Texas-based satirist Neal Pollack — who’s written plenty of pot jokes over the years — reveals how he became addicted to marijuana, and what he’d tell people who don’t believe that’s possible.
Ann Marie Awad: Just a heads up, there is some explicit language in this episode. From Colorado Public Radio and PRX, this is On Something. Neal Pollack is a writer and satirist who lives in Austin. He’s also a dad and a podcaster.
Neal Pollack: This is our main destination. It’s the first authentic slavery museum in the United States, and it’s on a former working plantation, so it carries a lot of moral weight. So this was always the goal, was to bring my son to this place to show him.
Elijah Pollack: How long has that been your goal, dad?
Neal Pollack: It’s been my goal for a few weeks.
Elijah Pollack: A few weeks?
Ann Marie Awad: In 2016, Neil turned his talents to his son’s education, kind of. He hosted this podcast, Extra Credit, where he and his son, Elijah, sought out lessons on topics from slavery to sex ed. Stuff that Neal didn’t think Elijah was learning in Texas public schools. They even did an episode about medical marijuana.
Neal Pollack: Elijah knew nothing about marijuana other than what he’d seen on YouTube comedy videos.
Elijah Pollack: Marijuana is magic.
Neal Pollack: No, don’t, don’t. No, no. No son, it is not magic.
Elijah Pollack: It’s created by magical beings.
Neal Pollack: It’s from the children of the forest.
Ann Marie Awad: Neal was particularly enthusiastic about this episode. The show brought them to Colorado to meet a medical marijuana patient, and while they were out here, Neal seemed to be having more fun than Elijah.
Neal Pollack: I want to stay in Colorado forever.
Elijah Pollack: I like Austin.
Neal Pollack: I understand.
Elijah Pollack: I don’t want to move to Colorado so you can smoke pot.
Neal Pollack: I understand.
Ann Marie Awad: Now in 2019, this episode is really hard for Neal to hear.
Neal Pollack: All right. I don’t know. It’s kind of painful to me. I was so enthusiastic.
Ann Marie Awad: What do you feel like your son took away from that episode?
Neal Pollack: That weed is fine. It was kind of a mistake.
Ann Marie Awad: What was your weed use like at this time that you were making this episode?
Neal Pollack: Copious. I was a daily, sometimes hourly user at this point, toward the end.
Ann Marie Awad: In that podcast, Neal was trying to teach his son about the realities of legalization, all the while ignoring that he himself was addicted to marijuana. And now that he’s sober, he says this era of legalization may be a challenging time for people who struggle with the same thing. For starters, not everyone agrees that marijuana addiction even exists. Neal Pollock’s story today on On Something. I’m Ann Marie Awad.
Ann Marie Awad: On this podcast we talk about people’s relationships with weed and when they might become problematic in a country where legal weed is a fact of life in many places. Neal Pollack put out his first book in 2000, a collection of his essays from Vanity Fair, The New York Times and McSweeney’s, to name a few. He often wrote under this comic persona, Neal Pollack, the greatest living American writer. Do you remember the first time that you used marijuana?
Neal Pollack: I do. I was 15 years old, a sophomore in high school, and I went to a party with my friend Gary. It was at some apartment near our high school, there didn’t seem to be any adults around. And there was a bong. I took a couple of hits and I just remember being plastered to a couch and I picked up a phone book and I spent a couple of hours trying to rip it in half.
Ann Marie Awad: Really?
Neal Pollack: Yeah, that was my entire first experience of marijuana. And then someone drove me home. And I got into the front hall of my house and I collapsed on the floor and my mom came and found me and I just started sobbing.
Ann Marie Awad: Oh my God.
Neal Pollack: Maybe that was a sign that marijuana and I weren’t meant to be together, but I didn’t heed it.
Ann Marie Awad: He didn’t try it again for a while. In his early twenties at the very beginning of his writing career, Neal says drugs were always sort of in the background. But any writer out there knows this, sometimes you just need to fill the time.
