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Higher Learning

Columbia professor Louis Silverstein preaches the virtues of wacky tobacky. So does his mysterious friend "Ganja," whose book he's promoting as avidly as if it were his own.


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Dr. Louis Silverstein was sipping tea in the Columbia College student union, unwinding after his "Education, Culture, and Society" class. "Drugs make people crazy," said the professor, who bears a slight resemblance to Charles Manson. "Particularly people who don't have any knowledge of them and don't use them."

Silverstein, who's been at Columbia for three decades and currently teaches in the school's liberal education department, was talking about a run-in he says he had with the law around 1971. His second wife--a former student--had introduced him to Aunt Mary just the previous year, and he had yet to embark on the psychic "journeys" that would lead to his understanding of what he calls the "art and discipline of smoking marijuana." A pair of detectives showed up at his Rogers Park apartment with a search warrant, looking for pot. They found less than a lid he'd left on a dresser, but by the time they booked him it had grown to five pounds. It was his word against the Man's, and, facing up to ten semesters of jail time, Silverstein was advised by his lawyer to throw himself on the mercy of the court.

He'd heard other lefty academics around town were getting pinched, and he figured he'd been set up in retaliation for his antiwar activities. It was an especially unlucky time to be busted, since he'd just been hired as assistant dean of the fledgling college and placed in charge of winning over the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, the body in charge of accreditation. "Wouldn't it look wonderful?" he asks. "'Dean of Accreditation: Busted for Marijuana With Intent to Sell'? So even though I felt this was an injustice, I didn't speak out. For two years every Wednesday afternoon I'd leave my job at Columbia and go down to 26th and California to meet my probation officer." The school was a pretty radical place back then, but not so radical that he wouldn't have been canned if anyone had found out.

Twelve years after his arrest, he claims, he mysteriously received an unsolicited expungement of the conviction from the court. It's a hell of a yarn, though Silverstein says not many have heard it, and it's impossible to verify, since he tossed the notification letter. Any attorney will tell you that getting such a happy surprise would be a miracle given that clearing a criminal record requires petitioning a judge, who might grant such a boon if the offense were possession of a small amount of dope, not pounds. "It just came, and I accepted the gift," Silverstein says.

The 63-year-old soaked up his Brooklyn accent as the second son of eastern European immigrants and the only brother of four to attend college. An adolescent correspondence with Bertrand Russell and an identification with one of his history professors at the City College of New York who had refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee "radicalized" Silverstein and shifted his ambition from accounting to teaching.

He joined the army to help pay for grad school, first at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and then at Northwestern, but was discharged after applying for conscientious-objector status during the Vietnam war. His first teaching job was a four-year run at Highland Park High School, where he says he nettled some parents with a pro-pleasure approach to sex ed and got more involved in liberal social causes. After a short stint at Rhode Island College, where he says he was run out because of his activism, he took the administrative job at Columbia. In those days he fit right in at a school that bucked tradition with an open admissions policy and hired faculty that might not otherwise be associated with academia.

He'd gotten some giggles from pot, but a car crash on a country road with his third wife in 1972 was the setup for his first real spiritual high. Neither was seriously hurt, but his chest was badly bruised and it was painful to move. His young wife suggested they toke up. "I smoke, and she looks at me and says, 'Louis. Let. Us. Make. Love.' We made love, and it was as if the accident never occurred. When the marijuana wore off I couldn't move again. I said, Isn't it interesting that this thing called consciousness is not fixed? It's fluid."

Around the same time, his uncle Hymie, a conservative World War II vet, was diagnosed with stomach cancer and began getting high to ease the pain. Eventually Hymie started dealing for other terminally ill patients in Miami Beach. By the end of the decade, Silverstein had decided to pursue a study of "altered states of consciousness." Unauthorized by the school, he and a friend started taking groups of students camping in Utah and Colorado, offering them marijuana, mushrooms, and LSD and guiding them through their trips. "Our role as mentors and elders was to help the person through the experience so they learned to use it on their own," he says. "If they decided to explore something, it was a safe environment and they were around people they trusted."

In 1978, he and his younger brother Eddie--a former drug dealer who died in 1994--bought a 40-acre farm in northern Wisconsin near Wausau and four months out of the year raised animals, grew vegetables, meditated, read books on hallucinogens, smoked their own small crop, dropped acid, mescaline, and mushrooms, and ran naked in the woods. "We went everywhere in terms of consciousness. It was the most incredible time." At one point Silverstein hired a local witch and, in the presence of friends and family, married Mother Earth.

Silverstein also married his fourth and current wife in 1979, and they had a couple of kids. As his children reached adolescence, his enthusiasm for hitting the hay didn't dampen. Instead he became more outspoken, espousing a harm-reduction approach to drug education in the days of "Just say no." He figured that kids would use drugs no matter what adults said, and that it was best to teach them responsible use. Additionally, he says, he began to notice a drop in the number of black men in his classes at Columbia and deduced that the drug war was sending them to prison rather than college.

He took public positions on drug reform in letters to editors and by speaking out in community forums and professional meetings. He also practiced a karmic approach, leaving drug-reform literature on the el for random strangers to find. At the same time he tried to stay low-key about his own use. Today he claims he never keeps it in the house and only smokes in places where it is "legally or culturally acceptable"--like Jamaica, Amsterdam, and Maui, where Eddie owned a fruit plantation and where alternative communities grow and smoke marijuana under the benign neglect of the authorities.

