Friday, April 24, 2009

The Marijuana Trap

Is there any harm in being a "pot head"? Yes, unfortunately.

This is another post I hate to write, as I am not sure it will do any good.  One thing that is consistent about marijuana users (or any drug user) is the certainty they have that they know what they are doing, and that the drug use is not harming them in any way.   I know this as I used a lot of marijuana in my early youth, and no one could tell me anything, as I thought I knew it all.

I ran into a friend of mine the other day, and they like to smoke pot.  That's their business and all, but unfortunately, in most cases, the business of marijuana users ends up spilling out into everyone else's business in short order.  In my article "The Unwritten Social Contract" I advance the theory (or fact) that everyone has a duty to take care of themselves, to the best extent possible.  Marijuana users often end up falling off this wagon, as their actions tend to make them dependent on others. And they often end up starting trouble with others as well.

Marijuana users will bore you for hours about how safe their drug is, and how users of marijuana have been persecuted through the years and how it should be legalized, etc.  As I pointed out in my "Emotional Vampires" article, this is nothing more than a variation of the "Friend with Perpetual Problem" gambit and the "Political Junkie" gambit. How can they be expected to get a job and settle down while marijuana is still illegal!  There are, we are told, "greater issues at stake".

The nature of the drug plays into this effect, and causes other effects as well.  It is not hard to spot a marijuana user, even without a urine test.  They tend to socialize only with their own kind, have difficulty interacting with others who are not stoners, get into contretemps with neighbors and coworkers, are always "starting something", are often unemployed or underemployed, and often end up in trouble with the Police or have other long-standing legal problems.

Many stoners would argue that many of these problems are caused by the illegality of marijuana itself - that if the gange was legalized, their "hassles" would not be as many.  This argument fails on a couple of grounds.  First of all, marijuana is not likely to be legalized in our lifetime, or at least the next 10-20 years.  The political climate in the US and even the world is such that legalization is political suicide for politicians.  So it isn't going to change, and regardless of whether it is a staggering injustice, you have to get used to that fact and work with it.  Tilting at windmills does not accomplish much.  Secondly, even if marijuana was legalized, stoners would still be getting into all sorts of "hassles" as the nature of the drug causes them to do odd things.

One of the aspects of marijuana use is that when you are stoned, you tend to become more introspective and contemplative.  To some extent, this is instructive and "mind-expanding" in that one realizes what one's own motivations in life are (which can sometimes be difficult experience, but one that can be easily forgotten with another bong hit).  When you are stoned, however, being around "straight" people can be almost painful.  Straight people seem overly demonstrative and loud, and their petty motivations seem to be apparent for all to see.  It is almost embarrassingStoners are not necessarily as catatonic as they seem, just more subtle in expressing themselves sometimes, as the masks we all wear in daily life are all too apparent to them.

These masks, however, do serve a social purpose.  Yes, we all play games in life, putting on an act, trying to be "nice" to people we don't like (well, sometimes, anyway) and being sociable when we don't want to be.  We say "Hi, how's the weather" to an acquaintance, when we really want to be left alone. The stoner can't play that game.  They appear withdrawn, and thus anti-social.  People react accordingly, and it spirals into more and more withdrawal from society.

As a result, most stoners end up "starting something" with co-workers and neighbors.  The "paranoia" induced by the drug tends to cause them to conjure up petty grievances with people they meet, which fester over time, accumulate into a laundry list, and finally explode into a bad episode of "COPS".  As such, stoners are not fun to be around, nor do they make fun neighbors.

My friend's hapless brother is a good example of this, as he has been a 40 year career "chronic," mixing marijuana, cheap beer, anti-depressants, and anti-psychotic medication in a nightly cocktail.  You would not want to be his neighbor.  After college, he got a job with local radio station.  It was not long before he decided that his boss, who owned the radio station, was an asshole.  Always "harassing" him for being a few minutes (or hours) late, and then yelling at him for doing stupid things like turning the transmitter off.  I mean, can't the dude give him a break?

Needless to say, every time you went to see my friend's brother, you were treated to the "Perpetual Problem" monologue about his boss and what an asshole his boss was.  This made him very unpopular with his friends, and his isolation increased.  After many passive-aggressive incidents, which escalated into confrontations, he went on-the-air to give an editorial about how the station owner was a corrupt individual and businessman.  What a great stoner trick.

