A High Perspective on Addiction and Marijuana

They really make me nervous sometimes. And they seem to be everywhere. Frantically, they move around in circles, slaves to implemented passions – addicts, manipulated, betrayed, and in self-denial. At six in the morning, the first type of addicts run to get their daily fixes: the classic workaholics.They swarm out of their houses to go and work like maniacs. Some are craving for more power, suppressing the persistent feeling of having slowly turned into corporate marionettes. Others work excessively to satisfy their shopping addiction and buy whatever they have been told makes them more valuable people. Most of them are multiple drug addicts with a long history of abuse: millions are addicted to several caffeine-shots in the morning and afternoon, or they need their drug sugar and its instant hit almost hourly, and many of them are additionally addicted to nicotine and the dozens of other psychoactive chemicals in cigarettes which gives them a short-lived high and staves off their inherent depression for just a few minutes before the craving starts all over again. A growing number of people are physically addicted to alcohol or other depressants, sleeping pills, stimulants like amphetamines or alkaloids like cocaine, pain relievers, or are psychologically dependent on a selective seratonin, noradrenaline or dopamine re-uptake inhibitors or various other new antidepressants. And that is only be the beginning of a much longer list of substance addictions.

A more recent class of addicts are what I like to call the cybersociaholics – those unhealthily obsessed with abundant communication through a multitude of social networking tools. Compulsively, they check their three or four email accounts, then go to their facebook mailboxes and Pinwalls, chat a little while they constantly look up and respond to their sms, viber, or WhatsApp messages on their smart phones, then maybe an occasional glance at their LinkedIn or XING accounts, then switch and check what happened on their blogs or in their internet dating portals match.com or perfectmatch.com (they don’t just want to be matched, they want to be perfectly matched). Once they finish dealing with the last of their 10-15 communication platforms – not counting landline telephones, one or two mobile phones, their post boxes, or fax machines – they return to the start of the loop. It’s been almost hour .. maybe somebody finally posted something new on facebook? Maybe somebody replied to the blog?

Naturally, the myriads of cybersocioholics are only a subgroup of the larger group of the internetaholics, just like the cyberpornaholics, cyberpokeraholics, and other cybergameaholics. If their internet activities would not be so compulsively restricted to satisfying their respective addictions, they might stumble upon Kimberly Young’s website netaddiction.com, which offers treatment services in the categories “Cyberporn/Cybersex, Online Affairs, Online Gambling, Online Gaming, Compulsive Surfing, ebay Addiction.”

Other media addicts are sticking to a more old school addiction for television or computer games. On TV or in the movie theater they watch action movies or war movies, car races, or professional wrestling to kick up their adrenaline levels like nothing else in their safe and streamlined ‘real’ lives does anymore – and so one way or another they spend half of the time in simulated virtual realities. They belong to the larger class of virtuaholics, which includes everyone addicted to the ever-growing virtual world, a safe and controllable refuge helping them to escape from reality.Wiiholics are the blessed ones in the group of virtuaholics: to outsiders, they may look ridiculous jerking their limbs around in a weird way, but the industry actually made a nice little concession to their human nature by encouraging them to actually move around a bit while perceptually hooked up to their virtual reality, whereas the other virtuaholics are usually sitting frozen like dummies, perceptually hooked to screens showing strangely impoverished glowing colors. Most of them seem to have lost touch with their bodies after suppressing the feeling of a self-inflicted paralysis for years. Yet, their bodies come out of a long evolutionary process which predestinated them to run, hunt, and fight, so now they are all starting to feel uncomfortable and becoming addicted to Ritalin for their attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Their doctors are usually part of a “health care” system generating money off of turning people into prescription drug addicts rather than actually improving their health. And so they are handed out prescriptions for all kinds of tranquilizers and sleep inducing drugs to force their bodies to keep quiet even after a virtual day in subconscious paralysis on a stylish wheelchair. This health care system is only a part of an entire industry designed to nourish and satisfy the addictions of its consumers – reinforced addictions are magnificent money-making machines.

