Lost in the Weeds

According to the polls, Massachusetts voters are going to overwhelmingly approve a ballot initiative next month that legalizes medical marijuana. That should be good news for someone like me, who’s spent half his life smoking pot. So why am I feeling so uneasy?

medical marijuana in massachusetts

The author, photographed in August. / Photos by Scott M. Lacey

“Where’s the pipe?”

Bill Downing shouts as he removes a nugget of Hindu Kush, a crystal-covered bud of premium marijuana, from an orange prescription-pill bottle. There’s a group assembled around him, and some-one hands over a glass bowl that’s been darkened with resin. Downing pinches off a bit of herb, stuffs it into the pipe, lights up, and inhales deeply. As treasurer of the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition, Downing is here tonight with 20 other people for the organization’s monthly “civil disobedience” training session. They practice so that when the group holds a smoke-in at a police station or a courthouse—“to purposefully break the law,” Downing explains, “to show how stupid the law is”—everyone will feel comfortable smoking in public, and won’t cough, crack up, or generally look undignified. As the pipe works its way around the circle, Downing, who is 53, tells me about the first time he ever smoked, which is the pot-enthusiast version of small talk. He was 14 and at Boy Scout camp when his 16-year-old provisional troop leader led his charges into the woods, took out a pipe hewn from a deer antler, and handed it to little Bill. Downing goes a bit middle-distance on me as he relives the moment. Maybe it’s the pot.

I respond with my own story. I was 16, and it was summer, and I was sitting on the front step of my friend’s house. His parents weren’t home. My friend produced a cheap glass bowl and filled it with some brownish crumbs from a baggie. It was different than smoking cigarettes, he said. You could take it right into your lungs. A few hours and bags of Doritos later, we were still watching TV. I never felt anything.

Just before I smoked for the second time—standing on a tennis court in the middle of the night—I started thinking of my parents and how disappointed they’d be if they knew. I imagined them telling me I was ruining my future. Being a teenager, I got over that feeling pretty fast. But even now, after 16 years of smoking pot, I still feel a version of that nagging uncertainty. Why, I find myself asking, am I still doing this?

That sense of unease has always been a little vague, but now it’s suddenly become urgent. That’s because next month, if the current polling holds, Massachusetts voters are going to approve the Massachusetts Medical Marijuana Initiative by a landslide. A recent poll found 58 percent of respondents supporting the measure and just 27 percent against it, which would make ours the 18th state to legalize medical cannabis. We voted to decriminalize possession of up to one ounce of pot in 2008, and to guys like Downing (not to mention his ideological opponents), medical marijuana is just the next step toward full-scale legalization.

But even if that doesn’t happen, even if medical is as far as we ever go, it won’t really matter. You see, I know from personal experience that any state-sanctioned marijuana-distribution system leads to easier pot access for everyone. I lived in Colorado in 2010 when that state’s medical-marijuana dispensaries opened. I never got a doctor’s note and I never set foot in a pot shop—because I didn’t have to. The herb was everywhere, and it was cheap, potent, and easy to get. And everything I’d hated about marijuana—the variable quality, the prices, the street deals—was suddenly gone. Not coincidentally, I sunk into a level of pot use I hadn’t known since college. I was regularly lighting up a bowl after work.

When I moved back to Boston, the spell was broken, and that gave me some time to think about what was behind all that smoking in Colorado. Was it really just how easy it had become to score? Or was it something a little deeper, something inside of me? The truth is that I’ve never escaped the feeling that maybe the pot I’ve smoked over the years has eaten away at my potential. And every time I take another hit, I get that sinking feeling: I’ll be high for the rest of the night, cut off from the world.

I go a little middle-distance myself when I start thinking about all of this, which is probably why I was still working the whole thing out when I realized just how close Massachusetts is to authorizing medical weed. Before that happens, I suddenly understood, I needed to get some clarity. I needed to talk to the experts and figure out whether my future really is at stake, or whether I should just relax—because after all, it’s only pot. I don’t think marijuana is evil, and I definitely don’t think it’s the government’s place to help me control myself. But I do worry that there’s more to my smoking than mere ease of acquisition, and before I find myself awash in marijuana again, I need to figure out what it is.