Neal Pollack: When you have an unstructured day, a lot of times it’s easy to fill it with substances, right? That’s why so many writers become alcoholics or use drugs. Because they have time and they don’t have to answer to anybody at any specific moment for any specific reason.
Ann Marie Awad: Well, I also feel like there’s a trope of, “This substance helps me write better,” too.
Neal Pollack: Well, yeah. I certainly fell into that trap once I started writing books. I wrote 10 books baked out of my mind, pretty much. Yeah. And if you go back and you look at my books, there’s a lot of scenes of people getting high.
Ann Marie Awad: Ten books. Weed played a bigger and bigger role, not only in Neal’s creative process, but in his daily life. It became part of his persona and many fans of his work who also really liked weed themselves were drawn to Neal when he would through town.
Neal Pollack: Well, honestly, the reason I moved to Texas was because I was on a book tour and I did a reading at BookPeople here in Austin and the bookstore employees got me high in the parking garage after my reading. And I was like, “Well, this is a cool place to live. I can get weed whenever I want.” And then we had a kid and my wife got a job and life manifested itself.
Ann Marie Awad: Around this time, Neal wrote a book called Alternadad about the challenges of being a new father. But the outward signs of success kept coming. He sold the movie rights to that book and the family moved to Hollywood in 2006. Now, at that time in California, recreational weed was not yet legal, but there was California’s long running and kind of loosey goosey medical marijuana program.
Neal Pollack: I went to some office in Beverly Hills where there was a blonde guy with nice teeth sitting behind a desk. There were no medical degrees on the wall. He took my blood pressure with a child’s toy.
Ann Marie Awad: Really?
Neal Pollack: Yeah, with a toy. And said, “What’s your problem?” I told him I was depressed and anxious and then I gave him, not much, like 20 bucks, and he gave me a medical marijuana card. And that was it. And then I went to a dispensary and bought a big bag of weed and the party was on.
Ann Marie Awad: At the time, did you remember thinking that, “Oh, this must be bullshit?” Or were you just psyched to get a med card?
Neal Pollack: Yeah, I knew it was bullshit. Everyone knew it was bullshit. There were people with HIV and glaucoma and had other conditions who were getting medical marijuana cards who didn’t think it was bullshit. The system was not created explicitly so stupid hipsters like me could indulge in their addiction.
Ann Marie Awad: But it’s easy to get.
Neal Pollack: It was just the scam you worked. And so I got my card and I proceeded to spend the next five years so high all the time. I was so happy and excited. I looked at this not as an addiction, but as freedom. I was free at last. I kept saying, “Imagine if you loved coffee more than anything, but it had been illegal your entire life, and then suddenly you found a way to get coffee that wasn’t going to get you arrested or in trouble and it was the best coffee you’d ever tasted.” I remember I went to a fundraiser at my son’s preschool. He was at some hipster preschool in Silver Lake in Los Angeles, and it was in a tent. And the entire tent stank of marijuana, like super dank. It wasn’t just a little whiff in a corner, I mean, I destroyed that place. And I was sharing it with other hipster dads who thought it was kind of funny, but really it was just sad. I was getting high everywhere I went. I didn’t care. I was smoking pot everywhere.
Ann Marie Awad: Things didn’t go well in Hollywood. Alternadad never became a movie. Neal did get hired by CBS to write a pilot for a sitcom, but that was the same day that the Hollywood writer’s strike began. And if that wasn’t already devastating enough, there’s that other big thing that happened in 2008, the recession, which made the situation dire. He and his family packed it up and moved back to Austin. Back in Austin, Neal self-published Stretch, chronicling his foray into yoga. And that book did well, so he self-published a bunch of eBooks on Amazon. He was back to writing, which was what he wanted. But while he was parked at his desk at home, typing away, he was hitting a weed vaporizer all day.
Ann Marie Awad: In 2013, Neal decided to distance himself from weed for a while when a rare opportunity came along.
Jeopardy: And our returning champion, a writer from Austin, Texas, Neal Pollack, whose one day cash earnings total $26,000.
Ann Marie Awad: We’ll be right back after this break.
