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Not Your Grandad's Marijuana
The particular danger of vapes and concentrates
When people repeat the old line that marijuana is not addictive, or is mostly harmless, they’re still living in a different era. There has been a great deal of innovation in the cannabis space – from plant genetics and hydroponics to the processing of the psychoactive THC compound into more potent concentrates for smoking, eating, and vaporizing. Unless you happen to be a direct descendant of Willie Nelson, this ain’t your grandaddy’s marijuana.
I don’t mean to pick on Willie. The country singer apparently started to smoke marijuana several decades ago as a crutch to wean him off of alcohol. Perhaps toking all day every day is preferable to drinking the same way, but for every Willie Nelson there are likely many more who are simply adding marijuana to their self-medication schedule rather than replacing something else.
When a substance is as prevalent as marijuana has become in California, it’s inevitable that addiction rates will increase. I was a regular-to-heavy user of marijuana in my early 20s. Aside from some “tolerance breaks” here and there, with the intention to replenish my battered endocannabinoid receptors, I smoked pretty much every day. But it wasn’t until I got a medical marijuana license in 2015 that I was able to maintain my buzz from morning to night, with the aid of a “vape pen” that could fit in my shirt pocket.
I never considered myself an abuser of cannabis until I started carrying one of these pens around and taking discreet little puffs throughout the day. First, upon waking, then with my second cup of coffee, before (and after) starting my work, and so on and so on... The scent was subtle enough that no one even had to know what I was doing.
Until one day, I recall hitting my vape pen so hard that no amount of Visine could conceal the redness of my eyes. I don’t know if I got a bad batch or what, but my eyes started to water uncontrollably. I wasn’t crying. My emotions were flat. It was just a biological reaction and a fitting metaphor for hitting my saturation point. My highs were now lower than my old baseline of sobriety, and it took more and more of the substance just to feel like I had any substance whatsoever.
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The Dope-amine Trap
Like so many modern addictions, from scrolling social media to watching pornography, cannabis abuse disorder places the user into a dopamine trap. The substance itself is secondary to the patterns it ignites in the brain. Modern people are getting addicted to matching on dating apps, answering petty emails, and even crushing shiny pieces of digital candy on their little glowing dopamine boxes. Some of them turn to weed to make these little rewards juicier once they’ve lost their allure.
Unlike the chemical dependence of heroin or nicotine, high-potency cannabis lends itself to psychological dependence, by hijacking the feel-good chemicals that are upregulated by any rewarding activity.
We can visualize the modern malaise – the psychosomatic blend of boredom, torpor, and amotivational syndrome – as a progression of parabolic curves, where the initial dopamine highs give way to lower peaks and troughs until the external hit is required just to get back to the normal baseline pulsing of our neurotransmitters.
It’s been said that marijuana addicts usually suffer from “soft bottoms” relative to other kinds of addicts. We don’t end up in the gutter nearly as often as alcoholics or cokeheads. Instead, we find ourselves getting progressively distanced from our bygone dreams, until even basic obligations start to feel daunting and former pleasures, mundane. I count the day of my vaping overdose as one of a handful of rock bottoms – none of them particularly remarkable, but each one representing in their own way the diminished expectations I’d developed about life.
With emotionless tears streaming down my face – stymied as I was by the inescapable reality that I was an addict – I decided to mix up my routine that day. I walked down the street, past People’s Park, to the old Cafe Mediterraneum (allegedly the home of the Americano).
‘Cafe Med’ was one of the recent casualties in the corporate redevelopment of Berkeley’s famous Telegraph Avenue – the hub of sixties counterculture protests and pilgrimage site for hippies and hoboes alike. Most of the headshops that used to peddle smoking paraphernalia have been replaced in the last 10 years by frozen yogurt and Boba stands, but a few have survived – in part by catering to new demand for ‘dabbing rigs’ and other expensive contraptions for getting way too high.
On the same block where Cafe Med used to be, Romeo’s Coffee now offers an industrial chic aesthetic that matches the clean, well-lit ‘Hi-Fidelity Dispensary’ two doors down. Romeo’s still serves Americanos (double shot), along with a variety of other strongly caffeinated cold and hot brews. Everywhere you look, it seems, the substances are getting stronger, while the substance gets weaker. The merchants care less about the atmosphere and more about “vibe” – that ubiquitous electrical buzzing found in every urban area.
