How does this work again?

Well, what the hell. Is this thing on? Look at all the cobwebs in here. It’s been so long, I lost access to my own blog. I guess the Internet punishes you when you don’t pay attention to it.

It turns out that a quick email rescinds the punishment, but it was enough to make me feel like I have to explain: just because I’ve neglected the Internet, that doesn’t mean I’ve been entirely idle. (Is Just because…that doesn’t mean a legit construction? Seems right until you actually look at it.) I’ve probably had an essay or two published since my last post here, and I definitely had something in The Baffler in the last week or so. It’s about Facebook, which is something I loathe and fear despite having no experience with it other than signing up, receiving friend requests from people I never wanted to hear from again, and then spending a couple of weeks shutting it down. It’s also about Frankenstein, the book, that is. Literary scholars, or anyone else familiar with the ending of the book (no pitchforks, no torches) can probably sense the connection between Shelley and Zuckerberg. But go ahead and read it. It will probably take 2.5 minutes.

I also had this published, in the same week. An essay in the New Yorker reviewing The Recovering, Leslie Jamison’s new book about alcoholism and recovery. This piece is long, will probably take you 20 minutes. It is mostly positive about the book; She’s a terrific writer. The essay is highly critical of Alcoholics Anonymous, or so I am told by people who either take exception or are grateful for the takedown. It’s funny, I thought the piece was pretty tame in its critique of AA. I hate to think what would have happened if I’d really let it fly.

So I must be really busy, right? But do the math: two articles in a week averages out to two articles a year if you only do it once. That’s about been my pace. Mostly, I’ve been doing other things. Life shit. Working on the house. Plowing snow. Making money. Reading, right now a biography of Jack London, who suffered a terrible case of testosterone poisoning early in life and never fully recovered. Also alcohol poisoning, although he survived that long enough to die, at age 40, from a morphine overdose. London, by the way, called drinking “getting jingled,” a factoid that will come in handy in about four paragraphs.

Speaking of testosterone, I have been thinking a lot about marijuana recently. Not in the same way I thought of at fifteen, which was always, except when I was thinking about sex, which was also always. (I read a New Yorker article recently about a plastic surgeon who feminizes the faces of trans women. In it one of the women talks about the hormones she took to transition. She noted that as her testosterone subsided, her mind became clearer, freed ass it was from the necessity of thinking about sex all the time. That made total sense to me. Now that I’ve turned sixty, I can go as much as 9-1/2 minutes without thinking about sex, up from milliseconds when I was 15.)

But as I was saying, pot. In addition to my ongoing attempts to get the American Psychiatric Association to include marijuana-deficit disorder in the updated DSM it promised, I’ve been wondering about how it is going to be marketed once it becomes a legal consumer commodity. I’ll keep my powder dry about this for now, except to say that this is going to be tricky for producers, because any regulations, especially at the Federal level, are likely to prohibit marketing claims about what pot actually accomplishes, which is to get you high.

How do I know this? Because that’s pretty much how it works for beer, wine, and spirits. You (assuming you are Adolph Coors or Jacob Manischewitz or Jack Daniels) can’t advertise the psychoactive effects of your product. Don’t believe me? You could look it up. It’s in the Code of Federal Regulations, sections 4.64 (wine), 5.65 (distilled spirits), and 7.54 (malt beverages). Here, I’ll save you the trouble. The regulations give the Secretary of the Treasury control over what manufacturers of alcoholic products can say in their ads, and how they say it. (And you thought getting to sign hundred-dollar bills was the best part of that job.) Did you know, for instance, that you (Adolph, Jacob, Jack) can’t put a flag, coat of arms, or any other insignia on your label that the Secretary of the Treasury (Steven Mnuchin right now, a man who badly needs to buy a vowel) thinks will “mislead the consumer to believe that the product has been endorsed, made, or used by, or produced for, or under the supervision of, or in accordance with the specifications of the government, organization, family, or individual with whom such flag, seal, coat of arms, crests, or insignia is associated”? I didn’t think so.

