Monday, May 23, 2016

Joe Omundson


I first smoked cannabis when I was 22 years old. Growing up, shaped by Christianity and the DARE program, I had a strong aversion to the idea of consuming any drug, so I never sought it out in high school. But in college I started to enjoy drinking beer, and I knew a couple people who smoked pot and it didn’t seem to be ruining their lives.

One day, I was helping a couple of friends move some things with my truck, and when we were at their house, they went in another room and got high. Driving back into town, I was expecting them to become crazy or act strangely, but they seemed normal and relaxed. I asked them what being high felt like and they didn’t have much to say about it; just that they felt mellow. Seeing the drug in action removed some of my fears about it and made me more curious to try it, and I started looking for my opportunity.

 Both of these guys were my coworkers at a pizza place, and I knew one of them sold weed. So I asked him for a sample so I could try it out and he seemed happy to give me some. I remember nervously transporting it home, unwrapping that foil-wrapped nugget for the first time, the way it smelled, and feeling like it sure wasn’t very much material. Really, these little chunks of green will get me high? OK...

 My wife at the time hadn’t tried it either, but was similarly open to it, so we sat on a couch in our spare bedroom and I stuffed some of the weed into my tobacco pipe. We weren’t quite sure how much we were supposed to inhale, so we kept passing it back and forth, sucking the flame into the bowl and breathing out little puffs of smoke. “Is it working? Is that enough? I guess we just keep going.”

 Ten or fifteen minutes later, I started to feel it. I don’t remember much of a physical sensation, but suddenly I kept losing my train of thought when I was talking. I’d start a sentence and then completely forget what my subject was. This was a very strange sensation and it made me feel silly, I started laughing, and my wife thought I was making it up for a second, but then I think she started to feel it too. That was a fun night. We had a lot of the typical stoner experiences: we ordered a large pizza, which we finished, and then we ate an entire batch of brownies. We had some disjointed conversations and cracked ourselves up. I don’t remember much beyond that, maybe we played video games or watched something, and marveled at our new perceptions.

 After my first experience, something became clear to me: if alcohol is legal, there’s no reason for marijuana to be illegal. I felt much more in control when I was high, than I would have if I had been equivalently drunk. For me, smoking weed was everything I liked about getting drunk, with none of the downsides: it was fun, it altered my perception, but I didn’t wake up hungover or lose my inhibition to the point that I did things I regretted. And so I was an instant fan.

 Not long after my first experience, we were walking from our apartment to our car to go to a restaurant, when I jumped over a patch of pavement, slipped, fell, and sprained my ankle. We drove to the restaurant hoping it would feel better, but it didn’t, so we came back home; this was when I smoked pot for the second time. I thought it might help with the pain, and though I knew I had to be careful with my ankle, I already felt safe enough with the drug that I was confident I would not lose my balance going up and down the stairs or put weight on it accidentally. Sure enough, my balance was good and I was able to be careful with my ankle.

 I remember the first time I went to a friend’s house and smoked with him. We took turns using a “waterfall bong” we made out of a Gatorade bottle, filling the bottle with water and then letting it drain out of a hole in the bottom. As the water vacated it sucked in smoke through the lit bowl on top. Then we removed the lid and took in all the smoke at once. I coughed heavily and thought I would vomit, but didn’t. We had plans to ride bikes to the Chinese buffet but this was the highest I had ever been and I did not feel up to the task. I remember standing in a central room with several doors, turning around in circles, unable to remember which one led where or how to tell them apart. Then I crashed on the couch as his roommates played Halo. A few hours later, I felt totally fine and drove home.

 Over the next couple of years, smoking pot became a common activity for me. I never felt comfortable being an all-day stoner or driving while high like many people do, but I frequently enjoyed it as a relaxing evening activity, like having a couple beers. While many people would probably not like to feel disoriented, I enjoyed it particularly for that reason. Whereas normally I had a tendency to obsessively think about things, staying up way too late to read things on the internet, it knocked out my ability to focus and instead I would spend time lying on my back, listening to a full album, exploring sensations in my body, stretching, breathing, and experiencing emotions that I would otherwise block out.

 I contacted myself in a more direct way than I had previously known was possible. Getting high is actually what planted the seed for my interest in yoga. I essentially began to discover yoga poses on my own, simply because the way they felt in my body was so remarkable. Eventually I even overcame my fear of dancing, which I enjoy very much now, and I don’t know if that would have happened otherwise. In this stage, marijuana was a useful tool for me. It expanded my consciousness and broke down some barriers that I didn’t know were there. It helped me make connections between certain thoughts and feelings that I hadn't realized before. I am grateful for the way it helped me change my life.

 Gradually, though, my brain adapted to the altered state. I remember one time in particular when I was able to regain control of my concentration. I looked at a wall and told myself, “everything is just like it normally is. You just have a chemical affecting your brain.” In that moment I felt almost sober again. I felt able to transcend the influence of the chemical, I was aware of it as a filter on normal reality rather than perceiving a different reality. As time went on, I was able to become more and more functional while high. I learned how to read, write, and carry on conversations. Though the drug still had the effect of making a maze out of my normally orderly thought paths, I learned how to dance with it and ultimately still get to the destination I intended, and I became efficient at this new mode of cognition. Soon it didn’t seem to impede anything I wanted to do; I could write 5 pages of coherent text, I could go for a 15 mile hike.

