Amateur's Notes by "John Shade"
John Shade (a pseudonym) is a 31-year-old computer technician at a West Coast university, where he was previously a doctoral student in the humanities. He dropped out several years ago, like many doctoral students in the humanities, once he realized he was being trained for a job that in all likelihood he would never get and probably wouldn’t enjoy if he did. Contrasting the range of effects from caffeine, alcohol, and antidepressant use in this broad retrospective, he tells of his recovery from alcoholism, using cannabis as a therapeutic adjunct rather than a drug substitution, and thereby discovers his own humanity.
My present work suits me well — it’s great fun, really — and pays a decent wage. I forwent the honorific initials behind my name, not worth the trouble for their own sake, along with the possible satisfactions of an academic career; but I also lead a much more pleasant and less stressful life than any of the junior faculty I know. I like having time to read, write, think my own thoughts, enjoy my wife’s company, and play the piano. I’m glad I can support my wife and myself in relative comfort, and still live near my favorite campus.
For all my adult life I’ve been a regular, often a daily marijuana user, subject to availability. I’m not what I’d call a heavy user, just a regular one. At the most basic level marijuana functions rather like an antidepressant for me – it’s a consistently effective mood brightener – though its mechanism of action is of course completely different from that of a prescription antidepressant, and I use it differently: its fleeting effects are more psychological and subjective, less obscurely neurochemical, and a lot more interesting than Prozac’s, say – plus I can get it without a prescription.
My use of marijuana also has much in common with the after-work cocktail some people take to relax. But I believe marijuana offers me a great deal more than a lift in spirits on demand, and that compared to marijuana alcohol is a fairly graceless blunt instrument. People call alcohol a “social” drug; but this is so only because alcohol is deeply integrated into our culture, and because its disinhibitory effects, at low doses, promote social interaction among people who never learned to interact socially. Marijuana is no less a social drug – in fact it’s much less apt to encourage antisocial behavior than alcohol – and only its illegality requires the present rituals of furtive, solitary use. If marijuana were legal, and a naturalized American drug, we’d see the same fascinating variety of forms, flavors, and potencies we see with alcohol, the same convivial social institutions, and the marijuana connoisseur might be no less well regarded than the connoisseur of fine wine. To state absolutely that marijuana is better than alcohol is foolish, and what’s more pointless – all drugs have their uses and their adherents – but it is an awful lot less toxic, and it has certainly proven more beneficial to me personally.
I’ll add that I’m not any more addicted to marijuana than a patient might be addicted to his prescription antidepressant – perhaps less so in terms of “physical” addiction, that is, the relative probability of a withdrawal syndrome upon cessation of use, and no more so in terms of “psychological” addiction or dependence. Deterministic theories of addiction, on the model of biological or genetic disease, are currently very popular (and are certainly nothing new); I have little use for these theories, and understand addiction in strictly behavioral terms, allowing that individuals can have a predisposition to addictive behavior about which I prefer to make no moral or medical judgments.
Marijuana, as I use it, is among other things a palliative – a fair term to describe the medical use of almost any psychoactive drug – but I feel no need to call my use “medical.” And marijuana, having been used by humans for millennia without mishap, is proven safe and efficacious; compared to it prescription antidepressants are practically untested and poorly understood. Call me conservative, but if I’m going to use a drug regularly, I prefer to self-administer one I know to be very safe, and with which I have an evidently happy and productive relationship; avoiding the meshes of psychiatric medicine, for which I have little respect, also means a great deal to me. (Forgive an aside – but how can one take seriously, or regard with anything save dismay, a so-called scientific (that is, medical) discipline whose diagnostic bible has at one time or another in the recent past declared whole classes of normal human behavior and states of being – from homosexuality to short attention spans – to be “pathological” and hence subject to invasive “treatment” regimes, like drugs or electricity?) Marijuana, particularly if smoked, is not very long-acting. But the psychological boost attendant on a few puffs at the end of a long day stays with me after the drug effects have worn off. Marijuana for me is a euphoriant and a mind-expander (although it has not always been thus). Its presence in my life is stabilizing and enriching.
