B-REAL HAD A QUESTION FOR HIS audience. As the stage lights went down at Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kans., he stepped in front of a curtain bearing a giant marijuana leaf and asked, "What do you want?" It was a rhetorical question; B-Real and his musical group, the multimillion-selling Cypress Hill, have but a small handful of tricks in their bag, and the audience was already declaring its intentions. "I wanna get hiiiiigh," they chanted. united beneath a cloud of grayish-brown smoke, "So hiiiigh." Rita Marley first sang these words 11 years ago after her husband. the Jamaican reggae star Bob Marley, died of brain cancer--words of defiance in the face of death. But here in Kansas City, where better than 3,000 mostly--white, mostly suburban teenagers had gathered last Wednesday night, the words were a benign generational rallying cry. in response, B-Real wheeled out a giant brown hand holding a joint the size of a baseball bat. The crowd roared. On the floor of the hall, Kevin Divine, 14, from suburban Olathe. Kans., sized things up. "It's a good beat," he said. in the approving language teens have used since the days of "American Bandstand." 'And it promotes the use of marijuana."
Here's a flashback: after a decade of being demonized and driven underground, the drug culture is suddenly back on display, buoyed by entertainers like Cypress Hill. A University of Michigan survey of college students and young adults found that in 1992, the most recent year studied, a 12-year decline in drug use came abruptly to a halt. Marijuana use increased very slightly, and LSD use rose for the third consecutive year. Marijuana seizures are up nationwide, and hospital emergency room episodes have risen sharply for many drugs. Groups that advocate legalizing pot have seen their memberships skyrocket. "We have a hard time keeping up with demand," says Richard Cowan, 53, the national director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Heroin also appears to be making a comeback (page 53).
It is too soon to say what all these numbers mean; many of the upticks are small, and may be just statistical accidents. Casual drug use is still way down from the late '70s, when more than half the high-school seniors tested said they'd smoked pot in the last year. "Whether this is a pause or the beginning of a turnaround, we cannot say," says Lloyd Johnston, coauthor of the Michigan studies. Adrienne Jordan, 17, a high-school senior in Ferndale, Wash., is not so reserved about what she sees. A former heavy pot smoker, she has noticed a sharp rise in drug use among her friends and classmates. "Especially this year, there is a lot more pot," she says. "It's very noticeable."
What is clear, and arresting, is the rise of a popular culture that actively glorifies drug use. There is a sea change in attitudes, if not in actual use: an emerging population that openly espouses that drugs--at least some drugs--are no big deal. in Boston's Mission Hill district, a teen in a White Sox windbreaker and Duke baseball hat, smoking a cigar filled with marijuana, sums up a growing attitude: "I don't consider it a drug. it's a plant. Coke, I don't do that sh-t. That's a drug." Studies of junior-high and highschool students show that the percentage who believe that use of marijuana is very harmful has dropped, in some cases as much as 10 percent over a two-year period. When Jon Bonne, 21, arrived at Columbia University in New York three years ago, marijuana use on campus was nearly invisible, and uncool. "The image of the pot smoker was very much a hippie thing," he says. "Now it's completely different. There's a whole mode of dress, music and style that didn't exist three years ago."
Music, television, movies and fashion are all embracing this change. For most of the 1980s, drugs either vanished from popular entertainments or appeared in the role of the villain: the murderous cocaine warriors of "Miami Vice" or "Scarface," the craven psychopaths of "RoboCop." Even archetypal stoner characters--Bill and Ted, Wayne and Garth--never touched the Stuff., it was taboo. No more. In the last year, drug use has gone prime time, and without the cautionary alarm bells or Devil's horns. On a recent episode of "Roseanne," one of the top-rated sitcoms in the country, the principal characters found a stash of marijuana and lit up, spending half the show laughing themselves silly. Recent skits on "Saturday Night Live" and the Comedy Central program "The Kids in the Hall" present innocuous pot humor. MTV's top-rated Beavis and Butt-head sniff paint thinner.
