“I find it quite ironic that the most dangerous thing about weed is getting caught with it.” — Bill Murray

My freedom has arrived in the mail. A plain white envelope marked only “OMMA,” short for Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority, holds a slick plastic card with my picture, license number, and expiration date. I admire the license before sliding it into my wallet, snatch the car keys from the bowl on my desk, and walk out the door. My destination: a marijuana dispensary, a cathedral of legal weed in a semi-legal state.

When Oklahomans passed State Question 788 to legalize medical marijuana in 2018, I wasn’t surprised. Our underground culture of joints shared around a bonfire while serenaded by the red dirt sounds of guitars and banjos and mandolins would not be denied.

The drive takes me down country roads known as state highways. Clapboard homes boast porches sagging beneath the weight of refrigerators and stoves and everything else discarded from within. Field after field of horses graze on clipped brown grass and cows sleep beneath bare trees. The pond of an occasional sprawling mini mansion glitters in the brisk winter air.

I first met Mary Jane when I was 15. A high school boyfriend introduced me one afternoon while driving around. Without ceremony or warning, he reached over from the driver’s seat with a lit joint pinched between his fingers.

“Want some?”

Unlike my father’s cigarettes that made me choke, this smoke smelled of liberation, of rebellion. The joint itself seemed to reach out to me, inviting me to be its friend. Why not? Joint pressed to my lips, I inhaled as deeply as I could and watched the scenery whiz past. An intense calmness took hold. Later, as we sat by the lake, a swallowtail butterfly sat on milkweed leaves, its wings folding up and down in sync with my breath. Cream-colored tips lined its black wings and spotted either side of its body. A splash of light in an otherwise black world. For a moment, I understood everything there was to know about life. I was that butterfly, and I could fly away.

Wondering if I’ve taken a wrong turn, I see the steeple of the Bluebonnet Baptist Church up ahead. Two miles later, I pass the Mack and Sons Repair Shop, then the John Deere store and the Tractor Supply shop next door. How much farther is it? Or maybe this is all a dream. No, my worst nightmare. The days of Reefer Madness are back, and technically, I am still a criminal.

While marijuana has a ring to it, I prefer the term cannabis. Besides being the scientific name, cannabis doesn’t share marijuana’s roots in bigotry and fear. Prior to the early 1900’s, Americans only knew cannabis, a versatile plant used in industry and in tinctures available from local pharmacies. When thousands fled the Mexican Revolution for the U.S. in the early 1900’s, they brought the idea of smoking cannabis for its psychedelic effects. The xenophobic fear-mongering machine used the habit to its advantage, and cannabis became “Mexican locoweed,” first criminalized by California in 1913, and “marihuana,” as in the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 that outlawed it nationwide.

Just as I wonder if I’ve driven too far, I spot a green flag up ahead, the long side attached to a pole and billowing out more like a parachute than a flag. A giant medical “+” symbol fills the bottom. Above it, letters arranged vertically spell one word: “dispensary.” Place of the most sacred of all plants. Passing me on its way out of the parking lot is a white Lexus SUV. A middle-aged white woman grips the wheel while next to her an older woman, perhaps her mother, rifles through a small paper bag. When people think of medical cannabis in America’s heartland, wealthy white women probably don’t come to mind. But there they are, just like me.

I’ve paid my dues, perhaps more than my fair share, for the opportunity to strip away the label of “druggie” slapped on me when I was a teen. My parents used it when they tossed me in a psychiatric hospital in 1987, the day after my 16th birthday. My father used it to justify leaving me nothing when he died 19 years later.

The first question the hospital psychiatrist asked me was, “Have you ever smoked marijuana?” I said no, although she knew I was lying. Now I understand the role cannabis played in the staggering rates of teenagers admitted to private psychiatric hospitals at the time. It justified otherwise unjust commitments of kids suffering from the stress of dysfunctional homes. As a white, middle-class kid whose father was an insurance agent, I was thrust into the so-called health care system. Had I been a poor black kid, especially a boy, I would have been thrown into the juvenile justice system and gained a criminal record to haunt me the rest of my life.

As kids instructed to “Just Say No,” saying “yes” grouped us among the morally flawed, deviants whose brains were frying like eggs in a skillet. I wanted to escape, so I said “yes.” Cannabis floated me off into another place, a magical dream of innocence where I’d never seen my father beat my mother, where I’d never been the latchkey kid of divorced parents, where my mother didn’t explode in sudden rages from a mental illness she refused to see. A place where I felt loved and wanted.

The dispensary door still closing behind me, I breeze through the entrance area to a second door that refuses to budge. A voice behind me makes me jump.

