In the winter of 1972, Doreen Brown signed up for a scientific experiment that sounds suspiciously like the plot of a late-2000s Seth Rogen movie.
Then 21 years old, Doreen was living alone in Toronto, still grieving the death of her mother seven years previously, and was in what she describes as “a bad spot” in her life. She was one of thousands who applied for a study that involved smoking increasingly strong joints in a Toronto hospital for 98 days straight.
Twenty women, all casual weed smokers, were selected to participate. Once the experiment started, they were split into two groups, with half remaining sober and the other half required to smoke at least two full joints each evening. Their brains, hearts, kidneys, livers, motivation and activities were constantly analysed, with both groups asked to weave belts on a daily basis as a measure of productivity.
At the time, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s government was looking into relaxing the country’s cannabis laws, and the study reportedly aimed to discover if doing so would cause the economy to collapse. Ultimately, only some of the results from a similar study on men were published, while the results of the women’s study never saw the light of day. In 2013, the study’s research director, Ralph Miller, told the Toronto Star that Trudeau “couldn’t do much” with the analysis, as there “wasn’t the political will around the country” to update the cannabis laws.
Photo: Jack Hobhouse / Alamy Stock Photo
VICE: Can you describe a typical day in the experiment?
Doreen Brown: We were in hospital corridors. They taught us how to weave belts for money – it was $2.50 per belt – and they had to meet a quality control, so we were given a couple of days to learn it, then everything started. There was continual physical and psychological evaluations. They took blood tests and urine tests, and we had to see a psychiatrist. We had so many blood tests that, for some women, they couldn't find a vein. We were all given letters when we left, explaining that the reason we had track marks on our arms was because we were in an experiment.
How did the cannabis consumption work?
It was the same time every night in the lounge. They brought two joints on a little tray, [like the one] they would use to bring the bill to you in a restaurant. Two joints each. We couldn’t share; we had to smoke it right down. They even examined the roaches to make sure we smoked it all. That was every day, and they continually upped the THC content of the weed.
Did you enjoy it?
The funny thing is, I did smoke [weed] before I went in, but not a lot. So, in the beginning, it was kind of fun – it was an adventure. We were all getting to know each other; we’d smoke our two joints, play The Who and different rock music.
At first, it was like we weren’t in reality. We didn’t really have to worry about paying rent and all that other stuff. We transformed a typical hospital corridor into a hippy den, I guess. We put up posters, put the bed frames away and put the mattresses on the floor. Shelly [another participant] did some chalk drawings for us.
How long did the fun times last?
I would say maybe the first few weeks, a month at the most.
Was there a point where you wanted no more weed?
Oh, yeah. I would say maybe three weeks before the end of the experiment. The marijuana was grown by the government, and the THC content was definitely getting stronger. It got to the point where you dreaded going in to smoke those two joints. And you couldn’t get out of doing it. If you tried to, you’d have to see a doctor. It was real drudgery after a while.
How did you feel when the 98 days were done?
For me, it was kind of scary getting back out there. I found that really, really hard, because I was with the same ten people 24/7 before. I was paranoid. I grew up in Toronto living on subways, and I couldn’t even go on a subway. I remember standing on the platform thinking, ‘I don’t know if I can do this with all these people.’ Also, I was faced with the reality: that adventure was over, and I had to go back out there.
It was almost like you were institutionalised in this strange world.
Absolutely. The analogy I can think of is a prison, because you couldn’t see anyone you know and your freedom was gone.
Why do you think that they never published the findings of the study?
I think it was political, I really do. Pierre Trudeau was Prime Minister and they were looking at possibly legalising marijuana. [...] Basically, they really had the study to show productivity when you’re smoking marijuana, and I’m sure it didn’t prove what people wanted it to prove – that smoking all this marijuana will cause your productivity to go down. Because there were definitely people in there that made quite a bit of money, and a couple of them were on the smoking side.
Do you regret taking part in the study?
No, I don’t regret it, because, to me, it was something that I had to do at that time. It was my headspace at that time – it was perfect for me back then.
Do you feel like you’ve had any closure on the whole episode, given the findings were never published?
A bit, but I don’t let it affect my life. But yeah, I feel a bit ripped off. It’s not a huge period of time, but at the time, it seemed like that – 98 days of your life – and we never got the results as we were promised.