Sometimes I feel like I need a break from all these addictions and obsessions around me. I fly to Portugal to play at the Bar do Peixe Ultimate Frisbee beach tournament, chase a plastic disc all day long, breathe fresh air, and jump in cool Atlantic water. In the evening, I sit down on top of a sand dune at the magnificent Meco Beach, light up a joint, and watch the sunset. The marijuana high keeps me in the here-and-now, and my mind frees itself from the daily hustle, needs, and plans. I breathe. Time is slowing down. I focus on the immediacy of my experience and feel my deliciously tired body, the warm wind in my face, and smell the salty scent of the sea. In this expanded head space, I begin to feel free as if standing on a tower, looking down on my life. My high enables me to perceive patterns in my life and in the lives of others, including our routines, addictions, and obsessions. Vivid memories come up and I can relive episodes long past. Marijuana helps to transport me back into my past.

My first day at school

With my enhanced episodic memory, I mind-race through previous experiences, I can see personal developments, stand outside my routines and addictions and identify them as such. And yes, certainly, I realize that many of the addictions described above, like cybersociaholism or virtuaholism, are my own. But now my mind is flying, and my attention doesn’t seem to be drawn away by the usual forces. I feel free like a bird and momentarily liberated from my addictions. The marijuana high helps to break the routines, interferes with my addictions, helps me to step outside of the box, to make conscious decisions on my future behavior, and to get sudden insights. Associations come quickly. New notions occur to me, like “cybersociaholism”, based on my enhanced ability for pattern recognition during a high.

Don’t get me wrong: surely, the fact that marijuana can be used as an antidote for other addictions does not mean that it cannot itself be addictive for some. Marijuana may be generally much less addictive and less toxic than other legal drugs like alcohol or tobacco, and the addiction may only be psychological, but even a purely psychological addiction can be destructive for some. So, well, there is a risk of addiction, even if it is comparatively low. But there is also a risk of getting unhealthily addicted to sex, car driving, or social networking – that does not mean that all these activities bring us harm and have to be prohibited. All these activities can bring us great advantages, if we know how to make good use of them – and I, like so many others, certainly make good use of marijuana.

Recently I was talking to a middle-aged man at a party and mentioned my marijuana use. He looked at me with this typically controlled, yet still visible “Oh-my-God-a-drug-addict!”- facial expression and then he said, fully convinced of himself, “I am not using drugs.” I couldn’t help but smile, looking at the cigarette in his left hand, which also held a glass of Vodka Red Bull. Altogether, this guy was holding a cigarette containing dozens of psychoactive drugs and a drink combining sugar, alcohol, and nicotine, and yet he was still completely oblivious. Advertising and decades of disinformation campaigns have successfully managed to convince him and so many others that there are “alcohol, tobacco, and drugs”- a classification scheme that presupposes that the former two are something other than psychoactive drugs.

For a few long seconds, I just smiled at him and the many psychoactive drugs in his hand. He still did not get it. And then I had an idea. I would just write an essay. This essay. And the next time a workaholic, alcohol-, sugar-, and caffeine-addicted cybersociaholic, virtuaholic, gameaholic or pornaholic would react to my marijuana use so condescendingly, I could just hand him something to think about.

And, yes, admittedly, when I wrote the essay I was still a little high.


Nightmare Marijuana Prohibition

Why the Prohibition Against Marijuana Has to End

Watanuga Lahele is radiating. His glassy eyes peep out under a large, conical straw hat, his movements slightly erratic. He has been chewing on a dark-greenish kalangi root and the drug Tetralin it contains now clearly shows its euphoric and mind-altering effects. Lahele sits at a long wooden table at the traditional kalangi root festival in Bomaki, the capital of the Republic of West Africa. Hundreds of thousands of visitors have come here again to get collectively intoxicated.

During the festival there are dozens of rapes each year. Many visitors end in emergency rooms after dangerously overdosing the drug. But these aspects are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the destructive potential of Tetralin. Its effects on perception and motor control during strong intoxication are so devastating that tens of thousands of consumers in the Republic of West Africa die or get injured in traffic accidents every year. Tens of thousands die from overdoses or from the consequences of prolonged overconsumption and addiction. Prolonged heavy use can lead to hepatitis, liver cirrhosis, nerve cell damage, psychosis, laryngeal-, liver-, stomach-, or pancreatic cancers, as well as to cardiac insufficiency, depression, and fatal forms of dementia. The addiction to Tetralin, often initiated by small amounts of the drug, destroys tens of thousands of families each year. Almost every third rape happens under the influence of the drug, as well as one third of cases of aggravated assault and manslaughter.

