The life lesson I learned during my first visit to 'stoners anonymous'
The woman was tattooed from neck to knuckles, from toes to palms, with piercings and a semi-shaved head. She was around 30, with that dope sense of humor and chill nonchalance cool lesbians have. And so, Lisa (not her real name) was surprised to find herself where she found herself: in a dim old Christian church on a weeknight, in a beat up old chair in a circle, near a table with non-dairy creamer and swizzle straws, in a meeting that was formal, serious and somber.
And she was surprised to hear herself saying the following:
"Hi, my name is Lisa, and I'm a marijuana addict."
"Hi Lisa!" came the reply.
"It's so crazy to come here and say 'I've been using marijuana' like it's some bad thing," Lisa said. "It's cool. I like it. It smells really good and I've done it forever. It hasn't fucked my life up soooo bad."
She paused and thought for a second.
"Except that it has."
If this exchange was slightly confusing for a lifelong stoner like Lisa, it was also slightly confusing for those of us who are also more or less lifelong stoners, and who didn't know that a Stoners Anonymous meeting, a Tokers Support Group, actually exists.
After all, we know that marijuana is not nearly as addictive as tobacco or alcohol. You don't go into delirium tremens or night sweats if you stop. And we've heard for years the same refrain from pro-pot people: it's not addictive at all, not one bit, no how, no way.
We don't know if that's true. But the indisputable — if little-known — fact, is that this organization, properly called "Marijuana Anonymous," is very real, exists in 12 different very real countries from New Zealand to Ireland, is in every very real major American city, and that very real people show up every day. There are thousands of meetings. Some are online or on the phone. There is an app, with a constantly flowing chat room filled with self-proclaimed "addicts" who want to know if you're an "addict," who will help you put down the vape pen.
It is nearly identical to the 80-year-old Alcoholics Anonymous. Both groups use solidarity, rituals and a belief in 'god' to quit a substance that must be, in some way, addictive.
The meeting we went to (we won't say where or when) was attended by about 18 people. They ranged in age from roughly 20 to 70; the preponderance were in their late 40s or 50s. Women outnumbered men. They tended to wear t-shirts and flip flops. A small few looked counter-culture: pierced septums and gages and half-shaved heads. The rest looked like secretaries or business owners or seminary students — you know, just run-of-the-mill ents. What does a stoner "look like" anymore?
Each ex-stoner had their own stories about their struggles. One guy had been clean (that's their word) for ten years. Many felt strange about quitting.
Lisa spoke, like many in the group did, not of poisoning her body or blacking out, but of smaller screw-ups: organizing her life around cannabis, lying to her partner about how much she was using, not doing her work so that she could get high.
About 60 days ago, Lisa wondered if she had a little problem. She went online and read Marijuana Anonymous's "12 questions to ask yourself to see if you're a stoner," which you can find on their website here.
It asked things like: Do you ever get high alone? Do you smoke pot to cope with your feelings? Have you broken promises to loved ones about using less marijuana?
"It's crazy," Lisa said, "if I answer those questions honestly, like really honestly, and not bullshit myself that the answer is 'no' ‚ because I'm good at bullshitting myself, then the answer to all of them is yes. "
Studies find that most pot smokers never get addicted. But one study found that, while cannabis is far less addictive than cocaine, nicotine and heroin, 9 percent of dope smokers will eventually meet the definition of "cannabis dependence."
So ... if meetings like this don't change your views of the danger of cannabis, they should at least increase your acceptance of human fallibility.
After all, there are lots of 12-step programs for lots of things that don't seem that harmful. There is Caffeine Anonymous, Porn Anonymous, Emotions Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous and Workaholics Anonymous.
Cannabis legalization has swelled the group's ranks. There were only three members of this particular group for many years. Then, after recreational legalization in 2012, newcomers started to show up. It continues to steadily grow.
"We don't keep statistics on our membership, but overall, in the past decade, as marijuana has become more legal, I feel that the organization has grown," a spokesperson for Marijuana Anonymous who called herself Karen S., emailed me. "I feel that as it has become more readily available and the potency of the marijuana being sold at dispensaries, people are coming in younger and sometimes with more severe 'bottoms.'"
Cannabis is just too easy now, several meeting attendiees said. Before, they'd have a natural break if they couldn't get hold of their dealer or their roommate was a cop. Now, all barriers have fallen away. Add to that the strength of weed now: it's harder to smoke and still be active when the strains have 30 percent THC (or more).
Many of the group attendees hate how much Colorado (the state this story is taking place) is now defined by pot.
A service industry worker is sick of tourists joking with him, like, "You guys are so lucky. You get to be stoned all the time!" And the worker is like, "Actually, I have a meeting you can go to." But he keeps his mouth shut.
Some perspective is in order, by which we mean: the horror stories from these stoners were milder and less ruinous than the ones we've heard in Alcoholics Anonymous. In AA meetings, dudes beat up their ladies and moms walk out on their kids.
The stoners' stories were less dramatic: stoners leave parties early; they don't get their chores done; they don't interact with their partners enough; they get paranoid.
One measure of that is how these people looked, compared to the people we've met at AA meetings. These people looked like they'd spent less time in jail or sleeping in alleys.
Despite the overall mild nature of cannabis, these people had come to live in a prison of addiction. They said they smoked every moment they could. One woman said she'd wake up in the middle of the night and have to smoke to go back to bed.
Now, they're trying to move forward.
"It's time to grow up. I'm so tired of smoking and not getting my shit done, as an adult," said Lisa. "I'm so done with that excuse for myself."
Usually, there’s nothing more boring than a bunch of people NOT doing something; especially when the thing they're not doing is smoking weed, which is a pretty non-threatening thing to be doing anyway.
But this pothead support group was worth every minute, and was surprisingly sweet and loving. A first-timer was greeted by hugs and a "hi" and a purple chip that says "newcomer." And he was touched when Chili McLesbo sweetly grabbed his "newcomer" chip and passed it around the group, to put good feelings in it. And he was surprised to find himself, a little bit, fitting in.