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Alcohol & Other Drugs

From Thrills to Ills

Why smoking pot is risky business

Geoffrey Griffiths

Reprinted from "Cannabis" issue of Visions Journal, 2009, 5(4), p. 14 

stock photoI started smoking pot when I was 13. I was not a happy camper as a kid. School was misery right from the start. I had great difficulty learning to read and write—and failed grade one. I had no sympathy or support from my teachers. In fact, I was frequently bullied and physically abused by several elementary school teachers—interestingly, two of them female, both redheads. One beat me up—punching, kicking and screaming at me. Shame (from feeling stupid), anxiety, low self-esteem and sleep issues escalated. I didn’t want to fall asleep—it would just bring the next school day, and more trouble. And a reoccurring dream of a woman’s looming, glaring face would jar me awake, terrified.

Smoking pot was new and fun. It introduced me to a social scene that was an exciting mix of parties, drug deals, fast cars and readily available drugs. One of the most exciting aspects of this scene was the thrill of ‘not getting caught.’ This was risky behaviour for the ‘excitement’ of it.

Until I was 23, I smoked pot or hash regularly—two or three joints on weekdays; more like a few ‘nickel’ bags on weekends. The more stoned I got, the less other parts of my life existed.

Flying high—laughing it up without a safety net

My pals and I were deeply involved in the ‘culture’ of pot smoking. When I was 15, I had a hookah (a water pipe) in my room in the basement and a variety of smoking pipes and papers. My hair was halfway down my back, and I wore ‘hippy clothes’—headbands, paisley shirts, bell-bottom pants, beads and leather vests. It was 1967,

Fun was a weekend of parties. A party wasn’t considered good unless the police had broken it up. We also spent a great deal of time in cars just driving around. Occasionally, the police would pull us over to check IDs. On many of these occasions we narrowly escaped being caught in possession of drugs.

Once we tried to cross the US border while we were stoned and carrying joints. The American border guard pulled us out of line, calling us “farmers” after finding cannabis seeds in the car seats. He sent us through US customs and immigration, where they searched us for drugs, but found none. Nevertheless, we were refused entry to the US of A. We thought this was quite a joke and had lots of laughs.

My friends and I drove everywhere as fast as we could, stoned or sober. One dark and foggy night, we were driving out to Mission along the Dewdney Trunk Road, smoking up as we went. We were climbing a hill when the driver was blinded by oncoming headlights. Because he was driving too fast—and he was too high—we found ourselves plummeting into a wooded ravine. We thought this was a joke too, until the RCMP officers told us how lucky we were to be alive. Apparently there’d been many fatalities at this location.

Buying pot can be a very risky business. The dealer could be selling to support his hard drug habit. Cocaine was the popular drug, and people who used it heavily were usually very paranoid and aggressive, thinking they were under police surveillance. Someone I knew had his arm broken by a dealer because he didn’t pay up when required to.

One house I walked into to buy pot reeked of ether (a chemical used for “freebasing”1 cocaine so it can be smoked for an immediate high). People were slumped in chairs smoking cigarettes dipped in the freebase solution. All I could think about was how, if the police showed up, being caught here could jeopardize my future. Cocaine possession is a federal offence, and although I wouldn’t go to jail for a first-time offence, the record can limit job opportunities and travel. I left without scoring and never went back.

Another risk was that you couldn’t tell how safe the pot you were buying was. At the time, as part of the USA’s war on drugs, paraquat (a herbicide, toxic to humans when ingested) was regularly sprayed on illegal crops to kill the plants. The marijuana growers soon learned that if they harvested the crop immediately, they could still sell it.2 The people involved in this illegal trade were more interested in profit than in the ethics of selling a tainted product.

Then there are the ‘special additives’ that promise a different or even more enhanced high. One night a friend and I dropped LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide, a powerful hallucinogenic drug; also known as “acid”), then smoked some pot laced with “angel dust.”* This was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. Dropping acid had always been a mild shift in reality: colours were brighter, sounds clearer, everything old seemed new again. But with the angel dust pot I had vivid auditory and visual hallucinations. I saw cartoon characters in the mist, and my french fries turned into a wriggling mass of snakes. Later in life, I found out that angel dust was PCP, a dangerous drug that can cause harm if used regularly.3

Another additive I tried in pot (and hash) was opium. This was a smooth, forget–all-your-worries high. I could sit or lie for hours in the middle of bedlam and not be bothered. It was a good thing that product was rarely available, because it’s highly addictive.