To what extent, then, am I addicted to marijuana? I use it almost every day, and when I’m without it for extended periods of time I notice that I’m slightly more restless and irritable, that the ordinary frustrations of daily existence feel somewhat more unremitting. I do not believe – though I cannot of course offer any proof that the moderate agitation I describe is owing to withdrawal from marijuana. (Tolerance and withdrawal are uncommon among marijuana users, but do become something of an issue with regular use at very high dose levels. With marijuana, for most people, there isn’t an incessant craving to take more, or any marked tendency for dose levels to creep upward.)
My baseline state, from early childhood when I was easily bored, seems to have been a little nervous and edgy; and I take this nervous energy to be an asset, since it drives me to creative invention. But it can be hard to live with day after day. I dealt with my restlessness poorly in the past, and even now I’m probably too quick to suppress it. But I’m also quite happy and calm most of the time, even when I’m not under the influence, and attribute this peace of mind, in part, to my marijuana use. I cannot detect any negative effects from my drug use, and no one around me who has observed my behavior reports any either. (With one possible exception: while under the influence of marijuana a person’s short-term memory can be seriously impaired. People who are not stoned become understandably annoyed with interlocutors who are, and who therefore continually ask, “What were we just talking about?” This deficit is easily covered for, however, and disappears completely when the drug has worn off.) While I would say I’m an addict in the broadest sense of the term, so is just about everyone else in this country; and unlike many (drug and non-drug) addictions in our culture, I think mine is functional – that’s to say, it’s adaptive, and more of a help than a problem in my life.
A useful drug of reference, perhaps, is caffeine, to which a great many Americans are addicted, and which a great many Americans (especially women and older people) have intentionally stopped using: caffeine is not only more dangerous than marijuana (because of how it affects the cardiovascular system), but also, for those who suddenly discontinue use, much more likely to produce uncomfortable symptoms of withdrawal. And most folks barely recognize that caffeine is a drug.
Kids use it all the time. Aside from the dangers to one’s health (which marijuana doesn’t share) caffeine use is seldom a serious problem – overdose psychosis is possible, as with most stimulant drugs, but rare – and no one has seriously suggested that its use be proscribed (in modern times). Whether or not to use caffeine, and whether or not to use it regularly, is a matter for individual choice. I should note, lest I appear unaware of marijuana’s profound psychic effects compared to those of caffeine, that experienced marijuana users are almost always able to function more or less like their straight selves, if they wish, when under the influence, and marijuana’s effects are very dose-dependent – a moderate dose, in other words, needn’t be all that overwhelming even for a naive user. There is, of course, a down side to habituation of any kind that I’ll talk more about later.
Having compared marijuana to prescription antidepressants, I should say something about the latter. Psychiatric drugs (the less objectionable ones) are designed, or stumbled upon, with a hope to normalize the abnormal brain – whether they succeed is a difficult question to answer empirically, because any definition of “normal,” which implies a set of criteria for judging normality, is going to be arbitrarily narrow, or else immeasurable, and nobody knows why these drugs work anyway. They’re often prescribed as if to be taken forever, like a diabetic’s insulin, on the assumption that they correct a deficiency or imbalance of some kind. In a significant number of cases they have nasty side effects, eventually cease to be effective, and are best regarded as experimental.
A number of people believe themselves to have benefited from these drugs, the well-marketed products of heavy investment in psychopharmacological research, and that belief in my opinion is enough to establish their worth. Some people feel like they’ve been rescued by them. But still more people take antidepressants because they’re vaguely unhappy – because they know something is amiss in their lives that they want fixed – and physicians often prescribe these drugs as if they were a cure, when there is no disease of the mind or body, just like their predecessors prescribed tranquilizers in the 1960s. These drugs probably do help people cope in a world that seems to be growing unhappier every day; and to the extent they treat neurochemical anomalies, I’d suggest they’re often treating symptoms of life in the late twentieth century. (If I’m putting mind before brain, perhaps I’m not putting the cart before the horse: environmental stress of various kinds, for example, is often correlated with, and prior to, episodic depression. A causal link seems likely to say the least.) In a simpler, less imbalanced world, depression might become almost unknown, and euphoria might become normal. Such a world is unimaginable now, and so drugs are here to help us cope. Coping is different from escaping, of course: I’m not talking about sedation, and to the extent a drug encourages us to withdraw, to disengage from the world and the people around us, it is harmful and its use is maladaptive.