Pot has made a benign re-entry in the movies as well. in the film "True Romance," Brad Pitt plays a stoner who knows his navel more intimately with each passing scene. And Richard Linklater's "Dazed and Confused," about a bunch of high-school students on the last day of class in 1976, celebrates pot smoking from beginning to end. Asked why the studio agreed to finance such a supportive depiction of drug use, Linklater says, "I think they've been spurred on by the supposed media resurgence of marijuana." Gramercy Pictures certainly used the pot connection as a selling point. The press kits for the movie included custom rolling papers and marijuana-leaf earrings, and the ad campaign ran, "See it with a bud." A second slogan, "Finally! A movie for everyone who did inhale," was nixed by the Motion Picture Association of America.
But it is rock musicians who have most heartily taken up the pot banner. Musicians have long played an intimate role in our national attitudes toward illicit drugs. In the 1960s and '70s, rockers were the voice of the burgeoning drug culture. During the '80s, strung out or in 12-step programs, musicians like Aerosmith, Keith Richards, Ozzy Osbourne and Motley Crue helped fuel the backlash against their past vices. Now a new generation of musicians is turning that around. Foremost is Cypress Hill, the multiracial rap group from South Gate, a Los Angeles suburb. Peppered with anthems bearing titles like "Hits From the Bong" and "Legalize It," the group's most recent album, "Black Sunday," entered the Billboard charts at No. 1 this summer, and has remained in the top 15 ever since. The group is relentless in its support of cannabis, or hemp. "We wanted to do something bold and take a stance on pot and the liberations of smokers," says rapper Sen Dog (Senen Reyes), 27. Cypress Hill even has its own line of clothes and drug paraphernalia; sales this year have reached $6 million. "They just let it all hang out and they tell it like it is," says Scott Altman, 17, a Cypress Hill fan from suburban St. Louis. A varsity ice-hockey player, Altman likes the music but skips the drugs. "It may promote marijuana but it brings everyone closer together to have a good time." A suburban 15-year-old at the group's Kansas City show had a different perspective. "When you're pulling hits from the bong," he said, "it's good to listen to 'Hits From the Bong'."
Other pop groups have jumped on the bandwagon. The platinum-selling Atlanta rock band the Black Crowes performed on their last tour before a giant marijuana leaf, and sold their own rolling papers in the lobby. The rapper Dr. Dre has sold more than 2 million copies of his album "The Chronic," named after a particularly potent strain of marijuana. Members of the Seattle bands Nirvana and Soundgarden, the multimillion-selling Spin Doctors and Faith No More have all come out publicly for legalization; Guns N' Roses and Metallica had NORML tables at their last tour. Other acts are using pot iconography in their marketing. The hard-rock band Sacred Reich, signed to a music subsidiary of Disney, sent out bongs with promotional copies of its last album. Rick Krim, vice president of music and talent at MTV, says he gets a video a week that refers to marijuana. The network acts to edit the references before the videos can air. "If there were ever anything with an anti-drug message, that might be a different story, " says Krim. "But this stuff pretty much glorifies it."
Along with the music has come a boom in pot fashion. At the high end, about two dozen manufacturers are offering clothing made from hemp, the same plant that produces marijuana. Because it is illegal to grow hemp in the United States, all of the fabric is imported. But it is at the low, popular end that pot fashion makes its strongest statement. After a decade-long absence from American iconography, the marijuana leaf is popping up on clothing, jewelry, even tattoos. Pot fashion, not long ago the province of losers or outcasts, has suddenly become hip, blossoming into an estimated $10 million to $15 million business. "I see guys wearing white baseball hats with a bright-green pot leaf, girls in tie-dyed T shirts with pot-leaf motifs, and necklaces and earrings with pot leaves," says Dave, 23, a supermarket clerk in Evanston, Ill. "You never saw that two years ago. And if you did, you looked away, as if it was a secret. Now it's not a secret. It's out in the open."
Lee Brown, the new drug czar, is outraged by this fashion statement. Brown, former top cop of New York, last week unveiled the Clinton administration's drug policy, a sketchy program that points toward greater emphasis on treatment; he has yet to say where the money will come from. "It angers me when I see" the drug wear, he says. "It's a mistake for parents to allow their children to get caught in that culture."