 With this added functionality, marijuana became less of a magical thing for me, and more something I did out of habit; or because, “why not?”. I went back to spending hours on my computer at night, the high simply adding another layer of challenge or intrigue. I still had a lot of good times with it, but I was starting to notice that it made me more socially anxious. I was reluctant to go out in public, or if I did, I felt paranoid that people would notice I was altered. Perhaps marijuana was not the cause of the anxiety, and it simply revealed to me the underlying social anxiety in my life by removing my ability to ignore it.

When I through-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, I smoked a lot of weed in those months because I never felt a need to be sober. I didn’t have to drive a car or be around a lot of people. It was just me and the trail, and it gave my restless mind something to put effort toward. It made some of the landscapes I walked through feel even more dreamlike, and there were certain times I had to make sure I was actually awake. That was nice, but it had the downside of making me more anxious in those times when I did come across other people, so I probably kept myself more aloof and isolated.

 I noticed some other things about my interaction with cannabis on the PCT. At one point, I ran out of weed for about a week, and in that week I started to record some audio clips of myself musing about various topics. I was happy with that as a form of self expression. But as soon as I got more weed, I never made another one. It seemed to inhibit my ability to produce creative work. Toward the end of my hike, I chose to do away with it again for a while, and that turned out to be one of the best times I had. I found a fun group to hike with and I never missed the weed.

 Soon after I got back to Portland after finishing the trail, marijuana started to be sold legally in Oregon. This changed my relationship with it again. In the past, it was a treasured substance, something you had to make a special appointment to buy; it came in a Ziploc bag and you bought it from a friend. You had to be a little bit sneaky about it. You were always aware of how much you had left, and sometimes you ran out for a while.

 These days, if you live in Portland, whenever you run out you can probably walk just a few blocks and choose from 3 different dispensaries to refill your supply, with similar prices to pre-legalization days. It comes carefully measured, analyzed, tested, and packaged. You always know which strain you’re getting and you have a lot of options. You can walk out the door and drive home with it without any fear of getting caught.

 Though this took some more of the magic out of it, I support legalization of marijuana and other drugs, and here’s why: when it’s not a criminal act you have to be sneaky about, when it’s accepted and accessible, your relationship to it changes. It becomes something that you can experience and analyze in the light of day just like all your other decisions. When you can admit to something openly and participate in it publicly, it becomes harder to hide from yourself the frequency with which you use it. It is easier to realize, “wow, I am buying this stuff all the time and using it every day, even though it makes me anxious. I wonder if I should keep doing that?”.

In the months that I lived in Portland and was working on my album, I smoked every night and many afternoons (other than 11 sober days at the Vipassana retreat), and though it was sometimes a nice creative aid for my work, I ended up in old patterns -- sitting in a windowless room until 4 in the morning looking up random stuff online, and groaning when I finally went to bed like “why did I do that again?”. It wouldn’t be fair to blame that entirely on marijuana, because I was escaping from other personal issues too, but it didn’t really seem like it helped anything. Sometimes I felt like it made me inert.

 I decided not to bring any marijuana when I moved to Moab earlier this month. Partly because I wanted to make a change, but also simply because I didn’t want to deal with the stress of carrying around an illegal substance in a conservative state (Utah). I did accidentally bring one pipe, and it still had a partial bowl loaded in it, so I enjoyed it in Washington the night after I left Portland. But it’s been about 11 days since then, and I’m noticing some nice benefits. I feel more socially capable and less paranoid about people approaching me. My lungs feel better, the slight wheeze is gone. I have more clarity in general. For me, right now, it seems like a good time not to be using marijuana regularly.

 Is cannabis bad? No. Is it good? No. It simply is what it is, it is useful when it is useful, and it is harmful in the ways that it is harmful. It is like any other habit that people develop, whether it’s a substance like coffee, chocolate, alcohol, cigarettes, muscle relaxers, or harder drugs; or whether it’s obsessively healthy eating, adrenaline seeking, gambling, or watching TV. We keep doing it because we perceive a benefit or because it helps to relieve some kind of neurosis, even though it could be considered an addiction and might have some kind of negative side effect. It’s a trade-off. Everybody uses some kind of thing like this in one way or another. And since people have all different flavors of neuroses, different substances and activities fill those needs most satisfyingly for different people. So you have some people who are constantly amped up on coffee, and other people who always want to be mellowed out by weed.

 It is probably no surprise that those who have had a lifetime of abuse, neglect, and disconnection gravitate toward drugs like heroine and meth, the ones that alter reality the most. The pain they live with every day is so immense that they seek a radical escape. They don’t deserve to be shamed for that, because they are essentially living their lives in the same way we all are. It’s just that their drug of choice is considered socially unacceptable and we punish them for doing it, even though they are the ones most in need of help and not further shaming. We should try to help them heal the underlying trauma that drives them to desire hard drugs, not throw them in jail for it. Drug addiction is a medical issue and not a criminal one.

I will certainly smoke marijuana in the future, as I still enjoy its effects and think it can have a good purpose. But now I’d rather be the person who uses it occasionally and only needs a hit or two to get totally blazed, than for it to be a background habit that I rely on every day. I think that’s actually a more sacred, respectful, and beneficial way for me to use it.

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