My first exposure to marijuana was 16 years ago, in the company of some older friends. At the time I lived in a small town in West Tennessee, and my ambition was to become a concert pianist, or failing that, a composer. I was pretty serious about music then, and had won several performance and composition contests at the state level, but by the time I was fifteen I’d become thoroughly disenchanted with my life circumstances and fell into a gloomy state of mind that persisted for some ten years. I augmented and abetted my gloom with precocious quantities of alcohol, and was a fairly devoted alcoholic by age seventeen. I mention this unhappy detail because my past use of other drugs, such as alcohol, is all of a piece with my present use of marijuana, and informs much of what I have to say here, though I no longer drink alcohol at all.
From those very first hits, in the early 1980s, on a green ceramic water pipe, I recognized that marijuana was something special, and that I liked it a lot. I knew precious little about the actual drug, however, and what I did “know” was mostly wrong. That Nancy Reagan said marijuana was bad was proof enough for me that it must have some value. Nor was I immune to the mystique that had grown up around the drug in conjunction with 1960s counterculture. Its illegality was never a positive attraction for me; but neither did I scruple to break a law that I thought was simply wrong, and misguided in the extreme. Almost 50 years of virulent government propaganda affected my classmates more than me: I didn’t know anyone my age who smoked pot, and given the goody-goody circles I moved in at my high school, I kept my alcohol and drug use more or less a secret from everyone around me. I did grow my hair anachronistically long – this was in the Reagan years, and I was living in the still backwards rural South – and no doubt my odd look announced me as a “pothead” to some ignorant observers, who only accidentally got me right.
In those days my drug use partook somewhat of hopelessness. What did I care if marijuana killed brain cells, or lowered my sperm count, or reduced me to indolence? With this kind of mental set, encouraged by the vast ignorance around me – not to mention the danger of being caught by parents, other adults, or police – no wonder I often felt paranoid or panicked when using marijuana (especially when I wasn’t also drinking). No one informed me that cannabis has never killed a human – except in the form of a rope – so my racing heart, for all I knew then, was carrying me lickety-split right up to death’s door. The wonder is that I continued to use marijuana. I must have gotten something good out of it. Like with sex, maybe, my early experiences were intense and ambiguously enjoyable. Now the intensity may be less, but the pleasure is much deeper, and unmixed with pain or confusion.
For the past 7 years, of the 10 I’ve lived in California, I’ve been fortunate to have a reliable supply of not always high quality marijuana. Sometimes I can find sinsemilla, and sometimes I can even afford it. But in the preceding years, I often went without, and often drank to fill the gap. The only problems marijuana has ever presented me with have been (1) lack of availability (or quality) and (2) cost. I agree with the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers — that “dope will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no dope” – so consider problem (1) to be the more serious. But black market inflation is scandalous too: there’s no reason – cannabis grows like a weed, after all – high quality marijuana shouldn’t be on sale at the corner drugstore for pennies per ounce. Then I could send all my hard-earned money straight along to my creditors, like God intended. Where I now live I seriously doubt anyone, the police included, would interfere with my discreetly using marijuana: I’m white, overeducated, and I live within the precincts of an affluent community.
In my late teens, though, living near one of Memphis’ poorest black enclaves, I and a black friend once made a drug run into a rough area, and after he purchased a dime bag of probably worthless shake (for $12), we were greeted by the vice squad (guns and everything!). This was my first encounter with the American equivalent of Turkish prison guards, and it made a lasting impression. I was only verbally abused and threatened for about 20 minutes. My friend went to jail for several weeks. If I were black, I’ve no doubt whatever I’d have joined him. I was perplexed at the time that we were assailed by cops, while the dealer we’d bought from was evidently left alone. I now imagine that these particular cops were simply enjoying their idea of fun, and possibly meeting some kind of quota, by waiting outside a dope peddler’s house and nabbing anyone who emerged from it. If they arrested the dealer right away – and he must have been “cooperating” with the police – the party would end too soon.
