A Cautionary Tale

I am one of the most vanilla people you will ever meet. I rarely drink. I don’t often go out to clubs or bars. I’ve never taken serious drugs; never popped a pill, snorted a line or chased a dragon. I’ve only ever gone as far as smoking weed, and then only a couple of times. Now, this story is not a way for me to go on about how I think drugs are wrong, evil, sinful, criminal, etc. I’m not here to preach. People can do their own thing and I just want to share how and why I came to the conclusion that I did.

Smoking cannabis was enough for me to learn that drugs are not my thing, nor will they ever be. This is because when I have smoked it in the past, it has sent me over the edge of paranoia to a land beyond; a land where I assume everyone is out to kill me. I mean it. I genuinely think people are out to kill me. Both times I’ve smoked enough to get high, I’ve immediately started working out in my head how it is that the people around me are planning my demise; there are no coincidences, everything is linked and everyone wants me dead.

But let us start at the beginning; the first time I experienced my own brand of ‘reefer madness’.

Going Mad in the Dam

I went to Amsterdam for my 25th birthday. I booked my trip with two weeks notice and, somewhat unsurprisingly, my primarily retail-employed friends were unable to take the time off with such short notice. I ploughed on anyway, intent on taking my trip alone if necessary.

Now, this part is very important: Don’t go to Amsterdam on your own.

Seriously, just don’t. Especially if your accommodation is in the Red Light District. It makes you look a lot like a creepy sex tourist. I swear to you that I wasn’t there for that, but the more you protest it, the more people start to doubt you. Trust me on this.

I was there for a couple of days and I saw the sights like the Rijksmuseum and all of the lovely canals… and a few coffee shops; the Dutch kind, with the special menus. The special menus that are not always in the same place as the normal menus.

This is confusing. Let me clarify.

I walked into a coffee shop, with as much casual purpose as I could muster, having been told earlier that day by a fellow tourist to ask for the ‘smoke menu’. When I uttered those words to the bored Dutchman behind the counter, he replied with one word without so much as looking up from his crossword puzzle. That word was downstairs. I’d asked at the wrong counter. My laid back ‘yeah I’ve done this loads of times’ attitude was a sham and he knew it. I soothed my pride on the way downstairs by thinking about how many other tourists must make the same mistake. The guy at the counter had probably already forgotten about me by the time I reached the basement.

This area was a little more explicit about its purpose. Drug paraphernalia lined cabinets and shelves. The counter was covered with what looked like a roadside diner’s menu only all of the images of eggs and bacon had been replaced with little piles marijuana. Now, these menus are something special. There were listings of so many varieties of cannabis that I had absolutely no idea what I was looking at. I don’t think anyone else did either, but they were better at hiding their confusion than me. I settled on a pack of pre-rolled joints (I certainly wasn’t going to chance rolling them myself) and headed back upstairs to the place where the ‘coffee’ part of the coffee shop happened. I sat down with a joint, a cup of coffee and a notebook and began jotting down an account of my trip up until that point. (I still have that notebook, but the words within have never been shared. They really weren’t very good anyway, if I’m honest. I was sitting in a dimly lit cafe, clouded with weed smoke. How good were they going to be?)

Later that evening, after surviving a panic attack induced by smoking a joint next to a canal just as a Dutch police officer walked by (they frown on public marijuana consumption), I was sitting in the hostel’s small bar. I had a drink, a joint and the same little notebook in front of me, jotting down thoughts and ideas that were probably not much more than gibberish. To my right sat a rough and tumble sort of chap wearing a tracksuit and an angry expression, downing pints and inhaling cigarettes. His very young-looking girlfriend sat with him; similar tracksuit, similar expression on her face. I worked hard at minding my own business; these weren’t the kind of people I’d go out of my way to make friends with at home, even less so in a foreign country. But still, they were there and so was I and our paths were destined to cross… a couple of minutes later when the guy barked two words at me through a smoky exhalation: “Play pool”. I realised straight away that it wasn’t a question, but did my best to talk myself out of it. I explained that I was just writing and enjoying a drink and that I was sure that someone else would play with him. “Play pool.” He repeated the statement as he began to rack balls on the pool table. It occurred to me that words were not this particular gentleman’s weapon of choice and so there was no chance of me winning a reasoned argument against me playing. I stopped protesting and picked up a pool cue.

