Just before 2 a.m. on Sept. 12, 1994, I was winding around Vice President Al Gore’s compound, heading westbound on Massachusetts Avenue, singing along with the car radio and almost doubling the 25mph limit. As I turned right onto 34th Street, a Uniformed Secret Service Police cruiser charged out of the veep’s gate behind me with its lights flashing. Unbeknownst to me, a Cessna flown by a suicidal, unemployed Maryland man, Frank Eugene Corder, had just crashed onto the White House South Lawn, killing Corder and sparking a red alert among Secret Service agents throughout the city.

Within seconds, my sports coupe was boxed in by police cars, marked and unmarked, and spotlights blinded my eyes. A quick check of my license revealed it had recently expired. Shit. While one cop handcuffed me and stuffed me into the back of a cruiser, a team of others swarmed all over and under my car, looking for illicit objects—explosives, perhaps.

It didn’t take long for one cop to emerge from the driver’s side of my car holding a pipe and a pinch of pot in a crumpled sandwich bag. The other item of interest was my press badge; at the time, I wrote for a large daily newspaper in D.C.

The Secret Service handed me over to a Metropolitan Police Department officer, who listened to my impassioned pleas as I sat cuffed in the back of his cruiser. I must have touched a nerve. “I was young once, too, y’know,” he murmured as he pulled over and let me go.

But for me, pot is more than just a youthful indulgence. At 32, I smoke pot every day—and have done for more than half my life. I smoke it the way some people smoke Marlboro Lights. I smoke so much that my eyes don’t even turn red anymore. I smoke just to get level, my version of normal.

As bad drug habits go, it’s not the ugliest. There are no track marks or hawked stereos, no morning shakes or nighttime blackouts. Pot’s, well…just pot. Then again, as of this writing, I’ve technically been unemployed for more than two years and am sitting alone in a dirty, disheveled, low-rent apartment near the Key Bridge, waiting for the electricity to come back on because I didn’t pay the bill for months and they shut it off today. As far as rock bottoms go, mine’s not too painful, but it’s jagged enough to hurt.

Even though I’m alone, I’m really not. The recent National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, conducted annually by the University of Michigan, shows drug use among 18-to-25-year-olds is at its highest level since 1988, with 15.6 percent regularly using pot. More than one-third of 10th-graders smoke pot regularly.

I don’t really need to read government reports to find out that Mary Jane is back, dancing heartily among us. Even stereotypically uptight thirtysomething Washingtonians—government or association lawyers, lobbyists, and flacks—openly light up at parties and bars. It’s like the ’70s have returned, only the pot’s more expensive. The smell of indulgence is in the air all over town. At the Adams Morgan Day fest on Sept. 14, a 6-foot-4 drag queen named Lauren passed out round bowls of reefer, much to the delight of the drunken, diverse crowd swaying to reggae and calypso tunes on the rooftop of Perry’s, the usually quiet sushi and martini spot on Columbia Road. Another time, an assistant U.S. Attorney, a prosecutor down on Indiana Avenue NW, turned me on to some green bud after we had gone out for beers to discuss his case. And I was surprised not long ago to find myself getting high with some Pentagon-based Army officers.

Me, I’m no hippie freak, but I’ll admit to having my head in the clouds (of smoke) every day. I tend to be rather intense and borderline-hyper as it is, and pot doesn’t slow me, as such. I figure I may be self-medicating a form of hyperactivity, in a sick way. I know a lot chronics like me in D.C.: athletic, well-kempt, and socially adept men and women pursuing moderately successful careers. (OK, my career is currently in the dumps, but it wasn’t always thus.)

Most of these folks are too busy with their day jobs to be high all the time, but since I’ve been a home-based writer the past couple of years, I easily—and deviously—pull it off, often reporting and always writing while buzzed. No wonder my stories aren’t selling. I guess this might be as good as any time to pause for another bong hit….

Feel better? Me neither. By any objective standard, I’m a royal fuckup. I’m 32, and my future is going down the tubes faster than the MIR space station. It sort of snuck up on me. Unlike a lot of potheads, I’ve lived a life beyond a surgically attached couch. I saw plenty of journalistic action and some extracurricular party activity with American soldiers during the Gulf War. I’ve suited up to cover drug raids in D.C. with a stash of my own in my pocket. I recall smoking a bowl before an on-air guest appearance on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition and getting raves from workmates, acquaintances, and family friends who heard me.

I’ve had other moments in the limelight, my stories gracing the covers of major newspapers, my quotes on the front page of the New York Times, and my mug smirking on TV screens while answering questions from the likes of Larry King and Dan Rather. However, those days are used up and discarded like the burned nub of a roach. Now it’s an accomplishment to write a story, much less sell it. By this point in my disappearing career, I have established a fairly high correlation between smoking pot and seeing my life go down a shithole, so quitting occurs to me, oh, every other breath or so. One more quick break here…

After a series of failed, halfhearted attempts to stop smoking over the past nine years, I’m ready to concede that pot might be more than a reliable mood-altering friend. While I was sitting home one day pissing away my life last June, I came across a story in the journal Science. The jargon-filled report announced two separate studies—one in Italy and one in the United States—that show that pot may not just be the cuddly recreational drug we all took it for. The studies found that THC hijacks the brain’s “reward system,” producing a heroin-style euphoria, and that it produces an emotional withdrawal similar to those of cocaine and alcohol.

