Smoking weed on a regular basis is never as easy as when you’re getting it for free. My sophomore year, I lived on the same dorm floor as an affable dealer who kept his stash in the ceiling of the bathroom, and who always wanted to sneak away to the rocks overlooking the lake on my campus, piece in hand, where we smoked until we were high enough to map out our impending munchies purchase without needing to scan the convenience store shelves. By the time summer rolled around we were getting stoned multiple times a week, a schedule that extended through break when I started hanging out with some guys with a California hookup, a bong the size of a toddler, and several dogs at their apartment. Life was good.
But all of that came to an end in the fall, when I flew to London to study for a term. There was an acclimation period where we were stuck in a hotel in an expensive part of the city, then stationed in the countryside for a few nights. Walking half a mile to the local bar along a road with no lights, I realized something: It had been days, or maybe even a week, since I’d gotten high. I missed the feeling. My stoner experiences were the stuff of clichés: food tasted better, television shows became funnier, shoegaze made sense. I wanted that again, except I was stuck in a country where I didn’t have any connections, and suddenly unsure of how to adjust to not smoking. Teen comedies don’t feature scenes where stoners decide to quit the habit. The more I thought about how I missed it, the more tense I got. I swear my arms even itched. As I talked about it, I couldn’t tell how much was a performance of anxiety, and how much was actual anxiety. “Maybe one of these kids can point us in the right direction,” I said to a friend as we walked around the grounds of Eton College, a fancy private school. Would I have accosted a rich British teen to see if he knew where to find a dime bag? Sure, why not?
I was only making up for lost time. Years of embedded DARE training came undone toward the end of my freshman year of college, when I let my cooler friends peer pressure me into taking bong rips one spring evening. A few curious experiments later, marked by one traumatic overreaction where I was convinced I was on the verge of a heart attack (but still managed to make it through the end of Anchorman), and I couldn’t believe I had ever doubted the potency and power of marijuana, which turned life into a brighter, funnier, more thoughtful adventure. The Half Baked joke was true: Could you say you’d done anything if you hadn’t done it…on weed?
Mildly ashamed of my days as a naysayer, I took pride in nudging my stodgier friends toward the truth. “I don’t want to exaggerate,” I told one such person as a joint circulated around the room, “but it makes literally everything better.”
When had marijuana turned from something I liked to do with my friends when we watched Tim and Eric into a solo activity, prompted by nothing but my lack of commitment?
A few years later I was living at home in Chicago, and working on a freelance writing career doing contract work for a handful of publications. My schedule varied by the day of the week. Some days I’d wake up early and work until dinner time; others, I’d be done with my assignments before the morning talk shows wrapped. With nothing else to do and my mom at work, I’d get high. But one afternoon, something changed. After smoking I felt the familiar crawl of heightened consciousness creep in, which alerted me to a series of incontestable facts. 1) It was barely noon. 2) I was still in my pajamas. 3) I was making, like, $1000 a month, tops. 4) I lived at home, and had no appreciable plan for moving out. 5) What the hell was I doing? When had marijuana turned from someone I liked to do with my friends when we watched Tim and Eric to a solo activity, prompted by nothing but my lack of commitment? The feeling that I was fucking up persisted, and I decided on a new rule: No smoking during the week…by myself. If I was with a friend, it was fine.
Now, it’s not like I was an addict, or even a garden variety stoner. My habit was once-a-day at the most, and it never seriously got in the way of anything I was doing. At least, I didn’t think it did. There’s what you’re taught in school and through media, and there’s the reality of your behavior, which rarely syncs up with the cliché. Besides, no one talked about marijuana between the spectrum of “marijuana is good” and “marijuana is bad.” A lifetime of exposure to the dogma on either side—marijuana is a gateway drug that leads to juvenile delinquency, unprotected sex, and crack houses vs. marijuana is just a plant, man, and it probably cures cancer—had left me without a real understanding of my relationship to the drug. The logic extended to my social circle. My friends who didn’t smoke—their thinking was as simple as “I don’t like it, because it makes me feel bad.” My friends who did smoke usually settled on “it makes literally everything better.” The super chillness of the drug meant it wasn’t something we talked about, and we never did. When I had my reservations, I wasn’t inspired to reach out for opinions. I just stopped smoking as a default action—no more toking because it was there—and slowly accepted what it was I really wanted. I had to ignore everything I’d been taught by everyone, and stake out some untrammeled truth.