We played our first game and despite my assurances that I wasn’t very good at pool (I wasn’t and I’m still not) I seemed to be doing quite well. My new friend clearly wasn’t a fan of my unintentional hustle and smoked hard through the game with a scowl on his face. I won that first game. I didn’t want to, but I did. I thought the issue was done and he would now leave me be, but instead he glanced at his rather bored-looking girlfriend and announced, “again”. I once more tried to protest, but he was racking a new set before the words had escaped my lips. We played a second game and I was desperate to lose. I tried to lose. I hit things incorrectly, not too much as to be obvious, but enough to give him an advantage. It didn’t matter. I was really lucky and he was terrible at pool. I won the second game faster than the first and as he stood there seething, I made some excuses and left the bar before there was any chance of another rematch.

I headed back to my shared dorm with a feeling of dread; I’d embarrassed a very tough, very proud young man in front of his significant other. I feared that he would follow me and kill me with the pool cue I’d left him clutching in his clenched fists. I got into my room and checked that I hadn’t been followed, so he wouldn’t know what room I was in. When I say that, I mean that I literally peaked through a crack in the door, watching for movement in the hallway. Maybe he isn’t even staying here, I thought to myself. Maybe he is staying here and they’re staying in this very room, I also thought. I curled up under my thin hostel-provided blanket, eyes on the door, and eventually drifted to sleep.

I awoke the next morning, obviously, and everything was fine. I didn’t see that couple again, but it didn’t make the worry of the night before any less extreme. That night I was sure he’d planned to end my life if he could have found me. Absolutely sure of it. He totally hadn’t (probably).

This experience should have been enough to warn me against cannabis once and for all. My brain didn’t work well with it and paranoia is a bastard to suffer through. For a time I heeded the knowledge I’d gained and stayed away from the Devil’s Lettuce.

That was, until…

One Cold Night in a Cul-de-sac

A couple of years ago, I had a friend who had gotten into smoking cannabis quite heavily. I do believe that it was recreational, rather than because of an addiction, but I’m no expert on brain chemistry. Anyway, one night we were going to meet up, visit his dealer and smoke some weed. Seems harmless enough, right? I made the trip up to a distant Mancunian suburb, where I knew nothing and nobody except for my friend, and we then journeyed around the corner to the home of the man with the farm.

Upon meeting this guy, my first thought was about how normal he seemed. That may sound ludicrously naive, but I was in a pretty standard terraced house in a normal suburban town. Once together, the three of us journeyed to a local hydroponics shop in a run-down industrial estate (you know, the kind of cold, dimly lit warehouse where anyone would go to buy a terrarium). The man with the farm (I called him ‘The Botanist’ due to his exceptional knowledge of growing methods and the science he applied to his operation) spoke to a man at a counter about fertilisers and supplies and the like. My friend stayed with him whilst I did my best to look inconspicuous in a place where ninety-eight percent of the clientele were farming cannabis (the other two percent, I assume, were buying their turtle a new house).

The Botanist acquired his supplies and we all returned to the terrace that he shared with his brother; his brother was actually ‘The Dealer’. We made small talk and I talked about being a complete novice at this sort of thing. I also asked a bunch of questions. Why? When I get nervous I get chatty and inquisitive. I’d never met someone with an illicit farm before so I thought I’d take the opportunity to drink in this delightfully unusual situation and chance for knowledge. I asked about the way it was grown. I asked about the amounts. I asked about the yields and profits. I learned that their previous farm (in a self-storage unit) had been discovered and they were currently paying off their fees and fines with proceeds from yet more illicit activity. They were surprisingly forthcoming for people engaged in crime and conversing with a complete stranger. I suppose my friend must have vouched for me, but still it seemed like a bit of a risk for them. Maybe I didn’t give off a ‘cop vibe’. At least not yet…

We made our way into the kitchen, where The Dealer presented us with a large plastic bong and a portion of his own private stash (stored in a glass coffee jar on the living room mantlepiece, no less). The Kush Committee of Dealer, Botanist and Friend had decided that a bong was the best way for me to experience their product since it had been so long since I had even considered smoking anything. They talked me through the process: light it, fill the bowl with smoke, cover it with your hand whilst you exhale, take a deep breath to inhale as much of the smoke as you can, hold it for a few seconds, then exhale slowly. Methodical. Precise. This was the way you did it, apparently. My friend went first and spluttered a bit as he took a breath. The Dealer went next; loading, lighting, inhaling. Then it was my turn. The bong was loaded, it was lit and I followed through the steps. I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of these most accomplished of smokers, so I did it properly. I took a deep lungful of the entire bowl of smoke, held it firmly for a few seconds, then exhaled slowly and calmly. The room was impressed; I had achieved this without a choke or a cough. I was pleased that I’d made a good impression on this room full of petty criminals. That was, until my world tilted ever so slightly to the left.

