Taking the Right Lessons From Dion Waiters’s Weed Panic Attack

Can’t talk, coming down. Photo: Michael Reaves/Getty Images

When news broke that Miami Heat shooting guard Dion Waiters had had a panic attack that sent him to the hospital as a result of a marijuana gummy, I initially reacted the way the rest of the internet did: by making jokes about it. It’s a pretty funny story, after all, especially for NBA fans familiar with Waiters’s reputation as a somewhat erratic individual and an inefficient gunner who never met a shot he didn’t like — one Twitter mutual posited a horrifying situation in which the edible “gave Dion Waiters an out-of-body experience, which forced him to watch his own play from the perspective of an unbiased observer.” (According to NBA reporter Shams Charania, Waiters got suspended for ten games and is — rather admirably — refusing to narc on the teammate who gave him the edible.)

But I woke up the next day feeling a bit sheepish about having joined in. I’ve had a couple of weed freak-outs of my own, and my sense has been that most people who use marijuana without encountering major ill effects don’t understand just how scary these experiences can be. I think both Waiters’s freak-out itself and the gleeful, ridiculing response to it we’re seeing online are evidence that there may not be enough open, unstigmatized discussion about this potential side effect of dabbling in the devil’s lettuce.

Since this is an endlessly politicized subject on which it’s easy to get misunderstood, let me throw my anti-anti-weed-hysteria bona fides on the table: I’ve written and edited a number of stories about how harmful the war on pot has been over the years, which have debunked questionable claims when they’ve popped up. The United States is just now emerging from a tragic period during which its marijuana policy has been insane — that’s the only word that really describes it. The consequences have been terrible, ranging from the human toll of what must be tens (or hundreds) of thousands of unreasonable years of jail time to asinine research bans that have seriously stymied American scientists’ attempts to better understand a substance that people have used, and will use, forever.

So I’m not saying this gradual and hard-earned return to sanity should be slowed down one bit. The comparison isn’t perfect, since alcohol is a much more harmful substance, but everyone understands that it’s possible to talk about the downsides of booze without slipping into full-on prohibitionism. Rather, my argument is simply that, in the public imagination, people don’t understand the severity of weed freak-outs when they do occur. When I was growing up, my sense of the worst-case outcome from smoking pot was to be sitting on a couch during a party, getting a bit paranoid that everyone was talking about you, or ruminating obsessively on the possibility that your parents or the cops would find out you smoked. That is unpleasant but in a low-key, forgettable sort of way.

Until: When I was 20 or so, I had a pair of genuinely terrifying experiences while home from college. They were basically protracted panic attacks in which I experienced serious derealization — something had shifted suddenly, and reality became significantly less concrete. I’d never experienced anything like it. Other people’s weed freak-outs spark fears of heart attacks and the like, which is why people end up in the hospital. Mine was different, maybe a bit more existential and centered around the idea that I was going crazy and would never stop feeling this way. In both instances, it took me hours to feel better.

Now, can I look back at all this and laugh? Of course. (And the two high-school friends who witnessed one of the freak-outs aren’t going to let me stop laughing about it anyway.) But reading about Waiters’s experience made me realize it would have been useful to go into my early pot-using days with a bit more realistic an expectation of what can go wrong. If I’d simply known just how bad one of these experiences can feel in the moment, maybe I would have been a bit more careful (or maybe not — 20-year-olds are 20-year-olds). Maybe I would have decided to abstain altogether. Perhaps most important, I could have known, as the thing was happening to me, that it was totally normal for some people. I still dabble these days, but now when I feel a potential freak-out coming on (as indicated by certain physical symptoms; ask me about my 55-degree night in San Francisco, spent shivering uncontrollably), I can identify what’s happening and calm myself down a bit. It’s worked every time: a couple of close calls, but no full-blown freak-outs since the two big ones.

I think normalizing and destigmatizing this sort of experience really is key. While we don’t have the details, it’s almost certainly the case that Waiters went to the hospital because his freak-out felt so physically severe he was convinced something was dangerously wrong with his body. That’s the sort of thing that happens when people don’t understand that a bad trip on weed doesn’t just involve sitting on a couch, knees up to your chest, glaring at the friends who are clearly conspiring against you. It’s much worse.

I can understand why knowledge of the reality of bad weed freak-outs has been slow to disseminate. Marijuana was demonized for so long, and in such over-the-top ways, that anyone who brings up the fact that it really can cause negative effects and (more rarely) long-term consequences in a small number of people risks getting tarred as a would-be DEA agent smashing down a door to arrest a poor kid over a dime bag (and so on). The conversation has been so dishonest and hysterical for so long that there has been an element of overcorrection, in other words.

But now would be a good time to get more honest. What Waiters ate is likely far more potent than anything I had access to in Massachusetts in the aughts, after all, and as legalization and decriminalization sweep the land, a lot of new people are either going to have their first marijuana experiences altogether or their first experiences with truly potent strains of the stuff.

Solidarity, Dion: What happened to you was totally normal, even if your shot selection isn’t.

Taking the Right Lessons From Dion Waiters’s Weed Panic