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Marijuanamerica

By Alfred Ryan Nerz

Abrams Image

272 pages, $19.95

By Christopher Schobert

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

“Marijuanamerica” is subtitled “One Man’s Quest to Understand America’s Dysfunctional Love Affair with Weed,” but author Alfred Ryan Nerz’s quest never comes to any insightful conclusion. Instead, Nerz’s entertaining book feels like the kind of late-night conversation you had in college about politics, or video games, or, yes, the legalization of weed. It goes nowhere, but we had a good time, didn’t we?

Nerz, a writer for NPR and Esquire and author of a book on competitive eating, has a fine eye for detail, as evidenced by the book’s opening. He is driving, and has been for some time, with weed “safely packed” in the car. “I must be the lamest-looking outlaw on the planet,” he writes. “What started out as an adrenaline-fueled odyssey has become mundane, repetitive.”

It has been a long trip, one filled with too much FM radio (“I’ve got ‘S&M’ down so cold I could perform it with Rihanna”), a lot of sweat and way too much paranoia. He spots a state trooper and, typically, freaks out. The ordeal makes him rethink his life, and the idea for this very book pops into his head:

“Why was America, year after year, among the highest per capita cannabis-consuming nations in the world? Was there something about the superficial buzz and whir of contemporary American life that made marijuana its ideal pyschospiritual antidote? Why were so many states following in the footsteps of California and creating medical marijuana laws that openly flouted federal law?”

And so on and so forth. Along the way, he meets predictably colorful characters. One of them is Craig, one of Nerz’s three pot dealers and the only one willing to chat. (“Craig” is not his real name; “I’m guessing he chose ‘Craig’ as his nom de guerre because it’s the name of Ice Cube’s character in the movie ‘Friday.’ ”)

The most difficult part of dealing weed in New York City? As Craig tells Nerz, it’s all the small talk. Interestingly, Craig says most of his clients are “females and teachers.”

Like many of the characters Nerz introduces us to, and perhaps like the author himself, Craig is a bundle of contradictions: “He says he’s not a marijuana addict, but he chain-smokes blunts. He doesn’t think pot is a gateway drug, yet he knows Klonopins (clonazepam) will get you right. He says he doesn’t drink booze, but he never mentions the contents of his ever-present Styrofoam cup. One minute, he’ll be making a cogent point; the next he’ll drift off and seem to disassociate from reality.”

When it comes to weed, Craig, and America, have a lot in common.

One of Nerz’s skills is describing characters such as Craig and “Buddha Cheese,” which might be the most unappealing moniker this side of Carlos Danger. Not all of these encounters, however, are fun. Near the book’s end, Nerz attends a Marijuana Anonymous meeting, where, among others, he hears the sad tale of Trong, who grew up in Vietnam, came to America, sat around and smoked pot, and determined he was wasting his life.

“My mind shuffles through all the characters, like Trong, that I’ve met during my 2-year-long investigation into this topic,” Nerz writes. “It’s daunting.” Indeed it is, because it seems finding any consensus is virtually impossible.

You’ll likely emerge from “Marijuanamerica” as a fan of Alfred Ryan Nerz, a sharp, funny writer who took on a seemingly impossible task. And even though he was unsuccessful in his quest to “understand” the nation’s relationship with weed, he has demonstrated just how messy a situation this is and why every answer seems to lead to more questions.

Perhaps Nerz describes the situation best when calling the Marijuana Anonymous scene “a useful microcosm for examining the conflicting forces that surround American weed culture.” These conflicting forces are all touched on here, but don’t expect any surprises.

The book is, then, a loose collection of pot-related stories and characters, nothing more. And while it is often entertaining, I cannot help but think a joint would be infinitely more satisfying. Or perhaps not. After “Marijuanamerica,” I’m just not sure. So what was the point?

Christopher Schobert is a freelance Buffalo critic and movie blogger.