The Alcoholic Fights for His Herb by “Mr. W.”
The author is a 33-year-old journalist with a Masters in English now seeking a PhD at a northeastern university. He sees marijuana and other drug prohibition as a human rights issue on par morally with the struggles — past and ongoing — of America’s other historically oppressed groups.
The lack of clarity in the public mind about what comprises responsible use or abuse of a drug is a perpetual problem for me and millions of others — especially meek users who have been jailed with violent offenders because they had a plant that our Mighty Freedom-Loving Government disapproves off. We have wasted millions, maybe billions, telling kids to say “no” to drugs — but we don’t go another step to explain why Mom has to go to the drugstore every week. Or why Dad drinks so much coffee. Or why the cigarette industry proves to even the most strict libertarians that a little government oversight might help keep companies from pushing their powerful smokable stimulants on young people. No, Americans enjoy a strange type of hypocrisy whereby they can get downers and uppers from a commercial pharmacopeia that is larger than any in human history — while we look down at the junkie or the stoner next door.
It’s my luck that an addiction to a legal drug, alcohol, caused me all sorts of problems with the law. After being pulled over twice for driving while intoxicated in three months, I was forced to deal with my alcoholism and employ spiritual discipline and painful focus. The alcoholic self had been calling the shots, diverting me to expensive bars when I didn’t even want to drink. It was truly frightening when I realized that I no longer had a choice. I didn’t want to drink, but my body screamed for the relief of a double gin and tonic or three. I needed the help of A.A. — even though I maintain fundamental disagreements with how that recovery program works, and am not as active as I used to be.
It took three painful months to finally sober up to the dark reality my life had become. Though I am grateful for the support of other people in recovery, there are truisms in the A.A. and medical communities whose illogic continue to mar the understanding an alcoholic might make about his or her uses of substances besides alcohol — and let’s remember there are many.
In A. A. and other treatment programs, it’s deeply discouraged to even entertain the use of an illegal drug like marijuana, since it “would certainly reawaken the alcoholic mind” and “drive one to relapse.” That’s what I thought, too. But I don’t just have alcoholism– by far, my worst difficulty in life has been persistent Obsessive Conpulsive Disorder (with invasive thoughts) and generalized anxiety. I don’t know if they caused my booze problems, but they certainly made it harder to give up.
I was sober five months. I had a new house and seemed to be improving after an annus horribilus that, besides being busted, involved a relationship break up, a kitchen fire, and getting mugged. The desire to drink was almost gone, but my anxiety — particularly the idea that I had “done something wrong” — scorched my body. Sometimes I only left the house to see my probation officer, so deep was my fear of the world. He was happy with me, unlike his other cases, I was committed to changing. But he never understood how my anxiety was so painful that drinking was starting to have a sick appeal. For someone who barely escaped the deep throes of alcoholism — a disease that kills two thirds of its hosts — the idea of drinking was horrifying. But the temporary relief a few beers would produce made me consider a jaunt to the package store.
In February of 1998 my mind was intensely focused on the urge to find relief in the bottle. I had no support or understanding for my ongoing problems. I felt like I was missing a layer of skin.
Then I made a fateful compromise.
Realizing I really craved only a change in perspective, it occurred to me that alcohol was not the only option. Another was much safer.
So that’s when I found myself digging up an old marble bowl my sister left after a visit and toking on the remaining resin. This idea shamed me, but I knew drugs well enough to determine it was the better choice.
I don’t think old resin ever did so much to change one man’s point of view about pot.
Marijuana, to my mind still, was a fun drug, but part of the past. I doubted anyone would accept the idea of smoking pot as an emotional palliative. The term used in AA for my behavior was “marijuana maintenance”, as if it were a lousy substitute for the great inner alchemical work I was supposed to do with the Twelve Steps. But nobody in AA talked about being a multiple diagnosis drunk — I couldn’t tolerate any longer the stress that seemed to stretch my muscles to painful degrees.
But suddenly none of that mattered. MiraculousIy, I wasn’t paranoid that I was breaking the law, and the terms of my probation. A hit or two of resin for someone who had been off dope would mean a complete shift in consciousness.
