This post was originally published on June 10, 2014.
Every drug user has a bad trip tale or two, and now New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd can join the club. In last week’s wave-making column, Dowd described the effects of a pot chocolate bar she tried on her trip to Colorado: “I felt a scary shudder go through my body and brain. I barely made it from the desk to the bed, where I lay curled up in a hallucinatory state for the next eight hours.” Her reefer madness confessional sparked reactions across the web. Some legalization advocates scolded her for using an isolated incident to condemn the whole industry. Others laughed it off as a rookie’s mistake—she literally bit off more than she could chew.
Regulate Your Dosage, Dowd
The founder of My 420 Tours, who advised Dowd on her candy purchases, says he’d warned her about their unpredictability and that she should have exercised more responsibility. On Sunday, Dowd acknowledged her critics with a followup piece in which she admitted she “did a foolish thing” but also defends Colorado’s recent moves toward “Edibles Education” and more precise regulation around packaged products. The state just moved to label edibles with a serving size of 10mg—because everyone always pays attention to the serving size, especially when they’ve got the munchies.
Edibles are the wild card of the pot world, and novice stoners like Dowd aren’t the only ones who can get blindsided by a bad bite. Seasoned druggies are vulnerable too. I should know.
My Own Pot Brownie Bender
It was Halloween. Our friends were famous for their annual psychedelic house parties, and this year they’d gone full-on Octopus’ Garden, the walls an undersea panorama in piercing black light paint. Upon arrival, I ducked into the bathroom for a big line of coke, my prerequisite for human interaction in those days. The instant I emerged, a friend handed me a beer. I took it without hesitation as I followed him into the kitchen, where Yellow Submarine was projected on the ceiling.
Flickering under the cartoon colors sat a plateful of brownies, sin-dark and glistening. I didn’t need the hint from the Beatles to know they were loaded with THC. I may have hesitated a little, still feeling the coke in my core and the opposite of hungry. But I’d smoked pot once or twice to ease myself through a wicked comedown, and it hadn’t been a problem. Plus, I freaking love dessert. So I ate the brownie and swilled my beer while I explained to the most realistic Two-Face I’d ever seen that no, Avatar: The Last Airbender had no connection to the James Cameron blockbuster. I must have had a beer-and-a-half, three lines of coke and that pot brownie in the first hour or so of festivities. Trick or treat, bitches.
Somewhere in the middle of beer number two, it came on hard: I was going to be sick. I bolted for the bathroom, every architectural detail of which remains emblazoned in my memory. My predominant emotion as I knelt over the toilet was embarrassment—it was way too early in the night for this. But nothing came up, even when I stopped fighting the urge and made an earnest effort. I couldn’t vomit. My stomach, I discovered, was fine—the feeling of urgency was coming from somewhere else in my body. I recalled reading online once that signs of a heart attack manifest differently in women than in men; instead of the classic chest-clutching, women sometimes feel it in their gut as nausea.
I wasn’t going to puke, I realized—I was going to die.
Death Becomes Me, Again
I’d had this thought exactly once before, caught in a riptide off the coast of San Diego. At 12, I was a fairly strong swimmer, but I’d gotten dragged under with too little spare air in my lungs. Beating my arms got me nowhere. Before my friend’s step-dad swooped in to pull me back to the beach, it hit me that I was powerless, and I was going to die.
But I didn’t drown in the churning Pacific. Instead I would die here, amid neon-painted fishes and dressed like a cartoon character. Reeling, I sank back against the bathroom wall. Who would save me? The guy I was dating was somewhere in the throng, perhaps on the phone with our friend who was supposed to bring ecstasy and hadn’t even arrived yet. They were going to find me here, call 911, ruin the party. Great—not only would I die, I would ruin Halloween.
Coming To, Alive
My phone was in my purse, stashed in a bedroom somewhere. All I had on me was my trusty little canister of coke, half empty (never half full), and for a crazy instant I entertained the thought of another bump just to snap me out of it. Just to have something to control. Coke had become my first line of defense against any type of discomfort. But my hands didn’t move.
I don’t know how long I lay there while visions of ambulances danced in my head. Eventually—neither gradually nor all at once—the suffocation stopped. I stood up shakily as the room reconstituted around me. The illusion of nausea was gone. I could breathe. My beer was waiting patiently on the sink, and I took a sip and swallowed. I wasn’t going to die.
Blame Coke or Blame Brownies But Bad Choices All Around
For years I blamed this episode on coke. After all, everyone was eating those brownies and was fine. I touted the mini-heart attack I thought I’d suffered as a cokehead’s badge of honor. But as I heard more horror stories of extreme edibles, I began to wonder if it wasn’t an effect of the pot after all. Yes, there was a lot more excitement happening in my bloodstream than in Maureen Dowd’s, but when she wrote, “I became convinced that I had died and no one was telling me,” I identified hard.
Testament to my addiction, my Halloween scare didn’t spook me sober any more than a near brush with a semi on the 405 would convince me to give up driving. And if pot, not coke, was the responsible substance, then I probably was never in real danger anyway. But when I remember the panic in that bathroom, my addled little heart goes out to the Maureen Dowds of the world. Was it stupid to ingest all the things I did? You bet. Did the cocaine play a role? Probably. Would a warning label have helped? I really doubt it. But I was cocky and cavalier. Maybe a cautious newbie would have heeded the “Don’t Mix” advice in his Edibles Education pamphlet. Or maybe he’d just interpret that as permission to have twice as many brownies, because they’re so damn good.
Weed’s Not an Innocent Bystander
There’s no need to demonize pot—after all, people die from alcohol every 10 seconds—but it’s not the harmless teddy bear of the drug world its biggest fans make it out to be. Whether beefed-up regulation and education makes a difference in Colorado remains to be seen. I know I’m not supposed to eat the whole bag of yogurt-covered pretzels either, but hell if I’m stopping at seven. Better to approach edibles like Willy Wonka’s prototypes: with a heaping spoonful of caution.