In a basement of a community center in Toronto’s west end, boxes with blankets, mittens, and sweaters are stacked nearly to the ceiling. For some reason, mannequin heads with toques watched the table where a group of people who call themselves marijuana addicts discussed their plight.
Before the formal meeting started, the group shared how hard it is to get to meetings. Two members drove more than an hour to take part. The chit chat was heavy and uncomfortable.
I was suspicious about this whole meeting. Can you really be addicted to cannabis? Marijuana is commonly seen as benevolent. I had even previously written an article about a rehab center using cannabis as an “exit drug”.
Minutes before the meeting started, a few more people entered the room and filled the empty seats around the table. After a few silent but friendly nods of recognition, the meeting was underway. Marijuana Anonymous suggests its members go to AA or NA meetings, but a marijuana addict can feel out of place in those meetings. They talked about how difficult it can be when they know they can’t make it to a meeting. It was about that time my suspicion started dissolving.
Like all 12-step programs, MA meetings start with a serenity prayer and readings from the group literature. The room became swallowed by a palpable reverence as individuals referred to a higher power that gave them strength in their sobriety. The program was more spiritual than religious, leaving the higher power open to interpretation. One man cut in, commending himself for his five years of sobriety, dismissing the divine altogether.
No two addicts, or two addictions, are exactly alike. Some people were there due to an addiction to cannabis. Others struggled to stay away from weed while they nursed other addictions. Many had started off in Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous and had only switched to Marijuana Anonymous after several relapses that started with smoking weed.
“Every single time I relapsed on my drug of choice, it started off with smoking a joint,” one man said.
For one woman, her relapse was still fresh. She had gone to rehab for other drugs months ago and celebrated her sobriety by smoking some weed with friends. “Everyone just said, ‘it’s only weed, it’s fine,’ but it’s so easy to slide back to step one.” People around the table nodded along with each story. Eyes widened. Hands fidgeted.
One man who didn’t suffer any other addictions, but a cannabis use disorder started to clam up before he spoke. He started to explain that he had found himself in early retirement. He had every intention of going back to work after taking a few months off, but during those few months, he started smoking weed.
“I didn’t get any of the downsides,” he said, almost surprising himself. While others would feel anxious or nervous if they smoked too much weed, those problems had never erupted. He just really liked getting stoned, listening to music, and eating tasty food. “I thought as long as I’m not hurting anybody else, it’s fine,” he said.
While a retiree smoking weed doesn’t sound dangerous, this man claims his addiction crept up slowly behind him. The few months he played to take off stretched to a year. Then one year stretched to five. Then he totally lost himself.
“I stopped taking care of myself,” he said. “I was high morning till night, I gained a lot of weight, I was dirty, and my house was disgusting.” Before he continued, the pain in his face was so explicit I could feel it from across the table, “my children stopped wanting to speak to me.”
A little after the epiphany of how far he’d fallen hit him, he tried to commit suicide. Lying in his hospital bed, he decided he would never smoke weed again and get the help he needed. He’s been sober for years now, has a job, and his kids are back in his life. “I’m just so grateful for this program. Thank you,” he said to close.
Marijuana addiction is rare and significantly less physically harmful than other drug addictions, but according to the New England Journal of Medicine, it is very real affecting up to 9 percent of cannabis users. This means that 2.1 million cannabis users in the United States fit the criteria for addiction according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV.
Marijuana Anonymous is small compared to other addicts anonymous programs, and without it, many of these people have nowhere to go. One woman said she was literally laughed at when she shared her story at Narcotics Anonymous.
As a community, we need to be honest when we talk about addiction. Many marijuana enthusiasts deny addiction is even possible, or it’s easy to quit if you become “psychologically addicted.” For decades, the forces of prohibition have spread lies about marijuana and those who use it. While the reefer madness era took cannabis demonizing to a level of caricature, as a community, we need to recognize that cannabis addiction does hold water. If we don’t acknowledge that cannabis has a dark side then we’re no better than the prohibitionists that refuse to accept weed’s therapeutic potential.