My tortured relationship with weed leads me down a sceptical blind alley regarding legalization. On the one hand, like psilocybin and LSD, its psychedelic effects can occasion experiences of euphoria and enlightenment barred perhaps to those who never try it, and barred to those, too, who seem to be driving the world always toward greater disaster. On the other hand, cannabis abuse (whether chronic or recreational) can act as an enabler for those same destructive forces, while the pothead lazes back in a hazy cloud to “chill” instead of contributing to the instantiation of a more enlightened consciousness. As a result of my own troubled voyage, much like Thomas De Quincey’s—of the famed Confessions of an English Opium-Eater—I see this subject as far more than a mere objective critique of the pros and cons of legalization. Surely, at stake here is something far deeper and of potentially far greater consequence to the human soul.
Admittedly, it is through my own struggle with this protean element, this psychic catalyst for good and evil, that I can apprehend the media’s euphoria as naïve at best, for we are not talking simply of “legalization,” but of mainstreaming its recreational use. Suddenly I find myself assaulted by an aggressive branding campaign telling me—counter to what my inner voice has been telling me for years—that pot consumption is healthy and progressive. Meanwhile, looking back over the past quarter-century of my existence, I see how smoking dope has helped undermine my life’s ambition: to become an accomplished novelist and essayist. Now more than ever, when marijuana is being enshrined in Canadian popular culture, I think it’s time for me to quit. It seems I have arrived at this almost perverse decision—to kick the habit just when it is no longer considered a deviant act—because I perceive how the government’s approach to legalization along with the media fixation on the mystical hipness of cannabis amplify the bewitching voice of my own addiction and magnify the failures of my attempts to quit once and for all. As this brave new world holds its shining bright mirror to my face, I squint, and my eyes tear up at the reflected addict happily reclining there, rocked comatose by his despicable entourage of mild lies.
How deceitful that the new pot profiteers market their product as something maverick and hearty, especially in The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper. What coincidence that David Thomson, whose family holding company owns the paper, has invested in a “weed tech” firm that manufactures software to serve the cannabis industry. In a series of partisan articles on cannabis, The Globe and Mail informs us that the pothead is no longer regarded as a criminal, or even as a stoner devoid of ambition and productive verve. The pothead is still a rebel, mind you, as he has been perceived at various times in the past, but now, by a diabolical inversion of logic, he’s a mainstream revolutionary, an institutional radical, a law-abiding outlaw. Now weed is socially acceptable, smoked by teenagers and old people, by lawyers and trash collectors, not to mention by the wealthiest and most influential members of society. Cannabis will become a legitimate multi-billion-dollar industry with a bevy of ancillary products such as gourmet edibles, cannabis-infused coffee, beer, sugar and salt, oil extraction systems, pot gardening tools, bud trimmers, vape pens: the list deepens like a tedious skinny poem. Muted now are scientific studies warning of the permanent damage that weed consumption may cause to one’s mental and physical health; short shrift is given to theories that smoking dope may lower your intelligence and leave you so absent-minded, you can’t function productively in society. Instead, pundits aver that marijuana offers a means of freeing up the mechanical processes of the brain, unleashing one’s creativity and maximizing one’s potential for success. By sheer marketing alchemy, cannabis has been transformed into a wonder drug that makes all your personal and professional dreams come true.
Like so many well-told lies, there is some truth to these claims. First cultivated in the Neolithic Age, marijuana was used by ancient cultures as a source of metaphysical insight, as a portal to the spirit world, and as a means of transcendence, of communion with God and the cosmos. Yet here we’re talking about a primitive form of weed with a much lower THC content. The bud we smoke today is exponentially more psychoactive than that of previous generations, often chemically treated, produced from cloned, hybridized seeds, fed hydroponically under artificial lighting, and technologically manipulated to increase potency. In fact, today’s weed may be up to fifteen times higher in THC content than what was smoked as recently as fifty years ago, and new concentrated versions of the drug, known variously as ‘shatter,’ ‘wax’ or ‘budder,’ may have eighty-percent THC, up to six times stronger than today’s plant version, or forty times stronger than Woodstock weed.
The ancients understood that smoking too much marijuana can have pernicious consequences. Over the last few years, scientists have published a number of research papers on this very subject, some linking it to lung cancer and premature death. Though all these studies are deemed inconclusive, there is evidence that long-term use can lead to addiction, psychosis and irreparable brain damage. One reason why studies remain inconclusive may be that weed affects each person differently according to brain chemistry. For some, chronic use has no discernible negative effects on their cognitive performance, while for others it has catastrophic effects. For example, I have a friend who uses daily, works over sixty hours a week as a coder for a major multinational, and yet remains passionately engaged in the lives of his young son and daughter. The more he smokes, the more lucid and productive he seems to become. Meanwhile, I too smoke every day, though I write infrequently, teach part-time, and see the life of my young son through a veil of resignation and disengagement. My eyes turn red and glassy, my speech is slurred, I forget what I was saying in the middle of saying it, and I live my waking hours in a fog of drowsiness.