Jeopardy: This is Jeopardy! Here are today’s …
Neal Pollack: I know this sounds strange, but I took the test to appear on Jeopardy! and I passed it. And then for the first time in, oh, I don’t know, 15 years or so, I stopped using drugs for like six weeks. I took time off to clear my head and study for Jeopardy! And so then I appeared on Jeopardy! and I won three games.
Alex Trebek: Pick again.
Neal Pollack: All right, Political Before and After for $2,000.
Alex Trebek: A Will Ferrell racer who liked to go fast speeds in as governor of Louisiana. Neal.
Neal Pollack: Who is Ricky Bobby Jindal.
Alex Trebek : Yes.
Neal Pollack: And won $62,000. Basically, I one enough money so that we could put a down payment on a house. Before and After for $1,600.
Alex Trebek: A South Carolina senator becomes an integral part of a s’more. Neal.
Neal Pollack: Who is Lindsey Graham cracker.
Alex Trebek : That’s it.
Ann Marie Awad: So, you come off drugs for six weeks to prep for Jeopardy! So first of all, prepping for Jeopardy! has to be very stressful, but also, if you’re saying that’s the first time in 15 years that you come off of drugs, that must have also been stressful on your body as well.
Neal Pollack: Yeah. I was doing two hours of yoga a day. I was meditating, I was exercising.
Alex Trebek: Neal Pollack is our champion. You are a yoga instructor in what tradition?
Neal Pollack: I trained in the Ashtanga Vinyasa tradition.
Alex Trebek: Oh, that one. Of course. Well, what is it?
Neal Pollack: Very hard.
Alex Trebek: Really?
Neal Pollack: Yeah. It’s an extremely …
Neal Pollack: I lost a lot of weight. I lost like 10 to 15 pounds. It was stressful on my body, but it was also probably good for my body. I went on, I did pretty well. But after it was done, I went out to eat with my parents and then as soon as I could I went and visited some friends and got high. I got high the same day I had probably the most extraordinary experience of my life. And I went back to my hotel room, shoved a towel under the door and smoked a joint. I held off as long as I possibly could and then I got high again.
Ann Marie Awad: Not long after he became a Jeopardy! champion, Neal found steady work as a Texas correspondent for The Cannabist. The Denver Post started this online newspaper in 2013 to cover legalization just as Colorado was about to launch recreational sales the following year. Since 2015, Texas has had a pretty restrictive medical marijuana program and Neal covered a lot of near misses to expand legalization there, but sometimes he traveled north for work.
Neal Pollack: I started coming to Colorado as often as I could.
Ann Marie Awad: You had a nickname for Colorado, if I remember correctly.
Neal Pollack: I called it free America.
Ann Marie Awad: Why is that?
Neal Pollack: Well, to me, the legalization of recreational weed was just, like, the ending of slavery. I was actually comparing it to that. That’s how diluted I was.
Ann Marie Awad: Yeah, that’s not a good look.
Neal Pollack: Well, it was at least the end of prohibition. It was. It was the end of prohibition. It was probably how alcoholics felt in 1933 and they didn’t have to go to their speakeasy or they can just drink themselves to death at their kitchen tables again. I would say less than the end of slavery, more like the end of prohibition. So I wanted to celebrate. What I ended up doing instead was just go into Colorado and getting high in a bunch of sleazy hotels. Went to Oregon and went to a dinner party where they had a buffet of marijuana edibles.
Ann Marie Awad: Oh God. I’m sorry, that sounds like way too much.
Neal Pollack: Oh Dude. I’m telling you. And I wasn’t just getting a little high. I was smoking huge amounts of weed all day every day. I was kind of approaching junkie territory. I started having public meltdowns, personality-transforming public meltdowns. I would lose my temper. I would yell at waiters. I was a drug addict. My grandfather was an alcoholic. I had some alcoholism in my family and I saw what it did to them. I saw how by the time they hit 60 years old their lives were about alcohol, were all about alcohol. They would hide bottles, they would do whatever they could to drink. And I was like, “I’ll never be that person.” And ironically, I was that person, but it was just about marijuana. It had gotten to that point. And so yeah, I would be like, “Yeah, I’m better at trivia when I’m high.” “The Dodger game is not any fun to watch unless I’m high.” “It’s time for The Amazing Race, I have to get high.” If you have to get high to watch The Amazing Race, then you’ve got a problem. That is not a stoner show.
