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?

Okay, so if the marijuana haze is a tax on mental output, temporarily skimming the top few percentage points of productivity and creativity and success, I guess I can live with that. What feels more serious is its effect on relationships. I won’t scapegoat pot for every little thing that hasn’t gone my way, but I’ll never know how many opportunities I had to make connections with people, but didn’t. It continues to seem plausible that pot has had a negative influence on my life.

It’s a dark July night as I pedal my bike toward 22 The Fenway, one of Berklee’s classroom buildings. There’s a Marijuana Anonymous meeting here tonight, like there is every Monday. A twitchy young guy stops me before I get to the door. “You here for the meeting?” he asks. “Yeah,” I reply. He fidgets and asks if he can use my phone to call his sponsor. He doesn’t care if I put it on speaker and hold it for him. He tells his sponsor that he’s not well and that he needs to meet right now. His sponsor says to just hang on.

The evidence suggests that marijuana is less addictive than caffeine: One 1992 study found that only about 9 percent of people who try it become dependent. Alcohol, according to the same study, turns 15 percent of users into problem drinkers. But as I enter the Marijuana Anonymous meeting, the truth is I have no idea what to expect. I find five people sitting at desks in a circle, chatting and waiting for the meeting to start. They greet me and ask if it’s my first time. I say it is and they welcome me. I have a sense that I’m about to be laid bare.

I’ve come here to do some reporting, but now I have a creeping fear that I’m going to see a version of myself in these guys. It’s all I can think about as they tell their stories and I identify with a snippet here, an anecdote there. The slide into addiction wasn’t anything terribly pronounced, everyone had just become aware of his slow undoing thanks to weed.

As I listen, I think back to a few weeks earlier, when I got an overview on pot addiction from John Knight, a Harvard Medical School professor who’s also the director of the Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse Research at Children’s Hospital. Marijuana, Knight told me, infiltrates the limbic system, the part of the brain that sends waves of happiness across the body when you have sex, eat good food, or sleep well. But with pot, he explained, “You do it again and again and pretty soon, you’ve saturated your reward pathway, so nothing else can get through. Nothing is rewarded except the drug.” Think of a marijuana smoker sitting, legs splayed on the couch, the light from the TV flickering off his face. He looks completely impassive, unaware of what time it is. That’s what a saturated reward system looks like. I know, because I’ve been that guy.

And now it’s my turn to talk to the group. “Hi, I’m Casey,” I say, following the format. But in the space where I’m supposed to say, “I’m an addict,” and everyone else is supposed to respond, “Hi, Casey,” I keep right on going. “I heard about this meeting and talked to a guy who comes and thought I should check it out,” I say. A few people nod in approval, another few say, “Hi, Casey.” I don’t talk anymore. Then the next guy goes, and attention turns to him.

I’m not sure whether refusing to self-identify as an addict was a failure or a success. The meeting winds down soon after, and I stick around afterward—to collect a few pamphlets and talk a little more, but mostly to prove to myself that I’m not one of them. We have things in common, but I haven’t slid quite so far. I’m married, I’m curious about the world, I’m good at my job, and I do my best to balance work and life, family and friends. This isn’t my tribe. So why do I still feel so uneasy?

I know plenty of well-adjusted people who relieve stress by turning to high-end wine, craft beer, or nice food. Others run marathons, or sit at the poker table, or kneel in prayer. I smoke pot. All of it, of course, can be done to excess. Only once you’ve smoked up, there’s no way to stop being high. When my wife, who doesn’t smoke pot, was out of town recently, I had a thought while stoned. What if she calls and I’m unable to hold up my half of the conversation and she thinks I don’t care? The thought pings around and around and around, along with that other one: Why am I still doing this?