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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.