Tuesday, April 15, 2014

"Benzos" and Opiates: The Deadly Combination That Killed Philip Seymour Hoffman

NPR's "All Things Considered" had an extensive story tonight about benzodiazepines, which are commonly prescribed for anxiety, and opioid drugs, which have been increasingly "co-prescribed" with "benzos" like Valium in the last several years. According to the story, 30% of opioid-related deaths also involve benzos, which contribute to the slowing of breathing that can kill heroin users.

The story was triggered by the news that the untimely and tragic death of Philip Seymour Hoffman was the result of just such a combination.

I recently re-viewed Hoffman in Almost Famous, in a key role as famed rock journalist Lester Bangs that he nailed with only an afternoon's preparation. The filmmaker has said he had no match, and it seems the world agreed. He's also great in The Talented Mr. Ripley, Charlie Wilson's War, and Boogie Nights (as well as, of course, Capote).

I was moved by the outpouring of grief for Hoffman after his death, and wonder if he knew while he was living how much he was appreciated. I really choked up when I read this piece in Elle about a woman who not-so-secretly wanted to marry him. I knew what she meant: Hoffman was a stoner girl's dream, projecting a kind of easy-going warmth and humility that are rarely seen in combination with the intelligence and prowess he possessed. Yeah, he was teddy-bear chubby and not-traditionally handsome, but, as one reviewer put it, "We can easily imagine Hoffman as an an amiably stoned anything."

The only film he directed, Jack Goes Boating (pictured), was described (in play form) by the New York Times as "a gentle portrait of pothead losers in love."

"You're likely to leave the theatre with a contact high from the ripe pleasure that Mr. Hoffman and his castmates derive from portraying everyday eccentrics," wrote the newspaper's Ben Brantley, adding, "Most particularly, though, 'Jack' is about its title character’s pursuit of perfection, of talismanic, Zen-like moments to hold against life’s chaos."

The play featured a "stoned dinner party from hell" and "the most eloquent sex scene on any stage in New York." Variety reported, "Assuming the movie follows the play, Hoffman will sport blonde dreadlocks and spend a lot of time smoking a bong and pretending to be a Rastafarian."

Hoffman also attended the LA Shadow Convention, which had a strong anti-drug-war component, while filming Last Party 2000, a documentary he made about the 2000 presidential election.

NFLer Ricky Williams, a former Paxil spokesperson who used marijuana for his Social Anxiety Disorder, pronounced it "10 times more helpful than Paxil" as a confidence builder. Paxil is an SSRI (Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitor, meaning it mimics a low dose of LSD). 

Meanwhile, California NORML is receiving another spate of desperate calls from patients whose doctors are heartlessly threatening to deny them their opioid pain medications because they use medical marijuana. This despite the fact that the US Veterans Administration announced in 2010 it would allow medical marijuana use by patients on opioid therapy. A recent study of 21 individuals with chronic pain concluded that “vaporized cannabis augments the analgesic effects of opioids without significantly altering plasma opioid levels. The combination may allow for opioid treatment at lower doses with fewer side effects.”

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Jeepers Peepers, Chrissie Hynde

Chrissie Hynde's new video "Dark Sunglasses" has a whole lotta exhaling going on. She seems to be making a statement along the lines of her song "Legalise Me" -- about people smoking behind some kind of mask? "You can still get high," she sings as a girl who's just painted a pink wall exhales behind her Foster Grants.

Originally from Akron, Ohio, Pretenders founder and  VIP Hynde has lived in England for decades and had a child with the Kinks' Ray Davies. A prominent PETA activist, she has her own US postage stamp. And, oh yeah, she still rocks. Check it out.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

My Interview with Courtney Love about Kurt Cobain

In January 2004 I got an email from a crew member at Kansas City's 965thebuzz.com telling me that Courtney Love, who hosted a show at the station, wanted to interview me on air about my Very Important Potheads website.

