Adventures in the marijuana trade: Swimming to Atlantis
Like many journalists/ex-comedians I use the encrypted app whatsupdoc. Just in case people who know how to whistle want to blow their revelatory whistles in my direction. Dissatisfied and concerned government workers. Miserable and morally conflicted corporate VPs. Storytellers with an important story to tell. Which is how Francesca de la Doobie reached out. The deal is you hear the story and if, after checking it out, it’s for real, you tell the story and try your very best to protect the storyteller’s identity. So, yes, de la Doobie is not Francesca’s real name.
I don’t have a horse in the controversial pot-shops-everywhere-you-look race, but the truth is Francesca didn’t contact me out of the blue. If I was more a comedian and less of a journalist these days, I’d tell you that, like many working the political beat in the Age of Trump, I’m high on irony. Whistling is more popular than ever, and someone had obviously blown the whistle on me in Francesca’s direction. And she had obviously heard my most recent embarrassing story.
It only took one week covering the White House before unnamed members of the Press Corps decided it was time to initiate me. And so it happened: the requisite after-hours blindfolded trip to what I learned later was the oh-so-exclusive — and underground — Venue de Vape: the gentleman’s/gentlewoman’s private wood-paneled marijuana resort.
I was still blindfolded, everyone exhaling in my direction, when somehow I found the vape between my lips. Before I knew it, quite a few puffs worth of some super-duper stuff was swirling through my lungs and into the bloodstream. Then I found myself munching on what I assumed was an after-dinner dark chocolate mint. Between you and me, I almost immediately found myself inspired to make what I assumed were a few much-needed word changes to the Toby Keith tune.
A few minutes later I was freed from the blindfold. Lucky to find an air guitar under the table, I was up and on my feet, strumming and swaying between tables, feeling blessed having been chosen to serenade the entire establishment. Convinced Toby would be proud, I belted: “Spicer fired up a fat boy and he passed it around/The last words that I spoke before they tucked me in/ I’ll never smoke weed with that Huckabee again.”
This is how Francesca put it when she contacted me on whatsupdoc: “Heard from several reliable members of the DC potvine that, considering your experience last night, you might now better appreciate what I’m up to. The word is that after the pot-mint kicked in and after your song, you became convinced that you had just been appointed United States Ambassador to Atlantis.
“Somehow before your fellow newsfolks could stop you, you bolted from the club. Somehow you made it a couple of blocks. Luckily, my friend Amy Hickenbarker, the White House correspondent for the Miami Press-Examiner who obviously has a measly per diem, had just finished her $7.99 Crispy Chicken Strips special at the International House of Pancakes, where you appeared. All of a sudden, she heard a loud ‘Ahoy!’ and watched you spill a large pitcher of water, then bellyflop onto the floor. All of a sudden, you were trying to breaststroke your way across the floor past her table. She told me that when you lifted your head in her direction to take another breath, you managd to gasp that you were on your way to the underwater American Embassy. Luckily, with the help of a waitress, she got you up off the floor before you drowned, then forced a couple of cups of coffee in you. Then she got you back to your Motel 6.
“Anyway,” Francesca told me, “I’m sure you’re completely embarrassed, but please understand you’re not the only one. Been there done that. Though, in my case, after a couple of edibles, it was a two-hour-long conversation with an orangutan at the Kansas City Zoo. Remember the expression ‘he can’t hold his liquor?’ It’s more true for today’s supercharged ganja.”
Long story short, Francesca also knew about my ex-wife and my continuing visits to the Berkshires. And while I’m usually reluctant to hype ventures started by friends and acquaintances, and by those who could conceivably blackmail me, my recent experience has made me more sympathetic to what she’s up to. And if she’s on the up and up, Francesca hopes to fill a critical need and provide a public service for the South Berkshires all at the same time.
To be clear, my latest experience notwithstanding, I’m in favor of the legalization of marijuana. It only took me until the next morning to realize that I’m not really the U.S. Ambassador to Atlantis. I’ll be the first to admit I’m a lousy swimmer. Clearly, the job should go to someone far more qualified, like Katie Ledecky or Michael Phelps.
It’s a little sobering but it’s probably important for me to admit that something can work for many and not for all. Aspirin. Red wine. And, yes, we’ve been living with the consequences of legal alcohol for a long time, even though the tragedies inflicted on our society are significant: the thousands of individuals, families and friends who live with the deaths and deficits caused each year by the abuse of alcohol.
And now one American community after another is convinced it’s time to make some money off of, while minimizing the risks of easy-to-sell, easy-to-buy, easy-to-smoke, -vaporize, -salve, -swallow or -eat-some-form-of supercharged Mary Jane.
Which is where Francesca de la Doobie comes in. Francesca told me that she’s a former native of the Berkshires recently returned from Colorado. She’s back because, in her words, the Berkshires are in the midst of potphoria, the early days of long lines and increasing pots of pot-tax—what she calls “The Happy Days Are Here Again: Phase One.”
