With April 2’s Oaksterdam University raid still fresh in collective memory, this year’s 4/20 celebration was more than just a holiday for stoners; it was a “We shall overcome”-style show of solidarity. Like persecuted minority members lighting candles at a vigil, the ganja smokers of America hoisted their doobies high, refusing to be vilified for their love of a plant that promotes giggling, quesadilla appreciation and thoughts of how cool it would be if the moon were triangular.
When local marijuana enthusiast David Bienenstock (davidbienenstock.com) reflects on the demonization of cannabis and its users, there is at least as much amusement in his voice as there is outrage. “I just find the people in this culture to be very interesting,” he states. “I wouldn’t say better than other people at all; I don’t think that is a wise way to see yourself or anybody else. But I can definitively say the idea that this [cannabis] culture is some threat to the American way of life is ridiculous.”
As a self-described “cannabis couple,” Bienenstock and his fiancée Elise McDonough (elisemcdonough.com) are unapologetic fans of the counterculture’s favorite celestial seasoning. But they hardly fit the stereotype of stoner-as-slacker: Along with being the West Coast editor of the nationally distributed pro-pot monthly High Times, Bienenstock is a digital film director and an eloquent speaker who has appeared on CNN, NPR and—of all things—Fox News. McDonough is the production director of said High Times as well as an author and graphic designer who graduated from New York’s School of Visual Arts within the top 10 percent of her class. The partners maintain a home office in Santa Cruz, where they write books, help put together High Times and crank out HIGH TIMES Medical Marijuana (hightimes.com/medmj), a quarterly spin-off publication geared toward medical cannabis patients, providers and growers.
McDonough, 31, and Bienenstock, 36, grew up in Ohio and New Jersey, respectively. Initially meeting in 2002 at the High Times office in New York City, they kept their relationship strictly business-oriented until 2005, when romance budded while they were attending the High Times Cannabis Cup festival in Amsterdam, Holland. The happy couple later returned to Amsterdam for the 2010 Cannabis Cup, at which point Bienenstock proposed to McDonough at the fountain in front of the American Hotel. The pair will hold a formal wedding in Ohio this August as well as a private ceremony in the communal garden of the local collective WAMM (Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana).
WAMM, it turns out, played a crucial part in Bienenstock and McDonough’s decision to move to Santa Cruz about two years ago: As High Times representatives, they wanted to establish a presence on the West Coast, which Bienenstock calls “the center of this [cannabis] culture, not just in America, but worldwide.” The clincher in their choice of new locale was this city’s support of WAMM in 2002, when, in response to a nationally publicized DEA raid, then-mayor Christopher Krohn and several other city officials permitted WAMM to hand out medical marijuana to 238 local residents on the steps of City Hall.
Since moving to Santa Cruz, McDonough and Bienenstock have formed close ties with the folks at WAMM. McDonough contrasts their direct involvement in the medical marijuana community with the secondhand experience they had been getting as New York City residents: “Reading about it, hearing about it and having an intellectual understanding of it was much different from coming out here and actually meeting people every day who say, ‘This has saved my life.’ You put a face and a personal story to it, and it becomes so much more intense in the way it impacts you.”
Passionate as they might be about pot’s healing powers, McDonough and Bienenstock haven’t lost any appreciation for the herb’s non-medical applications. Evidence of this can be found in McDonough’s new book, “The Official High Times Cannabis Cookbook” (Chronicle Books). Released on 4/20, it’s a colorful compendium of the best recipes that have appeared in High Times over the past 15 years. Herein, ganja gourmands will find all manner of instruction on the preparation of herbally enhanced appetizers, main courses, desserts and cocktails. Some of the book’s most memorable entries pay homage to various stoner celebrities: There are Willie Nelson’s Texas Cannabis Chili, Cheech and Chong Nice Dream Ice Cream, and a decadent appetizer called Lil’ Snoop Hot Doggy Doggs. Also included are stories and information on countercultural figures such as cannabis activists Jack Herer and Brownie Mary.
Bienenstock, too, has written a full-length book for High Times: His “Official High Times Pot Smoker’s Handbook” (Chronicle Books, 2008) is a whimsical tome that covers the history of pot use, the whys and wherefores of the herb’s illegality, the geography and lore of cannabis culture and various stoner how-tos, including tips on cultivation, cooking, joint-rolling, smoke-proofing your dorm room, proper pot etiquette (“head-iquette,” as Bienenstock calls it) and improving your “jay-dar” (the ability to figuratively “sniff out” the presence of cannabis). There’s also a list of 420 things to do when you’re stoned. Example: “Invent a milkshake”—“at the risk of being stereotypical,” Bienenstock says with a laugh. “But it’s also [about] this sensual world and the enhancement of it: What a wonderful thing! Something that makes music, food or a walk through the woods better … that’s nice.”
