From the December 2016 issue of Chronicles.

It is seven o’clock on a peaceful late-summer evening here in suburban Seattle, and I’m sitting in my back garden smoking marijuana.

Passively smoking, I should add, lest I shock any reader by this sorry lapse, but smoking nonetheless.  This time of year, my property is especially fragrant with the acrid smell of pot, and a thick haze of the stuff lingers long in the air these balmy Northwest nights.  It has become one of the distinctive characteristics of our street, and indeed of much of Seattle, that environmentally obsessed city where all is decorous, the sidewalks are immaculately swept, the parks rigorously trimmed, proverbial for its snow-capped mountains and sparkling lakes, and now, too, for its odoriferous and pungent residential neighborhoods, where musky clouds roll through the homes of rich and poor alike, and an ordinary householder can become quietly stoned, regardless of his or her economic status or social prominence.  That’s the great thing about this new epidemic we’ve unleashed on ourselves here.  Just as its host society was originally meant to be, it’s completely egalitarian.  All drugs are morally neutral.  They will destroy your life, and the lives of your neighbors, quite irrespective of your race, creed, or religion.

How did we get here?  By popular demand.  In November 2012, the voters of Washington passed into law Initiative 502 by the impressive margin of 56 to 44 percent.  As defined by the Secretary of State’s office, the measure

shall license and regulate marijuana production, distribution, and possession for persons over 21; remove state-law criminal and civil penalties for activities that it authorizes; tax marijuana sales; and earmark marijuana-related revenues.

The perceptive reader will immediately note the way in which our rapacious government hastens to insert itself in the commercial transactions of its citizens.  And “hastens” is the mot juste: Initiative 502 was certified on December 6, 2012, and the first retail licenses to sell pot were distributed less than a year later.  There was no consultation process for the millions of those whose lives it blighted.  It is all part of a new approach to local government here in the Evergreen State, in which action is taken according to the acclamation of the masses, irrespective of any laws or conventions established for decades, or even centuries, beforehand.  Normally shy to take the initiative, our legislature reacts with great speed to loud noises from the progressive-minded among the public.  Of course, combined with this commendable responsiveness to the will of the people, there’s the fact that the state realized some $67.5 million in sales and excise tax during the first 12 months of legally sanctioned pot, with that figure expected to reach $369 million by fiscal year 2019.

The state budget is not the only thing affected by the Pacific Northwest’s latest outbreak of officially tolerated public lunacy.  It’s been a bonus for the funeral industry, too.  According to data released in October 2015 by the Washington Traffic Safety Commission (WTSC), marijuana has been increasing as a factor in deadly auto crashes.  The number of drivers involved in fatal accidents who tested positive for weed increased 48 percent from 2013 to 2014.

“We have seen marijuana involvement in serious crashes remain steady over the years, and then it just spiked in 2014,” says Dr. Stali Hoff, the WTSC data and research director.  However, as the Seattle Times helpfully reminds us,

Just testing positive [for marijuana] doesn’t necessarily indicate if a driver was actually affected by the drug at the time of the crash, since marijuana can be detected in a person’s blood for days (possibly weeks) after consumption.

With that editorial evenhandedness that characterizes the main daily newspaper of one of the more weed-friendly places in the nation, the Times adds: “There was no way to know [in November 2012] how, if at all, Initiative 502 would affect road safety, or that within only three years it would controversially be seen as a public-safety issue.”

With due respect to the Times, the idea that more of Vietnam’s and Watergate’s children might enjoy a legal recreational toot or two when the opportunity arises before jumping in their cars and mingling with their fellow citizens doesn’t particularly strike me as news, controversial or otherwise.  It would strike me as news if they failed to do so.

Another beneficiary of the brave new world wrought by Initiative 502 is our publicly funded Washington State Patrol Toxicology Lab, recently expanded from a network of three to six regional offices, and now able to test with some degree of accuracy for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the impairing substance in marijuana.  “With this data we are finally able to see who was high during the crash versus which drivers had used marijuana in the past few days,” says Dr. Hoff.  “The answer in 2014 is most of them were high.”  In another news flash we learn, “The largest increase in THC-positive drivers were [sic] among males ages 21-25, from only 6 in 2013 up to 19 in 2014—the most significant increase among any other [sic] age group.”

This is what the “marijuana debate” has come to in my state.  We’ve become a land all but free of politicians or others who might dare to challenge the stoner consensus.  Our newspapers seem as disgusted at the idea of “anti-pot” readers as they are of pro-life ones, doing all they can to shake them off.  They run endless stories and editorials about such people being “traditionalists,” or—as if there could be anything worse—“wanting to turn the clock back.”  For me, late middle age in the Emerald City increasingly consists of the odd feeling of being the only sober person in a room full of drunks.