“Do you know, Mr. Ambassador,” she said, “that Great Barrington, Massachusetts, has approved five different potshops? Six thousand people, one downtown hardware store, and five different opportunities to buy an ounce. I’ve smoked more than my share in counties and countries around the world and I think it’s great people now have the opportunity to buy pot without worrying they’ll end up in jail.
“And it’s going to be fine for most of them. But I’m coming back for those whose ‘fine’ turns not so fine. Sometimes, as you well know, the walls come in on you, metaphorically, and so convincingly you feel trapped. Or believe with certainty that you can swim from your local IHOP down to Atlantis.”
“Let me ask you a question, Francesca, not as a former Ambassador but a journalist: Don’t you think that by emphasizing the negative you’re just feeding into the anti-drug hysteria?”
“I don’t see black and white, good and bad, pro- and anti-. One doesn’t cancel out the other. After all, I’m more than willing to admit that I spent several hours highly stoned talking to an orangutan—best conversation of my life. The next year I smoked a bowl and conducted Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony from beneath my bed—did a pretty terrific job even though the first violin section was a little late. There are violins in the Seventh, aren’t there? The point is even a pro like me can see the bright side turn dark in a heartbeat.
“Plus, I’ve done a little reading. Take Heidelberg, for instance. I wrote some of it down, so let me read some of it to you: Dr. Eva Hoch of the department of addictive behavior and addiction medicine at the University of Heidelberg in Germany said, ‘All recreational users should be aware of potential undesired acute cannabinoid effects,’ her fancy way of saying that what can sometimes happen when you’re high on pot might be a bummer. And the effects are a function of a bunch of factors—what kind of cannabis, how often you use, who the user is and how much they smoke.”
Francesca continued: “Remember, researchers are still trying to figure out more about how marijuana effects the body and mind. Dr. Hoch and her team reviewed more than a hundred studies that had focused on recreational use and ‘were surprised by the variety of potential mental and physical health effects …’ They identified 12 signs of ‘acute intoxication’ … and those including feeling anxious, agitated, having a slow reaction time and having difficulty paying attention …’
“This one describes me and Beethoven, feeling euphoric and disinhibited, maybe even you and Toby Keith. Then there’s having an altered sense of time, having limited judgment abilities, and experiencing feelings of being separate from your body or from reality. And there’s experiencing acoustic, optic or tactile illusions, exhibiting impaired overall physical and mental performance, experiencing hallucinations or paranoid delusions.”
“Francesca, if you forward me Dr. Hoch’s email, I’d be glad to tell her that I really don’t remember how I got to the pancake place. Or what I did with the paperwork for my ambassadorship. Or the directions to Atlantis. I’m pretty sure if I had known about your orangutan, I might have tried to find one of my own at the Bronx Zoo. I’m guessing the Bronx is a lot easier to find than Atlantis, even underwater. Anyway, tell me more about what you learned.”
“So, to me, if you’re in the midst of experiencing any of these adverse effects, you’re not going to care about any of the ongoing positive-negative arguments people seem to care about. Some folks might be able to talk themselves down or tough it out, but some can and need help.”
“Well, Francesca, people in Great Barrington aren’t talking about any of that. They’re talking about how many pot shops are enough. And what to do with the increased tax revenues.”
“Mr. Fizzolio, it was pretty clear that the folks in Colorado were surprised by the significant increase in emergency room visits that occurred after legalization, the increase in marijuana-related car accidents. I suggest you check it out.”
So while my gig as an ambassador never got off the ocean floor, the researcher in me quickly resurfaced with renewed energy. I decided to check into the Colorado experience Francesca referenced.
First thing I found was a Jack Healy article in the New York Times from 2014 that highlighted some of the unanticipated problems. Healy wrote: ‘Law enforcement officers in Colorado and neighboring states, emergency room doctors and legalization opponents increasingly are highlighting a series of recent problems as cautionary lessons for other states flirting with loosening marijuana laws …
“It was only in January, for example, that the Colorado State Patrol began tracking the number of people pulled over for driving while stoned. Since then, marijuana-impaired drivers have made up about 12.5 percent of all citations for driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol …”
An August 2017 article in the Denver Post updated these figures: “The 2013-16 period saw a 40 percent increase in the number of all drivers involved in fatal crashes in Colorado, from 627 to 880, according to the NHTSA data. Those who tested positive for alcohol in fatal crashes from 2013 to 2015 — figures for 2016 were not available — grew 17 percent, from 129 to 151. By contrast, the number of drivers who tested positive for marijuana use jumped 145 percent — from 47 in 2013 to 115 in 2016. During that time, the prevalence of testing drivers for marijuana use did not change appreciably, federal fatal-crash data show.”
Pro-pot folks say that’s only one side of the story. They maintain that there isn’t enough available data and that overall violent crimes in Colorado are down. But one of the troubling problems is the kids who somehow get ahold of their parents’ stash. Healey wrote that in the first five months: “nine children have ended up at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora after consuming marijuana, six of whom got critically sick. In all of 2013, the hospital treated only eight such cases.”
