Born to get high: My life as a South Asian American stoner

 

Photo by @rebelranis/@shreymadphotos, Henna by @ritualbydesign, Cape by @anamikakhanna.in

 

In the early 1970s, just as the War on Drugs was ramping up, South Asian immigration saw a surge in the US. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 lifted the 32-year immigration ban on Asia and the 74-year ban on China. It created the H1 visa system for highly skilled workers and allowed families to reunite with loved ones already settled stateside. Artists and religious thinkers like sitar legend Ravi Shankar and Hari Krishna founder Bhaktivedanta Swami came in the 60s. Then in the 70s and 80s, the doctors, lawyers, and engineers followed. My parents, part of this second wave, just wanted more for their 10-people-in-one-room families.

Dad came to this country in 1972. He started out in Schenectady, New York where he married mom, fresh off the plane in 1974, in a small Hindu temple. They moved to the Bronx where my brother and hip hop were born, not so far from Charlotte Street where landlords burned buildings for insurance money and tenants burned buildings to escape urban blight. 

New York in the 70s is not what my parents had in mind when they moved to the US. When dad was offered a job to work in a hematology oncology clinic in southeast Texas, they jumped at the chance to move to a less complicated place with wide open space.

In the early 80s, Reagan reignited the War on Drugs and the prison population was filling up with black and brown people. Meanwhile, South Asian immigrants like my parents were busy assimilating into the social order with a capitalist mindset. As Snoop Dogg might say, they had their minds on their money, and their money on their minds. 

I was two years old in 1985, the year the Indian government finally caved to American pressure and outlawed cannabis. A plant that was widely available and used on the subcontinent was now steeped in stigma and crime.

Who can blame them? Most of them came from meager means. Families like mine lost everything during the 1947 Partition, when the British hastily drew an arbitrary line to create two nation states based on religion, India as Hindu majority and Pakistan as Muslim majority. A bloody mass exodus on both sides ensued. About 15 million people were displaced, 1 million massacred, and thousands more raped, forced to convert, separated from their families, or abducted. 

My parents, like most South Asian immigrants, thought their kids were going to follow in their footsteps. We were going to be straight in every sense of the word: strait-laced, straight A’s, straight, not gay. We were supposed to be model minorities, not rock the boat. No one ever articulated that to me. I could just feel the immense pressure to do it.

I wasn’t the only one feeling pressure from authority figures. I was two years old in 1985, the year the Indian government finally caved to American pressure and outlawed cannabis (exempting a few government-sanctioned bhang stores). A plant that was widely available and used on the subcontinent was now steeped in stigma and crime. It’s ban caused a significant uptick in arrests for low-level drug possession and created a drug problem in India. Not being able to access cannabis, the use of synthetic drugs like smack increased. The effects of Reagan War on Drugs were being felt far beyond our borders.

Reena c. 1985

Reena c. 1985

Cannabis has been an integral part of life in India since the gods walked the Earth. The legend goes that Lord Shiva churned the ocean to extract the nectar of immortality. A drop fell to Earth and created the cannabis plant. Some people smoke charas (kief/resin) or ganja (buds/top leaves). The Shiva-worshipping ascetics smoke bhang-filled chillums for a more immediate transcendence, but most people use bhang (dried leaves) in all kinds of spice filled drinks, sweets, and curries, for medicine or in celebration of certain religious festivities. In rural places, the preparation and consumption of bhang is communal and intentional. Even ancient Hindu scriptures say that the guardian of humanity is found in the leaves of the cannabis plant.

The ban of charas and ganja in 1985 didn’t happen all of a sudden. British colonization had already made the use of cannabis taboo among wealthy Indian landowners and the upper class. They took up more “acceptable” forms of intoxication like alcohol and tobacco. Then the U.S. finished the job. Criminalization was the culmination of a decades long propaganda and policy push by the U.S. to control its people and the rest of the world. The enforcement and control of cannabis squashed the counterculture anti-war movement; created a cheap labor pool by incarcerating black and brown people on small drug offenses; and allowed industrialists to build fortunes by suppressing their potential hemp and cannabis competitors.

Let’s take it back a few years, to the early 1900s when anti-drug legislators used racist, anti-immigrant propaganda that associated “marihuana” with crime and violence to make white folks scared of the Mexicans, black jazz musicians, and Punjabi Sikhs. In 1913, California passed the first statewide ban on marijuana, blaming the “hindoos,” a blanket term used for South Asians immigrants, for spreading the habit to white people.

Other states followed and the scene was set for a national push to criminalize pot. Xenophobe Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the newly created Federal Bureau of Narcotics, aligned himself with powerful politicians and industrialists. To keep his rich friends happy and preserve white supremacy, Anslinger spearheaded a propaganda campaign, culminating in the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act, which criminalized possession of cannabis and created an excise tax for people who wanted to use it in specialized cases. This was the beginning of the War on Drugs. 

