Leaving my privately defined world
October 18, 2013
My relationship with marijuana began like most teenagers.
It was April 20th of my freshman year of college. My friends
invited me to try taking rips from a three-foot
blue-and-white bong filtered with ice during a break between classes.
Being on the open-minded side of
cautious, I asked myself what the harm was. And, as is allegedly typical
among first-timers, I didn't get high. But my friends promised me I would if I
had another go. So, a few days later I took a few hits from a small pipe. I
remember the experience vividly. Music suddenly had a rejuvinated profundity,
as if every deliberation of Cedric Bixler-Zavala's vocal melodies on the
sophomore Mars Volta album Frances The Mute were
just for me. When I closed my eyes, intense visual hallucinations spun on my
eyelids, as if some part of my brain lay dormant, awaiting a rush of
cannabanoids to unlock its gate.
As a rookie stoner, most basic tasks were unfathomable under the spell of the
drug. I have memories of sitting in my car in a parking garage, watching the
shapes of music take form on the canvas of my mind. I'd sit for a half hour,
terrified at the prospect of interacting with other humans but content within
the confines of my newfound cognitive adventure. I was hooked. But what did
"hooked" mean, exactly? I certainly wasn't addicted. I didn't need
marijuana in my life like a junkie needs heroin. I could function just fine
without it. When I'd travel or visit family, I never craved cannabis.
Marijuana just made everything better.
And, as so many users continue to believe, I thought it made me better, too.
I felt more creative, more compassionate, and more grounded when
under the influence of the drug. I had a sense of euphoria and oneness. It was
as if I'd discovered a whole new mode of being.
Public perception of marijuana, especially in the United States, is becoming
increasingly positive. 65 percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 32
support Marijuana legalization according to a Pew Research Center
In 2012, Washington and Colorado became the first states to legalize marijuana
for recreational use. 20 states, along with the District of Columbia, have
legalized marijuana for medical
Pro-pot campaigns compare statistics surrounding the dangers of alcohol in
defense of recreational cannabis legalization.
A clever campaign video produced
by a campaign organization for a marijuana referendum in British Columbia
even goes as far as to compare alcohol to Microsoft and cannabis to Apple.
With this kind of media acceptance, it's no wonder we're all toking.
After I finished college in 2007, I packed up and headed west. Here in
Portland, I found a community of activists dedicated to the legalization
movement, many of whom are medical marijuana cardholders. Despite still being
illegal for recreational use in the state of Oregon, cannabis is as easy to obtain and
less expensive per "dose" than alcohol. It also bears just about as much
social stigma as alcohol, making it just another staple at house parties, on
bar patios, and, as it would turn out, my living room.
In 2010, I purchased a marijuana vaporizer, an electronic device which heats plant matter
to a temperature high enough to vaporize the active compounds in
cannabis, but not high enough to combust the plant matter. This method of cannabis
ingestion is arguably safer since fewer hazardous carcinogens are inhaled.
Soon, I had a veritable marijuana appliance which became another
"productivity tool" alongside my coffee cup. And the fact that my method of
ingestion was physically harmless meant I saw no issue in more frequent use.
Calling cannabis a "productivity tool" may seem contradictory when I earlier
mentioned I had trouble performing even the most basic tasks under the
influence of the drug. As with all psychoactive substances, cannabis users
experience diminishing returns as their bodies build tolerance to the drug and require
more to achieve the same effect. In fact, many of the pleasant
hallucinatory effects I mentioned earlier ceased within my first six months of
use. Eventually, the cannabis high became less like a trip and more like a buzz.
Creatives profess achieving a state of
flow, wherein they are
fully immersed in their work with energized focus and enjoyment. Cannabis
appeared to provide further immersion, to the point where I could sit at my
computer for hours and produce without ever acknowledging the world beyond my
screen. It also appeared to enhance my spatial reasoning abilities, a
cornerstone of software engineering aptitude. I now know all of these apparent
benefits to be erroneous.
In actuality, the alleged benefits of cannabis with respect to productivity
and creativity are fabrications of the mind. In the same way cannabis conjures
increased appreciation and admiration for art and music, so too it
materializes false grandeur in the creative process. It's not that my ideas
or execution were any better when I was stoned. They just appeared that way. At least, for
the duration of the high.