Unfortunately in the small town my friend's brother was living in, the station owner was very popular and also the brother-in-law of the police chief.  My friend's brother was fired, of course, and the police chief was happy to pull him over and find marijuana in his car.  Not smart.  Like most stoners, my friend's brother found himself in yet another incident of legal trouble. Yes, this was not his first time, of course. And of course, this just fueled more paranoia, the persecution complex, and another "chronic problem" for him to bitch about.  And to the stoner, it is everyone else's fault, of course

What causes such behavior?  Well, I think in part that marijuana, while "mind-expanding" in some senses, is also "mind numbing" in others.  I found that when I was an adolescent, I used it to forget my troubles, rather than confront them or analyze them.  As a result, the drug creates a sense of stasis, and people end up stuck in bad situations, totally incapable of action to pull themselves out.  So they sit there, like deer in the headlights, waiting to get run over.  The best the stoner can hope for is to keep a low profile and be left alone.  It rarely happens, though.

So, the stereotypical stoner is living in his Mother's basement, and can't find a job. Why? Because he's STONED, dude!  If you are stoned all the time, you aren't going to look for a job, and if you are stoned during a job interview, you aren't going to GET a job, and if you are stoned on the job, you are likely to LOSE you job.  And when Mom hollers down the basement stairs, you'll do another bong hit to bury your troubles, rather than confront them.

In my friend's brother's case, he used pot to anesthetize himself from the reality of his life (and probably still does).  Rather than see the radio job as the dead-end it was, and plan on moving on, he stayed at the job, hating it and his boss, and subconsciously sabotaged his job and career until he was forced out - in a very bad way.

A better approach would have been to do the job well, realizing all the time that the job sucked and had no future, and at the same time, send out resumes and make job inquiries to try to get a better job.  Eventually, he would have landed one, and had a good reference on his resume.  As it played out, well, he's not in radio anymore.

It's called ambition, and its one of the first things that is sacrificed to the altar of ganga.  Stoners not only do not have any ambition, they despise it in others.  The mentality is that anyone who tries to "get ahead" has "sold out to the MAN" and only those who sink to near-subsistence levels are morally pure.  This is, of course, a comforting philosophy if you have no ambition.

The "us versus them" mentality quickly manifests itself when you start using marijuana. Using marijuana is one way of volunteering to become part of a minority group.  Stoners tend to congregate together, use their own language and code words, and consider themselves apart from society and "Straights" (an odd term, also used in the Gay community).  Stoners thus tend to reinforce each other's behavior, listening to each other's long-winded stories of injustice, and nodding in agreement when bosses are characterized as "assholes" and Police as "pigs".

This blog is devoted to financial issues, so how does stonerism affect your finances?  Well, it does, big time.  First of all, pot is very expensive. Stoners will argue this is because it is illegal, but I suspect it would not be cheap even if legalized. (UPDATE:  It is not)  Despite the staggering cost and their inability to hold a job, stoners seem to be able to find the money to buy pot on a regular basis.  Often this means sponging off parents or others for basic daily needs (Food, clothing, shelter, transportation).

But not only will using marijuana affect your finances in the short term, it will sabotage your life in the long term. Very few stoners become successful in life.  Yes, it does happen, but usually such tales of stoner success are success "in spite of" the drug use, not because of it.

My story is typical. My late Sister decided that she should "turn me on" when I was 13 years old. I was a typical hyperactive kid, and she felt that pot would "mellow me out" and "expand my mind". Unfortunately, this sort of attitude is typical of stoners - the drug becomes like a religion. "If only everyone smoked pot, the world would be a better place" they argue. So to my 23-year-old sister, giving drugs to a 13-year-old seemed to her, like a favor. Thanks, Sis!

This attitude is reflected also in news reports of parents giving pot to children, or to pets, to "mellow them out". Stonerism becomes almost like a religion, and converting the masses to the cause becomes part of the lifestyle. So to my sister, getting her kid brother stoned was not an irresponsible act, but, to the stoner mind, an act of kindness.