Here’s an interesting chart published in the New England Journal of Medicine that shows both the significant increase in the potency of marijuana over the years and the number of emergency room visits:
Then there’s the work of Deborah Hasin in Neuropsychopharmacology, which explains some of the data in the chart. I’ll dispense with her scholarly references:
“Over the past four decades, cannabis potency, indicated by the THC content in seized samples, has approximately doubled worldwide … including in the United States … In the early 1990s, the average THC content in confiscated US marijuana samples was ~3.7%, whereas in 2014 it was ~6.1% … This increase is relevant to epidemiologic study of time trends in problems associated with cannabis use because cannabis with higher THC concentrations is more likely to increase risks associated with use …”
Now here’s some tricky stuff that deserves some attention in Great Barrington and other Massachusetts communities: “Using data from the National Poison Data System to investigate accidental cannabis exposures in children <6 years old … the annual rate of exposures increased from 4.2 per million children in 2000 to 10.4 per million in 2013.
What’s interesting is that statistics during 2005–2011 of calls to poison centers for unintentional pediatric cannabis exposures showed little increase in states with no medical marijuana laws (MMLs) but increases of 11.5 percent in states passing MMLs in the same period, and an increase of 30.3 percent in states that had passed MMLs before 2005 …”
Hasin notes that: “Another study found that calls to Colorado poison control centers for unintentional pediatric cannabis exposures between 2009 and 2015 (when medical dispensaries proliferated and recreational use was legalized) increased 34 percent annually, significantly greater than the 19 percent increase in cannabis-related calls received by poison control centers in other states … A further breakdown of Colorado poison center calls … showed significant increases in those aged 0–8 and 9–17 years after liberalization of medical marijuana laws in 2010, and an even further increase in these ages after enactment of legalized recreational use in 2014. Thus, liberalization of marijuana laws appears related to increases in childhood nonfatal cannabis exposures.”
A March 29, 2019, article by Cyrus Moulton in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette noted some new data from Colorado: “Colorado researchers identified 9,973 cannabis-related emergency department visits from 2012 to 2016. In 2012, the ER saw an average of one patient every other day with a marijuana-caused problem. By 2016, the count was two to three per day.”
Moulton recounted the story of one pediatric visit to a local Worcester emergency room: “The child thought it was just a regular juice box. But the beverage contained 100 mg of THC, the part of marijuana that gets you high, an estimated 20 times the recommended dose and enough to bring the child to the emergency room. And such incidents have ticked up at UMass Memorial Medical Center since marijuana was legalized, said Dr. Mark Neavyn, a medical toxicologist and emergency department physician at UMass Memorial Medical Center and program director for the fellowship in medical toxicology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
“Previous to legalization, it was very, very rare and very uncommon to see someone coming to the emergency department for marijuana,” Dr. Neavyn said, relaying the story of the patient with the juice box. “Now we do see it occasionally in adults, but the more concerning population is in kids getting into edible products with high toxification of THC.”
There are other studies that suggest that communities should be making preparations for medical consequences from the proliferation of more readily available marijuana. A 2018 study in the Netherlands found: “The number of people entering specialist drug treatment for cannabis problems has increased considerably in recent years. The reasons for this are unclear, but rising cannabis potency could be a contributing factor … First-time cannabis admissions (per 100,000 inhabitants) rose from 7.08 to 26.36 from 2000 to 2010, and then decreased to 19.82 in 2015.”
Which brings me back to Francesca: “You’re probably going to get some angry letters if you publish this but I want to make something clear. For most people, smoking dope is a pleasure. For some people, it helps with pain. God bless them and the folks who are providing them.
“But I’m talking about providing a place for those whose buzz turns bizarre. So many of the folks who are buying in Great Barrington are buying after a drive—maybe from 20 miles north or 90 miles east or from as far away as New York City or New Haven, Connecticut. And they’re probably impatient to test the merch … There might be a few of them we’re going to have to pick off the floor of McDonald’s as they try their best to swim their way past their sharks …
“There might be some who become a danger to themselves and others, folks you just don’t want behind the wheel of a car that’s out of control. Maybe some will just need a quiet place, a nap, a bed from beneath which they can conduct Beethoven – maybe, most of all, a kind guide who’s been there and can remind them to breathe deeply and relax. I’m not sure, Mr. Ambassador, if you remember, but my friend Amy stayed with you until you fell asleep. That’s what I’m thinking of. A small house. I’ll call it the Bad Trip B&B.”
In case you thought I was more comedian than journalist:
“After 5 Months of Sales, Colorado Sees the Downside of a Legal High”
Jack Healy, May 31, 2014, New York Times
“Exclusive: Traffic fatalities linked to marijuana are up sharply in Colorado. Is legalization to blame?”
David Migoya, Aug. 25, 2017, Denver Post
“US Epidemiology of Cannabis Use and Associated Problems”
Deborah S, Hasin, Jan. 2018, Neuropsychopharmacology.
“Changes in cannabis potency and first-time admissions to drug treatment: a 16-year study in the Netherlands”
Tom P. Freemanet al, Psychological Medicine, Oct. 2018, Vol. 48, Issue 14, pp. 2346-2352
“Marijuana-related emergency visits on uptick at UMass Memorial”
Cyrus Moulton, March 29, 2019, Worcester Telegram & Gazette