All That Glitters

An account of overdosing on marijuana.

If you were to ask an affluent European or American child to list a few of their favourite things, chances are that some would list the humble cookie, or biscuit. I mean, what’s not to like? They are full of sugar and fat, the ultimate good, bad things. The range of cookies that can now be purchased is overwhelming. They range from the humble, mass-produced and shop-bought, to the artisanal, exuding élan. December 4th is National Cookie Day in the United States, hooray! While we’ve not yet reached such heights of commemoration, their popularity in South Africa continues to grow – so much so that there is now a shop in my neighbourhood called Crumbs and Cream which squishes delicious ice-cream between two strapping cookies. They’ve made the whole place charmingly appealing to kids, there are colourful painted dots on the walls, big fluffy cushions in primary colours to sit on, and even two delightful swings (the cynical bastards!).

Given all this angelic appeal it may be surprising to learn that cookies can be bad, in fact, they can be really downright evil. It all depends on which ingredients have been added to the dough. If light and virtue is to found in chocolate drops and hundreds and thousands, then darkness and vice reside in a potent strain of marijuana called Swazi Gold. For if, like me, your hunger and child-like naivety trump your common sense, you may experience a glittering journey – the likes of which you’ll never want to repeat.

My journey began one Friday evening, some ten or so years ago, when my partner came back from work with a baggie of Swazi Gold, a cross-bred Cannabis cultivar called Sativa Landrace. This particular strain is known for its sweet, citrus bouquet and its fast-acting effects. Swazi Gold comes from the tiny landlocked southern African kingdom of Swaziland, the citizens of which have endured the predations of the both the British Empire and apartheid South Africa, and currently struggle under a rapacious absolute monarch. It’s possible that a causal link exists between tyranny and the enthusiasm with which marijuana is cultivated by those enduring despotism; think Afghanistan, Columbia, Kazakhstan – all leading marijuana producers. Our Swazi Gold looked entirely innocuous, unremarkable dried leaves crumpled into a small plastic bag.

While Cannabis was officially catalogued by Carl Linnaeus in 1753, seed evidence tells us that it was used extensively in antiquity for both medicinal and pleasurable purposes. This use extended to all parts of the world, illustrated by the various names given to it: hemp in England; anascha in Russia; hashish in the Middle East; ganja in India; grifa in Mexico; liamba in Brazil; dagga or nsangu in Southern Africa, and ta-ma in China. In India it was used to cure venereal diseases, dysentery, and headaches, while in China it was used as a sedative. But as historian Richard Davenport-Hines asserts in his comprehensive account of global drug use, The Pursuit of Oblivion, wherever cannabis was used, a significant portion of this use was purely recreational.

Not being smokers, we opted to bake. We chose cookies as they are always easier to bake than cakes. After some brief kitchen alchemy, a tray of large Swazi Gold-laced cookies sat cooling (or should that be chilling?) on the kitchen counter-top. Before long they were cool enough to eat. There they were, new-born cookies, smelling oh-so-sweet. I was very hungry. I ate. I ate far too many, seven. I ate far too quickly, all seven in 30 minutes. I ate my way to cannabinoid poisoning.

Now before continuing, we need some context because you are probably thinking, ‘Hey, how stupid was this guy?’ Rather than stupidity, I like to think of it as a form of naivety stemming from a sheltered, rather prudish, middle-class upbringing in leafy Sussex, England. An illustration of my good-mannered rearing can be found in parental restrictions imposed on what I could watch on television. Growing up in England in the 1980s, a particular TV show, The Young Ones, featured constantly in my adolescent imagination. The Young Ones was a sitcom which revolved around the lives of four undergrad students who attended ‘Scumbag College’. It was completely anarchic, even surreal at times, and revelled in its shock value (with hindsight we can see it as a perceptive satire on the increasing nihilism of Thatcher’s Britain). The show created moral panic in middle-class England for its portrayal of youth out of control, apparently threatening the very fabric of social order. My parents were so alarmed by the supposed damage it could do to me that I was banned from watching it. This banning was symptomatic of the restrictions I was placed under as a child when it came to the evils of the world, be they real or the hysterical fantasies of some cretinous Daily Mail hack. This meant that everything associated with drugs, no matter how tangentially, was banned, even thinking about the ban, was banned.

