Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Drinking in America, From the Pilgrims to Today


It grabbed me from the first line: "The pilgrims landed the Mayflower at Cape Cod, Massachusetts, on a cold November day in 1620 because they were running out of beer." Thus begins the new book by Susan Cheever, Drinking in America: Our Secret History.

Cheever, the daughter of novelist (and drinker) John Cheever, brings a brisk, novelistic style and fresh attitude to her histories, weaving fascinating, little-known tidbits into interesting, readable volumes like American Bloomsbury and Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography.

Here again, as in My Name is Bill (about Bill Wilson, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous), Cheever tackles Americans' love of alcohol. She makes clear at the outset that our ancestors relied heavily on beer due to unhealthy water found on sea voyages and elsewhere. Beer was served at the first Thanksgiving table, since "the Pilgrims' first barley crop had born fermentable fruit." By 1635, Plymouth had begun granting licenses to make and sell liquor, and public drunkenness had become unlawful. Puritain elder Increase Mather explained the dichotomy this way, "Drink is in itself a good Creature of God, and to be received with thankfulness, but the abuse of drink is from Satan."

It's no mystery why voters want a president with whom they can enjoy a beer. George Washington, Cheever writes, lost his first election for the Virginia Assembly in 1755, but two years later "he delivered 144 gallons of rum, punch, cider, and wine to the polling places distributed by election volunteers who urged the voters to drink up.... Most elections featured vats and barrels of free liquor as well as the candidate in hand to drink along with his constituency." Two of Abigail and John Adams's sons and two of their grandsons died of alcoholism and Jefferson wrote that he wished Americans would stick with beer and eschew whiskey "that now kills one third of our citizens and ruins their families." Liquor was given to slaves to help keep them docile. 

"The American Revolution was instigated and carried on with energy provided by rum made from Caribbean molasses and with Caribbean distilling techniques," Cheever continues in a subsequent chapter.  Of the revolt against Washington's drive to enforce a tax on home-brewed whiskey, she adds, "The eighteenth century in America, beginning with the Whiskey Rebellion, was all about whiskey."

In a chapter titled, "Johnny Appleseed, The American Dionysius," Cheever picks up on Michael Pollan's observation that the beloved seed-sower was popular because he was bringing the possibility of alcoholic hard cider, not apples for eating, to the prairies. (As well as wine grapes, god-of-excess Dionysius was the patron of cultivated trees and the discoverer of the apple.)

To hint at motivations and explain events throughout the tale, Cheever adds her own insights, such as, "Alcoholics are inspired liars, and soon enough in an alcoholic family no one knows exactly what is true and what is not true." She delves into the stories of famous prohibitionists like P.T. Barnum and Walt Whitman, and her chapter on Ulysses S. Grant and the civil war brings the reader up to the present state of affairs concerning alcohol and armies. The failure of prohibition, and the effects of alcohol on Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon are touched on, as is the news (to me) that the Secret Service agents guarding JFK the day he died were hungover from an alcoholic binge the night before.

Cheever's tone isn't moralistic, and she acknowledges throughout the positive effects alcohol may had had on our history, such as inspiring writers and generals. She ends the book with a series of tantalizing "what ifs" had teetotalers had their way instead of drinkers.

It's important that marijuana reformers understand how deep the connection to alcohol runs in our country, and Drinking in America is, in that regard and many others, an illuminating and enjoyable read.


Monday, October 19, 2015

Girls on Ganga in "Grandma's Boy"

Netflix has done it again:
found a little-known film with a surprising amount of pot smoking in it.
This one is 2006's Grandma's Boy starring Linda Cardellini of Freaks and Geeks,
the short-lived but acclaimed TV series
that was NBC's more thoughtful answer to  That 70's Show.

In Grandma's Boy, Cardellini plays Samantha, a project manager at a video game company dealing with a bunch of geeky guys, including a pothead game tester named Alex who's living with his grandmother (Doris Roberts from Everybody Loves Raymond). Significantly, Alex isn't apologetic about his pot use. He admits he wasn't much of an accountant, but he shreds at his new job, especially after smoking a phattie. Samantha turns out to be a smoker herself, and she's soon the life of the party.

Most surprising (and delightful), Alex's grandma and her friends have their fun when they accidentally drink some tea made with his stash. Shirley Jones, in her dancingest role since Pepe (1960), gets in on the fun and makes out with a grateful geek. (Note the interesting "flower vase" in the shot at right.)

The film, directed by Nicholaus Goossen (of Trevor Moore's "High in Church") makes it until the final scene without a single negative reference, and then it's not too bad. No one has to quit smoking pot to get the girl, because the women are all cool too. Too bad Roberts couldn't smoke on Raymond because Peter Boyle, who played her husband, was a pot smoker (and was the best man at John Lennon and Yoko Ono's wedding).

Freaks and Geeks is also on Netflix. The series that launched Seth Rogen and James Franco put out mixed messages on pot, no doubt under the heavy hand of the censors. Cardellini's character Lindsay, a smart girl looking to be bad, tries smoking in her bedroom and gets a look of self awareness on her face for an instant, but just then her Dad knocks on the door and sends her babysitting, and she gets paranoid. In the season finale, her guidance counselor (an old hippie radical from Berkeley) turns her on to the Grateful Dead and she has to choose between a summer filled with academics or fun.

Cardellini was also seen as Velma in the Scooby Doo movie, in Brokeback Mountain, and recently as Don Draper's neighbor/lover in Mad Men. She's in the new Avenger's movie, too.

Busy Phillips, who played Kim in Freaks and Geeks, appeared on the wine-soaked ABC/TBS series Cougar Town. Its finale earlier this year was titled "Mary Jane's Last Dance," wherein everyone says "What?" to weed when Chick (for Chico?) brings it up. 





