A way of life: When smoking marijuana is a lifestyle

On a chilly Sunday afternoon, junior Rachel Chambers* is holed up in her dorm room trying to pass three hours of idle time before her 6 p.m. dinner plans. She reaches for the shiny black box of cigars she recently purchased and removes one of the long, brown sticks. Sitting on her bed, with a newspaper over her lap, she methodically dissects the cigar, emptying it of all its tobacco, loads in her marijuana and then carefully rewraps the paper.

With her newly-rolled blunt in hand, Chambers is ready for her early evening high.

Nearly half of all U.S. college students have tried marijuana at least once in their lifetime, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s Web site. But what is a one-time deal for some, is a daily habit – a way of life – for others.

Chambers, 20, has smoked marijuana for the last five years and currently lights up four to six times a day, easily finishing an eighth of an ounce by herself every day.

“I wake up. I roll a blunt and smoke on the way to class. I come out to go to my next class and take more hits. I come home. Smoke pot. Get lunch. Chill out and maybe smoke with friends. Get dinner and smoke. And then I smoke pot before bed,” she said.

Chambers describes herself as being addicted to marijuana. Although popular belief holds that marijuana is only psychologically addictive, Chambers said she experienced physical withdrawal symptoms when she stopped smoking for two weeks last December during a trip abroad.

“The first four mornings I threw up, I couldn’t sleep, and my sinuses got swollen,” she said. She crosses her legs as she talks and her pant legs rises high enough to reveal her socks that read AMSTERDAM in green lettering and show a large marijuana leaf graphic.

Chambers’s trip abroad is the only time in more than five years she has not smoked marijuana on a daily basis. Even at family get-togethers, Chambers says she will sneak away and “pack a bowl in the bathroom.”

Her addiction over the years has cost her at least $20,000. Last year she limited herself to spending $100 per week on marijuana because she says it is “absurd” to spend more than that on drugs. She buys marijuana from friends and pays for it with money she has earned working and, sometimes, with money her parents have given her for other purposes.

Chambers said she is frustrated by her increasing dependence on marijuana and inability to quit. She said she “rolls a couple of blunts” before writing major papers or studying for exams because it helps her to relax and complete her work. At first she believed smoking marijuana helped her work more efficiently, but Chambers said now she is concerned it is lowering her motivation.

Although she is now comfortable with being called a “pothead,” Chambers says she used to get offended by the label.

“For the longest time I would say to people, ‘I am not a pothead’ because of the implications it has,” she said. “I hear the term ‘pothead’ and I think of a stupid burnout who can’t get anything accomplished. I would say, ‘I’m not a pothead, I’m a pot smoker.'”

Chambers said she started smoking the summer after her freshman year of high school as a way of dealing with her social anxiety. She would get nervous before meeting people, so she would smoke marijuana to calm herself and then go out with friends or acquaintances. Eventually, marijuana became a numbing device for Chambers, who was being treated for depression during her teen years.

“I would self-medicate with pot,” she said. “I didn’t want to deal with emotions and everything in high school. If I don’t smoke, I kind of get into a bad mood. It’s easier to deal with things when you’re high. I don’t like the feeling of not being high anymore.”

Like Chambers, senior Jay Weber*, 23, started smoking marijuana in high school and continued it as a sort of medication.

“The first time I smoked I was 18 and I was with a girl I had this crush on,” Weber said. “She asked me if I smoked pot so I said, ‘of course,’ even though I hadn’t. So after school, behind a bank, I smoked out of her pipe and got ridiculously high.”

Weber experimented with marijuana sparingly during his two years at community college, but began smoking on a regular basis after transferring to GW and feeling depressed. He began taking anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication, but said that smoking marijuana was more effective in helping him cope with his problems.

“I never noticed any positive effect with the medication,” he said. “The most powerful medication I was on made me feel completely emotionless. Pot is very much a social thing. I think smoking and being with people and talking with people helped me more.”

Weber now smokes three to four times a week and consumes about an eighth of an ounce of marijuana each month. He said he is psychologically addicted to the drug and his “mood has come to depend on it.” Marijuana helps Weber deal with negative emotions such as depression, boredom and stress because it elevates him to a euphoric state where “food tastes better, things are funnier . and anything can be fun – even staring at a wall,” he said.

Although marijuana was not the first drug Weber tried, he said he believes it to be a gateway drug, a drug that opens doors to more drug use.

“Before a person does any kind of drugs there is a false idea of what they do to you. When you understand what it means to be stoned, you become more open to the idea of trying other kinds of drugs,” he said. Weber’s first drug was LSD, followed by marijuana. He has also experimented with mushrooms, cocaine and a powerful psychedelic called DMT.

Chambers, who has tried acid, cocaine, ecstasy, DMT, methamphetamine and mushrooms, does not believe smoking marijuana leads to other drug use, but rather, that people prone to using drugs typically start with marijuana.

Weber said he plans to quit smoking marijuana after college, but imagines he will still smoke once in a while in the future. If he has children and catches them smoking marijuana, Weber said he would not “come down on them hard,” but would advise them against it until college.

“I don’t consider it a problem. I would consider it a vice. I don’t think it’s more harmful than getting drunk,” he said.

The government’s drug control Web site lists delayed reaction time, and impaired coordination and balance as short-term effects of smoking marijuana. At GW, one of several universities with a “zero tolerance” policy to drugs, getting caught with marijuana just once may result in a loss of University housing.

While Chambers is mindful of the negative consequences of smoking, she said her biggest concern is developing lung cancer in the future. She said the possibility of developing cancer or other respiratory problems is the main reason she eventually will quit smoking.

Chambers said she does not plan to smoke marijuana at all when she is a mother and would “take disciplinary actions” if she caught her own children smoking.

“I have so many friends whose parents smoke pot. Once, my friend Dave’s dad walked into the room after we had smoked and he could still smell the pot. He said, ‘If you don’t want your mother to know that you smoke, put a towel under the door like I do’ . I do not want to be that kind of parent because I don’t think (smoking) is good for you,” she said.

Weber also knows parents who have smoked with their children. He has smoked with all of his aunts and uncles and even with his 76-year-old grandmother on one occasion. Weber said he was at his grandfather’s 80th birthday party, talking about smoking with his aunts and uncles, when his grandmother decided “she wanted to know what all the fuss was about.” Weber, his grandmother and other relatives packed into a tiny Ford Focus and lit up.

“She only took a hit and she didn’t really like it, but she did get stoned. About 10 minutes later she was laughing at every joke and eating munchies,” he said.

Chambers and Weber both say that rather than lose friends because of smoking marijuana, they have in fact established close bonds with other people – including one another. The marijuana-smoking culture at GW is no different from their home towns, they say.

Weber said, “When you hear that someone smokes pot, you kind of feel a connection to that person. It’s a common ground. It brings people together.”

*names have been changed to protect the identities of students who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

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