I recognized very early on that the Drug War is a sham, a transparent and brutal instrument of social control, that it is first of all an assault on the poor, and that much anti-drug propaganda depends for its effectiveness on fear of the poor and racial “minorities” – because, being oppressed, they are potentially disruptive forces – a fear that is deeply embedded in mainstream, white American culture. Our society – black and white, rich and poor – also maintains a deep fear of drugs: drugs can induce euphoria, for example (a serious mental derangement), or spark insight (dangerous to social order), or possibly enslave an erstwhile upstanding citizen, who then becomes no better than, say, a poor person in the ghetto, or a still poorer person in the gutter (drugs thus become demonic in the popular imagination). In general, then, white (affluent) people who abuse drugs have a problem; non-white (poor) people who abuse drugs are a problem. For the one we have “treatment,” for the other we have prison – the former, I might add, too often being only marginally better than the latter in terms of promoting “recovery.” Drug War rhetoric entirely conflates drug use and abuse: to use drugs is to abuse them. Here, since I’m characterizing liberal Drug Warrior attitudes, I use the term “abuse” in its all-inclusive sense. Hardline Drug Warriors are known for making statements like “drug users should be taken out and shot,” and are no better than Nazis.
When I quit drinking – delirium tremens at age 24 – I admitted myself to a fairly elite treatment program. I needed help coming to terms with sobriety, and I got it. During the final stages of this program I began using marijuana on a daily basis, which was of course a big no-no, so I just didn’t talk about it. At the time I felt a little guilty about my sneaky behavior, and to make matters worse, there was a man in my therapy group who was “recovering” from a marijuana “addiction.” I know a lot more about drugs and drug use now than I did then, and I’ve developed many strong opinions. But even back then, while I thought this fellow certainly had problems, it struck me that his marijuana use, which wasn’t excessive best I could tell, sounded more like a source of joy than a source of trouble in his life.
I think he wanted to quit mostly because his marijuana use frightened his wife – not because of anything he did, mind you, but because, like most of us, she’d been taught to fear marijuana. Apparently marijuana even helped him in his work, which was of an intellectual nature. It was very hard for me not to say to him, “My friend, your problem is the people in your life, not the drugs. Please get out of here and go deal with the real problem!” Compared to alcohol, tobacco, opiates, benzodiazepines, barbiturates, amphetamines, cocaine (especially smoked), etc, etc, marijuana is pretty innocuous. For that matter, it’s innocuous compared to aspirin or caffeine (with regard to potential physical harm from overuse). I’d never say it’s impossible for someone to have a catastrophic relationship to marijuana – but it’d be mighty difficult. There is probably no human behavior someone isn’t “addicted” to, and drugs are not particularly exceptional in the amount of damage they cause in addicts’ lives. Some people will overdo anything, to the point of harming themselves and others, including smoking pot. What constitutes excess, by the way, is highly variable among individuals.
In AA meetings you’ll sometimes hear alcoholics ruefully describe the years they spent on the “marijuana maintenance program,” that is, using marijuana, usually on a daily basis, instead of alcohol, and not observing total abstinence (traditionally from all psychoactive drugs except caffeine, nicotine, and, under special circumstances, prescription pharmaceuticals). It’s true that for some recovering alcoholics even marijuana use might perpetuate so many undesirable behaviors and attitudes that they couldn’t take it to their real benefit. Continued drug use of any kind might also amount to an avoidance of problems the alcoholic needs to deal with, and must deal with sooner or later in order to develop as a person.
A dysfunctional addiction, which alcoholism usually is, often halts personal development: just as an addiction can provide structure or routine to an addict’s life, it can also bind that life to an eternal status quo (or worse). But “marijuana maintenance,” if incorporated into an alcoholic’s 12-step or other recovery program, could easily prove adaptive and even helpful. Total abstinence from all psychoactive drugs is not in fact necessary (except in AA culture, because of AA dogma), and might amount to a needless hardship. William James said somewhere that the only cure for dipsomania is religiomania. He was partly right (that’s to say, strike “only”). In my view AA itself, in effect, replaces one addiction, a chemical one, with another that is based in ritual and dogma – an addiction, if you will, to AA meetings, a kind of religiomania. It works. But successful AA members don’t seem to understand that what they’re often really doing is replacing one addiction with another less harmful one. If you can accept an analogy with attending AA meetings, marijuana maintenance doesn’t look so hazardous or threatening, at least to the extent that it can be integrated with some kind of program of self-improvement. As AA members say in their better moments: “progress, not perfection.” It isn’t necessary or even possible in an imperfect world for all addicts to become drug-free bodhisattvas.
