For the November, 2000 issue of High Times, Woody Harrelson told interviewer Dan Skye why the war on cannabis infuriated him. On the occasion of Harrelson’s 59th birthday on July 23, we’re republishing the interview below.
High Times: Four years ago you tried to make a distinction between hemp and marijuana and were reticent about appearing on the cover of High Times. What made you change your mind?
Woody Harrelson: Many of my friends felt that the issues couldn’t be separated, and that it was important to talk about both. I feel now that in some ways they are inseparable, because if we live in a free country they should both be free activities. You should be able to grow whatever plant you want for farming purposes or textiles. And you should be able to grow whatever plant you want for your own medicine. It’s about freedom, personal freedoms. I think it’s an odd thing that in a so-called free country we have so little of that.
Right now you’re still testing our freedoms in Kentucky with your ongoing case for planting four hemp seeds there in 1996. How’s the case going?
The Kentucky State Supreme Court says my conviction stands.
Are you prepared to take the case to the US Supreme Court?
Yeah, I suppose we’re prepared to go there if the US Supreme Court would hear it. Absolutely.
Why won’t the government budge on this issue?
Well, the DEA is making it really hard. Reagan had a $29 billion Drug War. Now we’re spending $101 billion on the Drug War. One hundred and one billion dollars! That’s a lot of money. That could save a lot of Planet Earth. They’re got a $2 billion budget just to make the [antidrug] commercials. And why? Who’s getting hurt? Granted, when people abuse marijuana it is harmful. It hurts memory, it stunts your mentality in many ways if you’re excessive with it. But who else is that hurting? We’ve got to refocus our energy in this country, and our monetary energy. The money we give to our government is not going to the right things.
Certainly, the government wants people to think marijuana is harmful and should therefore remain illegal.
One of the things that bothers me about the way this War on Drugs treats marijuana is that you grow up with the image of it being this terrible thing. The government has been very good at creating negative images. But then you try it and you find it’s not really so bad. The only way I feel we can have moderate use of it in our culture is to be able to talk about it, not to keep it in a closet.
Marijuana has never been known to kill anyone. And even by the DEA’s definition, all it does to you is make you euphoric. So what’s the real problem with marijuana? It’s certainly been painted in this shady light, but the fact of the matter is more people in the United States than not have smoked it, and it’s a lot less harmful than all these other legal drugs.
Alcohol, tobacco, caffeine…
The hypocrisy of this marijuana thing really upsets me. There’s probably not more than a handful of people in this country who are not drug addicts. That includes children, because children are addicted to sugar. Sugar not only has no nutritional value, it is without question harmful. Children are addicted to caffeine, too, particularly in soda pop. These are drugs. They get a sugar-caffeine fix. Try to take it away from them. Try to tell them they can’t have their soda pop for a week. Fortunately, my kids never got addicted.
Everybody has their drug. The real hypocrisy of the Drug War is that it’s not simply a War on Drugs.
You can go to a drugstore in any city in the nation and you’ll find any drug you want, and they’ll be more addictive and worse for you than grass. And there will be a smiling man there sanctioned by the government who’s allowed to give them to you.
This is a war on non-corporate drugs. And I don’t think it’s fair. Everybody knows that more than half a million people die every year in this country from smoking cigarettes. That’s the number-one cause of death. Number two is secondhand smoke. Then you have alcohol killing 150,000 to 200,000 people annually. You have aspirin killing a thousand people a year. Pharmaceuticals are killing 100,000 to 150,000 people a year. And there are so many kids on pharmaceuticals now. They put me on Ritalin for hyperactivity. God forbid a kid doesn’t want to sit in a chair for eight hours!
You were on Ritalin?
I was on Ritalin for a couple of years. My brother Bret was on Ritalin for eight years. They dispense these things like candy and it’s extremely detrimental. It’s infuriating to me. By the way, something that hasn’t been talked about much is that nearly all of these kids who’ve had these spurts of violence at these schools had been prescribed pharmaceuticals.
