Can Cannabis End the Stigma of Addiction?

Terrence McKenna said the right way to use cannabis is to get blitzed off your box on rare occasions, and shoot the breeze with the shamans of your unconscious. No one I know smokes like this. McKenna himself did not smoke like this. To only smoke on rare occasions would demand the ability to abide by the Japanese principle of delayed gratification, but we live in a Culture of Now that compels us to consume at light speed, while giving us the illusion of satisfaction.

Evidence of this is everywhere. Trade on the high street has been transformed by fast fashion, cheap clothes from shops like H&M, The Gap, and Zara, creating an industry worth more than $3 trillion a year though 70 per cent of Americans have less that $1,000 in savings. In Luxembourg, 13 per cent of people have zero savings though it’s the country with the highest savings rate in Europe. In Ireland, the economy is supposedly booming but there’s a homelessness crisis in Dublin, and the nurses are striking for better pay.

During the 2018 Black Friday season, Nov. 1 to Dec. 24, U.S. consumers spent more than $750 billion in retail stores though more than 40 million Americans can’t afford healthcare. While Kylie Jenner, the 20-year-old social media starlet-du-jour and youngest sibling of the Kardashian powerhouse, has 120 million followers on Instagram and has been featured in Forbes as the world’s youngest billionaire, suicide rates are climbing amongst U.S. workers.

 Meet the Hungry Ghosts

Today, many people call their cannabis use therapeutic, but what if it’s okay to call it what it is: addiction. In his book, In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Dr. Gabor Maté breaks down the neurology of addiction explaining that it can be a substance abuse or behaviour disorder but the underlying psychology that drives it is always the same. He illustrates the features all addicted brains share such as lowered dopamine and opioid receptors, as well as impaired development of the prefrontal cortex.

He demonstrates how the same mechanisms are working in all addicted brains, and that addiction behaviour of any kind, be it drug abuse, gambling, shopping, porn, work, social media, food, plastic surgery, hoarding or exercise, fire the brain’s circuitry in the same way. Based on a 2017 study involving 17,500 Americans by Dr. Vincent Felitti, one of the world’s leading experts on childhood trauma, brain development during infancy determines whether or not a person will be predisposed to addiction in adulthood.

The under-developed brain results in an adult that can’t connect with himself or the world around him without his “drug” of choice. This is what makes addiction so potent: it activates our instincts to connect in order to survive. This is what makes addiction so complex: it is a survival strategy that results in self-destruction. An addiction infiltrates the limbic system or emotional brain, the part of the mind that drives joy, pleasure, pain, anger and fear, thus processing and controlling our primal emotions.

 Addiction AKA Avoiding the Void

 When addicts say: “I don’t know who I’d be without [drug of choice],” this is addiction as identity, an attempt to fill the void. Incapable of focus or feeling joy – due to that faulty brain circuitry – and therefore incapable of feeling satisfied by any activity, the addict is hypersensitive to boredom, and constantly trying to out-run it.

“Boredom, rooted in a fundamental discomfort with the self, is one of the least tolerable mental states,” Maté explains. What’s clear is that the discomfort comes first, and stems from a loss of connection with self at an early age. In this video, Maté quotes Eckhart Tolle: “Addiction begins with pain and end with pain.”

“At the core of every addiction is an emptiness based in abject fear. The addict dreads and abhors the present moment; she bends feverishly only towards the next time, the moment when brain, infused with her drug of choice, will briefly experience itself as liberated from the burden of the past and the fear of the future – the two elements that make the present intolerable,” writes Maté.

“’The precursor to addiction is dislocation,’” according to Bruce Alexander, professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University explaining that by “dislocation he means the loss of psychological, social and economic integration into family and culture; a sense of isolation and powerlessness. ’Only chronically and severely dislocated people are vulnerable to addiction,’ he writes.”

We Are All Hungry Ghosts

Maté notes alcoholism emerged with the free market society after 1800. Today, the average person is exposed to up to 10,000 ad images per day, and we’re continuously told that the health of the economy depends on consumer spending. Maté quotes Lewis Lapham, publisher of Harper’s magazine, who criticised “consumer markets selling promises of instant relief from the pain of thought, loneliness, doubt, experience, envy and old age.”

