How to smoke weed socially — and safely — in the COVID-19 era

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I struck up a discussion with a man called Gary while sitting by the pool at a boutique hotel in Palm Springs for a one-night mid-August vacation. I didn’t know much about my fellow sun worshipper other than where he was from (Huntington Beach), that he grew up in the 1970s (he’d seen Jimi Hendrix and the Doors live), and that he was interested in talking about marijuana. I was more than happy to comply, having recently returned from visiting cannabis company Ball Family Farms’ Los Angeles grow (for a feature of its founder and CEO, Chris Ball).

Gary and I discussed the increasing legislation (in California you can grow up to six mature plants). We discussed how THC-infused edibles are digested differently, and I informed him about my recent pot-plant parenting experiences (and how reluctant I was when it came to actually smoking my baby). He told me about his neighbor’s tall plants, which leaned over their shared fence like light-seeking sunflowers.

I felt like Gary and I were part of the same cannabis community after talking for many hours over the course of two sun-drenched days. (Shall we name ourselves “cannathusiasts?”) Even though I wasn’t certain Gary smoked marijuana (or had ever done so), I felt like I’d discovered a kindred soul since we shared a passion for all things bud.

I used to react to this nearly magnetic pull in my chest by flashing some marijuana — either a pre-rolled joint or a fully loaded pipe — and promising to make us both high. But I was concerned about catching COVID-19, not about being caught (I’d be clever enough to fire up off property; this wasn’t my first rodeo). After all, just a year ago, the globe was wondering whether we’d ever experience the thrill of a first kiss again, and there were rumors that the friendly handshake was on its way out.

Since the epidemic began in March 2020, I’d only been roasted outside my bubble two or three times, but I’d always made sure everyone had a proper piece of gear. I did, however, have a few puffs of a joint with a renowned rock singer once (pre-vaccine). I was terrified for two weeks that I’d become renowned for unintentionally murdering a music star with COVID-19. For a long time, the tingling fear of transmission hovered over me like a cloud, and it’s the sort of buzzkill that takes all the pleasure out of a chance to extend one’s smoking circle. It made me furious, irritated, and socially alienated in equal measure.

I’m not the only one that feels this way. The initial instinct for many members of the toking tribe when they come across another like-minded person out in the wild is to share. Passing a lit joint to another person, whether poolside in Palm Springs or burning in your own garden with a new neighbor, is the sort of secret handshake that turns strangers into quick friends and makes even the most ordinary situations special.

I recall my first social smoking experience as vividly as if it were yesterday, despite the fact that it was almost 40 years ago.

During the summer of 1982, I worked — and lived — at an inn on the summit of Mount Equinox, Vermont’s Taconic mountain range’s highest peak at 3,855 feet above sea level. A bong was passed around a circle from person to person in the tiny basement living quarters, surrounded by ancient flags and college dorm tapestries that smelled like Gonesh Incense No. 4, Perfumes of Orchards & Vines. On the stereo, David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” was playing.

I remember this because, as Major Tom was becoming more lonely in his tin container far above the Earth, I was discovering my people for the first time.

Where does the urge to exchange marijuana come from, even with complete strangers? Keith Stroup, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who established the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) in 1970, blames the federal government’s drug war.

In an email, Stroup said, “It has always seemed odd to me that by creating marijuana prohibition, which they believed would discourage marijuana smoking, the government unintentionally created a subculture of individuals who love marijuana smoking and spending time with other smokers.” “And we were soon introduced into the cultural customs of sharing a joint in a circle with (occasionally) complete strangers. We were all violating the law by smoking, and the fact that we were doing it with strangers added to the feeling of camaraderie among smokers.

He said, “Even in places where marijuana was authorized for all adults, most of us continued to share our smokes with complete strangers who were interested.” Sharing the joint with others has become a deeply established social custom.”

Because the epidemic has momentarily put a monkey wrench in that time-honored tradition, Stroup has planned ahead.

“Now, when I go to a friend’s home for dinner or drinks, I bring several hand-rolled joints with me so that anybody who wants to join us and enjoy some marijuana may have their own joint,” he wrote. “We may still smoke outdoors in a circle, but no one is passing anymore; everyone of us has our own.”