The frigid regime that this thinking created meant that I developed parochial views about drugs and drug-taking more generally, which resulted in me being a late-starter when it came to marijuana. This meant that, aside from the occasional choking puff here and there, I’d not properly experienced marijuana until the fateful Friday that this missive narrates. I think this explains why I climbed into the cookies with such abandon. I was a child, excited at the prospect of a previously forbidden high, and didn’t realise that when eating marijuana there is a delay between cause and effect, even with fast-acting Swazi Gold.

Bob Marley said that ‘when you smoke the herb, it reveals you to yourself.’ If this is true, my experience would seem to suggest that I am, in fact, the bizarre love-child of Woody Allen’s ‘Alvy “Max” Singer’ from Annie Hall and ‘Marvin’ from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. The truth of the matter is that after the seven cookies got to work, I swayed between states of paranoia and anxiety, which melted slowly into periods of angry depression.

The paranoia manifested itself mostly in relation to memory. In fact, what I remember the most, is the forgetting; the completely befuddled relationship that I suddenly developed with memory. I simply couldn’t remember what I had said or done from one brief moment to the next. This phenomenon was most notable in what I said. I recall asking my partner over and over again if I had just asked her if I was repeating myself. I remember inquiring ‘did I just ask you if I am repeating myself’ or, slightly differently, ‘have I already asked you if I am repeating what I am asking you?’ It was as if I had become trapped in some kind of Kafkaesque verbal feedback loop, for as soon as I had finished asking the question, I sought confirmation that I had asked it, by asking it again, and so on. I remember the urgent need to have my partner confirm that I had indeed asked her what I had previously asked her. Not that this helped, because it simply led to me immediately asking the question again.

That I can now sit here and remember this, but couldn’t remember from one second to the next on that Friday night has to do with how marijuana affects the brain. Its active ingredient (one out of over 460 known chemical compounds), which makes up less than 4% of its volume, is a chemical called delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC for short) which activates specific brain receptors, known as cannabinoid receptors, which control memory, time, movement, and concentration, among other less important things. It turns out that high doses of marijuana particularly compromise short-term memory. This is because there is a concentration of cannabinoid receptors in the Hippocampus (from the Greek meaning equine sea-monster, naturally) section of the brain, the very part of the brain most responsible for short-term memory. THC inhibits short-term memory storage and retrieval, resulting in the brain being unable to process and make sense of new information and experiences. It’s just like the Windows error message that reads ‘Out of memory or system resources. Close some windows or programs and try again’. Except in my case I didn’t know how to close down my cannabinoid receptors but I did know how to ‘try again’.

My partner must have been unbelievably patient with me, as I do recall her lovingly answering my recurring question. I also recall her efforts to deal with my feelings of anxiety which gradually replaced the short-term memory loss. Despite arriving at the party a little late, this guest quickly made up for their earlier absence. It began with a sensation of floating, I became convinced at one point that I was a great deal closer to the ceiling that I should be. Despite sitting on a sofa, I felt like I could touch the ceiling, and I seem to recall making a few efforts to do so. I know now, like I knew before, that this change in conscious perception is precisely why many people love marijuana. But not me, it just freaked me out, especially when I began to feel like I was floating to the ceiling. It was then that I clutched at the arm of the sofa, desperately trying to anchor myself to both it and what was passing for my reality.

To ease my growing distress my partner affectionately caressed my arm, but this just invited in a new nightmare. Who was touching my arm, and for God’s sake, why? I recollect recoiling at this touch, which felt odd, incomplete, and somehow astonishingly threatening. She tried again, and I formed the distinct impression that my arm was being pulled away from me. My mood blackened and I sat wavering between anxiety and anger. Anxiety induced by the apparent loss of control over my body. Anger at what I was feeling, anger at what I wasn’t feeling. I’ve since realised that I was having flashbacks from when my blood pressure had been regularly taken after a car accident some years before. I remember that in that particular drug-addled state I had been frightened by what was happening because my brain couldn’t make sense of the vague, but alarming, pressure I was feeling on my arms.

