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 poll. 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 use. 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 using.
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 presence.
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 Cannabis takes a positive, nothing-to-lose approach to the issue and was written by an ex-toker.
If you need me, I'll be busy getting high on life.