He isn’t the only one who is changing up his cannabis usage habits. When I visited West Hollywood dispensary Calma in June for a feature on local dispensaries worth visiting in person, general manager Mara Stusser said she’d seen a rise in the popularity of smaller pre-rolled joints known as dog walkers (so nicknamed because they contain about a third the cannabis flower of a standard-issue pre-roll, making them tiny enough to polish off while walking the dog).

When I checked in last month, it seemed that cannabis users were still adapting. “We still see a lot of people purchasing the tiny joints,” says the salesperson (dogwalkers). We have seen an increase in sales of edibles and beverages, however,” she said in an email. “At Calma, flower has always outperformed, but we’ve lately observed that more consumers are interested in the edible selection.”

According to institute co-director Whitney Ogle, changing consumer behavior is also reflected in a soon-to-be-published research done by the Humboldt Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research at Humboldt State University.

Researchers discovered a rise in cannabis use for stress-management reasons in a study of 419 (so close to 420!) cannabis consumers performed in May 2020, according to Ogle. (On a perhaps related note, the study also discovered a rise in cannabis use on the job.) While smoking cannabis flower remained the most popular mode of consumption, the research found a rise in the use of oral cannabis (such as edibles and tinctures) and vape cartridges, as well as a rise in the usage of low-THC, high-CBD products.

“We thought about how we might educate the public based on these findings,” Ogle added. “The first is to avoid sharing joints and to wash your hands before and after [you smoke] — both of which are conventional safe practices — and to combine cannabis use with a pleasant activity. If you use cannabis and then doom-scroll, it will not help you overcome your anxiety. But it could assist if you consume cannabis and then go for a stroll or a little walk in your garden.”

Although the research didn’t explicitly ask about the future of communal cannabis use, Ogle believes COVID’s legacy will be more than one joint per person. “Anecdotally — I don’t have any statistics on it,” she added, “I believe individuals will resume sharing joints, particularly after they’ve been vaccinated.” Things seemed a little more normal after that.”

She compared it to shaking hands — in terms of tradition, not safety. “During the epidemic, there came a moment when I didn’t want to contact another person,” she added. “Now it’s like, ‘Wow, I just shook someone’s hand,’” she says. It’s the ordinary thing that isn’t ordinary.”

Unfortunately for me (and, I assume, Gary), 18 months of pandemic living has left me feeling out of sorts and unprepared to properly communicate. I didn’t bring any dog walkers or THC-infused delicacies to the desert; all I had was a single Proto Pipe (milled from solid brass and virtually unbreakable, I’d never considered bringing more than one) and a tiny supply of Ball Family Farms’ flagship strain, Daniel LaRusso.

There would be no communal consumption on this trip to the desert unless I asked for Gary’s proof-of-vaccination card or administered a COVID-19 test on the spot, neither of which would do much to further our newfound camaraderie (and asking someone you’ve just met to stick something up their nose feels totally ‘80s anyway, isn’t it?).

I gave Gary my contact information and promised — more to myself than to him, I guess — that I wouldn’t be caught off guard again by spontaneous combustion.

I created a mental inventory of workarounds I had attempted or seen online on the way back to L.A. I had a shortlist by the time I pulled into my driveway 212 hours later, and I was certain it would address the social sesh issue.

1. Each individual is limited to one joint, pipe, or vape pen.

2. Instead of combustibles, consider edibles.

3. Use a mouthpiece/joint holder from your own paraphernalia.

4. Have a supply of alcohol wipes on hand.

I’d managed to scrounge out (and clean off) a motley collection of pipes and one-hitters that had collected in drawers, bins, and toolboxes over the years like so much flotsam in the Pacific garbage vortex the few times I’d burned with exo-bubble visitors in my house. Except for the aforementioned musician, my only other mid-pandemic social consuming encounter — and the only one with strangers — came in the form of beautiful, architectural, low-dose delicacies. Even though I felt I was being cautious each time, I was pleased when I reached the two-week mark and had no COVID-19 or associated symptoms.