But it’s true, and it’s also true that Section 4.64 forbids Jacob to make “any statement, design, device, or representation which relates to alcohol content or which tends to create the impression that a wine…has intoxicating qualities.” That’s pretty straightforward. For Jack and Adolph, the restriction is a little more subtle. “Health claims” made in ads for beer and spirits, including “statements and claims that imply that a physical or psychological sensation results from consuming” the beverage in question are subject to case-by-case review. The Secretary (or perhaps that charming wife of his) has to be persuaded that the statement in question is “truthful and adequately substantiated by scientific or medical evidence; sufficiently detailed and qualified with respect to the categories of individuals to whom the claim applies; adequately discloses the health risks associated with both moderate and heavier levels of alcohol consumption; and outlines the categories of individuals for whom any levels of alcohol consumption may cause health risks.” In other words, if you advertise that a shot of Jager will make you brilliant at karaoke or a glass of wine will make that charming lady in the little black dress all sorts of pliant or a bottle of beer will fill you with love for mankind, and you don’t also say that if you do those things, you are increasing your chances of liver disease, auto accidents, neurological impairment, and impotence, then it’s probably not going to pass muster with the SOT.

Oh, that’s why they gave the job to Treasury. The acronym.

In practice, of course, the effect is to prevent vintners, distillers, and brewers from making claims about the psychological sensations of drinking. So you can show the well-dressed couple smiling at each other over the bottle of Moet or the country-and-western hunk looking sly in his flannel shirt as he hoists the shot glass or the girl in the bikini spiking the volleyball with a six in the cooler at the side of the net, you can imply and wink-and-nudge and fun-by-association all you want, but you cannot, you must not, you shall never say outright that your malt beverage, distilled spirit, or wine is going to get the consumer drunk. Lit. Jingled. Toasted. Tipsy. In his cups. Wasted. Feeling good. Buzzed. So many wonderful words, invented to cover such an important human experience, all off-limits to Madison Avenue.

I haven’t run down the history of this, but I’m going to guess that these regulations go back to the repeal of Prohibition in the early 1930s. Something important had happened in the dozen years of Prohibition: the rise of consumer culture and the mass marketing that catered to it. Advertising as we know it, in other words. (A plug here for my favorite book on the subject Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920-1940 by Roland Marchand. Don’t miss it.) Just because alcohol was legal again, that didn’t mean that everyone was happy about it, and there was no way that alcohol sales were going to be some kind of free-for-all. So I think the regulations were intended to assuage fears of what would happen when the public’s once-again-indulged wish to get intoxicated met the ad man’s wish to sell stuff by associating a product with a particular experience. I mean, it’s one thing to sell a car on the grounds that it’s going to make you feel better about your life, and another to sell whiskey that way. The car requires the intervention of cognition and emotion to succeed at creating that experience, the second goes straight to the brain.

All of this is what makes me sure that as legal pot comes on line, governments are going to forbid marketing claims about what cannabis does. Which is going to be hard to square with the kind of marketing that already dominates the black and gray market, which is all about “psychological sensation.” At least the alcohol industry has other qualities to fall back on: the flavor of the beverage, the visual appeal of wine in a glass, the down home nostalgia evoked by a couple of men in aprons rolling an oak whiskey barrel. But pot smoking has always been mostly about the high (although those glistening porny budshots that grace the covers and centerfolds of High Times are pretty powerful at evoking an experience without saying so). The names alone—Couchlock, Haze, Blue Dream—seem designed to tell consumers what kind of high they are going to get, the basic generic distinction between sativa and indica is not about taste or aroma or bud appearance or anything else, and the reviews on generally focus on how the strain makes you feel. So far, in other words, pot marketing has mostly been about how the weed in question is going to get you high. And especially as the market moves to extracts (tasteless) and edibles (tasting like something else), this is going to get tricky.

But I’m sure our ever-responsive consumer culture will respond to this important challenge, and you’ll be the next to know how, I promise.

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