Say the word “weed” and you might imagine a few friends giggling together on a couch, or maybe giggling while eating junk food. But that’s not actually what weed is like.
In my experience weed goes like this: I’ll be at a party, getting loose, getting in the mood, and I’ll smell a joint and think: if this is how good I feel now, imagine how good I’ll feel after some of that! And in that moment I succumb to the myth of weed. I imagine being surrounded by friends who alternate between nodding at my insights and laughing at my jokes: how random are dogs, like they just walk around all day—but where are they going? And in my imagination everyone is like whoa and then we eat burritos.
But that’s not reality. In reality I have a single puff of a joint and I’m immediately plunged into crisis. Suddenly I’m surrounded by people who can see with laser precision just how lame and pathetic I am and they take pleasure in watching me pretend otherwise. I take a sip of beer and feign nonchalance but I hear their recriminations: That was such a weird sip. Did you see that weird sip Julian just did? What the hell was that?!
And so, within about one minute of smoking a joint, I start to formulate an escape plan, only to realise that leaving the party will mean saying goodbye, which is impossible. There’s simply no way I can look people in the face and say “goodbye,” but I also know that if I leave without saying goodbye everyone will think I’m a spineless coward. So I’m trapped. There’s no way out, and I stay at the party for hours longer than necessary. I sit in the corner and avoid all eye contact. I avoid all conversation. I feel the same way a cat might feel stranded on a beach: frightened, desperate, very exposed.
Of course, this isn’t everyone’s experience of weed, but I think it’s an experience shared by many. For me and lots of others, smoking weed induces only paranoia, fatigue, and as I’ve observed in friends, mental illness. And yet weed holds such a lofty position in popular culture that it’s almost blasphemous to say “I hate weed.” But here I am, saying just that. I hate weed, and I’ll tell you why.
Let’s start with its coolness. Not a single advertising creative worked on weed throughout the 20th century and yet weed was somehow gifted with the kind of prestige for which companies like Nike or Red Bull would have paid millions. Not just that, but weed got endorsed by the most famous people on the planet. Imagine what it would have cost to get The Beatles to endorse a given product—let’s say, a certain brand of canned tuna—at the height of their fame in the 60s. Or what it would have taken to get Snoop Dog to champion a line of mattress toppers in the 90s. And yet these cultural titans threw all their weight behind weed, for free, and likely against the wishes of label management. And this celebrity-studded campaign was rolled out internationally, without financial backing or central planning, and maintained year after year until weed became semi-legal in the 2010s. It’s kind of a miracle really.
It was this coolness that suckered me in. By the age of 17 I was well-attuned to the soft rebelliousness of weed and keen to try it out. The first time I got stoned I laughed like stoners do in movies. Then I ate a large pile of pancakes coloured with green food dye and decided weed would be my vice. I always quite liked the idea of having a vice, and so I set about becoming a stoner. One time I got stoned and ate grilled cheese and thought it tasted like sunshine. Another time I stumbled upon 2001: A Space Odyssey on late night TV and decided to study film. But slowly, the good times drifted further apart, and tentacles of paranoia and discomfort wriggled in. And at that point I did the smart thing and persisted for another 10 years, at least.
By 21 I was smoking weed most days. Pipies, bongs, little covert joints at university. I wasn’t fussy, just so long as it enhanced reality and made everything slightly more stressful. I became the stoner guy among my friends. I tried growing hydroponic weed in the attic at my parents’ house, until my little brother noticed yellow light leaking around the light fittings in his ceiling and told my parents. I also smoked weed at work and at uni. But slowly, as the years rolled over, weed became less and less pleasurable in ways I refused to admit.
I think I clung to weed for its aura of artistic intellectualism. I never truly loved the feeling of being stoned, but I loved the idea of being stoned. Take a list of Nobel laureates, me and my stoner mates used to assure each other, and two thirds would probably have a little sneaky pipe in a bottom drawer somewhere in their office. I never fact-checked this, but I didn’t need to. I knew weed was a brain-enhancer. I knew weed amplified creative sensibilities and produced special insights. But most importantly, I knew that smoking weed identified me as a thinker, an artist, and a maverick who was unafraid of the law.
In reality, I was 27 and cleaning bathrooms at a backpacker’s hostel while living with my parents. And I’m not saying my lack of direction was all weed’s fault, but it didn’t help. And slowly, as my more focused friends started earning more and calling less, I started seeing holes in the myth.
I started to wonder if I was really a budding film director, as I’d assumed. And I started suspecting that getting stoned in the middle of the day and watching old movies with the curtains drawn wasn’t essential research. But I didn’t stop smoking weed, I just started to see myself as more and more of a loser.
I think that was the turning point, though. Loathing myself and my place in the world made getting stoned unpleasant, so I cut back. And then as I smoked less, the lethargy lifted, and I noticed some of my friends were getting interesting jobs. I noticed others were dating interesting people. Then I looked at myself and saw only squander. Life, I decided, was about doing things. Life was not about sitting around in dark rooms thinking that I could do things, if I wanted to.
I know I’m describing a fairly common experience of being 20-something and I can’t pin all my problems on weed, but I do believe it was a handicap. It brought down the bar too low. It made mediocrity feel like a form of protest. It made getting up early impossible. But worse, it made lowly humdrum wins feel momentous because I was just so stoned and easily overwhelmed all the time.
Long story short: I quit weed. I started putting in effort and showing up on time. And life got better.
Today I still know a lot of people who smoke weed and manage to be happy and successful. But I also know people who are not. I have this one friend I’ll call Ben. Him and I were very close and I liked Ben because he was funny. But slowly he became the kind of guy who couldn’t start the day without a cone, and he stopped being funny. Worse than that, Ben’s ability to hold a conversation went down the toilet and he just wanted to talk about the same boring shit all the time: how cops are dickheads, how corporations are evil, how all pharmaceuticals are evil, and how all illegal drugs are misunderstood elixirs with magical healing properties.
Ben doesn’t seem happy. But once, when I gently suggested he rein in his bong habit, he gave me all the same nonsense I used to espouse: weed is natural, weed is demonised by the government blah, blah, blah.
It’s true that weed is natural, but then so is asbestos. Being natural doesn’t mean shit. And I’d wager that on a long enough time scale, anyone with enough weed can discover their propensity for mental illness. There’s an increasing amount of data suggesting that’s true, and while this article isn’t the place for a dissection of the medical literature, I’d recommend this 2019 article by Malcolm Gladwell as a starting point.
The point of all this isn’t to say weed is evil. It’s not even inherently bad, but it can be, and it was for me. So if you ever find yourself wondering, do I actually, really enjoy this feeling?, take note. Don’t do it unless you love it. And if you do, maybe try a week without weed anyway, just to double check.
I enjoy parties these days and crowds no longer make me anxious. In fact, just the idea of getting stoned now makes me nervous. Remembering that feeling of being trapped inside my own head, I don’t miss it. Life is better without weed and I wish I’d realised that earlier. If I had, I might have skipped 15 years of wasted afternoons, terrifying parties, and a whole lot of wondering what people think of me as a twisted form of entertainment.