“Can I help you, hon’?”

Turning around, I see the enclosed booth I missed in my excitement. The security guard, a short woman a couple of feet taller than the counter, grins wider than any security guard I’ve ever seen.

“I take it this is your first time?” she says, still smiling as if she has the greatest job in the world.

My two licenses—cannabis and driver’s—clatter when I drop them in the metal slot beneath the window. The door to the inside clicks audibly. The sound reminds me of the psychiatric hospital, the sound of the waiting room door locking after me as security guards dragged me down the hallway. That door locked on a girl misunderstood, angry, stigmatized. This door unlocks on a woman who finally feels understood, happy to shed the choking cloak of secrecy and shame.

The smell hits me first. An explosion of terpenes that give cannabis its distinctive smell. Myrcene and pinene and limonene and over one hundred other terpenes that make one strain smell like cloves while another smells like a damp forest and another like grapefruit. The aroma tingles my nose. Scent of a cannabis connoisseur’s heaven. About ten feet from the door, glass-front cabinets span the length of the shop. Inside, jars of buds on display for consideration. Budtenders sporting T-shirts with the shop’s motto, “Get Your Hits on Route 66,” help customers lined up at the counter.

Two older men, one clutching a cane, both wearing ballcaps proclaiming their Vietnam vet status, say they’re here for the veterans’ discount. A woman in her sixties whose dyed jet-black hair contrasts with her floral print jean jacket and ivory slacks looks around the shop in wonder. A twentysomething couple, the guy’s earlobes hollowed out by wooden tunnels and the girl’s nose pierced with a pink-tipped silver ring to match her pink-highlighted long blond hair, debate the pros and cons of growing their own.

As a kid, I longed for community and found it in cannabis. In high school, I was the only honors student who hung out in the smoking section, where a joint could slip by unnoticed in the haze of tobacco smoke. In college, I hooked up with the crew at Hideaway Pizza in Stillwater, an icon of Oklahoma’s hippie culture. In my day, you could still find a bong in the coat room. After college, I packed into a parked car with friends from work, sharing puffs off a small stone pipe before entering the bar for Friday happy hour. Cannabis relaxed me. It gave me a break from the semi-constant state of raised defenses ingrained in me from childhood.

Standing before the dispensary cabinets, I crinkle my forehead trying to remember what I know about the different strains. My mind slips between an overwhelming awe at the fact that I get to choose and the 15 or so different varieties I get to choose from. Never have I had this choice. And never, in all the years I’ve used cannabis, have I known what I was using. Was it grown with pesticides? Was it tainted with blood? Maybe transported by a Mexican cartel or grown in the dense piney forests of southeastern Oklahoma surrounded by explosives and trip wires?

A budtender in his late 50’s or early 60’s approaches me. With salt-and-pepper hair curled loosely around his head, he looks like Jerry Garcia with a scraggly gray beard.

“What can I get for ya today?”

Gawking at the jars in the cabinet, I shake my head slowly side to side.

“I have no idea,” I say, looking up with a grin. “I’m still in shock.”

He laughs and pulls a few jars from the cabinet.

“Here’s a little sample of the ones that’ll perk ya up, the ones that’ll make ya sit an’ ponder a bit, and the ones that’ll lock ya to the couch.”

He opens a jar and I inhale scents of grapes and berries, of sweetness tempered by earthiness.

“Look at all those trichomes,” he says and flips a switch on the jar. Miniature LED lights illuminate the inside. Gazing through the magnifier on the jar’s top, I see them. Tiny white crystals sparkle like diamonds and cover the buds like a blanket of frost. Sticky resin rich with THC and other cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids that make cannabis distinct.

Now that I know what strains I’m getting, I’ve learned how to maximize the plant’s therapeutic effects. A sativa-heavy strain perks me up in both mood and energy level. A nice hybrid can spur introspection and creativity that fuels my writing, and a bit of indica-dominant bud before bed relaxes both mind and muscles. With or without my medical cannabis license, I’m still me. But the monkey on my back is gone. No more unrelenting demands to quit, leading from one failed attempt to another. No more self-criticism. In their place, respect for a plant I’ve long believed was put here for our benefit. Respect for myself.

Home from the dispensary, I search through my paper sack for the pre-rolls tossed in for free, possibly because I entertained the budtenders with my childlike wonder the entire visit. I keep my jacket on, grab a lighter, and step out to the back deck, absorbing the expansive view of the lake that winter affords. Lighting the tip of the joint, I inhale deeply. A flock of pelicans glides past, the soft swoosh of their wings floating on the breeze. The sound of freedom, I think, and exhale my first puff of legal weed.