Pharmaceuticals mess you up. And yet it’s a big lobby. It’s more than a big lobby. We know the politicians are puppets, so it’s just the business tier above the politicians who are controlling the country. You’re not going to shoot down the pharmaceuticals that make billions and billions of dollars a year—and that’s what they want. They want corporate drugs to continue being the legal ones.
Is marijuana prohibition purely an economic matter? Or is it because of how marijuana allows people to view the world?
The root of the problem is everybody wants to deal with their pain. Ultimately, you’ve got to get down to what you’re about. You have to get down into the hole that’s in you. Maybe it’s because we grow up not being loved? Or not getting something? Something needs to be filled. I should have a way of dealing with my pain that is my own, and it shouldn’t be contested by the government unless I’m hurting someone else or their property. And if we’re doing none of these things, then why are there so many people in jail right now for ganja, and 700,000 marijuana arrests per year?
Sartre called it the feeling of forlornness. Maybe it’s just our birthright, the feeling of being alone in the world.
I don’t know, because I see children who don’t suffer from that. It comes from growing up, from starting to draw a line between good and bad and making qualifications about what’s right and what’s wrong. And if you fall too many times on the other side of that line, you’re wrong, you’re bad and ultimately, you don’t believe in yourself. You start to think negatively about yourself because other people are telling you you’re wrong. Some of the greatest teachers I saw during the years I was being educated were fired. They had just the right spark, a unique way of teaching. The way we’re taught is so black and white that there’s no room for someone who instills a spark of life and a belief in yourself.
Do you believe marijuana does that for someone?
No. If you don’t have it, I don’t think marijuana does it for you. I think that what it does is that it helps to pacify your tensions. I guess it can make you euphoric.
Has it ever helped you in your professional life?
No. I can’t act if I’m smoking pot. I can’t do it.
What about kids and pot?
I don’t think it’s a good idea. I know I wouldn’t want my kids smoking before they’re old enough.
How do you know when someone’s old enough?
I thought I started at a good time. I started at about 21. Of course, everyone else started when they were 15 or so. I was such a late starter that I think I did everything I could to compensate. I was a senior at college, and a friend of mine, John St. Angelo, lived down the hall. I’d always been pretty narrow-minded about it. I just didn’t think it was a good thing.
Were you drinking at that time?
Yeah, I started with the gateway drug, alcohol, the year before. I thought it wasn’t so bad. But then John said, “C’mon, smoke this.” He was great because he treated it sacredly. He’d smoke two, three hits and say OK, that’s it. Then, the next day, I’d be like, “Let’s go, man,” and he’d say no. He’d just do it every few days. He had a real balance with it.
You actually got high the first time you tried it?
Oh yeah, I loved it. I loved it immediately. It was like I was watching a hysterical movie and I was the fourth wall. Everybody was directing things toward me and it was hysterical and I loved it. I just remember laughing and laughing. My buddy Denny Platner, the guy I named my oldest daughter after, was making me laugh and since he knew I was high for the first time, he was ranking on me. He was hysterical. He was funny anyway. So I really enjoyed it.
You’re the narrator of the new film documentary Grass, which focuses on pot prohibition. You’re very active with medical-marijuana issues and, of course, you’ve been a superb spokesperson for hemp. You’re covering the whole spectrum at this point.
I know that what I’m doing can be and is detrimental to my career. I know that when you speak out on these things there are a lot of people who may turn up their noses at you.
But you have a good reputation in Hollywood. You’re a hard worker, always do your best. There are lots of people smoking pot in Hollywood.
You look at the people in Hollywood who’ve lasted a long time, people like [Jack] Nicholson, Al Pacino, [Robert] De Niro—they’re all phenomenal actors, but they also rarely give interviews. They don’t let you in on what they’re about personally. Which I think is very smart. I kind of agree with that, even though I can’t help but shoot my mouth off.