San Francisco Call, August 13, 1910 South Asians in North America Collection, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley

San Francisco Call, August 13, 1910
South Asians in North America Collection,
Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley

New York Times, January 27, 1908 South Asians in North America Collection, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley   Found on the UC Davis Pioneering Punjabis Digital Archive

New York Times, January 27, 1908
South Asians in North America Collection,
Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley

Found on the UC Davis Pioneering Punjabis Digital Archive

Fast forward a couple decades to 1961 and America is putting pressure on the world to sign an international treaty. The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs created “Schedules” for narcotics and said weed was synthetic and on par with hard drugs like opium and heroin. At the time, India refused to sign it. 

Kennedy and Johnson agreed that cannabis didn’t induce violence and wasn’t a gateway drug. Then Nixon passed the Controlled Substances Act, taking plays from the UN treaty. It put cannabis on Schedule 1 with other substances deemed to have high potential for abuse and no medical benefits. Strict quotas were placed on production, which made it hard to acquire enough plant material for research purposes. The War on Drugs raged on.

The 82 year history of its criminalization is but a blip compared to the 10,000 year history of cannabis use all over the world and its indigenous roots on the subcontinent. 

It is one of the five sacred plants of “The Science of Life,” aka Ayurveda, India’s ancient holistic healing system. In Hindu scripture dating back to 2000 BC, The Artharvaveda calls cannabis “Vijaya,” Sanskrit for “victory in conquest,” and describes it as a joy giver and liberator. 

Other cultures in South Asia also used the plant. Muslims used it for disorders of the nervous system and epilepsy. It’s said that Buddha survived on one cannabis seed per day for the six years prior to enlightenment. The plant grows wild all over Asia and the Middle East. In South Asia, it grows from the foothills of the Himalayas in the north to the tropical backwaters of Kerala in the south. 

The 82 year history of its criminalization is but a blip compared to the 10,000 year history of cannabis use all over the world and its indigenous roots on the subcontinent. 

Like the globe-trotting plant, the South Asian diaspora can be found in the most unlikely of places. 

I grew up in a small working class Texas town with well-to-do, high achieving, Hindu parents who thought America was great. The American Dream was working out for them and a picture of Reagan on horseback hung on our wall. I was constantly navigating two cultures and felt the need to assimilate for social survival. I was a cheerleader at my Catholic middle school for God’s sake. (Unless you’ve seen how high I can kick, that image is almost unfathomable.)

At 10 years old, my parents sent me to St. Catherine of Siena Catholic School in Port Arthur, Texas. The powers that be told me that I was going to burn in hell. Not because I was a bad person, but for the simple fact that I wasn’t baptized. My religion teacher shrugged and said, “Well, that’s just how it is. You’re born with original sin on your soul.” Dang, even though I’d learned all those Commandments, Beatitudes, and prayers by heart?! 

Eventually, they broke me. I cried, telling dad that I needed to convert right away! As I sobbed in his lap he said, “Just pay attention to the good things that they are telling you, and leave out the bad.” I knew that if it was up to me to discern right from wrong at the age of 10, the world was feeding me bullshit. 

My teenage years were spent surrounded by the rich, entitled, white kids of the Southeast Texas elite. By the time high school rolled around, I was in full “fuck it” mode. I’d spent the summer trying and failing to get on the volleyball team. I was the only girl who could overhand serve, MVP of my 8th grade squad, and I still didn’t make the cut. Fuck nepotism. The coach had personally trained the girls from another feeder middle school and they all made it. I had no shits left to give. 

Beaumont, Texas, 1999

Beaumont, Texas, 1999

I had already been a slave to popularity in middle school. I wasn’t going to do it again. I quit the pep squad, found Marilyn Manson, and went in hard on the anti-preppy scene. I refused to shave my hairy Indian legs everyday just so I could  wear short pleated skirts, knee high socks, and platform penny loafers. I accepted that these bitchy white girls were never going to be my friends and I wanted to be nothing like them.

I wasn’t going to give into their Clueless Cher Horowitz vibes. Even though it wasn’t a great look, I wore oversized pants and sweaters that hid my untucked polo shirt, silver accessories bought at the local Hot Topic, necklaces made of paper clips, Vans or Converse, and a head of dyed red hair. I was a misfit in my AP classes and I found other misfits – skaters, goths, and punks – from the surrounding counties. Still, I kept up “appearances” for my parents. I made good grades and volunteered for Key Club, but I led another life dealing with all the politics and social dynamics of American high school that they knew nothing about. 