I still have every cause to be concerned, according to the medical expert with whom I discussed my concerns.

In her first emailed answer, Paula Cannon, a professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at USC’s Keck School of Medicine, said, “None of the mitigation measures you propose are going to work.” “Because if you smoke within six feet of someone who has COVID, the virus will laugh at you. It’s time for deckchairs on the Titanic.”

This was the answer that shattered my serenity. Not only did I need to learn more, but I also wanted to do the right thing and obtain some virologist-approved advice on how to smoke properly — and socially — in the COVID age.

Cannon was first hesitant to cooperate, saying that I’d be sending a dangerous message by suggesting that social marijuana smoking could be done more safely when, in her opinion, it couldn’t be done at all. She decided to join me on a Zoom call the following day to talk things over after I assured her I wouldn’t sugarcoat the facts. Then things started to become interesting.

Cannon informed me right away that two of my proposed workarounds, utilizing alcohol wipes and specialized mouthpieces on joints, were really hazardous since they gave the impression of protection. Cannon replied, “You’re a victim of what some term ‘hygiene theater.’”

I wondered whether my flushing on her end of the video call was as noticeable as it was on mine.

“COVID is an aerosol that you breathe in as droplets,” she said. “You might say it’s innocuous, but it isn’t because people believe it’s OK to be inside with big gatherings of people if they have hand sanitizer. When you suggest having your own mouthpiece, I say to myself, “But you’ll still be sitting there in a cloud of cannabis and COVID smoke, joyfully taking it in via the device that nature has designed to transmit this virus.”

 

Instead, we should use the same rules we’ve learned to manage restaurants, bars, and other human-filled places while smoking the plant, according to Cannon. “Consuming cannabis in a social environment isn’t that unlike from everything else we do in a social setting,” she said. “Everything has an inherent risk, but if you limit yourself to a small group of people you know are vaccinated and/or get tested regularly, you can make a calculated assessment that the chances of any of you getting COVID are pretty low, so sitting across the dinner table in a restaurant and/or smoking cannabis together [is OK]…. It’s no more hazardous than eating a meal or drinking a beer, but it can’t be made any safer.”

She also said that, similar to alcohol use, once you’re nice and toasty, all germ-avoidance caution may be thrown out the window. “Anything we do that reduces our inhibitions and causes us to forget we’re not the perfectly obedient individuals we’re meant to be carries a risk,” she said. As a result, she advises preparing ahead and rearrangement of the (outside) furnishings.

“The only way to protect yourself if someone has COVID is to sit very far apart,” she said. “So, if you’re inviting folks over to your backyard, maybe put up three small stations or sitting sections so this couple and that family can sit there. And so, even if people are removing their masks because they’re smoking — or eating or drinking — you’ve created an environment that encourages separation, which is critical.” (However, she stressed that being vaccinated is the single most essential thing anybody can do.)

I grabbed a new Post-it and wrote out a new list based on Cannon’s suggestion — and her blatant rejection of my previous one.

The concept of one joint (or pipe or vape pen) per person remained (consider buying a dogwalker since it will encourage social distancing and not waste weed). THC-infused edibles remained on the list because of the potential benefit of not irritating the lungs. The “hygiene theater” props — alcohol wipes and mouthpieces — that could create a false feeling of security were ditched in favor of the vast outdoors, complete with pre-positioned and well-spaced comfy seats. So there you have it.

1. Each individual is limited to one joint, pipe, or vape pen.

2. Instead of combustibles, consider edibles.

3. Make an effort to stay outside.

4. Arrange comfortable seats in a well-lit area. I’ll be mindful that the next time I meet another like-minded person out in the world — or welcome one into my home — my communal cannabis use won’t be completely risk-free. (Do I still have concerns about contracting COVID? I’m sure I am. Simply put, I’m not as concerned.) But, due to my handy checklist, I’ll be sure that social smoking won’t be any more hazardous than grabbing a meal or chugging a drink in a work environment. I miss my tribe, my people, and my community, and I’m not ready to let COVID take away the pleasure of converting complete strangers into new friends via the secret handshake of communal cannabis use.

So, where is Gary now?

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