Recreational marijuana is now for sale at dispensaries around Oregon. (Sinclair Broadcast Group photo)
Oct 26, 2015
KOMO News - EUGENE, Ore. (AP) - Joseph is a self-declared marijuana addict. He says he rolled his first joint when he was 16, and ended up smoking marijuana regularly for 35 years. Now, he has been clean for 10 years.
"I feel really vulnerable now," Joseph says. "Now (marijuana) is legal, and there are green crosses all over town."
It has been several weeks since medical marijuana dispensaries opened their doors statewide for the legal sale of recreational marijuana. But in the tight-knit Marijuana Anonymous group, which draws eight or more people each week, people are still processing what influence the rollout could have on their lives.
In many ways, the group could pass for any weeknight gathering. Professionals and blue-collar, men and women, the attendees mingle in casual conversation before their meeting, talking about a recent football game at Autzen Stadium, the latest Netflix HBO series and the weather.
But the mood turns weightier as the meeting begins, and attendees discuss their weekly battles with the now-legal leaf.
Medical marijuana dispensaries have been operating in Oregon for a year and half, and use and possession of recreational marijuana became legal on July 1 after voters gave their OK in a statewide initiative last year.
State lawmakers authorized the early sales to keep people from turning to the black market while the Oregon Liquor Control Commission creates a system to regulate recreational growers, processors and retailers that is set to be in place next year.
Most Marijuana Anonymous attendees are less than enthusiastic about the new developments. If there's one common thread in their comments, it's that - contrary to popular opinion - there can be a downside to consuming marijuana.
And it's more than just a theory, according to Dr. Paul Steier at Serenity Lane, the nonprofit treament center in Eugene for alcohol and drug abuse.
"Marijuana is less harmful than most other drugs used," Steier said. "It's even less toxic than alcohol. But like any mood-altering substance, cannabis can have an addictive potential."
Many who deal with marijuana on a regular basis balance that perspective with the beneficial qualities of the plant.
At the Eugene OG marijuana dispensary, products manager Jonathan Showker says the availability of legal marijuana ensures that regular consumption is safer.
At least 28 Lane County dispensaries have gained state approval to sell recreational marijuana, including 15 in Eugene, six in Springfield, four in Cottage Grove and one each in Florence, Oakridge and Veneta.
A 12-step program
Some Marijuana Anonymous attendees say they've actually found the new dispensaries to be helpful.
Fifty-year-old Barbara - who like other attendees spoke on the condition that only their first names be used to assure anonymity - deals with regular seizures. Describing herself as a former addict, she says she started using marijuana when she was 10 years old and smoked it regularly for 35 years.
She has curtailed her constant use, but says her medicinal prescription still helps.
But Barbara says she noticed a difference in the pot scene in the first week of October, as she stood in line at a recreational marijuana dispensary.
"Some people were upset they couldn't get concentrates," she said. "I just hope the revenue really does help the state."
Marijuana Anonymous, or MA, is a 12-step recovery program similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, urging a spiritual recovery that includes a belief in a Higher Power.
There are two weekly MA groups in Eugene. The program seeks to separate itself from religious and political affiliations, and its policies state that "the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop using marijuana."
MA was originally founded in the late 1980s by several groups in the Orange County, San Francisco Bay and Los Angeles County areas of California, after marijuana users attending other programs reacted to negative comments, such as being called "lightweights" by other drug users.
There are thousands of MA groups that meet online, by phone and in person internationally, according to the organization's website.
Joseph said the perception persists in the drug world that marijuana is strictly a non-addictive or "gateway" drug.
He recalls going to Serenity Lane to deal with his marijuana addiction, and hearing the snickers from several methamphetamine and heroin addicts, who were planning to scale down from their respective drugs by simply smoking marijuana.
"They thought I was kidding them," Joseph said.
A marijuana addiction can have fewer outward side effects, and may be easier to hide, than an addiction to alternative drugs. Most MA attendees have families, careers and productive side interests.
But Steier said that does not make things trouble-free for someone who is susceptible to a marijuana addiction.
"If it interferes with your ability to get the most out of life, you can't call that benign," Steier said.
According to a recent report by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 21.6 million Americans ages 12 and older had a drug- or alcohol-related addiction in 2013. The report does not indicate what percentage of those addictions are to marijuana, but does note that marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the country, with 19.8 million users - representing roughly 7.5 percent of the entire population ages 12 and up.
According to Steier, one common predictor of future addiction is consumption of marijuana before the age of 18.
Steier said he expects to see more people deal with marijuana addictions following the rollout of recreational marijuana in Oregon.
"There's a subset of people who do have genetic predilections for addiction and who hadn't used cannabis previously because of its illegal status," Steier said. "Now they're more likely to give it a try."
"It's ... easy to slip back"
Among previous cannabis users at the MA meeting, there are mixed reactions about how recreational marijuana may touch their lives.
Richard says he has "a lot of ambivalence" about the availability of legal marijuana.
He recently celebrated his 10-month anniversary of staying clean. He's determined to stay clean - his past includes drug-damaged personal relationships and driving under the influence of marijuana - but acknowledges, "It's really easy to slip back."
He said he tries to stay away from high-gloss magazines that present tantalizing pictures of specially prepared marijuana buds.
Showker, the manager at the Eugene OG dispensary, suggests that the scourge of addiction doesn't necessarily lie with the weed.
"I think there are addicts in the world, and addicts find things to be addicted to," he said. "It's possible to be a marijuana addict, like a coffee addict."
But MA member Nicole said it's important to broaden the scope of who needs help and support.
"Everyone deals with addictions," Nicole said. "The important question is why people have it, not what it is."