Stale smoke hangs forever in the air at Jack's apartment. There's a giant Bob Marley poster and two bookcases filled with boy-movie DVDs. The furniture is obscenely comfortable, especially the huge, shapeless chair they call "the poof." The TV is always on. Jack—not his real name—and his roommate love old, terrible movies. They own every episode of "Mystery Science Theatre 3000," from Joel, to Mike, to when Pearl took over as villain and the show left Comedy Central.
I come here often, and always I tell myself, "This is the last time." Today I brought a friend from school with me, Brad (also not his real name). We're here to buy an eighth of pot for $50 to split. Marijuana has been legal to cultivate and possess in Missoula since 2009 with either a medical or a caregiver's card, but Jack and I have neither; everything about this transaction is still illegal.
I've been hanging out in living rooms just like this one since I was 16 years old—over 13 years now. I told Brad that this place had to be seen to be believed, and now I watch him soak in the room with child-like wonder.
Brad comes from a good home. He didn't spend his youth in these places and it's a welcome vacation from the stress of higher education. On the way home he talks about what a trip this has been in a dull, slow-motion voice courtesy of the gravity bong we just tore through. I'm happy to give him the experience but I can't help but be a little annoyed. "It's a nice place to visit, isn't it?" I want to tell him. "I live here."
It might surprise you to learn that I'm not a complete screw-up. I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, and I moved to Montana in the fall of 2009 to get my masters of fine arts in fiction at UM. They gave me a full teaching assistantship, which means they trusted me to teach your children, and now I edit the calendar here at the Indy. I've published stories in respectable journals, I've won awards and my students loved me. Everything looks fine on paper. But there are some notable gaps in my résumé, and only I know the whole story. I graduated from college with good grades, but it took me eight years to do it, and not because I took time off to explore Europe or work in my field. No. I spent most of my twenties delivering pizzas, withdrawing from classes and getting high.
Tell just about anybody that you've struggled with marijuana addiction, and they'll say the same thing: "But I thought marijuana wasn't addicting..." Both occasional users and non-users claim this. (Daily users tend to say it with much more conviction.) Remember the scene in Half Baked when Dave Chapelle steps into an NA meeting claiming to be addicted to weed? "Have you ever sucked some dick for marijuana?" a haggard Bob Saget chides him. The scene ends with another dude screaming "Boo this man!"—and then all the real drug addicts throw trash at Chapelle. I'm not saying this has been my experience, exactly, but it's not far off.
Where do beliefs like this come from? I have some theories. Cannabis is a unique plant, unlike just about any other common drug. It's pretty much impossible to overdose. Also, the withdrawal symptoms are hard to pinpoint, not because they don't exist but because the drug stays in your system for around 30 days. (Any casual user subjected to drug testing at the workplace will tell you this is one of life's great injustices. The hard stuff is gone in 48 hours, but marijuana lingers.)
Around 20 years ago, scientists discovered what they came to call the cannabinoid receptors. THC floats into the brain and binds itself to these receptors in a kind of marriage, a yin and yang so perfect and cosmically beautiful I want to cry just thinking about it, and this sparks the feel-good, chemical reaction we call "getting high." That feeling got me through the banality of high school. It helped me to let go of the things that truly don't matter. It made food so, so delicious. I smoked, parts of my brain opened up, and the meanings of books ached inside of me for days. Seriously, have you ever listened to OK Computer on weed? God gave us this plant. I believe that. But like all things heaven sent, she ought to be feared and respected. I'm not just being cute: Marijuana is a girl. The male plants are useless and growers hate them. Maybe they can be made into rope or something. Women are powerful, and they can be harsh mistresses if you let them curl up inside you.
I used to keep pet rats in my apartment in Detroit, Narcissus and Goldmund. Sometimes, when I got really lonely, I would pick them up and blow pot smoke in their faces. I'm not proud of that, but there it is. I told myself that they liked it, but it turns out the science is not on my side. Here is probably the most compelling evidence for the "marijuana is not addicting" hypothesis: in lab studies, when rats are introduced to the big ones—heroin, cocaine, nicotine and alcohol—they will lever-press to get their next fix instead of food and water until they die. The only exception is marijuana. They'd rather eat than get stoned. I believed at the time that the pot made Narcissus and Goldmund calmer, but in fact, I don't think it changed their mood. I let them roam free, which understandably terrified my houseguests. They hated being held. I'd accidentally step on them and they'd bite my ankles. They hated partying. They were very bad rats.
It's probably true that marijuana is not chemically addicting, but what does that even mean? Especially at a time when we're more and more willing to expand our definition of what humans are capable of being dependent upon. Lately, people are said to be addicted to video games or chocolate. A person can become so inclined to gamble that when they're forced to stop, they have the same kind of physical withdrawals we associate with alcoholics or heroin addicts. They'll puke, shake and cry—and this without ever taking a drug. What's happening in all these cases is that the "drug" of choice creates all by itself a surge of dopamine. The brain wants what it wants. Being deprived of that self-created chemical leads addicts to states so intolerable that they will do just about anything to feel good again, consequences be damned. If we can feel this way about something as innocuous as Facebook, why is it so hard to accept that marijuana might be a tough drug for some people to shake?
