Legalizing marijuana is a hazy question once you've seen addiction up close

June 19, 2016
By Kerry Madden
LA Times
June 5, 2016


“I’ve spilt more than you’ve smoked,” my brother-in-law, let’s call him Marty, bragged to my husband in the throes of his addiction.

A measure to legalize recreational marijuana is heading toward the California ballot in November. Marty would have been thrilled — but then, he didn’t bother much with voting. My vote, too, would have been a no-brainer some years ago. Legalize it, tax it, make it safer, I would have said then, back when I felt more certain about everything, when  I viewed addiction as a lack of self-discipline and personal weakness. I never dreamed it could take down an entire family.

My husband helped his older brother move frequently in the 1990s. He’d load up our family minivan with Marty’s stuff, always late at night, and transport him to a new place in East Hollywood or Echo Park. The neighborhoods grew sketchier, each apartment tinier than the last. Marty always asked him to smoke one with him for the road.

Marty was a brilliant artist who could get any shot on set with his camera, a favorite of directors who didn’t like second takes. For years, I was frustrated that he wouldn’t just pull himself together. We even asked him to be godfather to our daughter hoping it would make him see how much we believed in him and start to change. He showed up to her baptism wasted, laughing and stumbling around the altar on a sunny Sunday morning. The priest patted him on the shoulder afterward and said, “Take it easy today, my friend.”

We taught all three of our children to love their uncle, but not to make his choices. It seemed so obvious. Sober, he was kind, generous and a hilarious storyteller. He told one story of an excruciatingly dull film shoot and how, as a prank, he released harmless snakes into the hotel where the actors were staying. Hysteria ensued, actors fled, so he and the crew got the better digs. This story tickled him to tears to tell, and his listeners too.

But when he drank or used drugs he turned mean, and a careless spill from a child or a dull knife for cutting pork butt could provoke an explosion and a litany of done-him-wrongs. During one of Marty’s rants at the dinner table, my mother-in-law comforted our youngest child by saying, “Don’t pay any attention to us. We’re just practicing for a play.”

In the fifth grade our oldest wrote a paper for the “D.A.R.E.” program about Marty. I actually did write a play to hammer out my own rage. The Marty-like character choked on the Thanksgiving turkey wishbone at the end and nobody in the exhausted family called 911. Curtain. It felt great to watch my incorrigible brother-in-law die night after night on stage. Marty never knew about it. Marty didn’t go to plays.

We were relieved when he finally packed up and moved back to Tennessee — leaving dozens of boxes in our garage for years. We fully recognized the damage Marty had done to himself and others by drinking and drugging, which surely inoculated us from making his mistakes.

When addiction dug its claws into our adult child the signs were subtle at first, so my denial was second nature. Too much to drink at a party. The apple pipe discovered by the dog and one shaped like a parrot hidden in the garden — and the refrain of “It’s not mine!” The DUI came later, followed by a totaled car and evidence of scary drugs. And there were all the excuses, which I tried to make myself believe because this could not be happening to our family.

Will legalization lead more people to become addicted? Probably.

Stupidly, I envisioned myself as some kind of lion tamer able to whip the disease of addiction into submission and give a healthy and radiant life back to our sparkly kid. But there were days I wanted nothing more than to die. I crawled into bed more than once and imagined the ocean rising over me, waves lapping up over the bed and swallowing me whole.

I eventually found help at meetings and family therapy. I went, at first, to learn how to fix everything, but I couldn’t get through a meeting without crying. As the months passed, and I listened to the stories, I let go of the delusion that I could control the chaos. I wanted peace. I wanted to have conversations again that weren’t about saving anybody. I wanted my own life back.

When people ask how I feel about legalizing recreational marijuana, I have no hard and fast answer. In a perfect world, all imbibers will be responsible and manage their behavior. The thought of easier access to any drugs fills me with dread. Yet, addiction is addiction, whether it’s alcohol or pot or heroin, and if you’re hard-wired for it you’ll use, legal or not.

Will legalization lead more people to become addicted? Probably. Could the revenue from legalization support more drug education and affordable rehab? Yes, please.

I’ve seen the shattered family members of addicts. I’ve seen the pain of people who think it’s their fault. (God knows, I rely on a glass or two of wine to dull the grief of obsessing over my kid, who claims to be fine and free in those same L.A. neighborhoods where Uncle Marty lived.) I’ve also seen serenity on the faces of those who’ve quit judging. Maybe legalization is the ultimate act of not judging – minding our own business. I don’t know.

Marty loved Hawaii, so his funeral was a backyard luau on a steamy summer night in Tennessee with an open bar. For dessert there was a pig cake, which took six boxes of cake mix. It was sculpted by some of his 12 siblings and glazed with treacle, caramel and pineapple. Artistic temperaments flared in the hot kitchen but ultimately the pig cake, with an apple in its mouth, was served and devoured alongside barbecue and gospel music at a red dirt, chigger-bit funeral where a family gathered to mourn, sing and celebrate a beloved brother and son.

Once, a red bird landed on Marty, who was gentle with animals. He let our kids feed his iguanas, Bumpy One and Bumpy Two. Our dogs loved him. But I took everything Marty said or did personally and sat in judgment because I didn’t get it. I wish I’d been a kinder sister-in-law instead of ticking off his faults, tallying the insults. I try now to be the person I wish I’d been with Marty. And that person has a lot more to consider when thinking about marijuana legalization.

Kerry Madden divides her time between Los Angeles and Birmingham, Ala., where she is the incoming director of creative writing at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. Her next book, “Ernestine's Milky Way” will be published in 2018.



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