It’s weird being able to know exactly what it feels like to lose an element of control. I was totally in my own head, knowing what was happening to me, but being unable to stop it and knowing that stopping it defeated the object of what I had done in the first place. I moved back into the centre of the room with the others and I knew instantly that my eyes were bloodshot; somehow I could feel it. Also, the previously flat and smooth linoleum floor suddenly felt very slanted and uneven, so that even standing still required a high degree of concentration and dexterity. My mouth was dry and my words came slowly. I felt like my brain was operating at normal capacity but that the world around me was in slow motion. For some people this may be a desired effect; for me it was borderline nightmarish. I explained to my merry band of rogues that sitting down was my best course of action and they agreed, guiding me to an ugly leather sofa in the living room. Once parked there, my brain began its exploration of what the hell was going on. My left arm was ice cold, whilst my right leg felt red hot. My right hand had a tingling sensation that ended abruptly at my wrist and that pulsed along my fingers. I seemed to have a physiological reaction where I thought I was going to be sick (I visualised a snake made of fire in my esophagus that I had to control). Once I battled that feeling down, I developed a sort of tunnel vision for a few moments before the sickness returned and the process started over again from the very beginning. These sensations came in waves and I had to focus on each in turn in order to prevent them from overwhelming me. All the while, the film The Fifth Element was on the TV. I love that movie, but even it wasn’t enough to allow me to relax and enjoy the effects of madness-inducing cannabinoids.

I was sitting on that couch for an unknown amount of time (could have been five minutes, could have been an hour), all the while the people around me where being very supportive. They told me to breathe through it and to concentrate on something in the room. The Dealer even suggested lighting another joint to mellow me out; I refused, feeling that I’d had quite enough for the evening. It was during this discourse around how much was too much and how much more should I have to counteract what I’d already had, that I made a decision: I wanted to go home. This wasn’t a popular idea. Stay and wait for it to wear off a bit, The Dealer said. You’ll be fine soon,The Botanist said. They were probably right, but by this point my mind was made up. The more they explained how fine I’d be if I just waited while, the more I was concerned that they didn’t grasp the full weight of what was happening in my brain. I confided in my friend that I no longer wanted to go home, but that I needed to go home and I clarified that he would definitely take me home when the time came. He agreed, but then made the case that if we left soon we’d just be stuck in traffic anyway. Best to wait an hour or so, he said to me. No good. I got up for a walk and paced the corridor for minute or two. I had to leave. Why didn’t they want me to leave? What was their plan for me if I couldn’t leave? I couldn’t handle this rip-roaring drug-crazed lifestyle! I wanted my bed and a duvet and safety and my pulse to stop racing and for the world to feel level again. I thought about calling a cab, but then realised that I had no idea where I actually was. Why won’t they just let me leave? was the thought whirring around in my head. When I restated that I wanted to leave, I was met with more excuses about why we shouldn’t go yet. So then I did what any reasonable person in the grips of reefer madness would do: I left the house ‘for some air’ and refused to go back inside. I needed to go home. My friend had promised to take me, so that was that. As far as I was concerned, being outside was as good as being halfway home. I waited outside, on the pavement just beyond their yard, whilst the others inside realised what I had done. Now my friend came out to get me but I wouldn’t go back inside. I had to go home and now he was beginning to understand.

I climbed into my friend’s car whilst he explained to the other two that I definitely wasn’t coming back inside. I sat in the passenger seat and tried desperately to calm my heart beat to a level quieter than an orchestral timpani. My friend then poked his head in through the window; one of the rear tires was flat. I almost lost it before he calmed me, assuring me that he had told me earlier in the night that his tire had a leak (he had) and that his electric pump would inflate it again in just a few minutes (it did). During my momentary respite, as the tire pump did its work, I tried to convince myself that the flat tire was nothing but a coincidence, but I wasn’t sure. There had been plenty of time whilst I sat on that sofa that one of them could have come out and let air out of the tire. They hadn’t, but the doubt had taken root in my brain. I sat, alone, and the time that passed could have been measured in minutes or hours, I wouldn’t have known which. My friend brought out my jacket from where it had hung in the entrance hallway. Somewhat unsurprisingly, The Dealer and The Botanist were adamant that nothing of mine be left behind. In my jacket pocket was a plastic bag containing the following items: a small metal box, a pack of cigarette papers, a lighter, a grinder and a bag with £20 worth of weapons-grade ganja. I asked my friend if The Dealer did refunds. Somehow, considering my brain’s addled state, I was cracking jokes. Weirdly, my friend agreed to check. I was left in the car once again on my own, or at least I was on my own for a second before The Botanist’s next door neighbour poked her head in the passenger-side window. Are you alright? she asked, fully aware that I was most certainly not. I lied and assured her that I was, but she knew. She was a regular of her next door neighbours’ home dispensary and she knew that I was not at all myself. Luckily for me, she left as quickly as she’d appeared. Instead, my window was filled with the form of The Dealer. He handed me my plastic bag of paraphernalia and explained that he’d left £10 worth of his stock in the bag and had issued a partial refund, insisting that I’d have a better time the second time around. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I’d been joking about the refund in the first place.

