” who believed that drugs would save the world helped run UPS into the ground, to be replaced by The Alternative Press Syndicate (APS), also founded by Forcade. He conducted market tests using government statistics indicating that 20 million reefer smokers lived in the U.S. and invested his own “weed money” into High Times, which he claimed had a peak circulation of around 400,000 (a pipe dream?).

As inconceivable as legality was in the ’60s and ’70s, by the 2000s weed had made it through the gauntlet of state lawmakers, opened the gates of the capitalist citadel and wafted through the halls of Congress, even into the Oval Office (Clinton did not inhale!). As the Dylan song says, “everybody must get stoned.” What Heads Together does so well is place this continuously fought battle in its early context of mobilization when the underground conscripts began fighting an existential war that at first terrorized middle-Americans, and today is virtually a nonpartisan issue in red, purple and blue state legislatures to make WEED more than a battle cry but an issue—the best ways to make it acceptably legal—and, alas, very profitable too. Gummies anyone?

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