Marijuana as Harm Reduction: Chip Z'Nuff on the Medical Promise of Cannabis

By Angela Denk 04/18/19

The movement was a pro-pot culture crusade—a coming out for stoners in the entertainment industry that had everything to do with harm reduction principles.

Chip Z'Nuff Weighs in on marijuana for harm reduction
"I know from personal use and watching people around me that alcoholics who start using it have gotten off of alcohol. That’s a great thing right there." (image via author)

The first time I grasped harm reduction for drug addicts (the idea that abstinence isn’t feasible for everyone so we’d better find a way to reduce mortality and damage), I was 35 and sharing a joint with two other writers—a decades-clean speed freak and a 12-stepping alcoholic. As for me? Everything, but heroin and pharmaceutical amphetamines have caught me the hardest (knock on wood that they’re never dethroned). Mid-joint, one of them asked me if I thought other people smoked as much as us.

Not unless they’re avoiding something else, I said. Puff puff pass.

The first time I experienced harm reduction, though, I was 19 and playing fly-on-the-wall in a rock star’s dining room. It was 1994 on the Irish south side of Chicago. I’d moved into a teenage crash pad where rumor was Enuff Z’nuff—a late eighties Chicago scene staple gone national; a band whose glam exterior lumped them in with acts like Poison and Skid Row while their vibe and melodies telegraphed Cheap Trick and Beatles—lived on the corner. After several weeks of reconnaissance to ferret out exactly where they lived, I was sent to ask them—the rock star strangers—for beer.

They turned out to be Chip Z’nuff, singer, bassist, and original founding member of the band. He answered through an open screen door in his signature rasp: Well I don’t really like alcohol. It’s not good for you, but do you want to get stoned?

Today, when I remind him of the exchange, he laughs a little.

“Good,” he says, “I must have been in a good place then.”

It’s been 25 years since I saw Chip Z’nuff and I’m a card-carrying medical cannabis patient now, a chronically sad trauma survivor with years of hard drug abuse and sobriety behind me. Spurts of hyper-sexual behavior and paranoia keep my psychiatrist and I discussing a secondary bipolar diagnosis, but we’re also not convinced I’m not just an analytical exhibitionist. All I had before was the trauma.

I’ve come to talk with Chip about weed and advocacy, his stance on medicinal usage of marijuana.

Illinois’ medical cannabis pilot program is in a growth phase. On his way out, Governor Bruce Rauner opened up access to include those Illinois residents who have been prescribed opioid medications, and new Governor J.B. Pritzker campaigned in no small way on the promise of bringing recreational marijuana to the Land of Lincoln.

It’s a sunny Friday afternoon in Blue Island, still on Chicago’s south side but with a Hispanic flavor. Hilly in places, it sits on a channel of the Calumet River. Appropriately, a calumet is a North American peace pipe.

I’m a Cannabis Cup judge for High Times Magazine,” Chip says. We’re talking at his kitchen table about his longstanding, loud but peaceful weed advocacy. “They would always pick celebrities—musicians, rockstars, whatever you want to call it—and we’d fly over to Amsterdam and judge the marijuana in the different coffee shops. Whoever had the best shops and best pot would win. So I would go out there, and I did it with a bunch of different guys—Anthrax, Sebastian Bach, Patti Smith, a lot of cool artists—wanting to be a part of the movement because it was so powerful.”

The movement was a pro-pot culture crusade—a coming out for stoners in the entertainment industry that had everything to do with harm reduction principles.

“I got signed when I was about 25. My manager at the time was a guy named Herbie Herbert. He used to manage Journey, Roxette, Mr. Big, Steve Miller—bands that were all successful and sold millions of records. He used to tell me about growing up around the marijuana industry. He came from San Francisco and said that a lot of the artists were switching from alcohol and cocaine to pot, because it was easier on you. [The artists] seemed to feel better, were giving better shows and it wasn’t taking a toll on their bodies. Then I started reading up on pot and [Herbie] started teaching me about the medicinal stuff, the difference between CBD and THC. The guy was a genius. A six-trick pony. So I started studying up on it. [Medical cannabis] was a wave of the future that my manager knew about 20 years before it happened.”

The current zeitgeist and loosening laws have everything to do with those years. The nineties, in turn, had been a response to the previous decade. Reagan’s drug war propaganda failed to differentiate between cocaine and cannabis—it was all the same enemy in the ads—but the crack epidemic made it clear that some drugs take a heavier toll on users than others. The public rejected the false equivalence. While celebrities rated weed in Amsterdam, Dazed and Confused announced Hollywood’s new stance on pot, hip hop culture flowed into the mainstream, and the leader of the free world quipped that he “didn’t inhale” live on television.

In 1994, I was an undiagnosed ball of anxiety. I was a Lollapalooza Kid—a subset of Generation X that raved, rocked, and Rainbow Gathered in tandem while digging on Wu-Tang Clan and dancing to Front 242. I lived in a two-bedroom apartment where four, sometimes five of us slept on Tetris-ed floor mattresses in one room. Occasionally a ska band slept over. I was sexually assaulted in that place twice—once by a visitor, once by a roommate—and my only suicide attempt happened there as well.

This is why I remember so many details of my quick stint (just a few months) as Chip’s neighbor. Because the kind of damage that writes books and overdoses was going down. But sitting at his table at age 43, interviewing my old friend for an article on reducing harm, these aren’t the things I remember.

I’m recalling peace signs everywhere—it’s a part of their logo—and a Jane’s Addiction poster on one of the walls. Soft light. Warm skunk smoke hanging above everyone’s heads and a white cat with a full tail I used to pet while I watched the stream of strippers, strummers, and random hangers-on getting high. There were no hard drugs there. Just weed. And music.

Chip’s voice is still raspy, and he’s talking about the medicine in marijuana.

“Is it for everybody? I’m not so sure it is. I know from personal use and watching people around me, though, that alcoholics who start using it have gotten off of alcohol. That’s a great thing right there. Some people just can’t be on anything because it triggers other stuff. But anybody who’s sick, who has a debilitating illness, I think deserves to have the right to take cannabis.

“I’ve got a friend of mine and she had MS,” he says. “She’d go through these tremors. She had problems speaking too. One minute she would be talking, then you couldn’t understand anything she was saying, but if she took a couple hits of pot she could speak so eloquently and perfect—it really helped her in a lot of ways. You can get on the internet and take a look at these success stories of people who have gone through terrible, terrible moments medicinally and have found a different way than what the doctors were prescribing to them. They turn their lives around and they owe it to marijuana in some capacity. I see that and go, ‘There’s a reason that God provides this plant for us on the earth. It wasn’t just to look at a beautiful plant.’ Is it for everybody? No. But for most? I say, could be.”


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Angela Denk lives and writes in the Midwest. Her words have appeared at SheKnowsFiction Southeast and The Sonder Review. She occasionally blogs, and you can follow Angela on Instagram