Ann Marie Awad: How much of this do you feel like was visible to Elijah?
Neal Pollack: I’m sure he could smell it. I didn’t do it in front of him.
Ann Marie Awad: But do you feel like at this time he had a sense that you, if not had a problem, you were just using it a lot?
Neal Pollack: I don’t know. I don’t know. He probably understands that I was using it a lot. My wife certainly did because I would sometimes go outside and do it. I don’t think either knew the extent to which I was getting high all the time.
Ann Marie Awad: In early 2017, Neal’s father got sick and fell into a coma. And while he was unconscious, Neal’s mother also fell ill and had to be hospitalized. Neal went to Arizona to visit them.
Neal Pollack: So I was high when she died. And I watched her die, over 36 hours, stoned the whole time. And I was high at her funeral. I gave a gummy to one of my cousins and he was like, “We’ve got to talk about this stuff you’re taking. I can barely walk.”
Ann Marie Awad: Was it a way to just be somewhere else?
Neal Pollack: I don’t know. It was just the way I was. I wasn’t even using it as an escape, necessarily. I was high.
Ann Marie Awad: You were depending on it.
Neal Pollack: I was depending on it for everything. So that’s not going to change in a time of crisis. So after my mother died, then my father … We had to wake him up from his coma to tell him that his wife had died while he was in a coma, and she hadn’t even been sick when he’d gone under. So of course, that was another excuse for me to do drugs. We had to try to nurse him back to health and so I was going to Arizona a lot and spending time in this place that used to be, not always a place of joy, at least a place of some comfort and good memories. And now it was like this mausoleum. After my mother died, it really started to take a toll on my marriage. I was just not present at all. And when I was physically present, I was not emotionally present. My wife said, “Boy, you really have a lot more of an edge to you since your mother died.” And I was like, “Yeah, and I like it.” That’s what I said to her.
Ann Marie Awad: Why did you like it?
Neal Pollack: I don’t know. She said that was frightening when I said that to her. That was the moment when the addiction completely had won. I wouldn’t say I’m the warmest, sweetest guy in the world, but I’m not a monster. My personality had completely vanished and it had been replaced by this bottomless pit of selfishness and need.
Ann Marie Awad: Do you feel like she was starting to recognize that at that time?
Neal Pollack: Oh yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. But there was nothing she could do. She couldn’t stop me. No one could stop me but myself.
Ann Marie Awad: Later that year, in the fall of 2017, the Dodgers were headed to the World Series and Neal was a huge Dodgers fan. On top of that, California had freshly legalized recreational marijuana. So he got on a plane and went to LA.
Neal Pollack: Then I woke up the next morning, got stoned and said, “Today’s the day. I’m going to the World Series today.” So I bought a ticket. I spent more than $900 on my credit card, which is a lot of money for me.
Ann Marie Awad: Neal went on Facebook and announced to the world that he was going to the game, and this is where Neal’s fame kicked in. He immediately got a response from a guy he had never met before. This guy was offering to smoke him out before the game and the guy said he even lived near the stadium. So Neil made a stop and then a couple of hours later he walked to the game.
Neal Pollack: So I was like, “Yeah. I’m going to be stoned at the World Series. How amazing will that be?” Then I had my ticket in my hand. I was like, “This is it, I’m going to the World Series. It’s going to happen.”
Ann Marie Awad: It was a nail biter but the Dodgers lost that game. But that wasn’t what Neal remembered about that night. In fact, the most memorable thing happened before the game even started.
Neal Pollack: I get there and they scan my ticket and they’re like, “This ticket is no good,” because I had bought it from a third party site. And so, rather than call the third party site, which is what I should have done, what I eventually did, I started screaming at the person at the door. And then he brought a manager along and I started screaming at him-
Ann Marie Awad: Screaming what? Do you remember?