I agreed (of course!) and got up at 7 AM to appear by phone on the morning drive-time show, answering "no" to her party-boy cohosts' questions about whether or not I'd waked and baked (too early for me). Love demanded to know why she wasn't represented on the site. "I'm Courtney Love, damnit!" was the compelling reason she gave. (It was hard to argue with that.) I found myself calling her "girl" or "sister" and she asked me how old I was: it seemed she needed connection with an older female in her life. We left the jocks behind and started chatting, woman to woman.

Kurt Cobain's diaries had recently been published in Rolling Stone leading up to the 10th anniversary of his death, and I asked Love about what I'd read there: that Cobain twice went back to using heroin to quell the severe stomach pain he suffered from. Love said, "Yes, that was true and I used to say, 'Kurt let's just smoke instead.'" Apparently Cobain was one of the millions of Americans undermedicated for pain, and he turned to street drugs for relief. He even used Strawberry Quick to coat his stomach on the road.

We now know that cannabis can be helpful during withdrawal from opiate addiction, and that it works synergistically with opiates to alleviate pain and the tolerance that builds up over time, rendering prescription opiates less useful. A state-sponsored study in California found that even low-dose, vaporized cannabis is helpful with intractable neuropathic pain. Nonetheless, California NORML still hears regularly from patients whose doctors threaten to take off their pain medications because they're using medical marijuana.

We may never understand the psychic and physical pain that lead Cobain to end his life, or come to grips with what drives us to use drugs. But on a recent trip to LA I saw this poster of Cobain in a cannabis club. Twenty years after his death, Kurt's music, and his image, lives on.

Gertrude Rings Her Bell

One hundred years ago, in 1914, Gertrude Bell wrote a letter recounting this legend she heard during her travels in Arab lands: "There were three men, one drank arak [a distilled alcoholic drink], the other wine, and the third hashish. And when they rose to go out of the house they looked at the door. And the Father of arak said, 'It is great as the door of a khan, we can never open it.' The Father of wine said, 'It is open and the flood of a river is flowing through, we cannot pass.' But the Father of hashish said, 'Then we must climb the wall. And he climbed the wall and dropped into the street.'"

Pictured here with Winston Churchill on her right and T.E. Lawrence (a.k.a. "Lawrence of Arabia") on her left, Bell was a mountaineer and a self-styled diplomat, later a spy, who was instrumental in drawing the current borders of Iraq and establishing the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. The 1997 film The English Patient makes a reference to a Bell map (incorrectly identifying her as a man).

A spirited and brilliant child whose grandfather was a railroad magnate, Bell earned a college degree in history with honors in only two years and became a serious student of Arabic. She fell in love with a young officer who read her Hafiz, the Sufi poet, but her parents refused to allow them to marry. She never married, but she did publish a translation of Hafiz.

Coached by an uncle who was the British Minister in Tehran, Bell took many adventurous quests through Arabia, meeting sheiks who treated her like a visiting queen. Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations by Georgina Howell (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006) says of Bell, "Her Arabic had become good enough for her to discuss desert politics with notables she met long the way. She began to take her turn with the narghileh that was passed around as they talked, the bubble-pipe in which tobacco, marijuana, or opium was smoked. She did not enjoy it at first, as she was at pains to tell her parents, but gradually acquired the habit."

Bell was not the only Englishwoman to travel in the Orient at the time. Mary Eliza Rogers, who travelled with her diplomat brother in Palestine and Syria, wrote  in Domestic Life in Palestine of taking a meal at a harem, after which chibouques and narghiles were brought out: "After Helweh had smoked for a few minutes, she inclined her head gracefully, placed one hand on her bosom, touched her forehead with the pliant tube, and then handed it to the lady sitting next to her, who happened to be the second wife of her own husband, Saleh Bek. Thus it was transferred from one smoker to another, even to the handmaidens, with the words, 'May it give you pleasure.' This politeness and ceremony is strictly observed among the Moslems even between the nearest relations. The prescribed forms of greeting in habitual use, appear to me to have the effect of keeping comparative peace and harmony in the harims." (Pictured: Eugene DelacroixWomen of Algiers)

In Women's Orients: English Women and the Middle East, Billie Melman writes, "In Victorian fiction only really dissolute women smoke. Yet in harem literature smoking is domesticated and feminised. Indeed quite a few travellers took to smoking..." including Rogers, Elisabeth Finn, Lady Lucy Stanhope and Isabel Burton (wife of VIP Richard Francis Burton). Isabella Bird-Bishop and Harriet Martineau, "those two paragons of propriety, became quite addicted to the chibouque."