Do you consider yourself confrontational?
Am I confrontational? Yeah. If I feel that something’s wrong I’m pretty confrontational. If I feel that someone’s wronging me or my friends or in this case, the Constitution, I suppose I am confrontational.
You have been extremely visible in the recent medical-marijuana trials of Todd McCormick and B.E. Smith.
We’ve lost the sense of who the heroes are in our society. But the heroes are B.E. Smith, Todd McCormick, Julia Butterfly. B.E. is a great guy. He is a warrior. He used to walk point in Vietnam. He’s a phenomenal guy and he’s taking the fall for a lot of people. He just wants to help the cause—the cause being a culture of people who are being persecuted. B.E. took the fall because he’s a solid guy. I love that guy. Todd is the greatest guy in the world, a wonderful guy. Just so articulate and compassionate. And the judge did the same thing as the B.E. Smith trial. He would not allow a medical-marijuana defense in California, where the first medical-marijuana initiative passed.
Will you continue as a hemp advocate?
I’m shifting my focus. In terms of this movement, I don’t know what more I can do. I’ve spoken out to the point where you could almost parody me, and people have, I know. I’ve dealt with the hemp issue, because we need to circumvent the economic paradigm that exists in this country. Hemp is vital for clothing, paper and fuel. I believe we have to change the clothes we wear to be more environmentally sensitive. We’ve got to stop using pesticides. Pesticides are a much bigger deal than most people think, since cotton is the number-one user of pesticides.
What’s next on your activist agenda?
I’m going to go around the US on a bike and stop at schools starting next spring—stop and talk to people. We’re going to be followed by a solar-powered bus with wheat-grass and all the juices growing inside. Part of it will be a greenhouse. I haven’t set out the route yet, but it’s probably going to be for about a month. We’re going to talk about getting off the grid, not buying from Procter & Gamble or DuPont or any of these guys. And we’ll still talk about the need for hemp in this country.
The point of going is to talk directly to people, mostly about diet, because I firmly believe if we’re going to address anything, we have to start with the diet. There are way too many people dying now. Our diet can be harmful to the land, to the mind and to the spirit.
Diet is fundamental to the bigger changes that need to happen. Yoga, meditation, exercise—all these things contribute to people’s character. You start with the physical and you get to the heart, you get to the spirit. We can try to get them to stop cutting down this or that forest, but we’re only putting out fires— unless we begin to have compassion for the animals and the forest.
Any revolution in this country will have to be a revolution of the heart. It can’t be a violent revolution. That’s not going to solve anything, and it’s not winnable. We have to be more tolerant of one another. Like Hillary Swank said at the Oscars: “Embrace our differences.”
Have you enjoyed being a movie star?
I like being a dad more. Any maturing that’s happened for me has happened outside of Hollywood. The more I get away for longer periods, the more I grow. I’ve got some good friends in L.A. and good friends in New York, and they form a refuge in a way. A refuge in the sense of feeling connected to people.
Has Costa Rica been a refuge as well?
I just went down there and really liked it. Good surf, good produce, good people. I like to go to Central and South America and Hawaii, to find places where you take a look around and you’re not absorbed with yourself. You’re just looking at other animals and birds and watching insects do their thing.
What’s the hardest part of being in the limelight?
I don’t think anybody wants to hear the movie-star blues jingle, but I’d say the hardest part is dealing with my own desires. The desire to be successful is a really potent and self-destructive weapon sometimes. You get to where you’re so focused and driven, especially on the way up. Even at the top, people never seem to let go of the need to succeed, to be a movie star. For me, I wanted to succeed at being an actor. There was a time in my life when I wondered whether I should call my agent, if I should read this script. Or I have to go out to dinner with this person—where your entire focus is on a symbol. Being a movie star is like being a symbol. It’s not real.
I’ve become a little more reticent than I once was. I’ve said enough, in a way. I need to focus on other things. I could just be a person—and for that matter, hopefully I can just be.