How is it possible that the Republic of West Africa legalizes and even celebrates this drug? Why is this culture so much more permissive than other countries, where a substance like marijuana, which according to many experts is even less dangerous than alcohol or nicotine, is strictly prohibited?

These are the wrong questions, of course. Some better questions would be: Do you know that the Republic of West Africa does not exist and that there are no such things as the ‘kalangi root’ or the drug ‘Tetralin’? Do you have a suspicion of what I was really talking about?

Oktoberfest Munich - The Biggest Drug Festival Worldwide

Let’s cross-fade to reality. Replace Watanuga Lahele with Michael Wohlgemut wearing his traditional Bavarian leather pants and a big grey conical bowler hat. He is sitting in a giant tent and belting out Bavarian folk songs while occasionally grabbing the backsides of passing waitresses. Michael is attending the biggest and most famous drug festival in the world, the Oktoberfest in Munich, in Germany, central Europe, the self-proclaimed epicenter of civilized European post-Enlightenment society. All the horrible facts on rapes and crime cited above for the invented ‘Republic of West Africa’ and ‘Tetralin’ really apply to the giant annual beer fest and alcohol use in Germany – and the statistics certainly do not look significantly different for most other countries.

So, do we need a prohibition against alcohol to protect our society from this dangerous drug? Of course, an alcohol prohibition would be a bad idea – we all know that now. But as a reaction to the story of Watanuga Lahele, a prohibition probably seemed to you a necessary measure to fight the use of the ‘kalangi root’ – a drug for which I described in detail exactly the side-effects known for alcohol. What is wrong with our perception here? Could it be that we have heard too often phrases like “drugs, tobacco and alcohol”, phrases that presuppose that dangerous drugs like tobacco and alcohol are not really drugs at all?

It’s been evident for a long time now that the marijuana prohibition is just as inefficient and destructive as the alcohol prohibition during the first world war. Some politicians claim that without a prohibition, however, things would get even much worse. We now know, however, that decriminalization of marijuana in the Netherlands and other countries did not lead to higher increase rates of consumption than in countries with a brutally enforced prohibition. On the contrary, the numbers dropped compared with countries with strict prohibition. Why haven’t we still learned our lesson from history?

The marijuana prohibition for the most part has its origins in a disinformation campaign which began in the 1930s. After the end of the catastrophically failed alcohol prohibition, the federal prohibition agency had to look out for a new task to stay in business. To that end, Harry G. Anslinger, the head of the new “Federal Bureau of Narcotics”, started a mixed media campaign. It portrayed marijuana as a deadly poisonous drug that would turn consumers into out-of-control rapists and killers, leading even the occasional user to chronic insanity and death. One of his extremely cynical strategies was to exploit existing racial prejudices against those minority groups who predominately used marijuana at the time:

“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others. … The primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races. Marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality and death. You smoke a joint and you’re likely to kill your brother. Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.”

Early Anti-Marijuana Propaganda Poster

Years later, in the heated atmosphere of the anticommunist McCarthy era, Anslinger changed his strategy and claimed that marijuana would make users too peaceful and communist China would illegally bring in marijuana to the U.S. to undermine the defensive morale of the military and the public. The absurd twist in Anslinger’s argumentation did not seem to bother anybody – the prohibition was prolonged. Anslinger also served as the American representative of the United Nations Drug Commission and used his influence to implement global ban of cannabis cultivation.

Prohibitionists still use spin doctors to create absurd arguments in support of their cause. In the last years, convinced marijuana users were increasingly forced to either go to jail or to a therapeutic institution. The growing numbers of users ‘seeking therapy’ are often used in public debates to claim that there is a growing problem with marijuana use. The PR strategies for the prohibition of marijuana can also be illustrated by analyzing the misleading rhetoric of the slogan ‘war on drugs’ introduced under President Nixon.

"I now have absolute proof that smoking even one marijuana cigarette is equal in brain damage to being on Bikini Island during an H-bomb blast." Ronald Reagan

The truth is that there has never been a war on drugs. If we look at our history, we can only see an ongoing conflict amongst various drug users – and producers. In ancient Mexico the consumption of alcohol was punishable by death, while the ritualistic use of the psychedelic drug mescaline (from the peyote cactus) was highly worshipped. In Russia, tobacco smokers were threatened with mutilation or decapitation, while alcohol was legal. In Prussia, coffee drinking was prohibited in the second half of the 18th century (except for by higher state officials and noblemen) and was punished with a jail sentence of up to four years or birching, while other drugs like alcohol were legal at the time.