Neal Pollack: Just expletives. Just like, “How could you do this to me? I’m a lifelong Dodger fan.” They didn’t give a shit. They don’t care who I am. I was just some guy who was trying to sneak into the game as far as they were concerned. Then I just started yelling and ranting and raving and I was sobbing.
Ann Marie Awad: You were there by yourself too, while this was all-
Neal Pollack: I was by myself. I didn’t have any friends there. I was there by myself just screaming and yelling at security guards, and a phalanx of security guards surrounded me and escorted me away from the stadium and I spent the next hour and a half walking up and down. If I hadn’t been a white guy I probably would have been arrested, given how I was behaving. Like a crazy person. I looked at myself in a car mirror that I walked by and I was like red-faced old man. Bloodshot eyes. I had a huge beard at the time, it was all white. I looked like a drug addict. The fact that I ended up weaseling my way into the game and actually ended up with a better seat than I’d bought-
Ann Marie Awad: Oh, you got into the game?
Neal Pollack: Yeah. I finally just called the ticket company. I was sobbing to them. I was sobbing, saying my mother died and she always wanted to go to the World Series with me and this is my one chance. I was lying. My mother hated baseball. I got into the game somehow, weaseled my way in, but that was kind of the moment where I was like, ‘Man, I’ve really got a problem.”
Ann Marie Awad: The idea that marijuana can be addictive is hotly debated. The manual for diagnosing these types of things, known as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or the DSM, does have a criteria for what’s called cannabis use disorder. To diagnose something like this, the criteria asks whether a person is taking large amounts of a substance because their tolerance to it is much higher, or if the substance use prevents them from showing up for major obligations at work, school, or within their family, or are they continuing to use a substance that they know causes problems for them? I’m not going to diagnose Neal here. He did that himself. He started going to a Marijuana Anonymous meeting.
Neal Pollack: I started working the steps as they say and it was annoying. It’s annoying.
Ann Marie Awad: Why is it annoying?
Neal Pollack: Well, you’ve got to fricking pray and you have to do a moral inventory of all your flaws and your bad behaviors and your weird sex thoughts, and it just sucks.
Ann Marie Awad: Do you have to pray? I know that there’s like the higher power thing.
Neal Pollack: Yeah, you kind of have to.
Ann Marie Awad: If you’re a person who does not really have a higher power that they believe in …
Neal Pollack: Yeah. That’s why a lot of people can’t work the program. And it was easy for me because I have yoga. So I had a spiritual foundation. I had experienced some degree of transcendent something through yoga. I had a way of accessing something bigger than myself. The hard part was just taking a good long look at myself.
Ann Marie Awad: What did that involve?
Neal Pollack: Just recognizing that I’d lived my life as sort of a entitled hipster shit. And I had just been so arrogant and so egotistical and so self-absorbed for so long that I really damaged the relationships in my life that mattered to me. And I had made everything about me and I had made everything about my bottomless pit of needs and desires.
Ann Marie Awad: Did you quit cold turkey?
Neal Pollack: Yes. The day I quit was the last time I got high. And I miss it. I miss it every day, frankly.
Ann Marie Awad: Yeah?
Neal Pollack: Yeah, of course. It’s fun to get high. People don’t do it because it feels bad. And it tastes good to me and smells good to me.
Ann Marie Awad: Well, you seem to have a great sense of humor about 12 step programs and MA meetings. I think when we talked before you said that they’re not as bleak as AA because stoners are funny.
Neal Pollack: Yeah. I don’t find Marijuana Anonymous meetings … There’s some people with some serious problems and who are struggling every day. But it’s not AA. It’s not Cocaine Anonymous. The level of ruination may not be quite as strong. But it’s there. It’s still there.
Ann Marie Awad: Neal’s newfound sobriety was put to the test when his father passed away in 2018. In that moment, the way that he dealt with his grief showed him how far he had come. Neal was able to help his siblings with cleaning out the house, filling out paperwork, all of the tasks that need to be addressed when your parents die. He says he was able to grieve and to be there for his sisters while they were grieving. He wasn’t trying to be somewhere else. He was right there. Neal is also a lot more present at home with his family. He cooks dinner most nights and he thinks his son Elijah, who is 16 now, can see the difference.
