Confessions of a Prominent Pothead
Best-selling comic writer Neal Pollack has been smoking pot regularly for 15 years. Does that make him a full-blown addict or just a standard-issue stoner? The Fix asked him to do a by-the-book self-diagnosis.
Hello, my name’s Neal, and I’m a marijuana addict.
Or maybe I’m not.
It’s hard to tell with pot, which is one of the reasons why it’s such a vexingly addictive (or not) substance. On the one hand, I consume a lot of weed; on the other, I can go days or even weeks without it, feeling no withdrawal-ish effects other than the occasional thought, "It would be nice to have some pot right now." But I also have frequent, mild longings about other ostensibly enjoyable things I’m not doing at the moment—having sex, watching football, eating meat, meditating, or enjoying the company of friends—and I don’t consider myself addicted to any of those things. Then again, pot is different. Or is it?
As I write this, I have in front of me The Pot Book: A Complete Guide To Cannabis, nearly 500 sober-minded pages of medical journal articles, personal essays, and policy analyses, edited by the very wise psychiatrist Dr. Julie Holland and including contributions from Michael Pollan, Andrew Weil and, well, me. I’ve read the entire book, skipping over the boring bits, but I still can’t figure out if weed is bad for me or not. Some of the essays intimate health risks, others minimize them, others walk the line back and forth—but none, other than a cautionary interview with Tommy Chong about getting busted by the feds, flash the scary warning alarms that say: "If you smoke pot, it will ruin your life." Statements like that seem to be reserved for high-school guidance counselors and random grouches who’ve never smoked a joint.
I turned to one essay, “How Real Is the Risk Of Addiction?,” for answers. The doctors who wrote the piece conclude that the risk might be real for some people, but not for others. Though that’s a typically frustrating and noncommittal answer, the doctors also provide a useful tool for self-diagnosis by citing the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (D.S.M.) of the American Psychiatric Association: “According to the D.S.M., addiction refers to use of a substance that causes the user significant impairment or distress, and is associated with at least three of the following effects within the same 12-month period…" They list seven criteria.
1. “Tolerance develops.” When I first started using marijuana seriously in my mid-20s, I would get so high that I couldn’t do anything for hours. Now I can sit in my office at 5 p.m., take 20 hits (of far stronger weed than I used to smoke) off my vaporizer, go downstairs, and happily make dinner for three. Score one for the addiction column.
2. “Withdrawal symptoms occur when use of the drug is stopped.” I suppose that sometimes I get a headache and am grouchy the day after using pot, but I sometimes get a headache and am grouchy regardless. Causality cannot be objectively proven, so I would say no. Addiction one, nonaddiction one.
3. “Larger amounts of the drug are used or use persists for a longer period of time than was intended.” I actually use much less pot than I once did, though that’s partly because my vaporizer is a much more efficient delivery mechanism. As for the period of time that was “intended,” I never really intended for this to happen at all, and had no plans or goals about how long my marijuana use would continue. I’m going to give half a point to each here.
4. “The user reports a persistent desire to reduce use of the drug or is unsuccessful in attempts to cut down or quit using the drug.” I realize that overindulging in anything is bad for me, but I wouldn’t say that I have a “persistent desire” to stop. It’s more like a vague thought that maybe I should have a little less, so then sometimes I do have a little less, until I have a little more. That limited record of success forces me to say yes. Two-and-a-half points for the addict, one-and-a-half not.
5. “A great deal of time is spent in activities surrounding obtaining, using, and recovering from the effects of a drug.” When I first moved to California, I would have answered yes, emphatically, because I got my medical marijuana card and the idea of going to the store to buy pot was so fun, and so appealing, that I turned it into a major hobby. But the gloss wore off, I didn’t want to pay to renew the card, and now I just consume weed if someone is nice enough to give me some. As for “using,” it’s usually about five minutes a day, if it occurs to me. I spend a far greater percentage of my time reading than I do indulging my marijuana habit. So I’ll have to say no.
6. "Use of the drug interferes with engagement in important social, recreational, and work-related activities.” There were times, in the past, when I was getting into bar fights and yelling at people for no reason. I was also drinking then, sometimes a lot, or at least more than I should. So I stopped drinking alcohol, other than the occasional beer or glass of wine. That immediately improved my sleep, my work, my fun, and my relationships with my wife and family and friends. I determined that alcohol, consumed to excess, is unequivocally evil, and combining it with marijuana can be incredibly dangerous. Pot by itself doesn’t have the same sinister overtones.
7. “Use of the drug is continued despite knowledge that the drug is likely causing or worsening a health problem.” I do yoga five days a week, run three miles twice a week, meditate regularly, eat lots of leafy greens, and take more vitamin supplements than I ever thought possible. My blood pressure is a little high, but so is everyone's in my family, and I’m the only stoner in the last three generations. I’ve never felt clearer, happier, and more together in my life than I do at this very moment, and I’ve been consuming marijuana regularly for the last 15 years, though I suppose the answer could and probably will be very different 15 years from now. So I would answer no, with maybe a quarter of that answer being yes.
So when you add it all up, I score somewhere between borderline addict and regular stoner. As a tiebreaker, let’s return to the “significant impairment and distress” part of the equation. A couple of years ago, a friend from up north brought me a fat bag of Humboldt County homegrown, a real life version of Pineapple Express. I started vaporizing it immediately, and then I started taking it with me to smoke, and then I started eating it in big clumps, because I had so much in that bag that I really couldn’t even begin to make a dent. I got higher than I ever had in my life—a deep, soul-sucking high that, after about two weeks, began to enervate me until I couldn’t get off the floor some days, so then I smoked some more and it got worse. I found myself sinking into the deepest depression I’d ever felt. No amount of yoga helped. My Wellbutrin prescription seemed to fail entirely. I hated myself utterly and forever.
Finally, I came to terms with the fact that the weed was doing this to me. Maybe I was an addict, I thought, and I had to stop. At last, I’d bottomed out. So I sealed up the bag, only opening it to give it away to people, one pill bottle-full at a time.
Then the friend gave me another bag, of a different strain. I tried it and I felt great. Months passed, and I kept trying it, occasionally and not obsessively, and I kept feeling better. The odd biochemical disruption of the previous mutant strain of marijuana passed entirely. That’s what makes weed different from something like, say, Scotch. When you drink, you pretty much know what you’re going to get. But marijuana, like coffee, tea, or cheese, can vary so much in flavor and effect. It can be cheap or expensive, strong or mellow, harmful or friendly. One strain can ruin you, while another can delight.
So am I a ganja fiend who’s just trying to justify his addiction? Maybe. Probably. I’m not sure. This is going to have to go to the lab for further analysis. As the Magic 8 Ball says, in what appears to be a coded message to stoners, “Reply Hazy. Try Again Later.”
Neal Pollack is the author of five books, including the best-selling memoir Alternadad, the satirical cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, the rock and roll novel Never Mind the Pollacks, and his most recent work, Stretch, a first-person account of his adventures in American yoga culture. A certified yoga instructor in the ashtanga vinyasa tradition, Pollack lives in Los Angeles with his wife and son.