The first shock of post-502 Seattle is the sheer squalor of the legalized-dope apparatus all over town.  The people peddling this stuff seem for the most part to be ugly, dirty, stupid, and idle, but by far the nastiest thing about them is that they flaunt their wares with the restraint of a Vegas casino and operate out of a series of luridly painted roadside shacks, often embellished with some hideous logo or lewd endorsement, which jostle up against private homes and unimpeachable family-run convenience stores.  At night, along the dark miles of suburban highway, the regular points of light are huge MARIJUANA HERE! billboards and neon-lit arrows pointing helpfully to the nearest outlet.  If you’re fortunate enough to hail from somewhere like Pittsburgh or Cleveland or Buffalo or just about any other faded manufacturing city, you may possibly reflect that your community will have passed zoning laws regulating the location of taverns or bars or places of adult entertainment in relation to residential dwellings, but here in the Northwest, surrounded by soaring mountains and shimmering lakes, and by weasel-faced politicians continually reminding us just what a wonderfully pristine place we live in, I increasingly feel my domestic backdrop to be that of a Marrakesh bazaar populated by Hell’s Angels.

And the stench.  Everywhere.  And, actually, strongly reminiscent of that toxic industrial-smokestack reek hanging all over town in the old days—except that at least served a productive purpose.  There are whole neighborhoods of Seattle glorying in names like Meadowbrook or Cherry Hill or Laurelhurst where the ambient stink almost physically knocks you out.  Not long ago I was waiting for the light to change at a busy intersection featuring the “Cannabliss” emporium on one side of the road and the unambiguously named “GRASS” on the other, and by the time I drove off again I felt like I was back in one of those 1970’s undergraduate parties where people with skinny cigarettes in their mouths were slumped around the floor with their eyes closed listening to Captain Beefheart records.  You can get whacked just by walking around the residential streets of America’s “most livable city.”  According to the law, you can’t smoke marijuana in a public park or waiting at a bus stop, but you’re entirely free to fire up on the front porch or balcony of your home, or sitting by your open window, or in your backyard—or for that matter in the 25 percent of all state hotel rooms still designated for smokers.  Twenty-eight-year-old Kristin Dorsett and her elementary-age daughter found their lives at the Esther Short Commons apartment building in Vancouver, Washington, 160 miles south of Seattle, noticeably affected by the passage of Initiative 502 in November 2012.  “Within days, the smell was everywhere in the building,” Dorsett says.  “That classic skunky smell.  That college-dorm smell.”  Before long, Dorsett took to using an inhaler, and then to wearing a surgical mask while “relaxing” at home, before electing for a less communal form of living.  Anyone in Washington will tell you of similar stories involving not only their own towns but those picture-postcard neighborhoods of independent coffee shops and trim, shake-sided homes where a soupy fog now rolls in daily from the direction of the local doobie store.  Not even our state-of-the-art downtown ballpark is immune.  To approach Safeco Field, home of the Seattle Mariners, from the south, you navigate a minefield of potholed, single-track road, hemmed in by weeds and brambles, and offering asylum to huge, cherry-eyed rats.  The only landmark before the stadium itself is a soaring 50-foot-high illuminated sign bearing the legend “DOCKSIDE CANNABIS! MARIJUANA FOR EVERYONE 21+! RIGHT HERE!” below which children pass by, wheezing and choking on their way to the game.  This is how we enjoy America’s pastime in my town.

When I went down to investigate the retail marijuana business in my own south-Seattle neighborhood, I found I was somewhat spoiled for choice.  I eventually narrowed the search down to four outlets that sit side by side in a single suburban block: The World of Weed (or “WOW”), Clutch Cannabis, Kush Co., and Puff Puff Pass, the last of which isn’t to be confused for the drivers-ed school a few doors up the hill.  A small, late-night grocery store with bars over its windows completes the somber little ghetto.  There used to be one of those reassuringly old-fashioned blue U.S. mailboxes there, too, but a marijuana customer plowed into it in his car.  A female mannequin stands sentinel at one end of the street, mechanically waving a “WOW” advertisement, sometimes extolling the virtues of a “Happy Hour” within, with large, pantomimic gestures, while a harsh odor, bitter and gaseous, fills the air.

It was dark and cool inside, and little chunks of weed were laid out in glass display cases much like fossils in a natural-history museum.  In the “Flowers” section I found I could get everything from “Ace OG” at $16 per gram down to the priced-to-move “Night Nurse” at $8, with options like “Strawberry Mango Haze” and “Guerilla Glue” in between.  In the “Concentrates” area, my eye traveled to the “F***ing Incredible Tanker” and the “Cannatonic [sic] Wax” products each available at $34 per gram, although for the really good stuff you apparently needed to consider the merits of “Live Resin Kandy Kush” at around a hundred bucks a pop.  It seemed like a quiet, oddly sterile place, although on my way out I fell into conversation with a fellow customer, a man in his 30’s with several bits of metal puncturing his skin, who told me his name was Dan.  He had the stale pot reek characteristic of so many Seattle residents.  We would all be better people if we smoked more marijuana, Dan informed me.  Our minds would become lucid, clear, and precise, and our subconscious selves would be cleansed of any societal guilt.  Wherever we looked we would see only truth.  Then we would realize our purpose in being on earth.  I looked at Dan’s flabby, self-lacerated face.  If he’d cracked the meaning of life, perhaps being ignorant wasn’t such a bad thing, I reflected.  Dan then hugged me, forcing me to hold my breath as he did so, and asked if I wanted to party with him and some of his friends.  He said they were soliciting donations for the Clinton campaign, and I said that sooner or later we were sure to meet again, but just then I had to get back to my family.  I left him standing there beside the waving mannequin and drove on to the supermarket to restock my fridge.