Coming down

As tends to happen in life, my luck started to run out. When I was 22, I rolled my car. This certainly wasn’t my first car accident; I’d had numerous near misses as both a driver and a passenger. But for a year after this one, I’d awake to flashbacks of the accident. Some of my friends were involved in serious accidents as well. One lost control driving around a curve because he was looking for a lit joint he’d dropped.

The future wasn’t looking very good. Friends got arrested for pot possession. Others were getting more involved in using and selling harder drugs. Having a drug conviction for small amounts of pot in Canada is not taken very seriously. Other countries, however, have very different attitudes. One of my friends with a possession record had to change honeymoon plans for Hawaii because he couldn’t travel to the US.

For me, the final wake-up call came when I was 23. I had no car and was fighting the insurance company over my accident. I was having a difficult relationship with my girlfriend. I’d been burning the candle at both ends—staying up late smoking pot with my friends, then getting up early to go to a labouring job. Paranoia and anxiety were increasing. One day, in a friend’s car, we had two collisions within minutes of each other—looking at a map rather than the road. Stoned. Then the car quit because the radiator had been damaged. I started crying. I realized that smoking pot didn’t make anything better.

Right after that pivotal day, I developed a liver and spleen infection. I was in bed for a month recovering; all I could do was sleep. And it was then I realized that my friends only cared about the pot-smoking me; they didn’t care about me.

I wanted to have a future. When I recovered from the infection, I moved out the house I was sharing to live on my own. I stopped taking drugs, went back to school and earned a telecommunications certificate.

All things in moderation?

I’m sure that pot smoking is safe if done moderately. As you can see, though, there was nothing moderate about my use.

Later in life I realized that in my early teens I was using pot to cope. It allowed me to suppress symptoms of a developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It wasn’t until my 30s that I sought help. I was at a social gathering where about 50% of the people present were teachers, and such an overwhelming and irrational rage welled up in me that I knew I needed help.

A counsellor encouraged me to get testing around my school fear issues. I discovered that I’m a high-functioning dyslexic and not at all stupid. My struggle with language arts in grade one was because of a learning disability.

I’m now using CBT (cognitive-behavioural therapy) to manage my anxieties. For example, when I have an anxiety attack at my local Starbucks, I now know that it’s because of the red-haired, female barista. I understand that my breathlessness, trembling and instant loss of concentration is a PTSD-triggered event and I’m better prepared to handle it.

I consider the greatest harm from using drugs to be the illusion they give you—that you have greater control over your life. If I hadn’t been stoned all the time, I’d have felt my real feelings—anger, rage and fear of intimate relationships. I may have made better decisions.

Cognitive-behavioural therapy techniques give me much more control over my life than using recreational drugs ever did. Cannabis was escape; CBT is confidence and clarity.

 
About the author

Geoff is a 55-year-old information technology worker. When he lost his job due to company downsizing, the greatest adventure of his life began—self discovery. What Geoff thought was burnout from constant stress turned out to be post-traumatic stress disorder. Geoff now works part-time as Strategic Office Support for AnxietyBC

 

Footnotes:
  1. Freebase or freebase cocaine is cocaine hydrochloride that has been purified, usually with ether. Freebase vaporizes at a low temperature, so users can smoke cocaine without burning it. Freebasing refers to smoking freebase cocaine.
  2. Weil, A. & Rosen, W. (2004). From chocolate to morphine: Everything you need to know about mind-altering drugs. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
  3. Phencyclidine (PCP) is a street drug that affects the nervous and circulatory system, causes disturbances in thinking and behaviour and can cause hallucinations, psychotic disorder, mood disorder and anxiety disorder. Also known as angel dust, ozone, whack, peace pill, hog, horse tranquillizer, rocket fuel and more. Mixed with marijuana, it may be referred to as crystal supergrass or killer weed.

 

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