Legal Weed Used to Be Sci-Fi

bugjackbarronDay by day, our world is coming to resemble the science fiction of previous generations: pocket telephones, home computers, a black president, and now comes the commercial sale of legal marijuana.

These are all things that aren’t necessarily the subject of science fiction stories, but part of the “furniture,” the elements in a scene which are there to remind us that the story is taking place in the future. As one sci-fi writer pointed out, there are thousands of SF stories in which a character goes somewhere in a flying car, but there has never been even one which was about the invention of the flying car. The cars that fly and the doors that dilate are simply there. And so, often, is cannabis, legally sold and openly used.

In John Brunner’s 1969 Stand on Zanzibar, hemp has more or less replaced tobacco: it is sold in brand-name packs of pre-rolled cigarettes and smoked by businessmen in their offices (smoking at the office—imagine!). One of the characters is an executive of a cannabis company who is being blackmailed by criminals who want him to sneak cuttings of the newest genetically engineered strain out of the lab so they can grow a pirate edition of it—sort of the way people are trying to find ways to work around Monsanto’s patents on GMO crops.

In The Tomorrow File, almost the only sci-fi piece written by Lawrence Sanders (much better known for his Deadly Sin mysteries), people might very well feel the need to light up a joint of Bold (distributed by the Federal Department of Public Happiness, formerly Health & Human Services), to help them endure the pain of being denied a permit to have a child, or to choke down the foul-tasting food made from petroleum. Or they might want to try the legal government-distributed heroin…

If the government wasn’t going to hand out weed, then surely corporations would deliver it in plenty. In Norman Spinrad’s 1969 Bug Jack Barron, the most popular talk show on late-night TV is sponsored by “Acapulco Golds, America’s Premium Marijuana Cigarettes” (imagine—cigarettes advertised on TV!). At the time, Acapulco Gold was a variety praised so much by pot smokers that even the least hip readers would recognize the name. In David Gerrold’s 1972 When Harlie Was One, for instance, a character bums a cigarette, hoping for an Acapulco Gold but settling for a Highmaster. Harlie, by the way, is an AI program who communicates with his creators through a teletype—a printer whose keys clatter out text onto endless rolls of paper.

There was a widespread rumor in the ‘60s that one of the country’s major tobacco companies had quietly registered “Acapulco Gold” as a trademark—you know, just in case. Other brand names seen in sci-fi stories include Panama Red, Foxy Lady, Happening, and Too Much. This is one area in which sci-fi writers were, if anything, too cautious: brand names are proliferating rapidly in areas where pot is legal, with probably far more brand names than there are actual varieties available.

Finally, here’s a funny item: When I mentioned I was writing an article about SF stories in which pot was legal, almost everyone mentioned Robert A. Heinlein’s 1965 Stranger in a Strange Land. Now, that novel contains what was at the time considered some forward-thinking stuff and it was a favorite among college students, but in fact the book’s only reference to hemp is in a line where a wise old man expresses the fear that the hero may be tempted to join a particularly creepy cult group, declaring, “I’d rather see Mike smoking marijuana than converted by Digby.” Public nudity and a casual acceptance of gay politicians was one thing, Heinlein seemed to think, but pot smoking? Unthinkable.

By John M. Burt

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