It's November of 2009, and I'm having a bad month. Grad school has got me feeling like a serious weirdo. At 27, I'm older than most of my classmates, but more than that, I feel like I'm from the wrong side of the tracks and everybody knows it. Most of my friend's parents are lawyers, doctors and college professors. My dad is a retired custodian, my mom a paralegal. I imagine my classmates gathered around Christmas trees, congratulating themselves on not being raised by divorced parents who swear and fight and drink like fishes. I get drunk and start bragging about my ability to make a smoking device out of just about anything, how I should have been an engineer, the kind of stories that only burn-outs find interesting. I think they're judging me, and my insides burn with pride and envy. I comfort myself with the notion that they know nothing about pain, not really, and after all, where does good art come from but from agony?
I meant to change once I got to grad school. But then I found a dealer, and like magic the stuff landed in my hands again and I've been smoking it alone in my bedroom for days. I'm wearing fingerless gloves like a hobo, because it's freezing. It's freezing because I keep the window open so I can blow smoke into the backyard, as if my roommates don't know what I'm up to. (They do.) Deer frolic outside and I curse Missoula for looking and acting like a Disney film. I miss Detroit, where it's normal to be miserable. I skip all my morning classes and emerge from my bedroom around noon in a cloud of smoke, where I'm surprised to find a poetry workshop taking place in my living room. Oh, that's right. My roommates sent me an email weeks ago telling me they planned to meet here, but I've been getting high all day and I forgot. "Oh. Hi," I say. They laugh nervously. How could it be anything other than humiliating? I skulk to the kitchen and think about how lucky I am that I'm not an addict and this is no kind of problem.
Here's how it is for me: I love weed, but I hate what it does to my life. Plenty if not most heavy smokers don't have nearly the same kind of self-loathing about using as I do. My dealer Jack, for example, has no qualms about being high all day every day; I think he considers it a hobby, and like any hobby, dabbles in the culture surrounding it. He owns enough glass pipes, bowls, bongs and other smoking devices to outfit an entire store. He has a vaporizer that, no joke, probably cost more than my car is worth. Once, when we were lying in bed together, Jack produced a special kind of glass pipe known as a steamroller that's ergonomically designed to only work if the user is lying down. I'd draw you a blueprint if I could remember what that insane smoking device looked like, but I don't.
People drink as a method of social lubrication; getting drunk makes it way fun to be around others. I smoke pot so that I won't care about socializing. At some point I decided it was becoming an expensive and crippling problem. I couldn't concentrate. I was afraid of or indifferent to strangers. I would complete 75 percent of a community college course and then inexplicably stop going just before the final. I tried to stop smoking many times and I couldn't. I smoked out of pop cans or homemade bongs. I could never justify the expense of a nice piece, because every time I bought an eighth I told myself, "This is the last time." This went on for 10 years.
In 2007, I quit for 379 days, because my then-boyfriend hated it. I told myself I would quit for a year and then see if I could smoke occasionally. I tried it again once, and then again a week later, and before I knew it I was back to pretty much all day every day. Ask just about any daily user and they'll tell you about that year that they quit smoking "no problem" and cite it as proof that they were never addicted.
Some people are governed by dials measured in degrees that can be tweaked and modulated, but not this girl. For me, there's just a single switch that gets stuck in an on or off position. Molly doesn't eat just one cupcake; Molly eats all the cupcakes. Every time, it's the same, sad story. I buy a bag of pot with the intention of making it last a long time. I rush home to smoke, and I more or less don't leave my room until the entire bag is gone. My bed is a Tempur-Pedic knock-off, and it's true what they say about them not transferring motion; the mattress is also a table. I wake up and the bag and the bowl are still next to me, right where I left them. I don't care about cleanliness because I don't invite people over. I smear last night's ash into the sheets. I start smoking before I even get up and go to the bathroom. Drinking is only second best, and if I manage to get out to the bar during these times, I usually sneak off at some point to light up. When I come back from smoking I'm "myself" again and problems are no longer problems.
I wish pot were more like cocaine. The coke addicts can just slip into the bathroom, sniff some powder out of designer jewelry that is also a drug receptacle, and then return to the party in wonderful spirits. Pot is such a production. You have to set it on fire. It envelops you in a cloud of pungent smoke. The smoke seeps into your clothes. Everyone can tell and they're judging you.
I've gone to desperate measures to try to temper my smoking. Halfway through an eighth, my throat burns, my head is made of lead and I hate myself. It's gotten so bad that I've given half a bag of pot to my neighbor to hold with explicit instructions. "Do not, I repeat, do not give this back to me until the semester is over." A day later I'm knocking on the poor kid's door.
