In 1990, in Canada’s capital, if you drove along Bank Street toward the parliament buildings at a particular time in the day, there was a good chance you’d find a blond grimacing teenager walking back and forth yelling. At nothing. He had smoked pot and gone psychotic, my mother said. “His poor parents,” she would say.
That towheaded cautionary tale is the reason I have never tried marijuana—and the reason I am a bad Canadian. Here, the grass never seems greener than when you’re smoking it. Last month, UNICEF reported that Canadian teens were the most likely to smoke pot of all teens in the developed world (28 percent of 15-year-olds copped to smoking up) and, according to the 2011 Canadian Alcohol and Drug Use Monitoring Survey, 39 percent of Canadians have tried marijuana at least once in their lives. The U.N. report on global drug use confirmed last year that Canada and the U.S. were the second-highest consumers of the most popular drug in the world (Australia and New Zealand remain more stoned than us).
Living in Toronto, it's virtually impossible to leave your house without, at some point, walking into a skunky cloud of aptly named chronic—forget 4/20, every day is a pot holiday. And if you're not smelling it, you're being offered it. For instance, when Mary, an old college bud of mine from Toronto who now lives in the U.K., visits her friends back home, she is generally offered weed instead of wine. And Jay, a chronic pot smoker throughout his 20s and one of my former colleagues, claimed there are so many dealers in the city that at one time he had five to choose from. These days he buys from a guy on my street.
Everyone I know has tried it least once in their lives—even my mother. It did nothing for my mom, made my boyfriend dizzy, my best friend babble, and made her husband paranoid. But those who like it extol its psychedelic virtues, like it’s a trip on your very own Sofia Coppola joint. “I walked around as if in a dream," said Jay, who first lit up at 14. "Toronto summers are great while high—hazy, surreal. I fell in love with it immediately." A childhood friend of mine, Simon, who smoked every day for five years, told me it was a “warm, cozy blanket” and said it can send “your mind into a whirl and all the knowledge you’ve acquired over the years just starts pouring out in bizarre ways.”
Call it reefer madness, but I don't trust my already-precarious anxiety-addled brain to survive pot intact. Particularly these days—this ain't the pot my parent smoked. In the '60s, you got high off a doobie with a potency of 4 percent. These days a hit peaks at 25 percent; such is the strength of “Dr. Grinspoon,” a strain named after the Harvard psychiatrist who wrote several books on cannabis, including 1970’s Marihuana Reconsidered and Marihuana: The Forbidden Medicine. “If you take hold of Dr. Grinspoon and smoke a lot of it, you could probably have quite a reaction,” its namesake told me. Like insanity?, I didn’t reply. Research shows that people who have predisposition for schizophrenia can experience early onset from smoking marijuana. My genetic loading for mental health isn’t ideal. I wouldn’t want to rock the brain boat.
There is an irony to this thought process, stemming from the fact that I have taken prescription medication for years—for anxiety (peanut gallery: “Of course!”). I don't deny the paradox. But there is a certain security to be found in taking a legal drug that the government has tested. Even if the FDA’s methods are not up to snuff, that's some kind of standard. With pot being illegal, there is no standard. Marijuana may be "healthier than anything you can buy from the pharmaceutical industry," according to Grinspoon, but how could I ever ensure I was getting the real McCoy? "I'll try it if you can assure me it will be clean," I told an acquaintance recently. "Clean? Like, you want it to be washed?" he quipped. Um, no, but I don't want it to be laced with meth or cut with those synthetic cannabinoids that leave seizures and high blood pressure in their wake. I don't have any scruples about smoking an illegal joint, but I'm not willing to risk my health for it.
Legalize pot and I will consider it, especially if I have a symptom it might cure. Grinspoon calls marijuana a "blessing" because it is "one of the least toxic drugs out there" and is ideal for helping cancer patients with the nausea and pain that arise from chemotherapy. If Stephen Jay Gould sang its praises, who am I to argue? I could always go for the Harlequin, a strain that has hardly any high at all but all the benefits of Dr. Grinspoon. But that's only medically speaking.
Recreationally? Probably not. Not every recreational user is a pot head, but models of the high life generally are. And when I think of pot heads, I think of Jeff Spicoli and the Dude, benevolent slackers who wouldn’t hurt a fly. And apparently I’m not the only one. In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, rumors surfaced that surviving suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was a “stoner”—that fact made one of his high school friends doubt his involvement. “He was really into marijuana,” he told The New Yorker. “And generally guys like that are very calm, cool.” I am neither very calm nor very cool. "From what I know of your personality, you should not try weed," my friend Simon concurred. "It’s an overpowering sensation that can be terrifying if it gets to be too much."
At parties, my pot-smoking friends tend to marginalize themselves, always retreating to a balcony, or a roof, so that, presumably, they can hide their illegal activity. But those margins are where it's at, Jay says, and a party without pot is where it isn't. No wonder he lives in Canada.
Canada's cannabis culture is believed to have originated in the ’60s with American draft dodgers. They settled in British Columbia with its wide swaths and there they sowed the seeds of counterculture. "The west coast, all along North America down to California, has always been a very liberal laid-back sort of place to be. Marijuana use [in B.C.] just naturally went with that," said Jodie Emery, affectionately known as Canada’s Princess of Pot, the wife of Canadian cannabis policy reform advocate Marc Emery (aka the Prince of Pot) and a candidate for the B.C. Green Party.
Ironically, the same country that helped found Canada’s chronic appetite took issue with its plans to decriminalize it 11 years ago. "There were all these threats made and that's when drug policy reform in Canada started to die down," said Emery. "Canada was too scared of ticking off our neighbors."
I’m not worried about ticking anybody off, though the older I get, the likelier it becomes. According to the 2011 CADUMS, Canadians ages 15 to 24 use cannabis at a rate three times higher than those over the age of 25. “There is that feeling that if you’re older, you’re kind of a burnout if you smoke pot,” Mary explained.
Even Jay recently cut down. But he misses the high. "You've never smoked in your life, so it's difficult to understand what pot provides to those who enjoy it," he told me. But he had no trouble explaining his new weedless world.
“Life is a lot less exciting, there are fewer layers,” he said. “Every day is the same cookie-cutter existence, something I feel like I'm almost begrudgingly accepting, like, sigh, 'OK. So this is life.' " But were those layers really real? Or were they merely a trick of the mind? I always find feats of mental prowess so much more meaningful when they aren't propped up by substances. In my mind, there's no high quite like the high of a naturally occurring original thought—untainted, pure, it's as heady as the smell of freshly cut grass.