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Weed May Be Legal, But It's Still My Disease

Will the legalization of recreational marijuana have an effect on people addicted to weed?

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By Brian Macaulay

01/22/14

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I loved smoking pot. It was a strong love that developed and grew into an almost inseparable bond over the years we were together. The guy I became when I smoked was laid back, at ease, and without a care—though perhaps repetitive in his thought process. I loved smoking it behind buildings, in the woods, on rooftops, in bathrooms, in the car, in the car wash… I could go on and on. Wherever I smoked it, I was always careful. Marijuana was illegal.

Over the course of my use—primarily in New England, where the legacy of the Puritans was still very real—I watched many friends and associates get arrested for possession, sale, or intent to sell the forbidden plant. I wanted to take every precaution to avoid their fate.

“My first thought was, ‘oh, does that mean I can smoke it?' Then I remembered my disease isn’t regulated by law.”

I haven’t smoked in almost six years. I don’t take a lot of precautions anymore. I don’t fear getting pulled over, though I try to avoid it. In my home, I no longer need to close windows or doors to prevent smells from arousing the suspicions of my neighbors. These days, I’m just a civilian, and I’m happy that way. However, for pot happy kids growing up today, with their bloodshot sights set on following in my sandal steps, life could be very different.

In case you’ve spent the initial stages of 2014 without access to media, sales of marijuana for recreational use became legal in Colorado on New Year’s Day. Two weeks later and civilization has not collapsed, according to reports.

So far, opinions on drug prohibition remain as divided as they were beforehand. Beyond the half-month point, the effects of legal weed on society are unclear. As an American sociological matter, Colorado is breaking new ground. Though about half of the states have versions of legalized medical marijuana already in place and/or some strategy of decriminalization at large, the fully legal market is still very much the wild west. Even California, a medical pot pioneer in 1996, defeated a legalization proposition at the ballot in 2010.

While some states are preparing to follow Colorado’s example, and society may be further than ever from the hand-wringing days of Reefer Madness, these things hardly constitute a sea change in the hearts-and-minds department. This is, of course, to say nothing of the elephant in the room—the drug remains illegal under federal law, and even in the medical realm, the DEA hasn’t been reluctant to remind the states of this.

But these are broad strokes: policy questions and complex charts about tax revenues and crime rates. What about the individual? What about the drug addict, that hopped-up deviant in whom the dangers of narcotics are most personified? Can one even be a marijuana addict?

While the consensus was once that marijuana is not an addictive drug in the same way heroin or alcohol are, society has come a long way in its understanding and definition of addiction. No longer is the condition a matter of simple chemical dependency. Addictions, be they to drugs, sex, food, gambling, or anything else, are now perceived as self-destructive behaviors a person is consistently unable to refrain from engaging in, despite negative consequences. The substance or action itself may be benign to ordinary people. From this point of view, the addiction is in the user, not what is used. So, for that addict portion of the population, what does a world with legal marijuana mean?

“My first thought was, ‘oh, does that mean I can smoke it?’” says Kate (not her real name), a graduate student in psychology who has been clean since 2007, and commented for this article under condition of anonymity, “Then I remembered my disease isn’t regulated by law.”

For those who develop a real addiction to illicit drugs, legal prohibition hasn’t traditionally been a substantial barrier. The 18th Amendment of the US Constitution, and the Volstead Act which was passed to enforce it, banned alcohol nationwide in 1920. These moves by the government did not succeed in stopping everyday consumption, let alone alcoholism. Bootleggers and speakeasies operated in every area of the country, until further legislative action repealed the law in 1933. The period in between is now most often remembered as the laboratory in which modern organized crime was developed.

In the book Alcoholics Anonymous, first published in 1939, early members of its titular organization recount their drinking careers, all of which overlapped with national prohibition. Despite this, the debate over alcohol—and its sudden absence as a legal product—rarely surface in the narratives. Passing, procedural attention is paid to these events, but alcohol’s legal status never comes off as the tipping point for addiction one way or the other. AA cofounder, and perhaps its best known member, Bill Wilson, traces in the book his drinking career from military service in the First World War to his rock bottom at a sanitarium in 1934. Wilson’s period of alcoholism parallels national prohibition almost to the year. How much mention does he give the then-roaring national debate over alcohol in his 17 page story? None. It simply isn’t relevant. A young person seeking help from AA today who reads its founder’s prohibition-era story might have no idea alcohol was ever illegal in the United States.

“When I hear ‘legal,’ I interpret it as ‘normal,'” Kate says, “But I don’t smoke weed like a normal person. I smoke, and then I eat 17 pizzas. Then I get really depressed. Then I can’t get out of bed for a week. Legal has nothing to do with it.” Asked about what she thinks the legal change in Colorado means for its addicts who, unlike herself, are still active in their use, the former daily smoker is ambivalent: “There will be initial celebration and then the realization that nothing is much different. Easier access maybe, but there will still be a black market for people to avoid the taxes.”

If, as President Obama and many other thought leaders increasingly believe, drug treatment is the optimal remedy to the problem of addiction in society, how does Colorado’s bold experiment strike the addiction treatment industry?

“I see a lot of addicts from Colorado,” says Brooke Constable, an addiction treatment clinician in Orange County, California, “There are plenty who present with marijuana as their primary addiction.” Marijuana addicts may not often have parallel life problems to the more drastic ones of those afflicted with an addiction to harder drugs like heroin, but according to Constable, the difference is irrelevant in the broader picture of an addict coming to terms with their own powerlessness over drug use: “Addicts only find a true bottom when they have internal consequences. They need to want to change. If they don’t, things like family disapproval, career trouble, or the law won’t stop them.” Nor does she see the legal status of marijuana as particularly relevant to those already sober, “If they’re really working a 12-step program, it doesn’t matter. If someone is committed to their recovery, if they believe it’s what they need to do to take care of themselves and live a quality life, the legality of the drug doesn’t make any difference.”

It didn’t work out between me and pot. We split up in 2008. By then, I had moved to a state that had an easily—comically—accessible medical marijuana infrastructure, but I never got my prescription. To do that would’ve required that I make an appointment with a special doctor who advertised the service, and that I show up at the appointed time with $150. It all seemed too complicated. I knew a dealer who would come to my apartment. This was essentially how things had to be as, at that time, my marijuana routine was defined by getting high and laying on the couch while watching the same DVDs over and over. Food was occasionally delivered. I never crashed my car in a pot blackout or got rushed to the ER for a weed overdose—these things were more characteristic of other drugs I enjoyed. The primary effect was to transform me into a loser. In that state, I may very well have made it to mid-January 2014 wholly unaware of the drug’s new legality in Colorado.

I don’t know that I’ll never smoke weed again. I may live a long time, and despite many attempts, I haven’t found a crystal ball yet. What I am certain of is that my weed addict self—the guy on the couch—emerges when I use the drug, period. I fully believe that guy would reemerge under the influence of legal marijuana. His existence had nothing to do with the direction lawmakers and voters were leaning in. I don’t claim to know with any certainty what the legal status of marijuana means to individual Coloradans, their families, law enforcement, their pets, or anyone else. I only know what marijuana means to me, and that answer is more than enough.

Brian Macaulay is a writer based in Los Angeles.

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