I don’t want to suggest that drug substitution is the right way to deal with dysfunctional, maladaptive addictions. It is, however, one way, and ought to be a viable alternative in many cases to abstinence from drugs. Methadone maintenance is the only drug substitution strategy commonly employed in this country, and it isn’t an especially good model in my view. Substituting a longer acting opiate that isn’t much fun to use for a shorter acting opiate that is accomplishes little beyond appeasing moral qualms about pleasure-seeking drug use. As an alternative to substitution, improving the circumstances of present drug use – by stopping the War on Drugs, among other means – would also make a great positive difference. As for any devotee of illegal drugs, the street junkie’s biggest problems are the high cost and irregular availability of opiates (and, alas, a lack of clean needles). A number of physicians, for example – I suspect a great many more than is generally acknowledged – have remained highly functioning junkies for decades, given their ready access to pure drugs. Opiates are much less damaging to the body, much less toxic than alcohol, although (like alcohol) they tend with regular heavy use to disconnect the addict from life and other people, and to impose a routine dominated by the avoidance of physical withdrawal.
In my case it seemed – and still seems – best to abstain from alcohol completely: its use brought me close to death, and closer to madness. I have no wish ever to use it again. But I would not have been able to stop drinking simply by smoking more marijuana. For one thing, marijuana is mighty subtle compared to alcohol. If one is accustomed to drinking himself into oblivion, marijuana simply won’t go the distance. Hard work, perseverance, and the support of other recovering alcoholics were absolutely essential to my developing the habit of abstinence. It was not easy. Marijuana, that sovereign anodyne, has simply kept me safely away from the states of mind in which alcohol might again entice me. I’m not helpless. But if I were cut off from my supply of cannabis for a very long time, I think it would become harder not to drink. (Alcohol would never be my first choice of drug; but it might be the only available one.) For whatever reason, and I prefer not to view myself in pathological terms, I’m one of those people who feel a greater than average need to alter their minds on a regular basis. If a diagnosis must be had, I suppose you’d call me depressive; but on the flip side, more significantly, you’d have to call me creative or imaginative, and drugs can be food for the imagination. I do not believe that my drug use is any more a sign of “maladjustment,” or unresolved personal “issues,” than the village shaman’s ecstatic trance is a sign of insanity.
Drug use, both by happenstance and conscious design, has played a significant role in creating the person I am today, has been integral to my development and to the formation of my particular worldview. I’m pleased with the results. Some drugs tend more to expand consciousness (marijuana, LSD), and some more to restrict it (alcohol, Thorazine). Think of Huxley’s reducing valve. Opium and a few other drugs are in a funny sort of middle ground, and any drug can have a wide variety of different effects depending on circumstances and style of use. Drugs I would call mind-expanding have benefited me the most, far and away. They are nearly all classed as “Schedule I” by the American DEA, and regarded the world round by most ordinary folks as horrifying and dangerous: testimony, if anything, to their power – not to mention decades of well-funded disinformation campaigns and widespread legal penalties.
Our cultural attitudes toward drugs tend to emphasize what I’ve called their restrictive aspect. Until the advent of the newer antidepressants, physicians prescribed psychoactive drugs almost exclusively to suppress something, like pain, anxiety, or hallucinations – even stimulants in the recent past were usually prescribed to suppress appetite (not so much anymore). People who take psychoactive drugs on a regular basis often have similar goals – they’re in effect self-medicating, suppressing symptoms – and to the extent they seek enhancement, it’s usually a narrow, discrete sort of enhancement: increased vigor or sociability, for example, or a better night’s sleep. (Compare the use of steroids to enhance physical strength or appearance.) “Smart drugs” are a new wrinkle – till the FDA takes them all off the shelves – but folks are still mostly looking for a magic solution, in a bottle or a pill, to their problems or perceived deficiencies. For most of us drugs are not very like a religious sacrament: they’re utensils, interventions, in the grand curative tradition of leeches and lobotomy — or else, perhaps even more mundanely, recreational distractions.