This is when a very weird thing happened, right in the midst of an evening filled with particularly weird things. The Dealer took my hand and, with no hint of humour, irony or falseness asked me a single question: was I now a member of the Brotherhood? He held my hand firmly and stared into my bloodshot and streaming eyes. After a moment of blind mental panic, I replied: Sure. Yep. One hundred percent. I am in the Brotherhood. To this day, I don’t know what he meant, but I am entirely convinced that he asked the question. I might be in a gang. How exhilarating!

My friend got in the car, the tire now fully inflated once again, and the two nicest seedy characters I’d ever met disappeared back into their house. Finally, I thought to myself, I’m actually going home. We turned around in the road and proceeded to the end of the street, only to be blocked in by a truck turning in to the cul-de-sac! I just wanted to leave! Why was the world conspiring to keep me on this street?! No coincidences! my brain screamed. Everyone is in on this! The truck eventually passed us and we were on the road. Again, I allowed myself a moment to relax ever so slightly.

Now, we were some distance from my home and a journey along a major motorway was required. I knew nothing about the area or the roads surrounding it, so to say that I was still wracked with doubt that I’d ever get home again would be an understatement. We passed exits with unfamiliar names and I wondered allowed whether I’d actually make it home. I asked my friend if he was taking me home. He assured me that he was. I joked that if he was going to take me somewhere to kill me and dispose of my body, it would be nice of him to let me know. Again, he assured me that he wasn’t going to do that. I remained unconvinced.

After what could have been hours or days on the road, we arrived at my apartment building. He parked outside the front doors and turned off the engine. I surmised that although it would be unusual for him to drive me all the way home before killing me, it was not entirely impossible. Death did not come. What did come, was a question: That’s your bag, right? I answered in the affirmative. Say it’s your bag, he said to me sternly. I assured him verbosely that it was my bag and he seemed satisfied. I got out of the car and he came around to my side to give me a hug. Here it is, I thought. I’m going to get shanked on my doorstep. But I did not. What did happen, was that I felt a noticeable patting on my sides before we stepped back from the hug. In that instant, my mind seemed to clear. You’re patting me down to check if I’m wearing a wire! They think I’m a cop, don’t they? You remember my incessant inquisitiveness from before everything had gone weird? I think I’d given them some doubts about me. Who would have thought that the appearance of a complete stranger with a raft of questions would be at all suspicious? My friend said nothing, but smiled. I backed away from him towards my apartment block’s front doors. I didn’t turn my back on him for a second; my mind’s momentary clarity had made way for some more stifling paranoia in these final moments together. I closed the doors and checked that they were locked, all the while my eyes were locked on his and a smile was forced across my face. Once I was satisfied that the doors were locked, I hurried up the stairs to my apartment (eyes on the door as I did so), let myself in, locked the door behind me and took a seat in the corner of my living room with my back to the wall.

Only then, did I finally feel safe.

Only then, did I start to realise what an absolute nutcase I had been.

Actually, not quite then. I realised it after I’d received a text from my wife asking me to put some chips in the oven for her and her friend when they got home and I put every chip in the freezer in the oven. The entirety of a kilogram bag, on a small oven tray, piled three deep. It turns out that as well as being extraordinarily paranoid when high, I’m also entirely literal, without subtlety or nuance.

Conclusions (That Were Not Jumped To)

The last time I smoked marijuana will indeed be the LAST time I smoke marijuana. It’s not my thing. Incessant paranoia is both unpleasant to experience and unnerving to strangers/friendly drug dealers.

Weed didn’t work for me for the same reason that I don’t like to drink to excess; both lead to a lack of control. I don’t like being out of control and it sends my brain into a spiral of panic that I can’t recover from (especially not when I’m under the influence). So although I’ve portrayed these experiences as humorous ones, the fear and worry that I went through at the time were very real and definitely not worth it.

I know a lot of people that enjoy the stuff. To them I say, enjoy yourself. Carefully, mind. And I’m definitely not saying that others shouldn’t do it. I’m just saying that you should be careful. Do it with friends, somewhere that you are safe, just in case you go crazy in the coconut like I did.

This story is one hundred percent true (apart from the bits that my drug-dosed mind conjured up in the moment), but it is most definitely, as the title described, a cautionary tale. Smoke wisely, dear readers.

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