While cannabis has been illegal and maligned for much of the last hundred years across the West, Canada will be one of the first countries to legalize it for recreational use. Why now? Jonathan Page, CEO of Anandia Laboratories, asks, “What is our society missing that we are so keen to bring cannabis back into it? What is it in the DNA of our society that puts cannabis on the front page of our newspapers everyday?” Nowadays information comes at us like the final assault in a video game, and part of what makes weed so popular may lie in how it draws out the messages darting through our synapses. When high, our sense of the movement of time decelerates, implying that weed, a stimulant, is kicking our consciousness into high gear, extending all sensations. It seems the drug enables some to live more intimately in the moment; and though the moment may be dulled in a cloud of forgetting, today that absent-mindedness is perhaps one of pot’s most attractive effects. That it bedims our short-term memory and bewilders our other cognitive faculties are qualities now seen as positive. The forgetfulness it induces is necessary to a life of empty, atomised specialisation where industrialization and technology have finally alienated people from any sense of purpose. Marijuana, in this scenario, far from leading to revelation on the spiritual quest that is life, is being deployed as the opiate of the masses.
In Carl Sagan’s anonymous 1969 essay about cannabis, signed “Mr. X,” the esteemed astrophysicist says he was drawn to try it because of “the fact that there was no physiological addiction to the plant” (italics mine). Perhaps in the sixties, when its THC content was about two percent, as opposed to the thirty percent found in much street pot today, there was no physiological addiction; but I can speak from personal experience, and I can confirm from the experiences of those close to me, that addiction to marijuana feels very much like a fact, and the withdrawal symptoms when you quit can be—while of a lower grade than, say, heroin—still maddeningly close to narcotic withdrawal, as any perusal of online forums on the subject will reveal. Sagan noted the same shamanic qualities mentioned at the opening of this essay: weed intensified his appreciation for art, music and food, and his insights into these phenomena—which he didn’t think he could have had while sober—stayed with him when he came down. Pot also boosted his sensitivity, giving him “a feeling of communion” with both his animate and inanimate surroundings, an “existential perception of the absurd,” and an ability to “see with awful certainty the hypocrisies and posturing” affected by himself and his “fellow men.” Weed even helped him develop major insights outside his scientific field and into social issues like racism, which he parlayed into his sober state and used to write a series of coherent, provocative essays. He believed that marijuana had given him intuitions which society prevented him from having and which could only be acquired through the drug, not only enhancing his self-awareness but also augmenting his perceptions of other people, deepening both emotional and intellectual intimacy with them. Clearly, these are the true gifts of a psychedelic experience.
The high, however, is not always, as Sagan puts it, “reflective, peaceable, intellectually exciting, and sociable, unlike most alcohol highs,” and without “a hangover.” No. Over the long term, there is a dear price to pay. Likely, Sagan was not a chronic user, and besides, I wonder how different his experiences would have been smoking today’s super-weed, which leaves me thoughtless, irrational, unfriendly, and finally with a terrible hangover the next day, far more debilitating than what follows a night of drinking alcohol. The next morning I feel punchdrunk, inarticulate, irascible, and utterly unmotivated to do anything but get high again.
It didn’t use to be this way. Now at forty-five, the catalyst that used to stimulate in me a heightened state of awareness and an imaginative inflorescence, only results in a feeling of murky-mindedness that delays my mental processes and derails my intellectual literary work that for as long as I can remember has been the most important thing in my life. I see no long-term good that can come from the recreational use of marijuana. Smoking too much of it for too long has fried my brain. Like Sagan, I may have had a lot of “reflective, peaceable, intellectually exciting, and sociable” experiences in my youth while high, but if I did, I can’t remember. So, I remain convinced that cannabis is not a recreational drug in the way it is being pushed by the new weed barons endorsed in The Globe and Mail. Consuming it habitually in an attempt to increase one’s personal and professional well-being may eventually lead to ruin, not only to the individual but to society, where weed is exploited as a means of reconciling its subjects to the fate of a baked and vacant servitude to the soulless machinery of a trivial culture. It seems we’ve forgotten that cannabis has always been a shamanic, ritualistic inducer meant to open one’s mind and to be consulted at crossroads and vulnerable moments in one’s life. To treat it otherwise is to miss out on the great gifts it holds for those who would use it with respect for its truly sublime and illuminating power.
Written October, 2018