Neal Pollack: And maybe if, God forbid, the signs of addiction ever manifest in him, that he can recognize them sooner than I do and get help and nip it in the bud quicker than I did. I can only imagine what my life would have been like if I’d caught this when I was 30.
Ann Marie Awad: Recently, Neil wrote an op-ed in the New York Times called, I’m Just a Middle-Aged House Dad Addicted to Pot.
Neal Pollack: I want to help anyone I can, because I think marijuana should be legal. You’re not going to put this genie back in the bottle. It’s not going to happen. There’s just too much money to be made from it, people enjoy it too much, and it has its societal benefits. But I do think that marijuana addiction is going to become more and more of a problem in society as it becomes more and more available. So I’ve definitely heard from people who have said that I’ve opened their eyes to the fact that they might also have a problem.
Ann Marie Awad: But you’ve also heard from people who don’t totally buy it though, right?
Neal Pollack: Yeah, there are definitely people who don’t believe me and who make fun of me. Most people have been very kind, but there have definitely been some people who are defensive about it.
Ann Marie Awad: So I think the pushback comes from the idea that weed itself does not have addiction potential but you can still get addicted to it or you can form a habit, right?
Neal Pollack: Yeah, but I don’t think that’s true.
Ann Marie Awad: Really?
Neal Pollack: No. Why would you say marijuana doesn’t have addiction potential? It obviously does. There’s lots of people who are addicted to it. So yes, it has potential. Just because it’s not methamphetamines or fentanyl or whiskey.
Ann Marie Awad: It’s like psychologically addictive versus physically addictive, right?
Neal Pollack: I don’t know if that’s true, either. I’m not a scientist. I don’t know. That’s a cliche, I think, that it’s psychologically addictive and not physically addictive. Let’s put it this way, when I quit I had a couple of sweaty nights, a little bit of a headache for a couple of days. I didn’t have the DTs. It wasn’t physically painful. In that sense, it’s not physically addictive, but what’s the difference? Addiction is addiction and stuff can ruin your life. The substance that your addiction latches onto is almost immaterial.
Ann Marie Awad: Neal is working on a book about all of this. You can go to onsomething.org if you want to hear episodes of Neal and Elijah’s podcast, Extra Credit. We have a link to that New York Times piece that he wrote, and for resources on marijuana dependency or if you think you might have an issue with marijuana dependency, you can also go to our website onsomething.org, where we have links to resources.
Ann Marie Awad: On Something is a labor of love reported and written by me, Ann Marie Awad. Produced and mixed by Brad Turner, Rebecca Romberg and John Pinnow. Our editor is Curtis Fox. Music by Brad Turner and Daniel Mescher. Our executive producers are Rachel Estabrook and Kevin Dale. On Something is made possible by lots of people, like Francie Swidler, Kim Nguyen, Dave Burdick, Alison Borden and Matt Hertz. If you like what you’re hearing, talk to us on social media. We are @OnSomethingPod on Twitter and Instagram, and you can also join the cool kids club and get our On Something newsletter. Sign up at onsomething.org. This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people. This podcast is also made possible by Colorado Public Radio members. Learn about supporting Colorado Public Radio at cpr.org.
Ann Marie Awad: Neal Pollack, the greatest living American writer.
Brad Turner: Do that again. Neal Pollack. Give me some bass in that voice, Ann.
Ann Marie Awad: Neal Pollock, the greatest living American writer.
Brad Turner: I think you’re halfway there. You’re almost there. Give me that again.
Ann Marie Awad: Deeper?
Brad Turner: Deeper, please.
Ann Marie Awad: Neal Pollock, the greatest living American writer.
Brad Tuner: That’s good. One more time. Use that diaphragm. Use the diaphragm, Ann. Great.
Ann Marie Awad: Neal Pollack, the greatest living American writer.
Brad Tuner: That sounded good.