I don’t know much about brain chemistry, but I have established empirically that every time I quit I fall into a massive depressive slump, longing for pot like a departed lover who broke my heart. I get sober for a little while, convince myself everything’s fine, then go back to getting stoned “just on weekends.” But once in a while just doesn’t satisfy, and I keep coming back for more.

Right now, I’m so burned out I hardly ever get truly stoned. I don’t get the rush I used to, when a bong hit made my veins tingle with excitement. The warm, pleasant buzz has been replaced by a shallow feeling of despair. The smoke still rises reliably up the shaft of my bong, inhaled into what’re now surely darkened bronchioles, but it’s not followed by grandiose visions of happiness. Now, as I smoke another hit—noticing how quickly my supply’s shrinking—I don’t feel much except shame.

Oh, I’ve been bitched at plenty for rolling my life up and smoking it. But I’ve kept my family at bay and I’ve managed to drive off every employer and lover I’ve ever had. Usually I have felt horrible, but not bad enough to relinquish my herbacious concubine.

In the past, I never equated getting stoned with being stupid. I was taking great risks, yet I thrived on the thrill of the adventure. I cut my teeth as a doper in Turkey, where my father was stationed when I was 14. When he was called back to the States, I taped two huge sticks of hash to my gut for the ride home. I guess I was stupid, come to think of it. But then, I still had some of the potent hash when I enrolled in Wakefield High School in Arlington the following September, so making new friends wasn’t much of a problem.

Most of my other pot-related activities were more mundane—I’m a consumer interested in getting my fix, not in becoming part of the drug economy. And I’m almost—almost—as hooked on journalism as I am on pot. Shortly after I graduated from college with a BA in history, my career in newspapering gained traction. I forced myself into some long stretches of sobriety, but within six months I was often partying just as hard as I was working. In 1991, I moved to Washington for a new job. I brought an ounce of herb with me, but when it ran out I vowed not to buy another.

But the love affair was rekindled by a pretty, blond State Department woman I was sleeping with—she always had a joint handy. I fell back hard, getting stoned all the time, sometimes before and during assignments. My work didn’t seem to suffer much—I soon landed a job at double the pay and broke a handful of national stories. But I got into some hot water with the Pentagon, and when the heat came down my boss didn’t back me up. I was out the door, a layoff of one.

It was summer 1993, and I had already paid for a seaside house in Dewey Beach, Del. I played tennis, partied at the beach, and sent out a few résumés. A paper in Florida flew me down for a three-day interview. Without even trying, I seemed to be bowling them over. On the last day, however, they surprised me with a drug test. In a near-panic, I pulled aside the youngest, hippest-looking editor and fessed up to the fact that I would test positive. “I took a couple hits off a joint during a reunion of frat brothers at the beach,” I explained. The editor looked at me as if I had just told him I was coming off a four-day run at the local crack house. Just as well, I reassured myself—I didn’t like the dumpy Florida city anyway.

I recently noticed an ad for a reporting position at this particular paper in the Oct. 11 edition of Editor & Publisher, asking prospects to contact the same editor I had confided in. At the bottom of the ad, which is nearly identical to the one I responded to in 1993, it says, “We provide a drugfree workplace.”

After the Florida fiasco, I managed to land on my feet with a job here in D.C., writing for another newspaper—one that obviously didn’t give a piss test. I worked hard; I partied hard. I wrote award-winning stories; I put in 80-hour workweeks. But within two years, I was fired outright. And at that point I decided to leave the structure of the office and work from home.

What a mistake that was. I’ve spent the past two-plus years slowly slipping down the slope. Sure, I’ve hawked some free-lance stories and photos and made rent. Yet as pot smoke wafts around my living room, slowly floating by like a passing cloud, my grip on reality drifts away. Being stoned every day, I wind up spending most of my time and energy keeping my head above water rather than diligently swimming toward a destination in life. The accumulated rejection by one love—journalism— doesn’t exactly help me stop reaching for my smoky security blanket.

I’ve slowly started to try to pull myself together and get a job, even though I know what I really need to do is get this fucking pipe out of my mouth and be clean and sober. You wouldn’t know I was a stoner if you saw me or heard my rap. I still manage to keep up appearances. The résumés and clips go out, and I still suit up for an occasional meeting downtown when I sell a story. When I do, I frequently come across some crackhead or wino who hustles me for change, thinking I look prosperous enough to help him get his next bit of respite. The truth is, I don’t have the money to spare.

And I have a lot more in common with these bums than I’m willing to admit. One last hit, here…

Even though I’m a complete wreck, most who know me believe in the façade I work on every day. “I’m doing fine. Who needs a job?” I say, selling my free-lance stories in sporadic bursts. Fact is, I’m putting in overtime just trying to keep up with this futile game of hide and seek. And as I sit in the dark with a cloud of pot smoke surrounding me, I’m not too easy to find. Not that anybody’s looking.CP