It is hard to say scientifically how the drugs affect your life, as you cannot go back in time, and then NOT take the drugs as a controlled experiment, and then compare the two outcomes. (UPDATE: Some studies suggest pot can cause or aggravate mental health issues among young adults).  But certain patterns do emerge. While I was a successful student up until that time, once I started smoking pot, my grades dropped. It is not hard to figure out why. Trying to study while stoned is like trying to see through the fog. Going to class while high was a "bummer" (and a sure way to start a trip to the Principal's office) so I skipped classes more. I became more withdrawn and alienated from the other students at school - except the other stoners, which became my new social group, such as it was.

The adolescent years are difficult enough as it is. You have to struggle with sex and sexuality, how you are going to fit into the larger world, how to make a career and a living. It is daunting and scary stuff. It is no wonder that schizophrenia manifests itself during the late teenage years. Some kids just freak out at the prospect of no longer being a kid. Growing up is painful.

Smoking pot was a way of forgetting about all of that and remaining a child a few minutes longer. Unfortunately, as we have seen, the stasis induced by stonerism ends up causing more harm than good, as a teenage user ends up not confronting these issues - and as a result ends up unemployed or underemployed, bumming around well into the 20's or even 30's.

In spite of heavy drug use, I was able to get reasonable grades and good SAT scores. Why is this? Well, not because the marijuana did NOT affect my abilities, but only because I had some abilities to begin with, and while even impaired by marijuana, I was still able to perform at a level better than most. For other folks not as advanced on the intelligence scale, pot use tends to be more devastating, pushing them far down the economic ladder. For intelligent people, it merely pushes them into poverty, or at best, a lower-middle-class lifestyle.

And since I was socializing only with other potheads (or po-theads, as I now call them), I tended to acquire a lot of "interesting" new friends, more often than not far below my own social, class, and intelligence level. (Dave Sedaris has written at length on this effect - how a stoner suddenly finds himself hanging out with questionable people, just to get high.) While these were usually decent people (with some very notable exceptions) hanging around with them was a total loser's game. I felt constantly pulled down to their level, and perhaps at the same time, using this group to enhance my own stature in comparison. Not a very nice game to play, the big fish in the small pond.

And some in this group started to do very odious things. Marijuana users will love to tell you that marijuana is not a "gateway drug" that leads to "harder drugs". But my own experiences negate that. While I realized that some drugs were more dangerous than others (cocaine, methamphetamine) others did not make such fine distinctions. To them, drugs were good. If marijuana got you high, then cocaine would get you higher.

One friend decided that prescription drugs and alcohol were the answer. He started breaking into local pharmacies and stealing pills. He got arrested and served a short sentence. He then started stealing cars, to drive into the city to buy drugs and go to bars. On the way home one night, he passed out, hitting another car head-on, killing the driver, who was on the way home from her wedding rehearsal dinner. She died the day before her wedding. My (former, by that time) friend was largely unrepentant. He served a short prison sentence for manslaughter, and continued to hang out at the local high school, smoking pot with the kids, well into his 30's.

By the way, every town has such a loser - a guy old enough to be married, who hangs out and smokes pot with the high school kids. When your son or daughter brings someone like that home, don't wait to take action - your kid is in trouble.

Another pair of friends decided to get into cocaine. The one fellow was married and had a child, but he would "hang out" with his pals until late every night, smoking pot, and doing whatever other drugs were available. One day they called me up and said they had a "new drug to try" called "rock cocaine". This was before the crack epidemic took hold or the name "crack" had even been invented. I never liked cocaine, and the idea of setting it on fire seemed fraught with peril. I walked away at that point, both from my friends and drugs.

The list goes on and on. My drug friends who stayed with pot ended up trying other drugs down the road. Most lost jobs, careers, marriages, relationships, all because of drug use. One was living with his parents, and after 20 years, I discovered he still is. That is totally sad.

While I continued to be "functional" while using marijuana, it was not helping my life. It caused me to drop out of college, instead of recognizing that I was unhappy with my college and transferring. The net result was the same, but if I had transferred, I could have improved my academic record considerably. Again, marijuana anesthetizes the user, so he ends up staying static, rather than taking action. I passively let events happen, instead of taking control when I could. It's like letting your car go off a cliff, when you could turn the steering wheel slightly to avoid disaster. The stoner would argue that even trying is pointless.

Also, when on marijuana, it seemed like I was perpetually poor. One reason is that the drug sort of puts you in a poor mindset - that everything in life is unobtainable, other than to those who "sell out to the MAN" of course. Marijuana causes you to squander large amounts of money on stupid things as well. If you can't think straight, it is hard to manage your finances, much less balance your checkbook. I was the sort of person during that time who wrote checks until the bank sent bounce notices. Not very smart.

