On Monday morning, I reported to the program office.
They handed me a 14-page “informed consent” waiver to read and sign. The first several pages discussed THC, its known effects and every conceivable side effect involved with the intravenous administration, including addiction, heart attack or stroke, sterility or impotence, numerous psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia or catatonia, all the way up to, and including, death.
Well, gee, I thought, let’s hope not!
There were other consent forms for the other chemicals they would pump into me, as well as the possible impacts of spending two weeks confined to a psychiatric ward. After a few scary sounding phrases about other weird side effects couched in legalese, I just skimmed past most of that to the signature line. I mean, by this time, I had already agreed to risking possible death, right — so where do I sign?
I don’t know what I expected to see on the ward itself, maybe something like scenes I’d seen in movies. The whole place was smaller than I had expected with no hallway corridors with patients wandering around aimlessly in pajamas. A day room, a separate TV room, and the bedrooms was about it.
This unit, part of the UCSF Medical School’s teaching hospital, housed only about a dozen patients. No scrub-type uniforms for patients or staff, no bars on the windows — but the sound of that door locking behind you certainly does have a ring of finality.
I met the other THC test subjects, Hal and Chris. Chris, who looked vaguely like a pot dealer I’d known in Austin, halfway through his 2-week stay, would be leaving by the end of the week. Hal was part of the month-long study I turned down as lasting too long, and only 1 week in so far, with 3 more to go.
Turns out he had just finished the two-week study a week before starting the month-long study. He shrugged, saying he really needed the money. His partner in a smuggling scheme got busted south of the border and was serving a year in a Mexican prison. Hal went to see him every week except when he was working as a subject. “It coulda been me just as easily — luck of the draw,” he said. “He’s doing okay so far, but he told me if I don’t come visit him every week, the first thing he’ll do when he’s released is track me down and kill me. I wouldn’t blame him either.”
I was happy to meet my THC compadres, as I remained unsure about interacting with anyone who was there for psychiatric issues. I really had little to no awareness of the real patients the entire two weeks. The only time I would see most of them was during mealtimes at our dining area downstairs. I remember a couple of skinny teenage girls who looked mildly drugged-out but would smile stiffly sometimes, and there was this one old woman who sat silently on the dayroom couch looking a lot like Chief Broom.
The next day, I started the testing regimen.
I lay on a gurney in a small, featureless room. I don’t really remember when they explained the procedure to me, but mostly they described what they were doing as they were doing it. They inserted a catheter into the vein at the elbow that would deliver the THC and other chemicals much further up inside the vein for faster impact.
Then they worked on wiring up all the various systems to monitor me. In addition to the IV in one arm, I had a blood pressure cuff and finger monitor on the other, two wires coming off electrodes attached to my chest and 3 coming off my head. By the time they were through hooking me all up, I couldn’t even scratch my own nose — I had to ask someone else scratch it for me.
After a baseline run of the tasks I would be performing repeatedly throughout all 5 testing sessions, they hit me with my first dose of that intravenous THC. I felt a warm flush spreading through my arm up near the armpit, slowly sweeping through my body. I could see the fascination of needle drugs now. Not that I ever succumbed, but the flush of the rush can be quite compelling, no doubt.
No time to relax and enjoy getting high now, though. With THC pumping through my system, they went back to running me through a routine set of cognitive tasks:
“Tell me when one minute has passed, starting…now!”
My performance on this simple time estimation task took them by surprise. The lab tech commented on how close my estimate was, much better than most subjects. “Well,” I said, “I’ve had a lot of practice getting high and still trying to show up on time.”
“Count backwards by 7s from 936, starting…now!”
I’m weird enough I’ve always loved doing simple math in my head, so I jumped right into this bizarre task. Several minutes later, they asked for my result. Unfortunately, though I started with blazing speed and enjoyed learning the pattern, my mind had wandered off — so I just made up a substantially lower number.
The tasks took little time, though, so, mostly I spent a lot of time just lying there on my back, looking at the blank acoustic tile ceiling, unable to move and extremely bored. They did keep coming back to one question again and again:
“On a scale of zero to 100 with 100 representing the highest you have ever been on any form of cannabis, how high are you now?”
I never gave them over a 35 on this “high rating,” I don’t think, once again startling them. I did point out that since I generally judged how high I was by interacting with the environment, it was hard to tell how high I was while staring at a blank acoustic tile ceiling. “Or maybe we just have better pot than y’all,” I suggested at one point.
Between tasks, I struck up a conversation with the lab tech, Allison, a pretty blonde working as a student assistant for the program. Well, they put an end to that before my second round of testing. Apparently, my blood pressure kept rising every time we talked during that first test session. Hey, she was pretty, and I was funny. We hit it off pretty well. But by the second session, they told her she could only read the newspaper to me. And then, by the third session, they told her to cut that out, too. Just hearing her voice still spiked my blood pressure, apparently. What can I say?
After the testing session, I was escorted back down to the ward, THC wearing off but a mild buzz still going as I got back there. I headed to my bed, put on the headphones attached to the record player in our room and put on the one rock album we had available, and slipped into the Mars Hotel with the Grateful Dead.
Red and white, blue suede shoes —
I’m Uncle Sam, how do you do?
Give me five, I’m still alive!
Ain’t no luck, I learned to duck.
Check my pulse, it don’t change.
Stays seventy-two come shine or rain…