Monday, October 12, 2015

The Day John Denver Died

Annie and John Denver
John Denver: Country Boy,” a documentary produced by BBC in 2013 to commemorate Denver's 70th birthday, aired on PBS earlier this year and is the being promoted on Netflix in time for the anniversary of the singer's death today. Claiming to tell the full story, the film nonetheless skips over Denver's admission of pot smoking and his use of psychedelics.

The film points out that Denver, who projected a wholesome innocence, was known for his catchphrase “Far Out.” Early footage of him singing an anti-Ku Klux Klan song with the Chad Mitchell Trio reveals his politicization, and he’s also shown with Peter, Paul and Mary singing his song, “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” a tune that became an anthem for US boys flying off to Vietnam. The clip above tells the story of his first hit, "Country Roads." 

Film of Denver on Jacques Cousteau’s boat demonstrates his support of Cousteau, through proceeds of his song “Calipso.” Denver was appointed by Jimmy Carter to work on hunger in Africa, akin to the moment God chose him to spread his word in the movie “Oh, God!” 

The filmmaker interviewed Denver’s first wife Annie, she of the wedding favorite “Annie’s Song.” In the film, both she and John talk about how the song was written, when John took to the ski slopes near their Aspen home after the couple had a fight. John’s description made me wonder whether he’d had a puff to enhance his physical activity on that day, since he says, "Suddenly I was hypersensitive to how beautiful every thing was." His thoughts lead to the first line, “You fill up my senses.”  

John’s writing of the song “Rocky Mountain High,” now an official Colorado state song, is also covered. But the origin of the lyric, “And they say that he got crazy once and he tried to touch the sun,” about an LSD trip he took, is omitted. Denver wrote in his autobiography Take Me Home that the song wasn’t just about tripping, saying, “It was also about exhilaration, freedom and morality.”

The only nod to Denver’s marijuana smoking comes at the end, when his lyric “while all my friends and my old lady sit and pass a pipe around” from the song from “Poems, Prayers, and Promises” is heard.

Later Denver, a victim of his own ambition/need for acceptance whose music was excoriated by rock critics, succumbed to drinking and had several drunk driving arrests. He was only 53 when his plane plunged into the Pacific Ocean near Monterey, CA on October 12, 1977.

"Sure he was a hippie, but he was one the whole family could enjoy," read his obituary in the Guardian.

Read more about John Denver.

 See a clip of the film:



Taffy Nivert, co-author of "Country Road," is shown here with Denver singing VIP Merle Haggard's  "Okie from Muskogee" with Denver including a verse that hammers home the point that it's a parody song.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Breast Cancer and Cannabinoids

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an event sponsored by the manufacturer of Tamoxifen that leads to strange sights like NFL teams playing in bright pink shoes, gloves, or helmets (shown).

Just in time for the Big Pink, the National Cancer Institute, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has finally updated its website to admit that cannabinoids have anti-tumor effects in pre-clinical studies.

The page says:

Studies in mice and rats have shown that cannabinoids may inhibit tumor growth by causing cell death, blocking cell growth, and blocking the development of blood vessels needed by tumors to grow. Laboratory and animal studies have shown that cannabinoids may be able to kill cancer cells while protecting normal cells.

A laboratory study of delta-9-THC in hepatocellular carcinoma (liver cancer) cells showed that it damaged or killed the cancer cells. The same study of delta-9-THC in mouse models of liver cancer showed that it had antitumor effects. Delta-9-THC has been shown to cause these effects by acting on molecules that may also be found in non-small cell lung cancer cells and breast cancer cells.

A laboratory study of cannabidiol (CBD) in estrogen receptor positive and estrogen receptor negative breast cancer cells showed that it caused cancer cell death while having little effect on normal breast cells. Studies in mouse models of metastatic breast cancer showed that cannabinoids may lessen the growth, number, and spread of tumors.

A laboratory study of cannabidiol (CBD) in human glioma cells showed that when given along with chemotherapy, CBD may make chemotherapy more effective and increase cancer cell death without harming normal cells. Studies in mouse models of cancer showed that CBD together with delta-9-THC may make chemotherapy such as temozolomide more effective.

Many animal studies have shown that delta-9-THC and other cannabinoids stimulate appetite and can increase food intake.

Also, NORML has just updated its Emerging Applications for Cannabis and Cannabinoids booklet, a review of scientific studies, which says, "Preclinical studies demonstrate that cannabinoids and endocannabinoids can also inhibit the proliferation of other various cancer cell lines, including breast carcinoma... and uterus carcinoma," citing sources such as the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

NORML reported in 2011 that the non-psychotropic plant cannabinoid cannabidiol (CBD) "completely prevents" the onset of nerve pain associated with the chemotherapy drug Paclitaxel, which is used to treat breast cancer, according to preclinical data published in the journal Anesthesia and Analgesia.

In an interview that aired on October 16, 2005 on "Dateline NBC," Melissa Etheridge said that she smoked medicinal marijuana to help with the side effects of chemotherapy during her treatment for breast cancer. In October 2007, actress Polly Bergen appeared on Desperate Housewives, peddled pot brownies to her daughter with cancer. But recently, a Florida jury has convicted a man who faces 35 years for growing 15 marijuana plants he says were to help his wife survive breast cancer.

Breast cancer survival rates are, thankfully, very high at early stages, so there is reason to be aware. But like so many things, we tend to go overboard with the emotional pleas and ignore the facts. NCI notes that despite promising preclinical studies (known about since the 1970s), there are still no human studies into cannabinoids and cancer. Awareness of that fact might actually lead to a cure.