Later in life, Bell wrote, "Some day I hope the East will be strong again and develop its own civilization, not imitate ours, and then perhaps it will teach us a few things we once learnt from it and have now forgotten, to our great loss." Facing old age with little income, and possibly cancer, Bell died of an overdose of diallylbarbituric acid (aka allobarbital or Dial) two days before her fifty-eighth birthday.

In 2013, it was announced that Angelia Jolie was slated to portray Bell in a biopic directed by Ridley Scott.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Maud Gonne: Mystic, Revolutionary, Hashish-Taker

"I had never thought to see in a living woman so great beauty. It belonged to famous pictures, to some legendary past," is how William Butler Yeats described the young Maud Gonne (1866-1953). Yeats proposed marriage several times to Gonne, and the two remained lifelong friends and compatriates in the Irish nationalist cause despite her refusals.

A young sophisticate who attracted the attention of the Prince of Wales at her coming-out party (pictured) and traveled throughout Europe. Shortly afterwards Gonne had her political awakening, and schooled herself in Irish history and Gaelic when she "witnessed with her own eyes, the brutal evictions, the unjust imprisonment of some of her friends" in Ireland under English rule. After her father died when she was 20, the statuesque (six-foot-tall) beauty tried her hand as an actress to earn a living until she discovered she was a wealthy heiress.

She traveled to Constantinople where she wished to experience the "real life of the East," but found it closed to her as a women. In France, "she developed an oratorical style remarkable even in a country famous for its rhetoric," wrote Nancy Cardozo in Lucky Eyes and a High Heart, The Life of Maud Gonne. "She wrung tears from cynical politicians and sous from the pockets of students who adopted the eloquent young beauty and carried her off to speak to Republican and Catholic societies in the provinces...A thousand people gave her a standing ovation in Bordeaux." Over 2000 articles were published about her speeches in 1892 in France alone.

"What a singular scene," Yeats wrote that year. "This young girl of twenty-five addressing that audience of politicians, and moving them more than all their famous speakers although she spoke in a language not her own." Yeats compared her to Oscar Wilde's prodigious mother known as Speranza.

Yeats took Gonne to a meeting of the Theosophical Society and introduced her to Madame Blavatsky, near the end of her life. Together Gonne and Yeats took hashish in Paris in 1894 in "an attempt to make themselves telepathic"; later they experimented with mescal given to Yeats by Havelock Ellis.

"I have to thank you for the dream drug which I have not tried as yet being very busy & having need of all my energy & activity for the moment but I mean to try it soon," Gonne wrote Yeats in April or May 1987. She was probably referring to hashish, or mescal.

Gonne's image was used in an ad for Vin Mariani, the coca-laced wine that had many famous enthusiasts. She said of it, "Your coca-wine by fortifying my voice will allow me make my beloved country better known." She used chloroform for insomnia, and the story goes that, substituting cannabis for her insomnia instead, had awoken one night to find herself apparently translated to the bedside of her sister Kathleen.

At one point, Gonne had a vision of she and Yeats in a past life "when they were brother and sister, sold into slavery in the Arabian desert and traveling together across endless sands." Having lost a child, Maud hoped her son might be reincarnated and asked Yeat's friend, the painter known as AE, how soon after its death a child might be reborn. Using cabalistic rituals Yeats had learned in the Golden Dawn, Maud "had a vivid encounter. She had been a priestess in ancient Egypt and had given false oracles for money under the influence of a priest who was her lover...AE received a similar vision of her in Egypt....Maud did not question her own clairvoyance."

Gonne raised two children and her "concern for her children and pleasure in sharing her love of children with her women friends is very evident in all her correspondence," wrote her biographer Margaret Ward.