But even if we agree with a more scientifically informed view which sees the risk potential of marijuana as much lower than that of alcohol, we certainly have to take the risks seriously. Adolescents are especially vulnerable to problems with marijuana abuse – mainly not because marijuana would physically harm them, but because psychological addiction and chronic abuse can heavily contribute to failure at a critical stage in their educational careers. Tragically, though, it is exactly in this respect that the prohibition of marijuana fails the most. In recent surveys, high school students say that despite the strict and ongoing prohibition, marijuana is easy to get on the street these days. In spite of all the efforts, prohibition is not only ineffective – it is also destructive and deadly on a monstrous scale; parents lose their jobs or even go to jail for even minor cases of possession, students are expelled from school or college. Every year, more than half a million marijuana users are jailed in the U.S. alone, most simply for possession of small quantities of marijuana. We could protect our adolescents and citizens in general much more effectively with a regulation of marijuana similar to that of alcohol. According to a 2005 report by Dr. Jeffrey Miron, replacing marijuana prohibition with a regulation similar to that used for alcohol would save the U.S. government between $10 billion and $14 billion per year, based on the expected savings and tax revenues.

It is unreasonable to think that we should demand complete abstinence from all drugs from our citizens. The psychopharmacologist Ronald K. Siegel, perhaps the world’s foremost scientific expert concerning the interaction between animals and psychoactive plants, states:

“History shows that we have always used drugs. In every age, in every part of this planet, people have pursued intoxication with plant drugs, alcohol, and other mind-altering substances…Almost every species of animal has engaged in the natural pursuit of intoxicants. This behavior has so much force and persistence that it functions like a drive, just like our drives of hunger, thirst and sex. This “fourth drive” is a natural part of biology, creating the irrepressible demand for drugs. In a sense, the war on drugs is a war against ourselves, a denial of our very nature.“

Instead of trying to preach abstinence or a war on drugs, we should educate people to come to a more respectful and meaningful relationship with them. We also need to acknowledge the fact that psychoactive substances have not only risks, but also a positive potential. New findings in endocannabinoid research are beginning to deliver explanations for the thousands of reports of healthy and otherwise law-abiding citizens who use marijuana not only for medical, but also for inspirational purposes. They have reported how they better focus on the immediate experience while they are high, to be in the “here-and-now”. Many reports offer detailed descriptions of an enhancement of users’ ability to vividly recall past events and of an intensification of all kinds of sensations. Others describe an enhanced ability of introspection as well as empathic understanding. Innumerable people have used marijuana for an enhancement of creative thinking, while others report enhanced pattern recognition as well as scientific or personal insights occurring during a high – a claim famously stated by astronomer Carl Sagan. Jazz musicians Louis Armstrong or Billy Holiday used marijuana for inspiration just like the French writer Charles Baudelaire, the American writer Jack London, the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, filmmaker Hal Ashby, the businessman Richard Branson, or the physicist Richard Feynman – to name just a few. If only a fraction of those reports is correct, we must seriously ask ourselves if prohibition is not a severe intrusion into the personal rights of millions of citizens who have decided to explore the enhancement potential of marijuana.

The legalization of marijuana is not a dangerous experiment – the prohibition is the experiment, and it has failed dramatically, with millions of victims all around the world. The Global Commission on Drug Policy recently presented their new report, which makes a clear case to end the war on marijuana and other drugs. Members of this commission include Kofi Annan, the former United Nations’ chief secretary; George Shultz, the former foreign minister of the U.S.; Fernando H. Cardoso, the former president of Brazil; Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo, as well as the former NATO’s chief secretary Javier Solana. On July 2, the renowned activist group “AVAAZ” submitted a petition with half a million signatures to end the drug war to Ban Ki-Moon, the present chief secretary of the UN.

Massive lobbying interests such as the pharma-, alcohol-, and private jail industries still stand in the way of a sensible political change in our drug policies. These lobbyists will need to see that they are out of touch. They need to understand that people have started to wake up from the nightmares Anslinger and his followers made us all dream.