“Why spend the best three years of your life here when you can spend six?” Ben Coetzee* runs a hand through his dishevelled blonde hair. His enigmatic blue eyes stare intently into space as he recalls the negative impact marijuana has had on his academic career. His arms flex, the muscles rippling slightly as he stretches on the couch in his brand new flat. There are intricate scars embedded on the inside of his left arm but it is obvious they are self-created. Everything about him screams “messed up” but his courtesy and intellectual speak contrast this stunningly. The rolling paper, nail scissors, tobacco and other bits of his equipment lie scattered on the battered suitcase that serves as his coffee table.
The Grahamstown-dweller has a gentle yet simultaneously rough demeanour. Coetzee has lived here for years. “It can get boring. I have to leave at least once a year otherwise it becomes insidious,” he concedes. His pale hands seem red and bruised at the knuckles but as he calmly begins the rolling process, they are steady and sure. His dress oozes casualness. The faded black jeans and beat-up boots are almost emblematic of his rough past. “I was being bullied all the time at school so when someone offered to sell me weed, I bought it. I was having a weird experience with pain and pleasure at the time and the drug seemed to take away that pain, temporarily,” he said.
Coetzee recalls how hectic the drug abuse got when he came to Rhodes, how he continuously skipped lectures just to sit alone in his residence room getting high, as an act of escapism. “I wouldn’t accept that I was having an identity crisis,” he said. “The weed became my medicine but I began to get bad grades. I lost a lot of friends and hurt many people. I guess I just got very lazy and stopped working.”
The twenty-three year old humanities student has failed at least one subject every year he has been at Rhodes University. Studies have shown that persistent use of the drug cannabis has adverse effects on the brain’s memory, learning and impulse control. Other results include mild euphoria, pain relief and in rare instances, delusions or hallucinations. Coetzee is aware of these consequences but admits he has become reliant on the drug. “If I had worked harder, I’d be out of here by now but then I would have never met the love of my life. I don’t think I was ready to go out into the world,” he said without a trace of regret on his serene face.
The “professional student”, as he jokingly refers to himself, confesses that his other extramural activities include hiking, rock climbing, writing and spending time with his friends. Despite his addiction to weed and the surface association this has with raves and clubbing, Coetzee says he doesn’t really go out much. “The partying is a bit much here. I prefer to talk to people, to listen to good music, drink wine and get stoned,” he explains.
Coetzee is currently making up a few credits and will hopefully complete his undergraduate degree at the end of this year. He used to dream of joining the military or police force but he realised that he would rather become an academic. He has vague plans of travelling to Korea to teach English in the next few years but other than that seems content with the life he leads. “I’m loved and I’m free. Everything has worked out well for me. I feel positive,” he says.
The snipping of weed seeds and stalks in a small shot glass echoes loudly in the quiet room. He deftly measures out some of the tobacco onto the pre-prepared rolling paper. His fingers gracefully smooth it out evenly and he carefully rolls it, the art so familiar to him, it has become a ritual. His tongue sweeps across the edge of the joint and seals it as though it were a kiss to a lover. The flicker of the lighter burns hauntingly in the dimly lit space. Coetzee takes a pull like he’s breathing in a breath from depths the sober cannot comprehend and exhales. The pungent smoke curves in curlicues of relief.