As I scraped and toked at the awkward tarry chunks, I was suddenly an observer to my crisis, not someone caught up in its drama. “What am I worried about, again?” I thought. “There is nothing to be afraid of. The past is over.”
Though marijuana was often fun, I never took seriously the idea that it could have therapeutic use. I was amazed as, in minutes, it extinguished the whiny emotional pain bodies infecting my mind, and gave me a larger view. And it occurred to me I no longer craved alcohol. “I might be switching one addiction for another, ” I thought. “But at least I won’t have to be detoxed — if I only smoke pot.”
Despite the initial success, I was very wary and angry at myself a few days later for acquiescing. I was sure my probation officer and people in AA would know I was “relapsing.” Shame started to intensify.
Until I reconsidered what I had done with strict logic. The marijuana didn’t make me paranoid; it calmed me. The majority of alchies are on some pharmaceutical medication — I would gladly taken a benzo or two as needed, if a script had been available.
But I didn’t even have medical insurance. Pot was available. And it would never catch up to me or drive me to drink.
I say that after having quit the sauce for almost two years — while I cultivated a new love, and a new awareness, for the healing properties of pot. Suddenly I had more than enough. Even better, I also didn’t have to struggle in group situations where a social lubricant is shared. People, including my friends, would always feel awkward partying around me, making me only feel more self-conscious and alienated. Instead of becoming a recluse, I found that, with the help of marijuana, I could be calm and even joyous at events where drinks were served.
Still, I am sad that the legality of marijuana still poses risk. I could be drug tested, any time, and my positive result would not benefit from a rational explanation about how I had taken up another, less harmful, less addictive, non-fatal drug to ease my mental illness. It would be a stretch in the mind of the enforcement community to accept I could smoke dope and never pick up the substance that would really kill me.
Indeed, when I consider how much better off a chronic pot smoker is than a compulsive alcoholic, the social approval of drink makes no sense juxtaposed to the fierce condemnation of the wonderful, insight-giving herb.
I am not going to lie and say my use has always been moderate or periodic. I have been stoned for days. But that didn’t bother me so much when I realized I was taking a medication, not feeding a vile addiction. And my outward life improved enormously. I got a new job, lost weight, read many books — and never had to lie to my overseer, since he never asked me about pot. I could sincerely tell him about my recovery from alcoholism and became his ideal model for success. I take no pride in the deception — in fact, it’s filled me with dread at times — but it wasn’t deliberate. I went to meetings and took care of myself the way any good A.A. would. But the affinity for weed must be kept hidden for now. Were I not on probation, I would be marching on the streets for legalization.
For the first time in my experience with it, I felt the plant was showing me its distinct personality. I would hear a strange funny voice in my head, and sometimes wondered if the plant wasn’t communicating with me. Additionally, my sense of color and perception improved vastly. I mastered the star constellations — which I had never bothered to notice before — and even developed theories about how healing powers of color corresponded to the Eastern Chakra system. (I had been wearing mostly red, I realized, perhaps to reassure the low, frightened security chakra, whose color is traditionally rosy.).
Confident that experimenting with other power plants would not sully my recovery efforts, I had several experiences with illegal psychedelics — accentuated by a few tokes — which I found deeply healing. I have felt like a new man. The presence of marijuana and other natural intoxicants is as much to thank as the absence of booze. I stay away from narcotics, which seem particularly dangerous for the self-medicating alcoholic. But I don’t smoke cigarettes or even drink coffee. My drug intake is quite modest — it’s just not in line with social norms. Since police officials have the right to do a surprise visit at my home to see if I am hungover — or something else — I have had to exercise deep caution. Not even my pot-smoking sister knows — for she would worry, as she has the AA view about drugs. My mother is a psychiatrist specializing in addiction but she considers the use of power plants or LSD absurd for the recovering alcoholic, even though the founder of AA took acid and thoughr it could be very helpful for other drunks. I lay off the green during weeks with the family. It is not a challenge.
Marijuana is not for everyone, and certainly may be used irresponsibly. But prohibition, which forces people like me to the black market, is a constant reminder of how Neanderthal our drug policy is. This is reflected in the laws but also in the minds of most people — who wouldn’t understand how marijuana saved my life that February day.