Up in Smoke
Cannabis Can Be Medicinal, but Would It Work for Me?
by John Francis Leonard

Born in ’69, I consider myself a child of the seventies as well as the eighties. Popular culture informed my childhood, for the good, as well as the bad. I always found drugs, as ugly as my addictions would one day become, to be sophisticated and glamorous. I was preternaturally attuned to the goings-on of the men in New York and San Francisco I longed to be. I made an early promise to myself that I would follow in their glamorous footsteps to the dance floor. Fast forward to the Tunnel in 1987 and watch me bent over in a bathroom stall with a straw up my nose. Fools rush in…indeed.

No drug was a bigger part of everyday life as often as pot was in the seventies. It’s use permeated popular culture and, unlike the heavier fare imbued by the crowd at Studio 54, it was as much a part of small-town life as it was in the big cities. All my adult relatives smoked, as did my parents. I remember vividly, falling asleep in my aunt and uncle’s bed while the smell of pot permeated the air. The adults downstairs playing cards into the night were partaking as I was getting my earliest contact high.

I had a brief run in with pot at thirteen when caught smoking it with friends and did smoke it often in my college years. At some point, my experiences under its influence became anxiety-ridden. Frankly, it made me think too much while what I required in a drug was an ability to make me not think. During my long years of partying and recreational use, I rarely even ran across it. The popular wisdom amongst my gay male friends was why would any sensible gay man want to do a drug that makes you hungry and tired? It still had its disciples, however, and I’ve always found pot enthusiasts to be much like conservative Christians; you won’t be saved unless you convert. I tried it rarely and always with the same disastrous results, ennui and paranoia.

I’ve been drug-free pretty much ten years now. The first step was giving up recreational drugs; that was the easy part. The more challenging part was coming off all of the prescription narcotics that doctors had been prescribing for me for years. Now, to be honest, I’m not in a 12-step program and I didn’t go to rehab. I quit on my own with the help of my psychiatrist and psychologist. Their thoughtful input and encouragement were invaluable. They both gave it after both had recommended rehab and meetings, but I wasn’t convinced.

So many poz people whom I’ve known personally and professionally have told me how much medical cannabis has helped them, especially with pain. Both recent back problems and neuropathy have made me wonder if I should think carefully about a personal experiment. My younger brother smokes pot recreationally and I asked if, for my birthday this past November, if he would share a bit with me. He took the idea under consideration. He had some reticence, he shared later, because of my history. To be honest, he’s more like my big brother, always watching out for me, and I wouldn’t have minded if he had said no. I trust his judgment completely and often seek his counsel.

A few days after my birthday in November, my brother texted one evening. The message read: stop by, we can smoke. I texted back that I had finally quit smoking cigarettes in advance of an upcoming surgical procedure. He quickly texted back that he had meant pot, you idiot. Well I felt as ready as I ever would, so I walked over to his place. The kids were at their mom’s, he announced, so we were in the clear. We went out on the balcony and lit up. It felt great. We laughed a lot ,and politics didn’t come up once, a rare occurrence between my conservative brother and me during this past election. It wasn’t until I was home a bit later when I could reflect on the drug’s physical effects. The truth was, I felt good. I didn’t notice the ache in my hands, feet, and back. Either the pot had a medicinal effect, or the pleasant state of mind I was in distracted me from the pain. I had only taken two or three hits, just enough to benefit from the effects, but not end up paranoid and anxious. I felt good the next day as well, when I wasn’t necessarily high any longer. Over the next several months, I tried it two more times, with equally positive results. I wasn’t ready to invest yet, but my brother would give me a little when he bought his own.

Now, I know my history, drugs had major negative repercussions in my earlier life. If I were going to do this more regularly, I needed to think carefully. I didn’t rush in; it would be three months before I seriously considered a purchase of my own supply. Two weeks ago, I made the plunge. The decision felt even better, or at least safer, because my state legalized weed last month.

Truth? I enjoy the feeling of being high. But the biggest difference this drug has had is relief from my pain. I treat it the way I used to treat alcohol, I indulge occasionally, but watch it carefully. My HIV specialist is on board with it, probably sick of hearing me whine about my discomfort. I want to research it even more and find out if what I’m experiencing is typical. The pot seems to have accumulative benefits beyond the actual point of being high. Part of it is the major amount of weight I’ve lost, I know, but I really feel that the drug has gone a long way in relieving the pain that I had felt would only get worse as I grew older. Overall, I still consider that I might have to give up grass (as they called it in my day) and I’m fine with that, but so far, so good. For now, I’ll indulge and feel the better for it.


John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for fifteen years. His fiction has been published in the ImageOutWrite literary journal and he is a literary critic for Lambda Literary. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.