High Times Greats: Ken Kesey On Pot

In this account from 1994 issue of “High Times,” the late, great counterculture icon offers his most memorable pot experience.
High Times Greats: Ken Kesey On Pot
Fitzroy Barrett/Retna

Ken Kesey (1935-2001) wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and is a subject in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. To celebrate his birthday, we’ve unearthed this piece originally published in the May, 1994 issue of High Times.

A couple years back, a woman from East Germany came by the farm. She was an absolutely beautiful woman, an Olympic pentathlete, about 6’2″. This was after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Apparently, there was a lot of money left over from the Marshall Plan that had never been used.

Many people, who had never been able to travel outside of the Iron Curtain, were able to get money and travel to the United States.

She was traveling across the country and was actually studying the ’60s. She’d been wined and dined the entire way. This was during the Gulf War—Desert Storm—and she’d attended all of these conventions and honorary dinners that were being given for East Germans and ex-Communists.

Because of the war, these functions had been heavily laden with military traffic—a lot of army people. Also a lot of bad roast beef. She confided to us that there seemed to be a lot of machismo evident at these affairs—that it reminded her of what she’d read about Germany in the 1930s.

Anyway, Ken Babbs and I were driving her around, showing her places around Oregon. I got out a joint, passed it and immediately she said, “Oh, no! Oh, no! I don’t do the dope! I don’t do the dope!”

I said, “My God! You’re over here studying the ’60s and you haven’t smoked dope? That’s like being a downhill skier and hating snow. This is one of the things the ’60s ran on.”

She hesitated and said, “Oh, OK.” She was competitive and started taking some good hits of this stuff.

Gradually, you began to see this stern, grim, Germanic face of hers change. Everything dropped. You saw fear come into her eyes and her mouth open and go wide.

After sitting awhile, her face began to return to shape. You could see her mouth pulling up into a smile. Her eyes were now squinty and merry.

She looked over at Babbs and me and said, “All over America I have been. I have seen every kind of macho. But I didn’t know there was goofy macho!”

So we had a lot to talk about….

I think a lot of what we’ve been through this past year makes it more and more obvious that the worst of all the drugs is the bullet. The bullet basically depreciates human consciousness. It is made, in fact, to eliminate human consciousness, whereas psychedelics are made to raise consciousness.

You look at the scene in Waco, and you think—goddamn it!—if those guys had run in there, punched holes and sprayed LSD instead of tear gas, the result couldn’t have been any worse.

When you get down to it, the gun is just Republican thinking. Build more jails, buy more guns, get more cops. That’s never worked and it’s not going to work now.

The only thing that’s going to work in this country is for us to come to some kind of maturity wherein we treat each other better than we treat our dogs. We don’t kick our dogs as we raise them. We try to use a little love and some understanding. A little humor.

By trying to control people by reducing their consciousness, all you end up with is a bunch of mean, bad street dogs—and we’re creating them faster and faster. We’re actually training people in this country to become criminals. All of these kids that are being sent to jail because of a few joints are going to come out much worse people than when they went in.

A lot of the people from the ’60s have the purest of thoughts about the human being. We believe that the human being is a good guy and that it’s a benevolent universe. That you can make more progress with kindness than you ever will with a gun.

That old 1960s consciousness coming out of the beatnik years is the only path I see that is going to get us out of the mess that we’re in. And our gospel is that joint—that joint won’t lie to you. One joint will give you a different high than another joint, but they’ll be straight with you. Marijuana works.

The whole notion of that old hippie mystique—the little girl putting the flower down the barrel of the gun—is so simplistic that it’s easily attacked. But if you really examine things, it’s just plain old marijuana consciousness. The consciousness that created the environmental movement and the benevolence of Martin Luther King’s leadership in the movement for racial equality owe something to marijuana enlightenment—the idea that you can do better with a smile on your face than with a grim frown.

We’ve been laying off of this notion for a long time because, lately, it hasn’t done any good to speak out for it. But all of the stuff that started back then is still very important to us.

When people used to ask me what happened to the ’60s, I’d answer: “Shit. We all got arrested!” But the truth is, I don’t think the ’60s are over. I don’t think they will be over until the fat lady gets high.

Right now we’re just treading water, trying to stay out of jail, trying to make it through.

However, now we have a president who plays the sax and actually inhaled. Think about it. He had to inhale! You can’t play the sax that well unless you’ve smoked at least a little dope. And he’s caught in the same bind we are. Having to lie about it.

One of these days we’re going to have to talk to him and say, “Hey, sure this a political bombshell, but as far as doing what’s right, here are the statistics. This stuff—tobacco—kills you and we subsidize it. Marijuana has never hurt anybody and it’s illegal. Something’s haywire!”

Ken Kesey is the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Sometimes a Great Notion, and Sailor’s Song. The ’60s adventures of Kesey and the Merry Pranksters are documented in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe.

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