The Logical Conclusion of the Dopamine Economy
Before closing down, Cafe Med attracted all kinds – poets, dreamers, eccentrics and madmen. In short, your typical Berkeleyan… but even more Berkeley. After my stroll past the rowdy homeless encampments at People’s Park, I was expecting to find some characters among the cafe’s patrons, but nothing could have prepared me for the interaction I was about to have.
An older man with white hair began to make small talk from the next table over. The conversation started off innocently enough, but I noticed that he kept spasmodically raising a large, white throwing disc to the back of his head, like a plastic aura of an ersatz Saint. Later, he revealed that the frisbee helped to protect him from radio wave attacks being aimed by malevolent agents of some ill-defined conspiracy. It was a pretty clear case of paranoid schizophrenia, and here I was getting sucked into his warped reality with every polite nod of my head.
In my haze, it simply felt nice to talk to someone. I confessed to him that the tears streaming down my cheeks were not a result of emotional overload, but just a bad reaction to a potent strain of CO2-distilled THC. My mentally-ill new friend told me that he used to smoke marijuana back in the day, but that he had stopped long ago. Then he raised the frisbee to his neck, turned, and aimed a television remote at the unwitting patrons sitting upstairs at the cafe.
Was marijuana a contributor to his manifest psychosis? I’ll never know, although new research suggests that heavy cannabis use can trigger schizophrenia in those susceptible to it. One likely mechanism is disturbance and overactivity of the dopamine system. Our brains did not evolve to handle such incessant and wild fluctuations in reward. While most people who smoke in their youth exit the roller coaster after enough wild rides, some remain trapped in the psychological equivalent of the Gravitron until they’ve acclimated to the excessive forces being put on their minds.
Now that cannabis has been packaged for maximum convenience and addictiveness, we are certain to see more stories like this one from the New York Post, reporting that the San Diego ER has been seeing up to 37 marijuana cases per day, mostly psychosis. These cases have become far more common than even methamphetamine-related psychosis. The article shares stories of promising teens jumping off 20-story buildings – essentially, it’s the return of Reefer Madness, although this time the reports aren’t nearly as hyperbolic as they were when the 1936 propaganda film was released.
Other reports speak of cannabis hyperemesis syndrome, in which uncontrollable screaming and vomiting result from a cannabis overdose. Welcome to the cannabis carnival.
After those years of frequent overuse, I finally found my way out of the hall of mirrors that my life had become. Miraculously, I managed to avoid becoming a cautionary tale, told by D.A.R.E. officer, signifying nothing. However, it feels like a “there but for the grace of God go I” kind of thing. I quit smoking weed shortly before it was fully legalized in California in 2016. The stuff I smoked in college was about five times more expensive, and far less potent. I shudder to think at how my habit might have progressed with the advent of 90% concentrates and the $50 ounce.
So, What Now?
The criminalization of marijuana was no doubt a blunder. It wreaked havoc on countless innocent people and created a black market that stunted the development of a healthier culture around cannabis. There will always be issues of substance abuse, as alcohol shows, but society has developed conventions around booze that stop most people from attempting alcoholism as a valid alternative lifestyle. Lacking these norms with marijuana, it might be harder for abusers to notice that their use has gone too far. Instead, the industry supports an image of the frequent cannabis connoisseur as a modern-day Marlboro Man, who is more relaxed, creative, and all-around cool thanks to his daily drug of choice. Again, think Willie Nelson – not the paranoid schizophrenic remnant of the 1960s.
All the billboards around the Bay Area that portray marijuana as an aid to creativity, or a relaxing and clarifying cognitive enhancer, keep this dark underside of the plant a secret. It’s up to the user to determine which side of the spectrum they’re on. But if you fell for the hype about weed being a harmless herb, and you’re now trying to escape from the dopamine trap, you’re not alone.
We’re all dopamine addicts to one degree or another, and there’s no shame in admitting it. The real shame is if you deny it to the point that you end up with tears streaming down your face – unable to get high no matter how much pure THC you vaporize – while nodding along with a crazy conspiracy theory about getting attacked by TV remote controls.
If you end up there, you may have a problem with marijuana.