Bad weed is dry and crisp and burns like dead pine needles. The good stuff unfurls inside of you. I picture a blooming flower covered in diamonds that crystallize and crackle. I see floating colors in front of my eyes whether or not I close them. My blood gets thick. Limbs move through the air slowly, like ripping through Velcro. Whatever it was I was worried about five minutes ago doesn't matter anymore. The bad thoughts inside of me are snuffed and replaced with a calm nothingness. I feel soothed, and sometimes guilty. I smoke non-stop just to get rid of the stuff, and always there's that dumb legless thought of "This is the last time." I can go anywhere from hours to days to sometimes weeks without buying another bag, but then life happens and I'm back at Jack's apartment.
So here I am. I have my master's degree. I'm almost 30. Enough is enough. I set out to quit smoking pot for at least 10 days. Then, so as to not allow myself an escape valve, and to make the experiment more complete, I give up drinking. And then, just to lay it on really thick and ruin everyone's summer barbecues, I give up all animal products.
I had hoped I would be miserable so that I'd have more fodder to exploit, but it's been easier this time than ever before. My habit is behaving like a monster that taps you on the shoulder and then disappears the second you shine a flashlight on it. I think I might be growing up. I'm starting to think I'm cured.
It was never so easy in the past. The first few hours were fine, and then this thing crept up inside of me, a hunger that had nothing to do with food. I turned the television on and off. Rummaged through drawers and cabinets. Opened and closed the refrigerator. I wanted to run away from something, except I was tired and whatever chased me was supernatural; it wasn't possible to outrun it. Food was made of cardboard and music hit my ears like the sharpening of knives. The littlest things made me cry. A sad news story. A lost shoe. In short, I was starting to feel things again, and whether we want to admit it or not, feelings are just the thing that chronic users are trying to get away from.
I tell myself this time is different. I've already gone two days over what I intended and I feel like I don't miss it. On day 11, I found half a joint squirreled away in the bottom of a purse and I didn't even think about smoking it. I've been a vegetarian for years, but veganism is a whole other level of do-gooding and it makes me feel like a superhero. Turns out that quitting drinking is actually way harder than quitting pot. Without alcohol, the Golden Rose is just a glowing red room full of morons. On day 12, I decide that I've proven my point and drink whiskey at the bar, and it's so fun! I think I'm getting a taste of how the other half lives.
On the morning of day 13, I wake up and the bottom right part of my gums is throbbing. There's always been this weird thing going on inside my mouth. Either I was born without wisdom teeth or they just haven't grown in yet, but I think one of them may have decided to poke its way through this morning. I think it might be a metaphor for adulthood but I fail to see any beauty in it. It's incredibly painful. I know I said earlier that marijuana is a girl, but the voice in my head that tells me to smoke her sounds like an evil, raspy man. "Do it," he says. "You found that joint yesterday, remember? If you weren't planning on smoking, why didn't you just throw it away? Anyway, your mouth hurts. It's medicinal." I think he makes an excellent point, and without even really thinking about it, in an instant, I've gotten out of bed, torn open the joint and stuffed it in the cheap metal pipe that I also neglected to throw away.
But so it is with breakups, right? Who doesn't sleep with their ex at least once? It's true, my mouth feels better. And I hate myself a little, but mostly it's hard to feel much of anything. In the 12 days of abstaining I've lost some tolerance, and now I've turned myself into the village idiot. It's like I've been knocked over the head with a cartoon mallet and bluebirds are whizzing around, chirping, "Forget about everything, Molly. Nothing matters and nothing ever works out." I make myself get up and run errands anyway. I eat a vegetable burrito at El Diablo made by some sort of sorcerer. When I'm done, I want to go back to the counter and tell the man how talented he is, except I'm stoned and afraid of people. When I look out at the world the mountains seem like they're coming straight at me, and then they're far away.
I learn something terrible about myself. I'm a creature driven by habit and inner demons, and the happy ending I'm looking for doesn't exist. The raspy marijuana voice lays it out for me. He says that there are two ways out of this maze. You can backtrack the way you came in and live a life of sober repentance. Stop going to bars. Join a knitting circle. Never talk to Jack again. Or you can give up: Look around at your new house made of shrubbery. Here we do our damnedest to practice temperance, which is to say, we stumble often. We're not happy in the maze but we have a surefire way of dealing with sadness.
Blocked at every turn. Set the shrubs on fire and they'll just grow back.
I come home a few hours later and I'm just about not high anymore. I think the wisdom tooth scare was a false alarm. Nothing seems to be poking through and my mouth no longer hurts. I smoke the rest of the bowl. A couple hours later I'm not high again. I scrape some resin out of the bowl and smoke some more. I'm not proud of that, but there it is. It's a very stupid afternoon.