Weed Gave My Family Everything—Then Took It Away

Tony Dokoupil’s childhood was the stuff movies are made of—or, in this case, books.

Dokoupil Family

In his new memoir, The Last Pirate, Dokoupil describes growing up with one of the most successful pot barons of the Reagan era: his father. Smuggling Colombian weed through an old Florida fishing shack, “Big Tony” made his fortune just in time for “Little Tony,” to arrive. So began an early childhood of unprecedented luxury. Caribbean vacations, luxury yachts, exclusive swimming lessons, and the best private school in south Florida.

It was a pace too fast to sustain. So when a serious cocaine addiction forced Big Tony into hiding, 10-year-old Dokoupil and his mom were left picking up the pieces. It wasn’t until years later, as a grown journalist, that he learned the true story of the “golden days” he now only vaguely remembers.

As the nation edges closer to legalizing marijuana, Dokoupil sheds light on the dangers of legalization. Growing up the son of a smuggler has given him an important perspective: weed is, after all, a drug.

Do you think marijuana legalization (and its resulting commercialization) is bad?

I'm pro the freedom to smoke and the freedom to grow and pass and partake. But I'm also a fan of a freedom from advertising of the kind you see in the alcohol and tobacco industries.

I would vote for legalization if it were nonprofit. The problem is the only way politicians get interested in any kind of legalization is if you make it super commercial—and you then tax it like whoa.

Read an excerpt.

But do you think that a nonprofit system would actually work?

The government will never set smokers free without getting something serious fat in return, and that something is tax revenue. Sure, you could talk of the "savings" that come from not busting smokers, but we all like stacks of money to spend more than stacks of money we "saved."

Keeping in mind that this has the potential to be a multi-billion dollar market, shouldn’t someone get the money?

YES. The guy growing it as a craft should get his costs covered and the people providing the equipment for it should make real, regular cash. I want to see the future of pot mirror the future of pipe smoking or roll your own cigarettes or Whiffle Ball, for crying out loud. Let it be a hobby, a pastime, a social thing—like it used to be, like it always was. Don't turn it into something that billboards all sides of my life.

OK, but if you’re not opposed to legalization per see, what’s your beef?

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We have a weirdly casual attitude about legalization. Let's concede that pot is safer than alcohol but also that the THC in pot isn't a totally benign substance at any quantity and that some people have real problems with it. They say they want to use less and they can't. And for a small—but not insignificant—number of people, pot can be the chemical nudge that causes them harm. Why don't we care more about that? I think we discount things that affect the mind and worry too much about the body.

Do you think people are openly ignoring the dangers?

No, they just tend to discount them. It's a blissful fog—the chemicals literally park in a part of the brain named for the Sanskrit word for bliss—but blissful fog is a fog all the same. It's also true that the benefits of legalization have been wildly oversold. Cartels will diversity, tax revenues will be shrunk by public health costs, and enforcement won't go away, it will merely shift to the kinds of enforcement we see in alcohol crimes. Open container, driving, etc.

Can you give specific examples of how this could negatively impact Americans?

Pilots who smoke perform more poorly than clear-headed pilots on simulators—and that lasts 24 hours or more. Drivers who are high are estimated to be two and seven times more likely to crash. Some research suggests use can elevate the risk of psychosis in people already at risk. And four million people self-report a dependence on the drug. There's debate about whether it's a true addiction, but it's definitely bad moods, anxiety, fatigue. It's not delirium tremors and chromosome breakage and only a small number of users would be seriously harmed. But why don't we care about those people? If one in 1,000 kids smokes weed and is tipped toward an unquiet mind, that's nothing —unless you're that one kid. I worry about the one kid.

In your opinion, what’s the biggest misnomer on the legalization front?

Some advocates of legalization argue that if pot is regulated we will control it more. Really? Booze is legal and in high school I was the school buyer of booze. I had no idea how to get pot, but I had a furry mustache, a dumb jaw, hair to my eyebrows and an ID I stole from the DMV. Besides, even if pot were really, really, really well regulated like prescription drugs, diversion and abuse will still happen. At the corner store or in the medicine cabinet or next to the bread in the pantry—all seem closer at hand than black market pot.

How much do you think your views on legalization are informed by your own story?

I think you've hit on something there. I'm definitely prone to nostalgia and romance and legalization is a blow to both. Is there any criminal exploit left that combines fresh air, physical daring, clear thinking, and a matter of social justice? I can't think of any, and that bums me out. I think social banditry, as the academics call it, is a proud American tradition. I think capitalism is, too, but which is more enlivening? Legal weed is ironic because it's a rational means to irrational ends. For smokers to feel good safely, sellers have to become Al Bundys of Bud, salesmen of the saddest sort. Seriously, is working in a pot shop any more exciting then the Baby Gap?

If your dad were here, what would he say about all of this?

My father thinks legal weed is his greatest legacy. He thinks he and others like him kept marijuana culture alive when Reagan tried to kill it out and came closer than many remember. He thinks he is at the end of a great, sloppy ride falling backwards into the foam. He's a romantic and I love him still. But dude, your greatest legacy? Your proudest achievement? Most people say: my children. I wish he did, too.