On Easter 1900, Gonne founded the Daughters of Ireland, a revolutionary women's society for Irish nationalist women who, like herself, were considered unwelcome in male-dominated societies. In 1918, after the Irish Free State was established and Yeats named a Senator and a Nobel laureate, Gonne was arrested in Dublin and imprisoned in England for six months. "The day before her arrest she wrote to say that if I did not denounce the Government she renounced my society for ever," wrote Yeats. Gonne participated in a hunger strike while incarcerated, and used her experiences to further publicize the scandalous prison conditions.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Streisand Smoked With Sellers, But Not with Seth

On Wednesday's Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen, Seth Rogen was praised for being brave enough to come out of the closet as a pot smoker, and was asked about others he'd smoked with: James Franco (no); Paul Rudd and Sarah Silverman (yes, a lot). Rogen has smoked with Snoop, but hasn't smoked weed with Willie. (Cohen, however, said that he had.)

The most surprising answer came perhaps when Rogen was asked if he'd smoked with Barbra Streisand, who played his mother in 2012's The Guilt Trip.

"No, but we talked about it a lot," Rogen said, adding, "She smoked weed with Peter Sellers though. That's the craziest shit ever!"

It's rather too bad Rogen and Streisand didn't toke up, on or off screen, in their "for airplanes only" movie, in which Streisand's character drinks when she needs to blow off steam, instead of using something more interesting (and less harmful, according to our President).

Barbra, The Way She Is by Christopher Anderson (2006) recounts how while playing Vegas in 1970, Streisand voiced jealousy of Dean Martin and the Rat Packers who drank onstage. Announcing her preferred method of relaxation was grass, as Streisand recounted to Rolling Stone in 1971:

I’d take out a joint and light it. First, just faking it. Then I started lighting live joints, passing them around to the band, you know. I was great, it relieved all my tensions. And I ended up with the greatest supply of grass ever. Other acts up and down the Strip heard about what I was doing – Little Anthony and the Imperials, people like that – and started sending me the best dope in the world. I never ran out.

Anderson's book also says Streisand's role in The Way We Were was dependent on her appearing at a McGovern rally organized by Warren Beatty on April 15, 1972 at the LA Forum (pictured). According to David Crosby's book, Stand and Be Counted, after a second standing ovation at the McGovern event, Barbra stopped to talk to the crowd, reprising her Vegas act.

Speaking of her stage fright, she said, "I was even more scared until I spoke to friends of mine, also performers you know, and they were telling me. . . that in order to conquer their fear. . . some of them drink. But I really hate the taste of liquor so I can't do that. Some of them take pills, but I can't even take aspirin." At that moment she took an exaggerated drag of what appeared to be a joint. After huge laugher and applause, she made a confused face and asked, "It's still illegal?" Taking another toke she spoke through clenched teeth (as though holding the smoke in) she said, "We should face our problems head on."

She then sang, "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever" (with the trippy lyric, "You'll feel part of every mountain, sea and shore. You can hear, from far and near, a world you've never heard before.") She received a total of six standing ovations.

Streisand's current husband, James Brolin, played a pivotal role as an outgoing drug "czar" in the anti-drug-war movie Traffic (2000). Her first husband, Elliot Gould, said in 1974, "I have no problem with drugs." Not even marijuana? he was asked. "No one has a problem with marijuana," he replied. The actor told Playboy in 1970 (while married to Streisand), "I'm able to switch into certain inner places with marijuana. I've also taken a couple of trips that have been incredible." Gould has appeared in the pot-friendly "Oceans 420" movies.

UPDATE 3/20: Streisand has published a HuffPo piece on carbon farming as a solution for climate change.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Return of Ishtar the Healer on 4/20

Many are posting around the news that Easter falls on 4/20 this year, with photos of goofy bunny rabbits smoking joints, an abomination even worse than St. Patrick's day being reduced to a day to chug green beer and get sick, or violent.

The joining of these two high holy days -- 4/20 and Easter Sunday -- has much greater significance.

