Like crazy lightning bolts from above, they careened off the nighttime luminescence of our backyard swimming pool before losing their symmetry in a dash of strange designs.
It was 1966, and I was a high school student experiencing his first taste of the newfangled weed we called marijuana. “Wow,” I mumbled to no one in particular, “I just…” but the words trailed off.
There are other memories from those early burgeoning days of the California drug culture. Like being stoned on a school field trip while sharing a glass-eyed conversation with a bright-eyed teacher. Or spending weekends with a friend in a smoke-filled trailer far from the prying nostrils of his oblivious parents.
Later, the experiences became more dangerous and foolhardy; passing hashish-filled chillums in hazy Amsterdam clubs and crossing the East German border hiding an ounce in my shoe.
In the end, though, the sensations grew too scary. I’d become convinced that someone was chasing me while driving stoned down the Hollywood Freeway. Or imagine reading the minds of those who I supposed would kill me if they could.
A recent Wall Street Journal piece brought it all back. “People Are Using Marijuana to Treat Anxiety and Depression, but the Science is Murky,” screamed a headline performing its ancient and sacred duty of grabbing my complete and undivided attention.
The article recounted how increasing numbers of marijuana users in the US—where many states have made it legal—are turning to their stash for relief from a variety of ailments including insomnia, anxiety, sorrow and depression.
“Many people who tried psychiatric medication had a hard time with side effects and didn’t want to get back on them,” explained a clinical psychologist in Newport Beach, California, close to where I smoked my first joint.
Using weed for medicinal purposes is not new, of course; no less an anti-drug luminary than Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte himself, once went on record in its favor. “Medicinal marijuana, yes, because it is really an ingredient of modern medicine,” he replied when asked to comment on the subject shortly after winning the 2016 presidential election.
Among medical professionals, however, there remains some disagreement. There is “no current scientific evidence that cannabis is in any way beneficial for the treatment of any psychiatric disorder,” the American Psychiatric Association declared in 2019. In fact, the organization’s statement went on, there is a “strong association of cannabis use and the onset of psychiatric disorders.”
The aforementioned Newport Beach psychologist apparently agrees. “A lot of clients think there is an evidence base for what they are doing,” he told the Journal. “There isn’t.”
All of which reminds me of the last time I toked up. After abstaining from that dubious pleasure for decades, I finally succumbed to its temptations during a 2019 visit with my daughter and her husband in Portland, Oregon, where smoking marijuana has been legal for years.
“Hey, you wanna smoke some pot?” my son-in-law cheerfully inquired, pulling out his steaming pipe. This happened, I should add, immediately following his enthusiastic endorsement of my “coolness” at such an advanced age, making it a difficult invitation to refuse.
What I learned is that the pot smoked by today’s young people is about a zillion times more powerful than the stuff we used to imbibe. “Give me the pipe!” I exclaimed in exaggerated glee as he handed me what nearly became the instrument of my demise. Then, employing the techniques remembered from my long-ago youth, I sucked on it long and hard, holding my breath until my eyes bulged and these old lungs felt ready to burst. Finally, just this side of exploding, I exhaled as my new marijuana mentor’s eyes grew wide with alarm.
“I think you’ve had enough,” he announced abruptly, removing the pipe from my rapidly-weakening grasp. And thank God he did, for almost immediately I felt that old familiar sensation of the ground beneath my feet swelling out of all proportion.
“Oh no,” I groaned under my breath as we embarked on a pre-planned walking tour of the neighborhood. For the next hour, it was mind over matter as I struggled to maintain my composure. No, I told myself, the sky isn’t really full of undulating bubbles and that tree does not truly mean to do me harm. And, finally, the most soul-saving mantra of all: “This too shall pass.”
Eventually it did, praise the Lord, relinquishing possession of my suffering senses. Hence this smoldering question; is pot a useful tool in banishing one’s inner demons? Each of us, of course, must decide for himself. For me, though, the answer is clear; I think I prefer mental illness.
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David Haldane’s latest book is a short-story collection called “Jenny on the Street.” A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he is an award-winning author, journalist and broadcaster currently dividing his time between homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines, where this column appears weekly in the Mindanao Gold Star Daily.