The breaking point came with my family. Again, many parents actually have a perverse enjoyment of this (see the Emotional Vampires article and a future article, The Parent Trap).  It is comforting for some parents to know they are more successful than their kids, perverse as it might seem, and they enjoy lording over their children's ruined lives.  They would never say this out loud, of course, but it is deeply seated, psychologically.

My parents (now safely in the grave) were alcoholics - chronic alcoholics.  My childhood memories are of my parent's violence, arguments, shouting, and drunkenness.  My brother and I even pledged never to drink ever, based on watching our parents fight.  Oddly enough, I ended up using marijuana before alcohol, and it was marijuana that lead me to a harder drug - booze.  Yes, marijuana can be a gateway drug.

Living in a dysfunctional family is never fun.  As a pothead, I found it hard to get away from my family and view my life in my own terms.  I was in stasis, playing the role of the child (as were my siblings) rather than living my own life.  Living your own life is scary and involves risks. Stoners prefer warm fuzzy insular comfort.

After one particularly nasty Thanksgiving visit, I decided something had to change.  Family visits had evolved into a pattern.  My Mother would drink to excess, and then start screaming at everyone. Instead of doing the smart thing and leaving, we'd all stand around like so many emotional punching bags (sometimes physical as well) then then blame each other for the incident.

"If only you hadn't set Mother off!" my Sister would say. My crime? I mentioned the nation of Canada in a sentence.  My Father had previously had a mistress in Canada, and mere mention of that country was enough to trigger a tirade from my Mother.  Well, that and four or five Martinis. But, according to my siblings, it was my fault, because I didn't carefully curtail my speech and let slip one of the "forbidden" topics.  In my family, there was no country to the North of the USA, just another coastline.

I was angry and frustrated.  This wasn't right and it was also depressing and unpleasant.  I decided that I wanted to change my life.  I attended some Al-Anon meetings (for children of alcholics) and read up on the subject.  The best advice I got from one of the counselors was that, while I could not change my Mother's behavior and my sibling's responses, I could change my own.  And not being stoned during these encounters was a good start.

(A note on Al-Anon and other groups: Such groups can be very helpful, but they can form an addiction of their own. The "-Anon" groups all insist that theirs is the only cure for problems in your life, and that you must perpetually attend their meetings.  The science behind this is somewhat lacking).

The other motivation was that I was tired of being poor and beaten down.  I wanted a secure future for myself - one based on my own earnings and money, and not be perpetually living on the margins of poverty and relying on parents for occasional handouts, as my siblings were doing well into adulthood.  I gave up smoking pot and also drinking beer.  This meant, of course, that I also had to give up my drug friends, and they did not take this lying down.

When I started smoking pot, my grades suffered, I became more withdrawn, listless, wasted money, became anti-social, etc.  When I stopped, it was as though I had been dragging a cinder block behind me all my life and I suddenly realized it and let go. I had been making some progress on my Engineering Degree before, but it was slow progress.  Suddenly, I shot ahead.

My grades went up.  I made the Dean's list and won an academic scholarship.  Suddenly, things started seeming possible, instead of pipe dreams.  I asked my employer for a leave of absence to finish college - something I never would have dreamed of as a stoner.  To my surprise, they granted it. The Engineering degree I had been toying with for nearly a decade, I completed in 18 months.

I sold my house in a run-down neighborhood and left Central New York, which was an economically depressed area.  I found a job with the Patent Office and started law school.  Success wasn't that hard, I discovered, once you got rid of that cinder block called marijuana use.

And my relationship with my family improved, at least from my perspective.  I realized finally that you have to grow up and live your own life and not remain someone's child forever.  I kept my visits with my parents short and sweet and let them know on no uncertain terms, that our relationship was on a peer-to-peer level, not that of parent and child.  If they wanted to start drunken brawls, that was their business.  But I would leave. Surprisingly, they had little trouble with this new order, and I had many happy hours with them during short visits before they died.