Easter, the celebration of Jesus's resurrection, is the most sacred day of the Christian year. In ancient Babylon, around the spring solstice, people celebrated the resurrection of their god Tammuz, who was brought back from the underworld by his mother/wife Ishtar (pronounced “Easter” in most Semitic dialects). Flowers, painted eggs, and rabbits were the symbols of the holiday then, as now.

"In ancient Sumaria, Ishtar was held in high esteem as a heavenly monarch," writes Jeanne Achterberg in Woman as Healer. "Her temples have been found at virtually every level of excavation." The Ishtar Gate to the inner city of Babylon was considered one of the ancient wonders of the world.

Also called the Queen of Heaven, Ishtar was a compassionate, healing deity. A song to her follows:

Where you cast your glance, the dead awaken, the sick arise;
The bewildered, beholding yor face, find the right way.
I appear to you, miserable and distraught,
Tortured by pain, your servant,
Be merciful and hear my prayer.

A clay pot likely used for distillation of plant essences into medicines was found at a Sumerian grave site circa 5500 BC. At least until the Semitic invasions circa 2600 BC, "women were allowed to practice healing with little or no restriction. Female occupations included doctor, scribe, barber, and cook."  After 1000 BC women were excluded from formal education and by 700 BD, neither scribe nor doctor were listed as women's occupations, but rather several types of entertainer, midwife, nurse, sorceress, wet nurse, and two kinds of prostitute.

As the land of Sumer became a perpetual battlefield, Ishtar became the goddess of war and destiny, "and slowly, insidiously, there crept in more praises for her sexuality, and fewer for her healing nature," writes Actenberg. "As Ishtar was seen as more sexual and promiscuous, the holy women were transformed into harlots and associated with decadence and orgies, devoid of any holy significance."

In mankind's first written story The Epic of Gilgamesh (circa 2000 BC),  the cruel king Gilgamesh calls Ishtar "a predatory and promiscuous woman, and rebukes her advances" just before taking off with his buddy Enkidu to chop down the great cedar forest. Even Spark notes tells us, "Gilgamesh’s repudiation of Ishtar, some scholars say, signifies a rejection of goddess worship in favor of patriarchy in the ancient world." 

In the bible, Ishtar is called Ashtoreth, the supreme goddess of Caanan and the female counterpart of the gods called Baal or Bel. "The immoral rites with which the worship of Ishtar in Babylonia was accompanied were transferred to Canaan and formed part of the idolatrous practices which the Israelites were called upon to extirpate," says BibleStudyTools.com. Among those pagan, idolatrous practices was the burning of incense, thought to be cannabis (caneh bosm, meaning sweet or good cane, mistranslated as "calamus" in the bible).

Throughout the Old Testament, prophet after prophet warns the children of Israel that God will bring misery upon them unless they cease to worship the Baal/Bel and Ashtoreth, to whom “burnt offerings” were made. In Jeremiah 44, the women tell him they will continue to secretly burn incense to the Queen of Heaven. One who did so was King Ahab's wife Jezebel (whose name meant "worshipper of Bel" but still means "harlot" today).

Some have tried to debunk the Ishtar/Easter connection, saying the holiday is named after the German goddess Ostara (pictured), "the divinity of the radiant dawn" (Grimm), doubtlessly a reincarnation of Ishtar, who the Babylonians called "the morning star" and "the perfect light."

Ladies, and gentlemen: it's time to resurrect Ishtar, and all that our healing goddess stood for.

ADDENDUM 3/17/14: This year just keeps getting holier. Yesterday I attended a Purim celebration, in honor of the Jewish heroine Esther, who delivered her people from a Persian king with her beauty and a really great wardrobe. According to Wikipedia, Esther's name may be derived from Ishtar: "The Book of Daniel provides accounts of Jews in exile being assigned names relating to Babylonian gods and "Mordecai" [Esther's uncle] is understood to mean servant of Marduk, a Babylonian god." Purim, it turns out, is a big party day in the Jewish calendar, with food, drinks, masks and merriment.

And today I learn of another coincidence: St. Patrick's Day and India's "High Holiday," Holi.