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Out of joint: Confessions of a pot addict
A decade ago, I was sitting on a lumpy futon in the windowless basement that served as my refuge, post-unresolved breakup. I had just been told that my ex-boyfriend had met someone new—a willowy stripper from Ibiza— and was arranging for her to live with him in our old apartment. My mind was a tornado powered entirely by hostile thoughts. That’s when one of my new roommates gave me a joint. Within moments, my brooding faded and thoughts of my ex dissipated as quickly as the smoke I exhaled. Finally, I felt free from pain. Since then, I’ve diligently followed a mantra made famous by (who else?) Snoop Dogg: Smoke weed every day.
I am a reluctant pothead. Although I’m unquestionably in love with the substance that U.S. President Barack Obama described as a “bad habit and a vice”—but not more dangerous than alcohol—I constantly question my attachment to it. My two-joint-a-day habit may impress certain sets of Wiz Khalifa-obsessed 15-year-old boys, but as a 35-year-old writer who has smoked it for 10 years, I feel like it’s time to grow up. I don’t want to be thinking about getting high all day, and I don’t want my legacy to be stained with a pothead label.
The fact that it is technically an illegal substance in Canada—with confusing caveats when it comes to medicinal use—does nothing to deter me. Neither do the funds it sucks from my bank account or my deteriorating memory. I have completely blanked on people I met only a few years ago—including potential clients—people with whom I have had conversations and email exchanges. I find myself digging for certain memories— they constantly feel fleeting. I have a hard time understanding this attachment. All I know is that I’m pot’s bitch. Or, in medical terms, an addict.
A Cultural Phenomenon
I’m certainly not alone. Pot’s presence can feel inescapable. Walk through a park on a summer day and you’ll be hard-pressed not to get a whiff of its sweet, musky smell. A friend who works as a professional space organizer tells me that two most common things hidden in the vast majority of her clients’ private nooks are sex toys and pot. Music videos (like Classified’s “Higher”), Rihanna’s now-departed (and greatly missed) Instagram feed and TV shows like Broad City and Workaholics are all proof that Mary Jane is heavily embedded in our culture.
Statistics paint a different picture. A 2012 Canadian Alcohol and Drug Use Monitoring Survey found that the number of regular pot users—“chronics,” as they’re known in pothead vernacular—hovers at around 630,000. That’s enough people to fill 12 Madison Square Gardens. Broken down, this means that 27 percent of Canadians aged 15 years and older said they used pot in one form or another daily, or almost daily, over a three-month period. In terms of casual users, 7 percent of women surveyed said they had smoked pot in the past year—compared to double that number among men. (The survey didn’t specify whether this was for recreational or medical use.)
Amy Porath-Waller, senior research analyst at the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, says there’s solid evidence, from tests conducted on both animals and humans, that suggests that marijuana can be addictive. Rats who were exposed to marijuana when they were trained to press a button that released it obsessively pressed the button when the marijuana was taken away. Humans don’t fare much better. “Studies involving humans who use marijuana heavily show that when they abstain from use, they exhibit withdrawal symptoms,” she explains. “It’s a physical and psychological dependency.”
Physical tension, sleep disturbances, mood changes and reduced appetite are all symptoms that people experience when going through marijuana withdrawal. These symptoms may seem mild compared to those of withdrawal from harder drugs, like cocaine, heroin or prescription pills, but Porath-Waller says it all depends on your genetic makeup, predisposition to addiction and how young you are when you start using. Research has shown that cognitive abilities can be hindered by regular use, particularly among those who take it up in their teens, when the brain is still developing. There’s also evidence that frequent and early use can trigger psychosis and schizophrenia, particularly among those who have a family history of mental illness.
While I used pot in my teens, I never sought it out. The first time I got high, I felt so overwhelmed by my altered state that I reached Maureen Dowd levels of paranoia and started to panic that I’d stay that way forever. I wasn’t comfortable with how it made me feel and generally declined invites to join pot-smoking circles at parties or shows. I did admire those girls who could hold their own while high—it gave them an edgy and cool aura that I desperately lacked. It just wasn’t a drug I could see myself adjusting to smoothly.
I remember one occasion when I indulged in a joint and felt euphoric on the bus ride home. “I wish I could feel like this forever,” I thought to myself. Looking back, I think that moment is what led me to where I am today.
A Dose of Dopamine
“Just because [marijuana] doesn’t have physiological withdrawal symptoms, it still can be addictive for many of its users,” says Dr. J. Wesley Boyd, a faculty member in the psychiatry department at Harvard Medical School and author of Almost Addicted. When you smoke pot, a large amount of dopamine—the chemical in your brain that makes you feel good—is released. If you cut back on that good feeling, the brain is going to notice. “If you suddenly take away the dopamine, your brain is going to be screaming out—not consciously but on a primal level—‘Get me some damn dopamine; make me feel good,’” he says.
