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To Light Up Or Not? Gen Xers Reconsider Pot After Legalization

Recently, I decided to revisit my youth and go to a Dead show.

For the uninitiated, Dead & Company includes a few original members of the iconic '60s band The Grateful Dead, plus a few other musicians.

The last time I was among that much tie-dye was in the 1980s, when I was a college student following the Dead around the Bay area.

And I will admit — because I’m pretty sure there's a statute of limitations — I was not unfamiliar with the pungent haze wafting through the lawn seats, nor the marijuana-laced baked goods being offered to the crowed.

“Edibles, edibles?” called out one ragged entrepreneur. “I just want to get rid of these last ten brownies...100 milligrams of Blue Dream."

But marijuana has been off my radar for decades. For one, other than post-hippie gatherings like a Dead show, I wouldn’t know where to get it. And two, it's been against the law.

I’m not the only one.

“I saw it as something that carried this stigma,” said Robin Fordham, a friend of mine who hasn't smoked pot in years. “You were doing something that was illegal, and therefore threatening to your kids and your family. And so it was easier to just stay away from.”

An enterpreneur sells marijuana pipes.
Credit Karen Brown / New England Public Radio
New England Public Radio
An enterpreneur sells marijuana pipes.

But things are about to change, at least in Massachusetts. In 2016, voters decided to legalize recreational weed. The state is now days away from licensing retail marijuana stores, and the question of whether to partake is back on many people's minds.

“I just remember being really happy,” said a 49-year-old Northampton dad named Tom who smoked a lot of weed in college. “So if I can you know do some acceptable thing that reaches that level of happiness, that's great.”

Tom asked me not to use his last name because, as a consultant in the jewelry business, he works in states where cannabis is not legal. But he has good memories from his dope days.

“To me, it was utter relaxation,” he recalled.  “Whatever stress or worries I had disappeared and everything was hilarious.”

But he started to think it was affecting his memory and motivation. And after college, he worried employers might require drug tests. Plus, he doesn’t like breaking the law.

“That's a major motivator for me -- to not get in trouble,” he said.

So he gave up pot, got married, had two children and built a business.

“It never really tempted me even -- not until they started talking about legalization,” he said. “I was like, ‘That's interesting. So then it would no longer be against the rules.’”

My friend Robin shares Tom's feelings about legalization, if not the same nostalgia about smoking pot in her youth.

"Mostly it just made me tired, and made me want to eat a lot,” she said. “But the fact that it's become more legal has made it more appealing in terms of curiosity. It's like, ‘Why not?’"

"There are these stories of people who go to Colorado for a pot vacation and take more edibles than they should and get put on the couch for a number of hours."
Sean Hennessy

I spoke to several people, like Tom and Robin, who are re-considering a habit they abandoned years ago. Most wouldn’t go public, because they worried there's still a stigma. Some told me they don't really crave the high anymore. And some wondered – is it even good for them?

“You have to put it in perspective. Is it a completely safe compound? No. Is it safer than other compounds that are available? Yes,” said Sean Hennessy, an epidemiologist who worked on 2017 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report on the health effects of marijuana.

Pipes for a sale at a Dead & Company show in 2018 in Connecticut.
Credit Karen Brown / New England Public Radio
New England Public Radio
Pipes for a sale at a Dead & Company show in 2018 in Connecticut.

Hennessy said the researchers reviewed 100 studies on cannabis and concluded the risks are relatively low, especially compared to alcohol.

“For example, it's difficult to consume enough cannabis to kill yourself acutely,” he said, “whereas it's fairly easy to drink enough alcohol to kill yourself.”

But there are some health issues. For instance, Tom worries about damaging his lungs from smoking. Hennessy said smoking cannabis can bring on respiratory symptoms.

“And stopping smoking cannabis has a tendency to make those respiratory symptoms go away,” he added.

Unlike with tobacco, the report did not find a higher risk of lung cancer or heart problems from smoking marijuana.

Hennessy also pointed out you can avoid inhaling cannabis by consuming it in lollipops or brownies – but be careful how much you eat.

“There are these stories of people who go to Colorado for a pot vacation and take more edibles than they should and get put on the couch for a number of hours,” he said.

On the mental health side, researchers found a correlation between schizophrenia and pot use, though it’s possible people with schizophrenia are simply more likely to use cannabis. The evidence does suggest symptons of other mental illnesses, like bipolar disorder, can get worse.

Hennessy said cannabis could help reduce opioid abuse if people choose the less addictive marijuana instead. And he said there's little evidence cannabis is a gateway  to more dangerous drugs like heroin.

“If anything, that might become less, as cannabis becomes less criminalized,” he said, because, for some people, breaking the rules is an allure in itself.

Tom doesn’t think he’d be tempted to try harder drugs. He’s more worried that, by using cannabis openly, his teenage children would be more likely to try it – and there is evidence that marijuana can harm the developing brain.

Plus, getting stoned can make you lazy.

“It just made it so easy to put things off that should have gotten done,” he said.  “And  I don't want to model behavior that I don't want them to do.”

Paraphernalia for sale at a Dead & Company show.
Credit Karen Brown / New England Public Radio
New England Public Radio
Paraphernalia for sale at a Dead & Company show.

Then there’s the question of potency, especially for people who haven’t consumed marijuana in a long time. Hennessy recommended starting slow.

“People's physiology may have changed,” he said. “And  the weed that they're going to buy at the dispensary now is probably a lot stronger than the weed they were smoking 20 years ago.”

That’s why Tom is comforted to think cannabis will be regulated and sold in stores.

“I get the impression [that] the people in the stores are going to be relatively knowledgeable and there probably are going to be a lot of 50 year olds going with similar stories,” he said, with a laugh. “So I hope they wouldn't give me anything that's beyond what I can handle.”

Robin doesn't expect to become a habitual user; she's just looking for an alternative to the occasional after-dinner drink.

“Instead of a glass of wine, what would [pot] be like? Is it good for anxiety? Who knows?” she said. “But it just doesn't feel verboten. Doesn't feel scary."

Of course, many people have been getting high for years.

At the recent Dead & Company show, recreational marijuana was not actually legal; the concert was in Connecticut, just over the Massachusetts border. 

But medical marijuana is allowed there. And judging by the ubiquitous haze and aroma, a large number of prescriptions were written for the occasion.

Karen Brown is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998.
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