One Friday night, still in our uniforms, my girlfriends and I ended up at our friend’s house. For privacy’s sake, let’s call our friend Julie. Julie had a “cool mom.” In other words, she usually wasn’t around and we mostly got to do as we pleased. Julie pulled out a joint that she got from the raver dudes she had been kicking it with, and we climbed out her bedroom window to sit on the roof. This actually wasn’t the first time I tried weed. That was in the parking lot of a coffee shop/computer repair store/music venue that we used to hang out at. (It sounds strange, but they made it work.) I didn’t feel anything that day. Maybe it was dirt weed or maybe I didn’t inhale because I was kind of scared. 

On Julie’s roof, though, I had fewer expectations. I wasn’t sure if I would feel anything, but at least I knew it wouldn’t kill me. Four of us sat in a row. Julie lit the joint, hit it twice, and passed it to her left. When it reached me, I put the joint to my lips and inhaled. It was a beautiful Texas night under the stars and a few minutes after that first puff, I laughed. I felt a release and everything was overwhelmingly ok. All that I was holding on to in order to fit in, just didn’t matter. I could finally just be.

In college, I decided to integrate South Asian culture back into my life. Even though I went to the University of Texas at Austin with a large South Asian population, I hadn’t made many South Asian friends. 

It was a beautiful Texas night under the stars and a few minutes after that first puff, I laughed. I felt a release and everything was overwhelmingly ok. 

I tried a student group. At the first meeting, someone told me that I was too white because I was wearing a Screeching Weasel T-shirt and a studded belt. (What can I say? I was experimenting.) The white comment was funny to me because I equated it with capitalism, conquest, and designer purses, a frequent topic of conversation with this crew. They wanted to assimilate and be on top of the food chain. I wanted to dismantle the system. 

Once I switched from pre-med to photojournalism, there wasn’t another South Asian in sight. I befriended the city’s other miscreants, and cozied up to the South Asian studies graduate department. Most of these people passed the peace pipe and the plant helped me to connect with them. I signed up for Hindi classes and eventually started learning tabla from the head of the Ethnomusicology department, my Hindi teacher’s husband. I could smoke, swim, and talk all day about indie film, music, life in India, Ayurveda, yoga, and sacred texts. I was microdosing before there was even a word for it. Waking and baking was a normal part of life. It sometimes helped loosen my mind and my hand when I was drawing for a design class assignment. It took the edge off and allowed me to peel away the layers of my insecurities. 

Some of my most memorable moments in life involve cannabis. They were not all good. But only when we struggle, do we grow. 

In Mexico, it was an excuse for adventure. I’d ask my salsa partners, “Fumas mota?” Then the night would turn up!  Like a magical realism novel with surprise twists and turns, I’d see parts of cities that I never would have if I hadn’t asked. Once the Federales pulled us over in Chiapas after a beautiful swim beneath a waterfall. I was scared shitless. We had just smoked a joint underneath said waterfall and they found our stash in the van. Our host was pretty good at Spanish so we proceeded to discuss the medicinal benefits of the plant with the cops. They let us go with a warning. 

Guanajuato, Mexico, 2002

Guanajuato, Mexico, 2002

Varanasi, India, 2006

Varanasi, India, 2006

In India, I learned about my limits. After a night of drinking in Mumbai, I begged my cousin to find me weed. He was appalled that I asked and told me that only “bad” people do that. I assured him that I do it all the time in America. Being the down ass brother he was, he found me a hash cigarette. I took a few puffs, watched the street scenes melt, and they had to carry me back in the house. 

South of Goa in Gokarna, I learned my first lesson in dosing. My friend and I found a little stall on the beach that sold “special” lassis. I drank an entire 8 oz. glass of milk with bhang, sugar, and spices that had me hazily walking into a mini Durga temple with my shoes on mistaking it for my hostel (Sorry, goddess!) and then throwing up on the floor while spooning my backpack thinking I was going to die right there. 

On my wedding day in Palm Springs, it taught me patience. My husband-to-be, Shane, was missing. My in-laws were discussing whether I should marry a picture of him, but I was fully preparing to marry my chihuahua. As I waited for them to find him, I smoked a joint. It was the only thing I could do to keep from crying and keep my make-up intact. Shane eventually showed up and we got married on a beautiful rooftop and danced in the desert under the stars. Tying the knot with Shane officially entwined my fate with cannabis forever.

When we returned to reality after our honeymoon, Proposition 64, the California Marijuana Legalization Initiative, was on the November ballot. Shane and I believed that the proposition didn’t do enough to rectify the injustices of the War on Drugs. Black and brown communities were over policed. Families were torn apart. People served long sentences for small time drug offenses. Some are still behind bars. And now a bunch of corporations get to profit off the industry that these communities built because the system wasn’t working for them. And anyway, finding trees was easy as hell as long as you had a medical card or “knew a guy.” So we voted no on 64. But the majority of Californians voted yes. Adult use weed became our new reality.