Looking back, I realize most of the time I spent high I actually wasn't
relaxed, euphoric, or productive. And it wasn't even enjoyable. I experienced,
almost daily, symptoms of cannabis-induced acute psychosis. These
included panic attacks, agoraphobia, aerophobia, hypochondria, persecutory
delusions, mild sociopathic tendencies, and delusions of grandeur.
My first serious bout of panic occurred in the winter of 2010. I had just
returned from an emergency trip to take care of my grandparents, both recently
hospitalized. One night, I lit a joint in my bedroom, when suddenly I
felt a horrific sense of doom come over me, as if I needed to escape from
existence itself. My heart started racing and I felt intense pressure in my
chest. Believing this was the start of a heart attack, I rushed myself to the
emergency room. An EKG would later verify I had a healthy heart. In fact, at
my doctor's request I completed a treadmill stress test and the technician
told me I was the only patient she'd seen who made it all the way to the
finish. My heart was fine. My brain certainly wasn't. My doctor suggested
that cannabis was causing my anxiety and that I should
discontinue use. But cannabis is harmless! Everyone knows that. I continued
Shortly after that episode, I made plans to visit a friend in Philadelphia.
As I boarded the plane, an all-too-familiar sense of panic came over me. I
clung to the armrests, palms sweating, breathing nervously for the entire
duration of the flight. This continued for the next several years, despite
knowing flying is the safest form of transportation per passenger-mile.
Since stopping use, I haven't a shred of fear about my upcoming plane trip.
Similar to my fear of flying, I also suffered persecutory delusions wherein I
believed, whether acutely or chronically, that something horrific was about to
happen. In the case of boarding a plane, I believed we were certainly going to
crash. I also, for a period of about two years, dwelled over the possibility of
a catastropic earthquake striking the Cascades. I'd have persistent visions of
the terror of fallen bridges and would panic if I were stopped in traffic
underneath an overpass. The region is due for a catastrophic quake, but
cannabis turned what should have been an exercise in humble preparedness into
years of panic and dread.
But the most alarming side effect of my regular cannabis use was its subtle
erosion of my empathy and capacity for interpersonal connection. People,
mostly lovers, became mere instruments in a selfish, privately defined game
with no winner. I found myself overly critical of every aspect of my lovers.
One day I'd be head-over-heels in love. The next day, I'd have determined, by
way of my own cannabis-fueled, paranoid means of analysis, that that person
was insufficient. This cycle continued through one long-term relationship and
countless casual dating encounters. I would become frustrated at the idea no
one met my precise criteria, not recognizing the deadened and ill-natured
disposition of my desires.
Most users are under the impression that because cannabis isn't
physiologically addictive, they don't suffer withdrawal symptoms.
Examining the reason for continuing use quickly debunks this myth.
If the user believes pot makes everything better,
then it should follow that their sober experiences would be, in contrast, worse. And
that's the subtle trick that kept me toking for the better part of a decade.
Cessation was surprisingly easy and I rarely experience cravings. When I
do experience a craving, it's nothing like the infamous baby-on-the-ceiling scene
from Trainspotting. Stopping pot was mostly an exercise in cognitive
behavioral therapy, reprogramming my brain to understand that the alleged benefits
of cannabis are mere illusions.
The dynamic of an abusive relationship is a reasonable analogy for
my relationship with cannabis. Despite instinct
telling me it's time to move on, pressures led me to
persevere in the relationship. In spite of the misery,
I became accustomed to the drug and took security in its
Since stopping use, I've found myself more eager to help others and more in touch
with the emotions of those around me. I operate in a space of emotional
certainty, where I'm able to succinctly cast my desires and express my true
feelings without lingering feelings of hesitation. And I want to engage in
relationships not because of what I'll gain, but because of what I'll give.
Cannabis abuse is especially sinister because the consequences are so subtle
they'll often go unrecognized. In the same way a functional alcoholic can
continue to go through the motions of daily life, so too can the functional
stoner exist and even excel in certain respects. Cannabis didn't take my
home, my family, or my physical health. The dire consequence of chronic
marijuana use is the steady corrosion of virtuous subjective experience.
I recognize the stigma surrounding drug addiction and understand I'm making a
lot of admissions which could negatively effect my career and social life.
However, I am choosing to take that risk with the hope that others might read
my personal accounts and reevaluate their own recreational use of cannabis. If
you're considering stopping, the /r/leaves
community on Reddit is a great support resource. Literature on the subject is
unfortunately sparse, but The Joy of Quitting
takes a positive, nothing-to-lose approach to the issue and was written by an
If you need me, I'll be busy getting high on life.