Last April he took a different kind of stand, publishing Deep Spirit & Great Heart: Living in Marijuana Consciousness. Silverstein, whose name is the only one on the cover, takes credit for the introduction and epilogue but says the main body of the work was penned by "a kindred soul" who calls himself Ganja. It purports to be an "account of thoughtful healing and provocative journeys into the material and spiritual realms of existence while under the influence of cannabis sativa." What it is is a diary about what it's like to be stoned when you're a guy who sounds a lot like Silverstein.

The narrator spends many of his days in tropical climates, firing up, sexing his wife with his "love wand," feeding ice cream to the cats, invading a golf course to practice tai chi, and reflecting deeply on life, death, love, nature, and pleasure.

"Bending over forward," he writes on March 11, 1994, "I use my hands to spread my cheeks apart to expose the deepest recesses of my ass to the sun, feeling the heat of its energy cleansing this dark area of my body." On November 21 he goes dancing on the beach with some pals and on December 31 rescues a bunch of drowning worms.

Ganja's life isn't all incense and peppermints. On November 11 he observes a fellow traveler in a Bob Marley T-shirt freaking out over a newspaper. "This is crap," the man shouts. "Where is the real information? Why have trees been made into lies?" The following week Ganja forgives his cold father and the next month bids a tender farewell to his dying brother, both experiences intensified by booting the moocah.

Silverstein insists he's not Ganja. As a professor at an accredited college that receives government grants, he says, it would be risky for him to extol the virtues of marijuana himself--he's simply the keeper of Ganja's journals. "He wanted to change the world culture's attitudes to this thing called marijuana," says Silverstein coyly.

About three dozen academic presses and agents turned down the manuscript before Silverstein decided to take it to the print-on-demand press Xlibris, which sells it through its own Web site and those of Amazon, Borders, and Barnes & Noble. Publicizing the book was Silverstein's problem, but when the school's lawyer advised the administration not to host a reading, it ended up working to his advantage. "This was the first time in the history of Columbia, since I've been there, that a book has ever been vetted by the college's legal counsel," says Silverstein. He hollered censorship and appealed to provost Steve Kapelke, who reversed the decision on grounds of academic freedom.

"Given the controversial nature of the book, I'd been asked by the administration to run such issues by our newly acquired legal counsel," E-mailed philosopher Stephen Asma, who headed the liberal education department at the time. He supports his colleague's scholarly interest in hallucinogen research but says the censorship angle was exaggerated and played for publicity. "As Chairman, I was more concerned that L.'s book was self-published (vanity press) and not peer reviewed or professionally vetted. In my personal opinion that's not something I want the Department's name on--I don't care if the book is about drugs or needlepoint."

By the time the reading rolled around the media had been alerted, and a camera crew from CLTV attended the event. Since then, Silverstein says, he's often approached and lauded by strangers who were turned on to the book after seeing him on the news. After mounting his own grassroots press campaign, he's appeared on about two dozen radio programs worldwide to talk about it--mostly with shock jocks on rock stations. He'd sold about 900 copies by February 1, but that doesn't include the period during which he's received the most publicity.

The book appeals to average folks, he says, though many academics hate it--an opinion affirmed by some of his colleagues. "I've heard people kind of pooh-pooh it as they don't see it as being up to the academic or intellectual par of their work," says Columbia journalism professor and Silverstein admirer Barbara Iverson. "They would say it's not well written. Personally I think it's extremely interesting how he's gotten a lot of publicity for himself. Many of our colleagues should look to that kind of model. That might be something that you laugh at him for now, but in a few years it's going to be the entrepreneurial professors selling their ideas, and God bless him, Louis was there and saw the potential."

Silverstein, who is no longer an administrator but teaches two classes--the other is "Peace Studies"--suspects there's more at work than academic elitism or drug paranoia. There's a divide, he says, between his generation and younger faculty who scorn the liberal ideals held by the ever-thinning ranks of professors who've been with the school for decades--"long marchers," as he calls them, a reference to Chairman Mao's revolutionaries. "This perspective is represented by the words 'Get with it. This is not the 60s' or 'You're living in the past,'" says Silverstein, who happens to be spearheading a massive oral history of the college.

"Louis is a highly admired maverick," says anthropology professor Joan Erdman. "He has his own way of doing things. He has particular interests which we all think are admirable, but, like any maverick, some people think he's a nuisance."

Sociology professor Wilfredo Cruz is one of those younger colleagues Silverstein is talking about, but he doesn't see himself as such an adversary. "My attitude is this is a college--there's room here for everybody," says Cruz. "But he has a perspective that I disagree with sometimes. He doesn't give tests in some of his classes, and I think we should be challenging our students. Some things I don't even understand. I look out my window here and I see him in the park with his peace studies class doing tai chi. I don't know how that fits in with peace studies, but maybe he does. I do appreciate his social activism, though. Students should be exposed to different viewpoints. Some people say he shouldn't be here. I wouldn't say that. I think he should be here."

"Lou is a holdover from Columbia's most freewheeling days in the 70s," said another colleague. Silverstein realizes he can no longer organize field trips to the center of the mind like he did in those days, but if he could, he might. "If kids were gonna use substances I would prefer something to be done like many Native American traditions, where in adolescence you went on a vision quest and were frequently given a psychedelic. But there were elders around to help guide the person through his experience with demons and into the experience of the mind."

Alas, times have in fact changed. "Things were not being enforced like they are now," he says. "You didn't have the drug-war intensity as you do now. I didn't have children. We're in a much more monitored situation."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Saverio Truglia.

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