Knowing that I urgently needed to focus on something other than my paranoia, my partner decided to envelop me in a more familiar landscape, a favourite comedy TV show called ‘I’m Alan Partridge’. The show follows the shameless and tactless self-promotional exploits of a faded TV star reduced to hosting early-morning local radio shows (‘Up with a Partridge’ on BBC Radio North Norfolk to be precise). It’s one of my ‘go-to’ shows when I need to leave the ‘real’ world for a while. It never fails to make me laugh, no matter how many times I watch the same scenes. There is something about the comfortable familiarity of a well-watched show that, like a well-worn but cherished item of clothing, manifests a unique kind of contentment and calm. Well, that’s the theory. It’s just that this time it didn’t work because of the appearance of a terrifying mannequin.

Partridge makes me laugh, the dopamine and endorphins begin flowing, and my limbic system finally kicks into life. We sit on the sofa and giggle and giggle at nothing and everything. It is wonderful, marijuana’s promise realised after all the paranoia, after all the anguish. Through tears of joy I innocently glanced at the TV and there she was – the mannequin. Picture this – an office, an unremarkable office; dreary plastic chairs; dull melamine tables; grey monitors; grey printers, and grey phones. You know this place. You’ve been here. But she wasn’t here when you were here. She sits, back to the camera; turned ever so slightly to the left; shoulders leaning into her waist; head drooping; hunched over as if she holds something in her hands that she wants to conceal, that she appears to be studying determinedly. On her head is a ghastly shock of peroxide yellow hair, dry and bristly, a declaration. There is a seam in the plastic protruding under this hair which divides her head in two. Her hands, what is in her hands? Office life goes on around her, this is after all the office of Peartree Productions, Alan Partridge’s production company. She sits, unmoving. Partridge arrives, jokes are cracked, laughter peels, and she sits, unmoving.

Can they see her? Are they even aware that she is there? They can’t see her can they? I can see her, why can’t they? All this is racing through my head as she sits, unmoving. And then it hits me. Perhaps only I can see her, perhaps she is there for me, and only for me. My limbic system goes into reverse thrust, my serotonin levels nose-dive, I’m spiralling towards panic. My breath shortens, my chest feels tight, my face begins to flush warmly, prickly tingles of sweat ripple over me, and a new lightness, approaching dizziness, stretches itself inside my brain. But just as I am about to mount the thrashing panic-demon I realise salvation is at hand. I realise that my partner can save me. If she can see the mannequin, she’s not sitting there, unmoving, just for me. I breathlessly ask her, and yes, oh yes, she can see the mannequin. But am I sure, did I just ask her? Did she say she can see the mannequin? I ask her again, and again, and again …

In his famous 1969 account of being high on cannabis, Mr. X., Carl Sagan described his experiences as ‘peaceable, intellectually exciting, and sociable’. On that gloomy Friday I was at war with myself, foolishly hysterical and manifestly antisocial. My and my partner’s torment only ended when I finally fell into a deep, exhausted sleep just as the real world encountered Saturday. I’ll never be entirely certain why I reacted the way I did. It was probably an overdose (it’s not technically possible to overdose on marijuana because cannabinoid receptors are not located in the brain stem, making it impossible to die from respiratory problems, the normal cause of fatal overdoses) but it could simply be my physiology. I’ll only know if I try it again. If I ever do, you can be safe in the knowledge that I will do so judiciously, being led by my adult self, rather than the child within, kicking and screaming to be let out to play.

Oh, and yes, there is a mannequin in the ‘I’m Alan Partridge’ office scene. I’ve watched the episode again, just to be categorically sure. Why it is there, well that remains a mystery …

‘It Soon tooke its Operation Upon most of us, but merrily, Save upon two of our Number, who I suppose feared it might doe them harme not beinge accustomed thereto. One of them sat downe upon the floore, and wept bitterly all the Afternoone, the other terrified with feare did runne his head into a great Mortavan Jarre, and continued in that Posture 4 hours or more’.

Thomas Bowrey,  1670.