Andrew Struthers takes readers on a long, strange—and fun—trip through marijuana and human culture.
MANY WRITERS AGREE that stories are found in the strangest places. Like experiencing cosmological visions while bobbing at the bottom of a Tofino hot tub, stoned to the gills on cannabis-infused chocolate cake—although, sans actual gills, breathing through a length of rubber hose that once connected a heater to a propane tank. It’s from here that writer and filmmaker Andrew Struthers tells much of his tale in his new two-sided non-fiction book The Sacred Herb/The Devil’s Weed (New Star Books, launching in April).
The subject is timely. In downtown Victoria, you can barely walk a block without passing a pot shop. Since the federal government declared its intent to legalize marijuana, cannabis dispensaries have sprouted like, well, weeds. Even though many aim to serve customers for medical reasons, dispensaries currently occupy a legal grey area, and different municipalities take different approaches. Esquimalt won’t license dispensaries, and one that tried to open in Langford was shut down after just a day. Clearly, the cannabis controversy persists, and Struthers—the author of three previous books and contributor to publications including The Tyee and Monday Magazine—saw an opportunity to break into the conversation.
But the book isn’t what you might expect. This is no stoner puff piece or simplistic “marijuana good/marijuana bad” debate. In fact, the book’s flip-side structure highlights the incomplete understanding that comes from such cut-and-dried dualistic thinking.
Instead, Struthers represents two ways of accessing the story of pot—or, really, any story you might engage with. For Struthers is less interested in what there is to know than he is in how we know it. Take his tale from the tub. He writes that he “embarked upon that inward voyage Joseph Campbell would call the hero’s journey, although I ate the cake by accident, so to be honest this trip is what my friend Olaf would call a total fuck-up.” It’s all about how you interpret the experience, how meaning is made in the mind.
Anyone who’s read Struthers’ 2014 Victorian travelogue-style Around the World on Minimum Wage will know he’s no stranger to bizarre circumstances. Now living in Victoria, he was born in Scotland but moved to Holland when he was three; to Uganda (under Obote and his right-hand-man Idi Amin) until he was seven; then back to his Scottish homeland as a refugee (where Struthers was beaten up for having an English accent); and finally to Prince George when he was 13. Before he’d ever smoked pot on his last day of high school in 1978, Struthers had already been on a long, strange trip through human culture.
At his Chinatown studio—a dreamworld of film props he’s collected and created, like his mind turned inside out onto the shelves—Struthers recalls events like seeing a man getting stoned (not the smoking kind) for shoplifting in Uganda. Part of his early formative questioning therefore was: How do you make sense of the world when you grow up in a sea of contradictions? He also describes discovering in Uganda the disconnect between what you hear on the news and what you know from family experience—the idea that there are very different sets of stories.
The book’s format reflects that fascination with different modes of knowing. The Sacred Herb side, structured as a series of questions and answers, represents the perspective of the rational, with data from scientific studies, archaeological finds, and neuroscience alongside paeans to teenage camaraderie, the highs of toker friendship, and creative living. But to make the point that this is just one, incomplete way of approaching the world, Struthers uses deliberately selective studies, seemingly contradictory data, and the dryness of terminology that turns most of us right off. Like when he discusses how “the neurotransmitter Anandamide…is perfectly shaped to fit into a neuroreceptor slot called CB1. Together, Anandamide and CB1 form the so-called endocanabinoid system.” But he stops himself, adding: “The problem with all of this is that when you saw the word ‘neurotransmitter’ your eyes glazed over. I felt it happen.” Trying to reach people with clumsy science jargon, he laments, “is like wearing clogs to a discotheque.” As he puts it to me: “You can understand that way, but you can’t be that way.”
The Devil’s Weed side, structured around the seasons, is a weave of human stories, tales of personal experience that lead, sometimes improbably and sometimes naturally, one into the other—anecdotes of misadventure that express misgivings and dangers, not a-la “reefer madness” hysteria but in terms of real consequences for real people’s lives.
Implicit is the fact that being only this way (in a world of prohibition, particularly) might well get you killed. Like the guy who “finds a bag of bud under his couch with yellow spores on the leaves like tiny buttercups,” and with optimism of the will but neglect of the intellect bakes it into muffins, eats them and “recoils like a rattlesnake bit him. His throat swells bullfrog-style and he spends the next hour dry-heaving into a Coke can wondering if this is how Rasputin felt when he was poisoned.”
The two sides offer a kind of balance. Struthers, who studied astrophysics at UVic, says: “I see the world through connections,” noting that he had to go deep to find what unites us after the fractured experiences of his youth. Connectivity is one of the book’s prevalent themes, and he sees out-of-the-box, divergent and lateralized thinking as some of pot’s greatest gifts, hammering hierarchies into networks and dissolving dualities, even in the seeming isolation at the bottom of the hot tub: “down here in the roaring dark everything is connected to everything else in an endless ouroborean ring.”
But part of his point is that you don’t really need pot to get there. Pot can grease the wheels, but the real vehicle is your own mind. As a single dad to a daughter, often having to be both mom and dad, he feels like he got to travel between worlds, and he believes the biggest block people face to growth, openness and change is their own thinking. “People mistake the story of their lives for reality,” he tells me. “People cling to their rules of traffic as if they’re the laws of physics.”
That’s partly why he uses humour, because when you laugh, you lose what he calls “headlock,” and so he delights in disrupting expectations. Like in his well-known Spiders on Drugs video—currently with over 41 million YouTube views—which plays on the old Hinterland Who’s Who series, or in his illustrated account of Clayoquot protests, The Green Shadow (originally serialized in the Georgia Straight), which won a National Magazine Award for Humour in 1995. In this book, he again sneaks the serious in on you. For example, in answer to the Sacred Herbside question, “Will doobies derail my perfect life plan?” Struthers answers: “Hopefully.”
With his analytical apparatus constantly dialled up to 11, Struthers builds the book with cerebral playfulness. His microlevel referencing and riffing on books, movies or lines from songs and poetry is a reflection of what the book is doing as a whole—flipping suppositions, inverting expectations, giving your skull a little shake so that things come a little unstuck and can settle back in a slightly new way, as in the Sartre-ian inversion “Help is other people” or his twist on Nietzsche: “What does not kill me makes me stranger.”
While the topic here is marijuana—both revered as sacrament and reviled as scourge—the real story is about how we construct and receive stories themselves. From this, we can extrapolate out to how every academic report, scientific study, news article, presidential order or personal anecdote is an opportunity to expand our thinking a little bit sideways. Is there a difference between what you’ll read about pot and what you’ll learn? Hopefully.
Writer, editor and musician Amy Reiswig has smoked marijuana a grand total of five times in her life since moving to BC but has worked at expanding her thinking a lot more often.