Item 105 on the list, “Resolve a dispute,” points to Bienenstock and McDonough’s mutual assertion that cannabis, when used with the proper intention, can be conducive to greater empathy with other people, as well as to the kind of mindset that makes one more inclined to settle differences than to maintain them. “Whenever you get too stressed out, or you start to have petty disagreements, it’s nice to just step back, smoke the pipe together, have a peaceful moment, start to reflect on any disputes you might have and talk about them, with a different perspective brought to the conversation,” McDonough offers.
This practice comes in handy for Bienenstock and McDonough, who, as colleagues as well as life partners, are together 24/7. Cannabis, they claim, helps them not only to settle conflicts, but also to separate their professional life from their personal life and to let go of stress at the end of a challenging work day.
In their 10 years as High Times employees, McDonough and Bienenstock have heard their share of praise for marijuana. According to Bienenstock, one of the qualities people seem to love most about pot is its ability to help relieve stress. “That’s so important to people, especially in this modern world, where [we have] the divisions between work, family, friends and recreation—and when you throw in the Internet, that’s always there, always calling you back to those worlds—it’s really important to be able to find something that allows you to make that transition,” he states. “So many people bring that stress home with them. That can be a problem in a romantic relationship; in friendships; in a lot of ways.”
The Dope Show
Stress relief is, of course, just one of the health-promoting properties frequently ascribed to marijuana. McDonough relates the story of Kristen Peskuski, a sufferer of multiple ailments, including endometriosis: Rather than following several doctors’ advice to have a hysterectomy, Peskuski saturated her body with cannabinoids. “She gradually healed herself, and she was able to have a healthy pregnancy and give birth to a beautiful baby girl,” McDonough notes, also citing the case of Cash Hyde, a child in Montana whose recovery from brain cancer was aided by the use of cannabis oil.
Bienenstock makes mention of chemotherapy patients who have testified that cannabis helped them regain weight, as well as AIDS patients who credit this medicine to not just their survival, but also their quality of life. “Those aren’t exceptions; those aren’t outliers,” he stresses. “That’s something that’s common for people with those serious ailments.”
According to Bienenstock, medical marijuana is effective enough to pose a huge threat to the pharmaceutical industry, measured in the tens of billions—and potentially hundreds of billions—of dollars. He cites a recent UC San Francisco study, which found that by using cannabis as a conjunction therapy, patients can reduce their use of harmful opiate-based painkillers by 40 percent. “Just that alone would be enough to engender huge opposition from the pharmaceutical industry,” he offers. “But it’s much more than that. They [pharmaceutical executives] are not dumb, and they’re not ideologues; i.e., they know medical marijuana works; they know what it works for; they know which of their products can be replaced by something that’s safer, that has no serious side effects, that doesn’t cause drug interactions, that can’t be patented.” This, he reasons, is what keeps the prohibition in place at a point in history when more than 70 percent of the people in the United States say they support medical marijuana … “and, by the way, reason, logic and compassion back them up.”
“We have an epidemic of pharmaceutical drug overdoses that are killing more people now than car accidents,” McDonough chimes in. “When you look at that as a true public health problem, and you see that cannabis can help people not use these addictive, dangerous drugs that are being peddled for profit, it’s very irresponsible.”
In reference to the federal raids of medical marijuana facilities, McDonough offers, “I think it’s very interesting that when people want to talk about states’ rights, it really depends on what the states are trying to do. If the states are trying to attack the civil liberties of Hispanic people in Arizona, and the government tries to stop them, then they say, ‘States’ rights! States’ rights!’ But when people want to use their state as a laboratory for democracy and change these really unjust, terrible drug laws, then the federal government brings its full force to bear in a way that’s draconian.”
Bienenstock believes that the current crackdown on medical marijuana is a rear-guard action from people who realize they are going to have to give up turf. “They want to do it as slowly and gradually as they can, and they want to do it, ideally, in a way that’s going to protect their own interests, which would be having pharmaceutical, for-profit prescription drugs available that have cannabinoids or cannabinoid-like compounds in them,” he says.
Bienenstock likens the present fight for cannabis legalization to yesteryear’s battles for the abolishment of slavery and for women’s right to vote: No one in our public discourse presently defends these things, but, at the time, these positions were well defended by the institutions of society. “It takes time to overcome that, no matter how right you are,” he states. “But every time somebody’s aunt makes it through chemo and says, ‘You know, I’ve got to be honest with you: Smoking a joint helped tremendously,’ that person’s never going back to the other side,” he says. “You can’t keep propaganda vital in the face of that much evidence. And with California and Santa Cruz leading the way, the cat is getting further and further out of the bag.”