Shane and I were bummed about 64. At the same time Trump had just been elected. Under previous Republican presidents, the trucking industry flourished. So we were curious if the new administration would be good for the family business. Like many Punjabi Sikh men, Shane’s dad became a truck driver in the 80s. It was a job that he could do without cutting his beard or removing his turban. But with the dawn of driverless trucks, electric vehicles, and the share economy, it became an endangered industry. Ultimately Trump hasn’t helped with his tariff war and ban on immigrants who are willing to accept driving jobs. And he still hasn’t come through on his infrastructure overhaul promise. (For the record, none of us voted for that cheetoh.) We knew the day Uber launched an app for truck drivers that we needed to pivot.

I looked out over the water, prayed, and threw those oranges into the Bay. Almost immediately, a $5 bill washed up on the shore. It was a sign.  

In the early aughts, Shane was a medical marijuana activist. He worked for Richard Lee’s campaign to open Oaksterdam University and pass Oakland’s Measure Z, which deprioritized cannabis possession and allowed you to smoke your blunts freely in the streets.

In early 2017, Shane went back to Oaksterdam. He followed the state’s early regulations and learned that it was up to each city to decide if it wanted commercial cannabis within its city limits. When cannabis was on the agenda, Shane would show up at city council meetings: Oakland, Berkeley, Hayward, Union City, San Francisco. At each one, he saw white men in suits lobbying on behalf of big corporations. “We are going to be the Starbucks of cannabis,” one of the suits said. It made us think, “Why not us?” If people like us, who have been culturally connected to this plant for centuries, didn’t fight to be in this industry, it was all going to belong to them. 

Then the universe just seemed to align. At one of the city council meetings, Shane met an industry veteran and mentor. They were of different generations but both Punjabi and they both grew up in Union City. We had some long talks with him and he pointed out that Shane’s distribution background could prove invaluable. The cannabis distribution laws were based on liquor distribution laws, and Shane’s family was in the liquor distribution business. 

We focused our efforts on getting a distribution license in the city of Hayward, where Shane’s family has run a trucking business for 20-plus years. Then some friends introduced us to Abdullah Saeed, the former host of Vice’s Bong Appétit. It was Shane’s dream to be on the show. But they’d already booked five male guests on the Tandoori Tokefest episode, and they wanted a South Asian woman willing to smoke on camera. It ended up being me. 

There I was on TV, smoking a chillum. I’d never actually smoked from a chillum before that moment. But it was like the intrinsic knowledge from my ancestors was flowing through my veins. Or really, I was the only woman at a table full of dudes and I needed to make sure that I looked like a boss. Without a cough, I hit that shit.   

It was official. We were out there and there was no turning back. 

We finally got the courage to tell our parents about our plans. They weren’t happy  -- what would their friends and family think?! -- but they could no longer say that we were doing something illegal. 

Just smoking this doobie in a Sabyasachi, October 2016

Just smoking this doobie in a Sabyasachi, October 2016

On the morning we turned in our application to the City of Hayward, we stopped by the waterfront before heading to City Hall. I had the fruit that I gave Ganesh as an offering on New Years Eve. I hoped and prayed that we would be successful in this new endeavor. It really felt like we needed some luck. My mom told me that you can’t throw away prasad, food that you’ve offered god. You have to eat it or give it back to the sea. I looked out over the water, prayed, and threw those oranges into the Bay. Almost immediately, a $5 bill washed up on the shore. It was a sign. The universe said to do it. 

Out of the 77 applications, the City of Hayward awarded 11 commercial cannabis licenses. By the grace of Ganesh, we got one.

For me, cannabis has been one of my greatest teachers. It taught me how to connect with people and overcome my social anxiety. It enhanced my creativity and opened my mind to new possibilities. Cannabis taught me to live life!  And not just for the gram. But it also showed me the limits to my mortality. I learned the value of patience and endurance not only through my wedding experience, but through building this business as well. And now, I’m becoming more aware of how it personally connects me to a lost ancient culture. 

Sometimes I feel a sense of loss being so far removed from where my DNA originates. When people ask me where I’m really from, I say Mumbai, India, where my family settled post Partition. But really, my ancestors are from present day Pakistan. I’ve been to India many times, but not to our northern neighbor. And I’m not sure if I’ll ever go. Throughout my life I have tried to find ways to connect back to that place that I’ve never been. I try through travel, language, music, food, and community. And to finally say it openly, I’m trying through cannabis. 

I feel a sense of loss not just for me, but for our entire culture. Western ideas of technology, healing, respectability, and capitalism have erased our indigenous knowledge of this plant. In our world today, we don’t need the next great unicorn company whose value is overly inflated nor do we need another delivery app that lets us isolate ourselves. We need what cannabis is offering: real connection, tactile experiences, and a bit of jadoo.