Peeking Under the Lid

My one serious attempt at memoir takes the reader back, as memoirs often do, to my adolescence and coming of age, in the late 60s and early 70s. When the manuscript went through copy-editing, a long query appeared at the point where I had written, “The next time, he brought a lid over to my dorm room.” What was this lid? the copy editor wanted to know. She had checked dictionaries and manuals of usage; she had thought of Tupperware lids, garbage-can lids, baseball caps. None of them made any sense to her.

I began buttonholing friends and acquaintances. “Picture,” I told them, “a friend who is generally stoned. I say that he’s brought a lid over to my dorm room. What has he brought?”

Men and women born between 1950 and 1958, I found in this completely anecdotal survey, knew immediately that I was talking about four fingers’ worth of marijuana in a plastic bag. Those born before or after those dates (allowing for a bit of regional variation) had no idea what I was talking about. My copy editor, obviously, was a young person.

Slang references give a wide variety of definitions for the pot-related use of lid. Some designate it as an ounce of weed, others as 1/4 or 1/8 ounce. The source may be the lid of a Hellman’s mayonnaise jar, the lid of a Prince Albert tobacco can—in both cases, the amount of marijuana is enough to fill the lid—or, strangely, the finger-shape created by unrolling the lid of a coffee can with its custom key. One source refers to the fold of a sandwich Baggie as its “lid,” suggesting that the bag would be filled to that point. All these so-called authorities agree that the term arose in the 1960s and disappeared by the mid-1970s.

What puzzled me, as I wrestled with the sentence highlighted by my copy editor, was that when we were using the term, there seemed to be no alternative term. You bought a lid; you bought two lids, or five lids; unless you were a dealer, you did not buy in other sorts of quantity. We’d heard of nickel bags and dime bags, but those were terms from the movies; we didn’t use them—I checked with a half-dozen pals from college days—in everyday discourse. Writing bag or half-ounce in the memoir felt inauthentic. Finally, my editor and I compromised with lid of marijuana, which may still have puzzled some readers but at least eliminated the baseball-cap image.

Recently, prowling the Web, I found one afficionado providing this explanation:

  • The Mid 70s was a game changer. That is when the higher quality hit the market and a bit of a pot war ensued. The Very High Quality Kona Bud I had sent in seal a meal packs from Hawaii. I Paid 400 dollars for 4 ounces of Kona Gold and sold the ounces for 150. … Right around this time the hippies in Humboldt were busy. Within a few years a transformation began. The logging industry was waning and cannabis came along and provided income for many Northern Californians. … These Grows started providing cannabis that sold for 25 dollars an eighth. That is when 8ths and Quarter Ounces were born as a norm instead of lids.

It’s as plausible as any explanation I’ve found, including those in scholarly journals and reference works. If others have a different story for the rapid, widespread rise of the term lid in the mid-60s and its equally rapid and complete disappearance in the mid-70s, I’d be delighted to hear it. Meanwhile, I can’t help wondering if a recent headline in the Los Angeles Times, “Putting a Lid on L.A.’s Pot Dispensaries,” is a pun written by a 60-year-old or a literal phrase offered up by a fresh-faced 40-year-old—who, incidentally, can put the word pot together with the word dispensary and keep a straight face.


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