Addiction is a relatively new phenomenon that’s risen with the real and existential pain of contemporary life and here’s the cruncher: the methods we’ve been using to deal with the pains are not working. In 2017, more than 70,000 people died from opioid overdoses in America, and 6 million people die every year from tobacco-related diseases. A U.S. report revealed that Americans spent $16 billion on plastic surgery in 2016 while up to 40 million people die each year from preventable lifestyle diseases.

The obesity rate is now 38.2 per cent in America and Britain is the sixth fattest nation in the world after the U.S., Mexico, New Zealand, Hungary and Australia. A 2018 study found that teens spending 5 hours per day on a smartphone were twice as likely to exhibit signs of depression, and in South Korea there’s an epidemic with more than 1 million (maybe up to 5 million) kids addicted to the Internet. In the U.S. parents are setting up support groups to help their kids overcome porn addiction.

Our materialistic culture tells us what we have defines who we are, spawning generations of people who have no idea how to value themselves unless they own certain things or look a certain way. Anorexia is now the third most common disease amongst young people after asthma and type 1 diabetes. Meanwhile, the wellness industry has a global value of $4.2 trillion; the healthy eating, nutrition and weight loss sector alone is worth $702.1 billion and personal care is more than $1 trillion.

Addiction AKA Entering the Void

“What we call personality is often a jumble of genuine traits and adopted coping styles that do not reflect our true self at all but the loss of it.”

Of all the lines in Maté’s book, this one hit me hardest. How many of us have been forced to shed our true shelves to accommodate a secret habit that an arbitrary law prevents us from embracing? How many of us have felt the cold shoulder of isolation because we can’t connect with other “users” to share our experiences? How many of us are using cannabis to cope with the loss of our true selves?

It’s not the cannabis that forces us to hide, it’s the law, and the stigma that comes with it, and a superficial society with fucked up values that has no idea how to treat itself or those that are perceived as less than, with compassion. Maté is clear on one thing: a society that punishes addicts is punishing its most vulnerable people, and a society that judges addicts is actually judging itself.

“We despise, ostracise and punish the addict because we don’t wish to see how much we resemble him. In his dark mirror our own features are unmistakable. We shudder at the recognition. This mirror is not for us, we say to the addict. You are different, and you don’t belong with us.”

If addiction reflects the ails of society, and we shun addicts the same way we brush family secrets under the carpet – out of sight, out of mind – it becomes easy to see why the question of cannabis legalisation is so controversial. It’s got nothing to do with politics but everything to do with a form of societal neurosis.

Cannabis the Friendly Ghost

The good news is that embracing cannabis use – getting honest and open about it – is a healing experience; at least, that’s certainly been my experience. Not so long ago, I couldn’t imagine creating a blog in homage to my addiction, but now I celebrate it. Rather than needing therapy for my addiction, my addiction is my therapy, and I’m okay with that, more than okay, because I feel fortunate my drug of choice also happens to be one of the most insanely beneficial plants on the planet.

Without cannabis I would be incapable of the focus it takes to sit at my desk for five, six, or ten hour stretches, writing, and therefore incapable of feeling any joy. I am hypersensitive to boredom but while writing stoned I’m so completely absorbed by the task at hand, I forget to eat. Whenever the void becomes a chasm that threatens to swallow me, I roll a joint, and I write until cannabis carries me to safety.

Cannabis is my way to experience life not escape it, and it makes all the things I love even more enjoyable; it even makes going to the supermarket a joy, ffs. Addiction doesn’t have to be a survival strategy that results in self-destruction, at least not when cannabis is the drug of choice. I don’t know who I’d be without cannabis so much so I have no interest in finding out. Fuck responsible use of cannabis, I’m interested in positive use of cannabis, what does that look like?

Too many people use cannabis to inspire and lead amazing lives to continue believing it’s a destructive force, people like Cheryl Shuman California’s first cannabis marketer, Jim McAlpine creator of the 420 Games, or Emma Chasen, an industry educator – not to mention Snoop, Whoopi, Woody, Willie, and of course, Bob. What’s destructive is the stigma. The more of us who come out of the closet and disclose our status as High Functioning Cannabis Consumers (#HFCC), the sooner we can start having real conversations about addiction, and heal the stories behind it.

#followtheplant #healthyhighs #positivecannabisuse #hfcc


“In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts,” Gabor Maté, Vermillion, U.K., 2018.

Published by The Healthy Hashhead

The Healthy Hashhead is a writer, poet, cannabis educator and sports nutritionist, dedicated to spreading the message of the conscious consumption through unique content that speaks to regular users of cannabis.

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