I don’t hide my relationship with pot from the people in my life. While my parents chalk my habit up to immaturity, they don’t interfere because I am a functional adult. It has never interfered with my work—although, since I’m a freelancer, it has certainly gotten in the way of my motivation. When things are slow, it’s so much easier to watch TMZ Live after smoking a spliff than focus on pitching story ideas.
My friends—who are mostly fellow potheads— are amused by my near-weekly pattern of declaring my intention to quit. I know where they keep their stash, and they tolerate it when I help myself to it. They know that if I’m in a room with pot, it’s a priority. The shame I feel from this is stifled by my obsession to smoke it.
About half of my romantic relationships— everyone from a visual-effects artist to (big surprise) comedians—have been the result of sparking a joint. Stoned sex is the best kind of fun; I’ve gone to many ethereal places when I climax. The non-smoking guys I date never make a fuss about my enthusiasm for Mary Jane. Sometimes I wish they would so it would give me more incentive to cut back.
I’m open about it with my doctors too—one in Toronto and one in Vancouver. The latter says that, with my history of depression, it’s not good for me and strongly advises that I cut back or quit altogether. My Toronto doctor has a more relaxed perspective, telling me that it’s harmless once in a while, though she won’t go so far as to offer up a prescription.
The fact that getting a prescription for pot is an option complicates the matter further. Marijuana is proven to have numerous medicinal benefits—everything from treating glaucoma to helping ease the pain and nausea from chemotherapy. While the government’s official stance is against marijuana, a 2000 Supreme Court ruling permitted patients access to the drug, which means that Health Canada must distribute a substance they officially deem illegal. To obtain marijuana legally, you must get a note from your doctor and your stash through licensed suppliers.
The right to smoke marijuana is a cause to which Jodie Emery has committed her life. Once described as a “pothead in pearls,” Emery is married to Marc Emery, the so-called “Prince of Pot,” Canada’s more prominent marijuana activist. He recently served a five-year prison sentence in the United States after being extradited for selling marijuana seeds online. She stresses that despite marijuana’s seemingly transparent role in Canada, medically and culturally, there’s a long way to go until it’s truly accepted in our country. “There’s still, and always will be, a stigma attached to anyone who uses quote unquote ‘drugs,’” she says. “Marijuana use can be problematic for some, but I’d say the rates of problematic marijuana use are no higher than the rates of people who are dependent on coffee, a glass of wine, a cigarette or a bike ride in the evening.”
Ideally, I’d rather get hooked on bike rides in the evening than a pricey illegal substance that clearly has the potential to encase me. In April, I wrote a list of boundaries and goals for how I’d like my relationship with pot to change: Only smoke it when it’s offered; limit waking and baking to two times a year (Christmas and 420?); abstain from smoking a minimum of two days a week. I deleted my dealer’s number and gave away my stash. It’s clear that having it in my presence is not conducive to change: Just like with chocolate, I will consume it without restraint.
There are weeks when I slip back into my old habits: I beg a friend for my dealer’s number and quickly smoke my way through a quarter ounce with the intention of making another crack at sobriety when it’s gone.
I feel something shifting, though. The less I smoke, the more focused I become. The clarity that floods me is on a par with how good I feel when I get high. I’ve not felt any withdrawal symptoms, unless you count boredom. Now when I have free time, I go for a run, stretch or walk my dog. Sometimes I even work, but it doesn’t feel quite as inspired or whimsical as it does after a joint. I’ve also noticed that music doesn’t envelop me. My eureka ideas don’t come to me with the same force, and I can’t sit and stare at geometrical shapes or vibrant colours with such intense focus, but I’m certainly more grounded in reality. And, as a result, I feel stronger. Pot is slowly turning from a lifestyle to a treat—something that I indulge in before a night out with friends. I suspect, and hope, that it’s only a matter of time before my long-held pattern will fade into thin air. Just like smoke.
POT TALK: Celebs profess their love for Mary Jane
“Weed is the best drug on earth.” – Miley Cyrus
“I’ve felt telepathic and receptive to inexplicable messages my whole life. I can stave those off when I’m not high. When I’m high, well, they come in and there’s less of a veil, so to speak. So if ever I need some clarity…or a quantum leap in terms of writing something, it’s a quick way for me to get to it.” – Alanis Morissette
“The only thing pot does for me is it gets me to stop thinking. Sometimes I have a brain that needs to be turned off. Some people are just better high.” – Justin Timberlake
“I smoke a lot of pot when I write music.” – Lady Gaga
“I’m a recreational pot smoker. There has never been enough of a distinction between marijuana and other drugs. It’s a human-rights issue, a censorship issue and a choice issue.” – Frances McDormand