Ironically, though, part of the easing of attitudes toward drugs has come from government circles. Bill Clinton's claim that he didn't inhale became the best joke of the campaign; suddenly, a presidential candidate's history of illegal drug use was something to snicker about, not grounds to disqualify him from the Oval Office. One popular T shirt reads INHALE TO THE CHIEF. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders has advocated making marijuana available for medicinal purposes. And the federal government has softened its anti-drug propaganda campaigns. As silly as they sometimes seemed, they worked. "When Clinton got elected, I knew weed was going to come back," says Eric Bonerz, 28, the manager of a trendy downtown New York clothing boutique that sells pot-leaf hats by the dozen many of them, he avers, to people who don't smoke. "Now you can smoke it, wear it, whatever...It's less illegal now."
At the same time, the drug itself is undergoing an image makeover, in step with the health and environmental consciousness of the '90s. Smokers argue, echoing an old line, that it is natural, nonaddictive and not associated with violence or domestic abuse. For generations who have seen firsthand the ravages of both crack and alcohol, this combination can be very appealing. One slang term for desirable marijuana is "kind bud." "Frank," 33, who runs a Los Angeles landscaping company, is a typical thirty-something user. After smoking in school, he gave it up for most of his 20s, as he and his friends got into drinking, cocaine and other drugs. Now he's back. "Drinking gets me blotto. With pot my mind still functions." He finds marijuana a healthier alternative to his past habits. "On coke, I would take all kinds of risks: go places that were dangerous and do things I shouldn't." Pot, he says, is "probably less dangerous."
Pot activists go this claim one better. The bible of the legalization movement, "The Emperor Wears No Clothes," by Jack Herer, argues that until it was declared illegal in 1937, the hemp plant provided fuel oil, fabric and paper in a more efficient and ecologically sound way than our currently available resources. Since being published in 1985, according to Herer, 54, his book has sold 193,000 copies. Its acolytes-smokers and nonsmokers alike--are gushing in their idealism. "This means more than going to a party, smoking a joint and having a good time," says John Birrenbach, president of the institute for Hemp, a St. Paul-based advocacy group that sells cannabis products via a mail-order catalog. "It means saving the planet."
But it is wrong to think of pot as risk-free. Although much is still unknown about the drug's effects, and even more muddied by decades of "Reefer Madness" hysteria, there are a few undisputed health risks associated with the drug. Carcinogenic tars and benzopyrenes are at much higher levels in marijuana than in tobacco, and chronic use impairs short-term memory. Smoking also suppresses the immune system. (Many other fears, such as physical addiction, genetic damage or reduced fertility, are either unsupported or rarely borne out, says Christine Hartel of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.) Some of the risks, however, may be higher today than at the height of the drug culture. Back in the '70s and '80s, average marijuana was about 1.5 to 2 percent THC, the main psychoactive ingredient; now it's twice as high and can even reach 30 percent THC, according to NIDA. The Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University estimates that substance abuse and addiction claim nearly 500,000 lives a year, and drain $250 billion from the health-care system. Though most of this is from alcohol and cigarettes, a new boom in the drug culture means more than just a nostalgic smell in the air.
Lofty Bullock, a 22-year-old British deejay and entrepreneur, already thinks the trend may be turning. Bullock runs Headflows, a natty enclave of hemp culture on Washington, D.C.'s, bohemian "New" U Street. Earlier this year, he says, he was selling hundreds of T shirts a week. Now, in a slower market, he has sold most of his stock to British retailers. "I reached a peak about six months ago," he says. There is still some interest, he finds. "But being a bip, underground thing--that's over."
Whether this means the drug culture is expanding to mall dimensions or beginning its last inhale remains to be seen. At the Cypress Hill show in Kansas City, Blake Overt, 15, offered one hint. Blake does not smoke marijuana, but likes the music anyway. "It's words everybody can relate to," he says. "Except my mom." Drug trends mayor may not be cyclical. But kids embracing music and fashions to bug their parents--well, that's eternal.