My entire life, my dad has smoked pot. It's so synonymous with him that I've made a joke out of it. “What does your dad do?” comes that age old question. “He's a pot-smoking hippie” is the easiest answer. And he is. Several times a day, every day, for as far back as I can remember, my dad has toked the reefer, hit the Mary Jane.
There's a lot of discussion about pot right now, as different states push towards legalizing it for medical or personal use. As I listen to the various arguments—about health, morality, criminal justice, personal freedom—they all come back to the same thing for me: Dad, Dad, Daddy. The family element is almost always missing from the debates: What does smoking pot do, not only to users but to their children?
I don't know when my dad started to smoke. I do know that before he smokes a joint he can get antsy, angry. His temper is fast and sharp. He hit my mom when she was pregnant and that's when she left him. I was three. I also know that after he smokes, my dad is relaxed, soothed, likely to go off on dreamy tangents about colors and pictures. He was great with us when we were kids, an adventurer ready to play on our level. It's hard to deny that pot has made him a happier person.
During the few weeks my brother, sister, and I spent with my dad every summer, he took us to reggae festivals. Pot circles sprung up as the sun went down. One year, feeling bold, we children pooled our money together and bought a “ganja brownie” from the walking vendor.
That was the same year my dad forgot us. He always had a spotty memory, a well-documented side-effect of marijuana. Pick-up times were regularly missed by several hours. Dinners—half-cooked, half eaten—were left in the microwave or on the stovetop. Birthdays brushed by unnoticed. Once he remembered my birthday two years in a row and sent the same CD both times.
At the reggae festival that summer, he disappeared for several days. It wasn't malicious. It was just absent-minded and relaxed. My little sister cried one morning with hunger. “Can we eat with you?” I asked a nearby camping family.
“Where are your parents? Don’t you want to eat with them?”
“I don't know.” The strangers took us in and gave us plain yogurt and fresh fruit.
Growing up, I hated that my dad smoked. Studies have indicated that parents with substance abuse problems can cause economic hardship, legal troubles, emotional distress, and impaired attachment within their families. Children tend to respond with anxiety, depression, guilt, shame, loneliness, confusion, anger, and fear.
That fear came most palpably for us while my dad was driving. He was likely to get distracted by other cars, by songs on the radio, or, in later years, by photos on his phone, sometimes turning his attention completely away from the wheel. The National Institute on Drug Abuse notes that marijuana more than doubles a driver’s risk of being in an accident. Many of our road trips ended early with broken-down cars left on the side of the road. On good days, my dad would forget to fill them with gas or change the oil. On bad days, he would nudge into something and a tire would go.
The anxiety hit us when we considered all the implications. What if our dad got caught? What if he went to jail again? This happened sporadically throughout my childhood—there were unmarked weeks or months where my dad would disappear. Even today, I don’t know the exact charges. We don’t talk of these things.
We were ashamed of his habit. It was the elephant in the room, the omnipresent thing we could never discuss. We were confused when he forgot us and hurt that he didn’t love us enough to quit smoking once and for all.
Then there was the anger. We grew up poor, raised by a former pregnant teenager who fought hard to raise us. We followed our mother’s example, trying to claw our way into something better. For my dad, such an exceptionally talented artist, that something better never materialized over time. Complacency did.
When my father started growing pot, he couldn't keep it a secret from us anymore. He’d always had obsessions with certain topics. First it was netting. Then orchids. And then came the marijuana plants. “Did you see all of them in the yard? Everywhere. They're just everywhere,” my sister whispered to me one summer when I was 16. She hated his smoking more than I did.
“Dad, I know what those are,” I explained to him later over a cup of tea. “You don't have to hide it.”
So he showed me the other plants he was growing in the basement with hydroponics. Their roots, sprayed with water, were naked and white like bleached veins.
“It's medical,” he explained, pointing to a certificate. He looked uncertain, fragile, simultaneously embarrassed and proud.
“Of course.” I never went down there again.
When I came back the following year, the last of the orchids were gone. He told me how neighborhood teens kept sneaking in to steal the pot from him, and how he had been burgled several times.
My brother started smoking when he was 12. Studies have shown that children of alcoholics are much more likely to become alcoholics themselves. There isn’t so much research looking at the cyclical impact of marijuana use. Although my brother is strikingly intelligent, he eventually quit school altogether, perhaps not surprising given the drug’s impact on academics. He moved back in with my dad, and he remains there to this day. Every summer he tells me he’s going to leave. Every summer I fight harder to believe him.
I tried pot years later. It was the Christmas after my mom died from a progressive, endless disease, and I sat in a car with my dad. I wanted to prove that I wasn’t judging him for his habit. I wanted to understand what he’d been doing all those years. I also wanted the calm that marijuana promises. Instead, I felt foggy and anxious, angry at myself for breaking an unspoken promise, angry at my dad for letting me.
I saw my dad and brother recently. Their pot plants have started to die. The cats my dad has always kept have multiplied. There are eight now, or maybe 10—they come and go, and no one knows the exact number, but it doesn't really matter. Everything smells a bit like animal urine mixed with that sharp, distinctive scent of marijuana. My dad is losing teeth and getting old. His mind drifts more than it did before, bouncing from topic to topic or lingering, quietly confused, on one. He seems less interested in selling the pot he grows, more drawn to sitting and smoking it. As a result, he doesn't have any savings or plans for the future. It's a good month when his electricity stays on.
Then there's my sister, the baby, the one who struggled harder than any of us. She tried so desperately to finish high school, a rare feat in my family. Then she tried community college. As we sat outside at a café this year, talking about my dad's temper and his rambling mind, she told me how she herself has started to smoke.
“I'm so sorry,” she kept repeating. “But it's really not that bad, is it? And it's relaxing. It makes everything okay for a while. Don't be angry, please don't be angry.”
I can't be angry. I understand the appeal of marijuana: its soothing properties, its potential to help chronic pain sufferers, its medical implications. I also believe it should be legalized. In a world where alcohol and nicotine can be purchased at most corner shops, the argument against bringing pot sales out into the open is a weak one.
Yet I can be sad. So very little is understood about how marijuana impacts families. I can’t help but thinking that the cool, carefree users of today will be the parents of tomorrow.
My dad will never stop smoking pot. Sometimes I wonder about the man he might have been, and the lives we all might have had, if he’d never started.