Marijuana is the subtlest and most widely used of mind-expanding drugs, and is just as illegal as the rest. It also has a pronounced tendency to be all things to all people, at least among those who likeit: speaking for myself, I’ve found marijuana on some occasions to be sedative, on others to be excitatory; sometimes it shuts me up, and other times I can’t stop talking; sometimes I feel anxious (rare now, common when I was younger), sometimes euphoric. The drug can be positively protean; and it’s an oversimplification to say it merely amplifies whatever one already happens to be feeling. (I must note: this variability of effect can be a direct result in part of differing ratios, in different batches of marijuana, among several psychoactive cannabinoids.) For that matter, marijuana isn’t always subtle: extreme panic reactions among naive users are notoriously common, for example. I’ve seen them myself. Marijuana also works very well in combination with other drugs, and given its negligible toxicity, seldom synergizes with them in any dangerous way.
Throughout my varied drug career, marijuana has been the one constant. It’s my favorite drug, and I really do think of it as an ally. I don’t pine after it like I once pined after alcohol. It’s a better friend, and my relationship to it is a healthy one, I think. In so many ways I can’t name them all marijuana has improved my quality of life and enlivened my imagination. Just to take a single case, my improvisations at the piano are noticeably more interesting, and flow much better, when I’m stoned. It’s no accident that marijuana is beloved among musicians, and its contribution to music is no trivial thing, in my own life and generally. Ideas and insights that occur to me under the influence are typically as good as anything I think up straight, if not better, for all their being less obvious; and there is immeasurable value in looking at a single problem or idea from the vantage of two different states of mind (straight and stoned). Stupid things that nettle me, but which really don’t matter, don’t nettle me anymore after a few welcome tokes. Anger melts away. Laughter returns – which is a fine thing! One can use the drug day after day, without ever increasing the dose, and enjoy the same delightful effects. One can stop using the drug suddenly (as I must do on my occasional visits to Singapore) and experience no withdrawal syndrome.
Marijuana can deepen a person’s sense of connection with other people – and indeed with all life. Marijuana and other psychedelic drugs have thus played a very significant, and maybe a leading role in the still evolving “ecological revolution.” It’s not a particularly martial drug (I’ve always been suspicious of the supposed etymology of “assassin”) and tends to encourage most people to become more easygoing and less argumentative – one of the reasons, I think, our warlike society fears its feminizing influence. The popular association of marijuana with pacifism is appropriate, even beyond the accidents of recent history. In my own life marijuana has improved my relations with other people in a variety of ways, especially by checking my tendencies to irritability, and clarifying my understanding of others’ minds and motivations (it can heighten empathic feeling, in other words). Some writers on the subject have remarked that marijuana is barely a drug: its effects on consciousness can be so diffuse, so liminal, that many first-time users feel no effects at all. One learns to appreciate the drug. Experienced users often don’t need to take much to achieve the desired high. On many occasions my wife has noticed that she can get pleasantly high from my use, without taking any herself. This is not always a result of second-hand smoke: the most profound instances, in fact, have occurred when I’ve eaten the drug. As an added bonus for sexual relationships, marijuana is a substantial aphrodisiac.
Unless one’s principles or family require otherwise, there’s no absolute reason not to use marijuana (moderately) every day over the course of an entire lifetime, if one finds such use to be beneficial: long-term smoking might lead to bronchitis, but there is no evidence that marijuana smoke contributes greatly to the epidemiology of emphysema or lung cancer. Marijuana is conveniently eaten, but the contours of the experience are different than when smoked – there’s a much slower onset of effects, and once arrived, the effects last much longer. A friend of mine, who uses marijuana specifically to help in the invention of ideas, and who has emphysema owing to a now abandoned tobacco habit, eats a simple paste of powdered cannabis cooked in olive oil several times a week. It works very well for his purposes – better than smoking, which isn’t an option for him anyway. I’m also persuaded, if marijuana were legal, that safer routes of administration would be developed by enterprising researchers: a cannabis aerosol inhaler, for example.
