Harm from marijuana use remains a hotly debated and unsettled issue. Clearly there are respiratory risks and perhaps cancer risks from inhaling a substance with many of the same ingredients found in cigarettes. The most robust evidence against marijuana comes from numerous studies showing a strong link between using weed and psychotic symptoms, including schizophrenia. Again, no causal link has ever been shown, and some have argued – not very convincingly – that the correlation may mean quite oppositely that psychotic individuals use the drug to ameliorate psychotic symptoms. Although there is much evidence that marijuana users remain under-employed and under-educated, again, the arrow of causality may point in the other direction: those with fewer opportunities may be more likely to turn to weed to feel better. Is weed addictive? Seems to be, especially among the young, but not as strongly addictive as other psychoactive drugs. Cognitive deficits from smoking? No doubt about it. But the evidence has yet to show long-lasting deficits after cessation.
Despite the lack of hard scientific evidence showing harm, any clinician who regularly works with heavy cannabis smokers comes away with a clear sense that the person in front of him is blunted, impaired and less himself. Certainly the evidence, taken all together, suggests harm from use. But it may be that the ill-effects from using weed are more subtle, having to do with personality and a sense of who one is among others.
I smoked my first bowl of weed when I was fifteen and remember lying in the tall grass and losing my sense of time. The high came afterwards, when my friends and I met up again and made up stories about our experiences. For a year or two of high school, I joined the stoners. Above all, I liked the idea of being part of a secret group that could share a natural substance that produced similar out-of-it feelings in all of us. Weed was the drug of the hippies and was associated with the peace movement, organic farming and free love. It came from a plant, smelled good and seemed to tickle the brain in interesting ways. How could it be bad?
Gradually I found that I was smoking weed more frequently. I started smoking alone and I began to crave weed and look for it. I can recall coughing my brains out on a bowl of stems and seeds. I started cutting school, staying at home and enjoying, kind of, reruns of old sitcoms and cartoons whose cleverness had long worn thin from repetition but under the distorting influence of cannabis seemed original all over again. A patient of mine in the early stages of Alzheimer’s explained that one of the advantages of losing memory is that he can watch the same movie three times in a week and enjoy it each time, although without much real tension. Perhaps that’s the dubious advantage of weed – it allows us to repeat the same day again and again with the same dull pleasure with which we experienced it the first time, and with the same unanxious novelty. My grades dropped but so did my dissatisfaction with them dropping. I was left with a dull aching guilt that I was not doing my part in the world, that I might have something to offer and yet had put myself in the shadows. I quit smoking at the end of my freshman year in college and suffered no withdrawal but many cravings to return to that world where what mattered mattered little and what didn’t matter glowed magically from within.
Is weed bad for you? Certainly there is enough scientific evidence suggesting physical, cognitive and psychological problems from smoking. But for me the greatest harm was that it pulled me out of engagement with people and made me not happy, but okay with watching reruns or sitting in the dark and following pointless mental tangents, day after day. Weed doesn’t destroy your life; it trivializes it.
© Copyright 2011 by Daniel Goldin, LMFT, therapist in South Pasadena, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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