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Originally published April 17, 2014 at 9:34 AM | Page modified April 17, 2014 at 3:36 PM

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‘Marijuana Nation’: the long view on pot’s pros and cons

UW emeritus professor Roger Roffman has been studying marijuana for more than four decades. In his new book “Marijuana Nation” he tells what he’s learned. Roffman will discuss his book Thursday April 17 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.


Seattle Times staff reporter

Author appearance

Roger Roffman

The author of “Marijuana Nation” will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 17, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave.; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).

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Book review

As a young Army officer in 1967, Roger Roffman was the first to conduct research on pot use by soldiers in Vietnam.

For Roffman, a University of Washington professor emeritus, that began a career as a marijuana researcher and dependence counselor.

Four decades later, he wanted to chronicle his experience with the cannabis plant. What emerged was not the scholarly analysis Roffman had anticipated, but a memoir of his life as a social worker, scholar, compulsive pot-smoker, activist and reluctant sponsor of Initiative 502, which legalized adult possession of pot in Washington state.

On his return from Vietnam, he takes us into a Berkeley, Calif., house where he got stoned for the first time, while listening to Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” on headphones. Enraptured, Roffman was reminded of a line from a Carl Sagan book: “This shall be deducted from your share in paradise,” he writes in “Marijuana Nation: One Man’s Chronicle of America Getting High: From Vietnam to Legalization” (Pegasus, 352 pp., $27.95).

Roffman came to “appreciate the diversity of marijuana highs” — eventually to his detriment.

As a young professor he found himself getting high most nights. His wife said it interfered with his work and imperiled his tenure at the UW. What’s more, she felt emotionally abandoned. “Your mind goes to a different place,” he recounts his wife saying, “I can’t help think that if you really cared about me, you’d want to be with me.”

Roffman threw his pot into a dumpster. He called his dealer and told him to rebuff any requests he might have for more. The year was 1978. Roffman says he’s abstained ever since.

His frankness and expertise make “Marijuana Nation” different from many books in the ever-growing cannabis catalog. He is convincing about the ways marijuana makes people feel better, from relaxing edgy soldiers, to revealing intricacies of music, to relieving nausea in chemotherapy patients.

Those views make him all the more credible when he writes that pot can be destructive to some who use it. It can lead to abuse and addiction. It can stunt development of young brains. It can contribute to psychosis.

Roffman’s own abstinence did not stop him from being a marijuana activist. Influenced by seeing good soldiers being imprisoned for a few joints, Roffman lobbied to decriminalize pot possession in the 1970s. He became a board member of the pre-eminent pro-pot group, the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

After a long hiatus from activism, Roffman had lunch with ACLU lawyer Alison Holcomb in a downtown sandwich shop in 2011. (She had cheese steak, he had pastrami.) Holcomb asked him to become a sponsor of the legalization measure she was drafting, soon known as Initiative 502.

Roffman felt inclined to decline. On one hand, he believed arresting people for possessing pot was wrong. On the other, Roffman was put off that legalization advocates seemed to dismiss the risks of pot, saying prohibition was the most dangerous thing about marijuana. He worried that legalizing weed would stimulate a steep increase in youth use.

Holcomb’s draft initiative included much of what Roffman had advocated. For the first time, Roffman saw a proposal to legalize pot that acknowledged harms and dedicated significant funds to prevent or alleviate marijuana problems.

But he remained unsure. What if the black market flourished? What if the pot industry started to mimic Big Tobacco?

He realized a leap of faith was required to end another misguided policy. “It’s time,” he concluded. “We need to come home from this war.”

Bob Young: byoung@seattletimes.com



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