There are good people who maintain that spiritual development simply isn’t possible while using drugs of any kind, especially on a regular basis; and for them, usually, the pursuit of enlightenment is the sine qua non of a happy and fulfilling life. Since I make no claims to spiritual enlightenment myself, or to its pursuit, I’m in no position to argue. But my intuition is that there are many paths. Furthermore, not everyone is obliged to seek enlightenment, however we define it: to the extent that drug use might ease suffering on earth – and tolerance of others’ drug use would also help! – so far as I’m concerned it’s all to the good. My attitude is essentially pragmatic, and my counsel is tolerance. Good enough will do. We all benefit from individual efforts toward self-improvement, which efforts can be aided, as well as derailed, by drug use. If more people knew how to use drugs productively – like with any dangerous sport, the proper use of psychoactive drugs requires practice and training – drugs would cause a great deal less harm in the world. To a much greater extent than drug use, which appears to be a “natural” and, among most populations, inevitable human behavior, the fantastically unjust distribution of power in our world promotes human misery.
Drug use is not evidence of failure in life any more than it’s a necessary concomitant or cause of failure. To practice meditative and contemplative arts requires that one be fed and sheltered, with one’s dependents likewise cared for: just like money and power, the time, and the resources, and the inclination to develop spiritually are not equally distributed among all people. Some folks want merely to get by, and that’s okay. In my opinion it’s far better to tolerate others’ foolishness (which to them might not be foolishness at all, but a strategy for survival) than to presume to dictate others’ good. We can in this way avoid many destructive errors in our interpersonal dealings. I also believe it’s better to focus our social attentions on others’ physical rather than their spiritual or moral well-being, since we have it more in our power to affect circumstances on the material plane: too often heaven has been the reward promised by the rich to the poor for their suffering and subservience on earth.
I have said I would talk about the “down side of habituation.” Regular drug use, which term implies only a periodicity of consumption, does not necessarily entail addiction: regular use falls along a continuum of behavior, toward the extreme end of which we find addiction in its various forms. A rough and ready way to distinguish addiction from, say, an habitual tic, is to ask, “to what extent does this behavior dominate an individual’s life?” But even regular use, simply for its being regular, arguably cheapens the often repeated behavior. If one regards a drug as a sacrament, and invests its use with the power and paraphernalia of ritual, better not to use it too often, or the divine might sink into the mundane – and yet, many people take drugs precisely to experience the exalted quality in everyday things.
If a person uses marijuana daily, then, how can the experience remain special? A ritual, no matter how small, and a certain mental “set” (that is, a set of attitudes and expectations) can make any familiar experience special. Time off (a period of abstinence) also helps break up a routine. Yet another way to increase the impact of a drug experience is to increase the dose – not a wise course with some drugs, but safe enough with marijuana. Abstinence is an experiment I’ve tried. After two weeks in Singapore, my first marijuana trip back home is always potent – exactly as if I’d taken a double dose. I’ll seldom actually smoke a double dose because of the consequent irritation to my throat. If I want to knock myself for a loop, I eat the material. Of course, it’s not possible to increase the dose if one is already taking the maximum (that is, as much as one can stand, since there’s no lethal dose of marijuana): this fact alone argues moderation. I should quantify my own habit: on average I take seven bong hits twice in an evening, about the equivalent of a joint a day. Sometimes I take more, though I’m likelier to increase frequency than quantity. I try to avoid compulsive (automatic) use – that is, drug-taking triggered by some internal or external stimulus like craving or a particular activity (like sex). I don’t always succeed.
I’ve reached my own conclusions independently, based on personal experience, self-analysis, and wide reading. I do not write as an expert; I don’t have the credentials. I think of this lack as a real advantage: I am beholden to no one, my brain isn’t filled with nonsense from textbooks, I have no reputation to guard, no senior colleagues to impress. In turn, I have very little respect for “drug experts” who lack personal experience with the psychoactive drugs they prattle about. In a world where Barry McCaffrey is recognized as a “drug expert” – Harvard Medical School, whose motives I can only guess must have involved extreme venality, not long ago presented him with a career achievement award named after Norman Zinberg, which act would have been hilarious if it weren’t also kind of scary – the label “drug expert” is clearly meaningless. If in the course of my musings I’ve seemed to contradict myself, or to offer opinion as fact, I plead nolo contendere – I am a member of the laity.