Everyone reacts differently to weed, of course, and if you do smoke all the time and still show up to work, more power to you. It’s hard not to feel like a narc when positing that an unqualified, unrepressed attitude toward pot isn’t without problems; I feel the last vestiges of DARE language emerging from somewhere deep inside me. But this was a slow dawning realization, one that didn’t come until several years into my career as a smoker. My rule about no longer smoking during the day or by myself—it was a small rule, and probably silly, but it took. Over time, I largely cut down on my intake. By the time I moved back to New York, getting stoned was something I only did when I had a good reason, like needing to make edits on a tricky piece or stare at the Yoko Ono exhibit in the MoMA on my birthday. And in retrospect, it’s difficult to imagine that I ever kept a bong in my desk when I was in school, or that I could stay up until four in the morning chooming and playing Mario Kart with Japanese teenagers halfway across the world.
This is what’s fatuously referring to as “adulting,” I suppose. You make minute changes to your lifestyle, and before you know it you’ve crossed the gap from teen to post-teen to pre-adult to basically grown-up, a transition that’s cemented the first time your parents no longer do your taxes. They don’t teach this in school; it’s something that happens, or it doesn’t. Tragically, there’s no governing body in charge of ensuring impressionable teens don’t develop attitudes and behaviors that will mess them up in semi-permanent ways (Bible study doesn’t count). After all, we don’t get taught how to responsibly use alcohol in high school—only that using it is bad, though it seems obvious that “if you do this, you’ll be overcome with the need to drunkenly text your ex and everyone will laugh at you” would be a more effective deterrent than prescriptive morality alone.
Defining addiction as “repeated use despite harm” means the parameters for what qualifies as an addiction expand wildly.
There was a moment when I thought this essay was about marijuana addiction, and sought out the testimony of Kevin Hill, a doctor at Harvard who works at the Substance Abuse Consultation Service at Harvard’s McLean Hospital. Hill has studied marijuana for nearly a decade, and we were discussing how addiction to the drug is often dismissed as a laughable notion. Marijuana isn’t habit-forming, a million stoners have cried. You can use it endlessly, without repercussions. But it is habit forming. You do become conditioned to keep smoking weed all of the time, and you will feel weird and itchy if you try to stop cold turkey. (Hill said the effect is similar to nicotine withdrawal.) This is obvious to anyone who’s ever hung out with weapons-grade stoners, people who go through an eighth or more a week, bake edibles strong enough to incapacitate a horse, whip out a butane torch and insist you try something called “dabbing.” Hill said he’s seen people with multi-million dollar jobs lose it all because they couldn’t stop smoking. When I asked what he defined as addiction, he stated it very simply: “Repeated use despite harm.”
Defining addiction as “repeated use despite harm” means the parameters for what qualifies as an addiction expand wildly. Apply it to your own life and suddenly you’re taking stock of whatever routines in your life might be getting in the way of something better. Maybe it’s the gallon of soda you drink every week, or how you go out with people and never text them back, fearing the awkward conversation that would ensue if you were just honest about your feelings. Maybe it’s playing Candy Crush. And then of course, maybe it’s marijuana or alcohol or whatever chemical you might ingest to feel something—because being left alone with their own, untreated thoughts seems terrible. Or maybe you’re addicted to the idea of staying the same, and not having to change anything the older you get.
Lots of us would find this unreasonable and thus resolve not to be an addict for whatever it is you’re addicted to—if you can figure it out. The unbridled freedom of being young and dumb is muted to a calmer rationality, where you consider what the effect of an action beforehand. And then…you’re responsible. I think I’m steadily more responsible, or smarter—at least, I’m attempting to be. Ironically, part of the conventional wisdom of going deep into the weed fog is that you’re always on the cusp of some life-altering realization…and the thought I happened upon was that it was finally time to emerge. But I’m happy it happened before I accidentally throttled a British teen.
Jeremy Gordon is the deputy news editor at Pitchfork.