My siblings, still using drugs, still got sucked into arguments and drunken disagreements with my parents, and still viewed themselves through the prism of the parent/child relationship.  Up until her death, my Sister still "struggled to understand her relationship with her Mother" - reading volumes and volumes of books on the matter, such as "My Mother, Myself".  She never did figure it out, and to some extent, never lived her own life.  She confessed to me before she died that she remained married to an alcoholic husband, ten years longer than she wanted to, only to "prove my Father wrong" about him.  How sad.  She never grew up and lived her own life on her own terms.

Once you stop smoking pot, the desire to restart is not that great.  From the outside in, you see all the difficulties it caused you.  And unfortunately, you can only see these from the outside in.  That's why, to some extent, this blog entry is totally ineffective.  A pot smoker reading this (presuming they could get this far before switching over to funny cat videos on YouTube) would not be convinced to stop smoking pot.  Nothing can convince a pot smoker that their troubles in life might be related to their drug use.

As for my friend I ran into the other day, her story is typical.  She got caught up in a "controversy" with her neighbors, and instead of moving somewhere else or merely ignoring it, she found herself stoking the controversy with small, passive-aggressive actions.

Passive-aggressiveness is one of the most annoying things about pot smokers. They do little shitty things that they think are Soooooo subtle.  When you call them out on them, they act all innocent and persecuted.  "Who, me?" they say.  Yes, you.

Anyway, the end result was her neighbor was evicted, and it looks like she'll need a new place to live, too, as the landlord is not too enamored of her tendency to "start things" with the other neighbors. As the conversation progressed, she related her past legal problems related to pot (felony conviction, which really limits your employment opportunities), relationship problems, pet problems (See, The Pet Trap), and the like.  She also treated me to the 15-minute political junkie diatribe on "legalize it" which as I noted before, ain't about to happen.

Not smoking pot would solve her relationship, employment, and other problems fairly easily.  But as I noted before, trying to convert the pothead is a waste of time.  You just have to hope they figure it out before too long. And in the meantime, stay out of their way and avoid them.  Trust me, having potheads as friends is problematic - they will always be "starting something" and will be the biggest emotional vampires in your life.

I should note that quitting marijuana doesn't mean that you will return to "normal" in short order. Marijuana proponents claim that the drug has no long-term effects, and some reading this blog might argue that my experience proves this.  After all, when I quit marijuana, I was able to get my life back on course, right?

Not exactly.  To begin with, I didn't get the 10 plus years back I wasted (figuratively and literally) on pot.  And also, I think the drug tends to induce long-term effects such as paranoia and difficulty in personal relationships.  The drug negatively affects the ability to socialize and interact with others, and even after quitting the drug, the effects seem to linger on - for a lifetime.

So the idea that you can "just try" pot for a few years and then quit and "go back" to the way you were, is fraught with hazard.  Once you start smoking pot, your life is affected, and there is no way to go back to the way you were before.

Is marijuana negatively affecting your life? Consider the following indicia:
  • Are you having trouble in relationships with your family members?
  • Are you having trouble in your own marriage or relationship?
  • Do you tend to get drawn into controversies at work or in your neighborhood?
  • Are you always "starting something" with a co-worker or neighbor?
  • Do you have trouble holding a job?
  • Is your boss always an "asshole"?
  • Are you chronically late for work?
  • Are you always out of money and/or have no real money management program?
  • Are you always looking for more pot?
  • Are you hanging out with people far below your social status and intellectual level, because they smoke pot?
  • Do you spend huge sums of money on tattoos, piercings, drugs, and paraphernalia, but can't pay the rent this month?
  • Have you dropped out of, or been thrown out of school? More than once?
  • Have you had one or more problems with Police and/or legal issues?
If you are a pothead, chances are, you can answer "YES" to several of these questions. The question you have to ask yourself is, do you really want to live this way for the rest of your life? Does the mild relaxation of marijuana outweigh the negative effects it has on your life?

You have to find the answer yourself. No one can "convince" a pothead to give it up. And sadly, unless you have a strong personality, like mine, chances are, once you start on pot, you'll stay on it a good long time - perhaps for life.

Party on, dude!

UPDATE:  January 2017.   Since I wrote this blog entry, pot has been legalized in a few States.   For how long, is anyone's guess.   You see, the stoners all forgot to vote, or voted for Jill Stein in "protest" or attended Bernie rallies and attacked Hillary.   Some even voted for Trump.   With Sessions as Attorney General, I suspect the DEA will be let loose pretty shortly and legalized pot will go away.   When will stoners learn?   They won't.