Three or four nights a week in San Francisco, a group of people shuffle into an anonymous meeting hall. The bitter scent of freshly stamped-out cigarettes follows them inside where, sitting on function-hall furniture with cups of cheap coffee in hand, they tell their war stories. Getting stoned and missing work. Or getting stoned and being thrown out of school, and losing their grip on life, thanks to the world's most common drug.
They're marijuana addicts. To some, the idea of “Marijuana Anonymous” is farcical. Getting hooked on weed is a setup toward a cheap punchline, like Bob Saget asking Dave Chappelle, playing the pot-crazed Thurgood in Half-Baked, if he ever sucked dick for marijuana. “Marijuana's not a drug!” the joke goes. The problem is that it's not a joke at all. Marijuana is a drug, and people can get hooked. Just ask the people who go to Marijuana Anonymous meetings every week.
David Smith knows. There was a time when Smith would have called bullshit on the young addiction specialists, back when they were surrounded by an earlier generation of American dope-smokers. Now, almost 50 years later, the founder of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic has a different problem.
As a physician, Smith believes the medical potential of the drug is exciting. And the march towards legalization means that cannabis might be removed from Schedule I, eventually. But more marijuana will also take a toll on people's lives, which worries Smith as a father and grandfather.
“I've had a lot of patients,” Smith says, “where pot really screwed up their lives.” Smith still practices medicine in the neighborhood, and from the window of his Stanyan Street office, he can see the 15,000 or so eager pot smokers converge on Hippie Hill every April 20. Of them, about 1,500 — 10 percent — are, or will be, addicted to the stuff.
Cannabis dependency is real. It's in the DSM, it's in every medical textbook. Yet a real, sober conversation about it has gotten lost in the reefer madness that's consuming marijuana legalization supporters, as well as prohibitionists, as they make their last stand before legal weed overtakes America.
And meanwhile, the questions of who gets addicted, why, and how to help them, aren't getting answered.
Last month, slipped into the United Nations' annual drug report between the tales of synthetic drugs, ketamine in China, and prescription pill abuse in the United States was a troubling fact: An increasing number of young people are seeking treatment for cannabis dependency in the U.S., Australia, and everywhere else pot use is rising (which is almost everywhere).
Common among the drug's users, the U.N. found, is a notion that weed is safe. It's easy to see how they arrived at that notion. Legalization backers used this simple, effective message to turn Colorado and Washington green: Among the panoply of drugs available to Americans, cannabis is the safest choice. It's less toxic than tobacco, less dangerous than alcohol, and less addictive than caffeine. Marijuana is no doubt “safer.”
Safer, however, does not mean it's safe. The teenage boys filling up the treatment center at Muir Wood Adolescent and Family Services in Marin County illustrate this statistic well: Nearly all of the boys between 13 and 17 years old, residing in a mostly white, affluent area, are seeking treatment for cannabis dependency. That hearkens back to the Half-Baked idea — how are we supposed to worry about a stoned kid flunking algebra when there are hardened dope fiends roaming about?
“They don't have the same war stories, sure,” says Smith. But that doesn't mean they're not addicts. Loss of control, failure to stop despite a desire to stop, and consequences at work or school — “that's an addiction,” he says. “And it needs to be treated as such.”
Making the situation worse is the criminal justice system. Among all drug users, marijuana's addicts are the least likely to check themselves into rehab and the most likely to get court referrals to rehab, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Judges are doing well by referring drug users to treatment rather than prison, but at the same time they may be padding “treatment” stats — and creating a Half-Baked-like scenario with faux addicts sitting through meetings per a court order.
So who will get addicted, why, and how can they be cured? That's Smith's last problem. He's not certain, just as he's not certain why some people can sip wine for a lifetime and never be hooked. It could be partially genetic. It almost certainly has a lot to do with how early a marijuana user starts — the younger a cannabis user is, the more likely he or she will seek treatment for dependency.
Now the marijuana addiction issue is reefer madness in reverse. For decades, Americans have been bombarded with poisonous nonsense about the drug's supposed harm on people. But with public acceptance of medical cannabis and legalization at all-time highs, there's reason to doubt stories about reefer addicts. The truth is in the middle. It's science, and, as Smith says, “it's getting obscured.”