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I Was a 1970s Pot Guinea Pig

Our group of four guinea pigs was the hospital's last for any marijuana experimentation.

The ad, or ones very similar, had appeared in Boston’s Real Paper and Phoenix for almost four years. Intrigued, needing money, hating work, in between college and the future, and with the encouragement of some friends tired of my freeloading, I made an appointment at McClean Hospital in the suburb of Belmont. I answered the ad.

Marijuana and alcohol research—combination study for 34 days. Male subjects ages 20–30; must live in. Free room and board, plus opportunity to earn $450. Call 800-pot-test.

Legitimate legalization is only a president away; decriminalization spreads every year along with the use of marijuana. The Alcohol and Drug Abuse Research Center of Harvard Medical School and McClean Hospital has tended to refute former “evidence” of the dangers of marijuana. Our group of four guinea pigs was their last for any marijuana experimentation. The ad, a Boston landmark even though seldom mentioned during the Bicentennial days, is gone. The researchers, headed by Dr. Jack H. Mendelson, failed to find any damage to the brain tissue of “heavy users.” Writing in the March 20, 1977 Journal of the American Medical Association, the Harvard-McClean scientists refuted an earlier British study that found brain atrophy among cannabis-smokers. The problem was the British study used smokers with a history of neurological or cognitive problems because their brain scan technique was too dangerous to use on healthy people.

Not all the findings have been negative, however. For one, when you smoke weed, your heart beats a lot faster. They took our pulses frequently—three times a day during “Vital Signs,” and before and after every first and fourth joint and drink. We kept busy.

When I first saw McClean, it looked peaceful enough. I took a subway to Harvard Square and switched to the Waverly bus, walked up a big hill and miraculously wended my way through all the buildings of what looked to be an extremely well-tended college campus.

At the Drug Abuse Center I filled out their questionnaire: what have you taken, when, how often, and how about when engaged in sex and studying. Not everybody meets their stringent requirements but evidently my answers were satisfactory, since they called me back for a personal interview.

McClean advertised itself as the oldest private mental institution in the country and it has an expensive air. There were no bars to any windows I could see from the outside. It turned out every ward had strong, locked screens to protect the windows. The hospital consists of fifteen to twenty buildings, all connected by tunnel. Our ward, Bowditch 2, was at one end of a path through the woods.

“One in every ten Americans is believed to have a mild to severe form of mental illness,” reads one McClean pamphlet. I was not reassured: for 34 days this would be home.

Days One through Five were “Baseline,” that is withdrawal not only from drugs but also coffee, tea and chocolate (which contains caffeine). I met the other three guinea pigs, the staff, the stereo and the TV. Time dragged on.

A standard definition of addiction stipulates three elements: tolerance; desire; and in the absence of the drug, withdrawal syndrome. I suffered most from the lack of coffee, experiencing lassitude and dreariness.

The general tone of “Baseline” was hardly invigorating, unless you count the 300 or so chess games Guinea Pig Number Two and I had while watching Boston TV’s George Fennel and the late night movies. We were given clickers—these were with us constantly; they earned us money; they told the scientists our “motivation.” They looked something like one of those automatic garage door openers. You pushed a button up and down to register points on a computer. It took three hundred pushes to get one point. Twelve points were worth a dollar to us at the end of the study. Not hard work, but slow. The computer would not register more than one point a second, and 80 cents per hour was good work.

Photo via The AV Club

Marijuana Clicks

After the “Baseline” period was over, we could click for alcohol at three points or approximately twenty minutes for an ounce of hard liquor or one beer. The alcohol phase lasted five days, and then we could click for marijuana (six points a joint) for five days. Then—the bulk of the study—we could click for either marijuana or alcohol or, as always, cash. We did not have to use our grass or drink points immediately; they could be and often were hoarded for a bash.

Every click was recorded by the computer, to see when and how fast we clicked. Your could conveniently hold the clicker in the palm of your hand, but my fingers got tired. In any case, the scientists told us that we clicked as much stoned as straight.

All days began with the 8:30 AM “Vital Signs.” A nurse or two and the mental health aides, who mostly were men just out of college, took temperatures, pulses, lung capacities, weights, blood pressures (sitting and standing) and neurologicals. During “Neuros’’ we had to touch our noses with our eyes closed, have reflexes, walk a line and answer four questions: Who are you, Where are you, What day is it (sometimes also why are you, from the aides) and fourthly a general knowledge question.

I am not at my sharpest at that hour in the morning, and even when I haven’t been cut off from the rest of the world I am not particularly liable to know what day it is. Nonetheless, I learned to remember what day it had been yesterday and deduce the correct answer, even if I had missed the previous guinea pig’s “Neuros” responses. Fortunately, the fourth question became standardized as What did you have for dinner last night, and we soon learned to prepare for it. One nurse would occasionally throw out zingers, such as who was president before Nixon which I had a great deal of trouble with. I tried to maintain unconsciousness during “Neuros,” and went to bed right after them.

“Vital Signs” without “Neuros” were repeated every day at 3:30 and 10:30 PM.

Day Six

Went to bed after “Vital Signs” and was awakened at 11 for the doctor to put a catheter tube up my arm. As on the control day, Day Four, my blood dripped into test tubes for over eleven hours. This does not hurt, although my blood kept trying to dry up, which I thought was healthy of it.

Catheters are a DRAG. But this was it: “Acute Day.” The long dry spell was over. We were to get our first taste of Government Marijuana. In fact, the staff kept assuring we would get good and messed up. Everybody seemed in a good mood but the waiting was intense.

The hassle is not the catheter; we could still move around cautiously and could still click. We had to get up every twenty minutes, a total of 33 occasions, for pulse-taking, breathalyzer and a change of test tube. Once the nurses confused the labels on our four test tubes, and they just made up whose blood was those. So much for science.

Image via Wizard Varnish

At last, at 3:44 PM, the magic moment for which we had all been waiting was nigh. We sat down in the living room on the couch and chairs that faced the TV. There was Silence. An RN approached bearing four joints. The rest of the staff got out their clipboards and gathered round.

The joints looked just like non-filter cigarettes, which is not surprising since—as we were told—the government pays cigarette companies to roll them, doubtless under strict security. National Institute of Mental Health thus assures standard amounts of weed are in every joint. The ashtrays were empty, so the staff could see exactly what we smoked. The roach clips, of various description, were ready. Four matches lit almost simultaneously. Aaaaahhh the very first toke.

Well . . . it tasted, uh, mediocre. Was I getting stoned? Hard to say. We smoked on.

“If we smoke all three joints, maybe we’ll get a buzz,” Number One said. The maniacal laughter from Guinea Pigs and staff alike that greeted this remark proved we were getting stoned. By the end of the first joint there was no doubt whatsoever. Although far from being first-rate pot, a whole joint (cigarette-size, remember) of it would work.

Later we learned the product was about two percent THC. The University of Mississipi, under NIMH auspices, grows it. The physician who came down to the ward, Dr. John C. Kuehnle, said it was the best grass they could get from the government. Rumors of the high potency of Mississipi marijuana were evidently exaggerated. On a scale of one to ten, it would scarcely rate a five.

Back on “Acute Day,” we still had three drinks and two more joints to go. Unfortunately my notes get a little hazy at this point, but I do remember the screwdrivers were strong and delicious. Those days of grass roots testing for early experimentation are nearly half a century old. Today experimentation is done in labratories accross the world, with marijuana legalization on its way to being a watershed moment in american history. But the days of ordering screwdrivers or whiskey souers at the marijuana experiment are long since gone along with bell bottom jeans and clogs.

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