Three Rooms

By Mike McGurran

Editors Note: This story includes discussions of drug use and may contain foul language. While it has been edited through Associated Press Guidelines, some readers may find this offensive. This story was submitted to The Advocate through Chris Walker’s Digital Storytelling class, it is part of a ten-part series of stories examining Minnesota’s legalization of Marijuana. Each story investigates the background and implications that come with the legalization. The series, which began on April 28th, will run until May 5th.

Photo Illustration by Abby Makay

Huso: The Refugee

Huso Jusic fits the definition of “refugee”, but struggles to see himself as one. 

“I’ve lived here my whole life,” he says. “I moved here when I was a baby, so I don’t even remember not being American.”

HIs mother fled Bosnia for the United States in 1995, with nothing but the clothes on her back and her infant son. Huso’s father was killed in an ethnic cleansing campaign by the Army of Republika Srpska in Bosnia during the Bosnian War. The campaign largely targeted Bosnia’s mostly white Muslim population. More than 8,000 men and boys were killed, and tens of thousands Bosnian civilians displaced from their homes over the course of the conflict.

Over the years, she’s scratched and clawed her way to some semblance of a normal American life. She married Huso’s stepfather, and had two more children. It’s been challenging for her, especially in post 9-11 America, an America that bred a culture of deep skepticism towards Muslims, even white ones.

“After September 11th, my stepdad’s coworkers started following him when he would go to the bathroom,” Jusic recalls. “That’s how bad it was.” 

Jusic says his experiences as a noncitizen inform every aspect of his life, which is decidedly strange considering his memories of home come exclusively from visits he’s gone on later in life, well after the war had ended.

“I feel American, but it’s different for my parents,” he says, referring to his mother and his stepfather. “They don’t speak any English, so I have to take care of a lot of that stuff.”

Huso still lives at home at the age of 27. We sit on his couch as we speak, while his parents chat in their native tongue a room away. Although many people may look down on a man in his late 20’s still living with his parents, it’s not a strange cultural practice in Bosnia. Besides, Huso has responsibilities here. He has two younger half-brothers still in high school, and he serves as a sort of cross cultural liaison between his parents and his brothers teachers, helping bridge the language barrier. 

Eventually, we sneak into the bathroom in his room, an area he has exclusive access too. He turns on the bathroom’s exhaust fan, covers the crack from the bottom of the bathroom’s closed door with a towel, and lights up a slender, expertly-rolled joint. 

“I’m basically dad number three to my siblings,” he explains in between puffs of marijuana. “It is what it is, but it’s tiring sometimes, you know?”

He started smoking weed his senior year of high school, and it’s been a more or less daily habit since then, a reprieve from life’s responsibilities, a way to wind down. I ask him if he sees his chronic usage as a good thing, a necessary evil, or a hindrance. 

He’s scrolling on his phone, half-paying attention. Eventually he glances at me, apologizes, and asks me to repeat the question. I oblige.

“I don’t know man,” he says with a shrug. “I guess I don’t see it as a bad thing.”

Another long pause. I get the sense he’s disengaged. It’s not a touchy subject necessarily, maybe just one he doesn’t care much about.

He lights up another joint, gestures at me, and asks “Sorry man, forgot to ask. You want a hit?”

I decline.

Taylor: The Mormon

Taylor, who requested to be referred to by only his first name, grew up in a broken home. His father was in his life to an extent, but he was largely raised by his strong-willed mother, along with four younger siblings. 

It was a strict, conservative, Mormon household. Physical and spiritual purity are fundamental concepts in Latter Day Saints Doctrine, with strict rules about the consumption of alcohol, caffeine, and other illicit drugs applying to all of its followers. 

A Mormon who partakes in cannabis could find themselves alienated from friends and family very quickly.

“I don’t feel a lot of guilt about it anymore, maybe I did at first,” Taylor says. “But once the veil was lifted from my eyes, those things went away.”

Taylor no longer identifies as being a Mormon, preferring to label himself as agnostic, or perhaps more accurately, disinterested. Even when he believed, his cannabis usage didn’t cause much spiritual angst.

“It’s not like I thought Joseph Smith would tattle on me,” he quips. 

His cannabis usage is down significantly from its peak a few years ago, when he would smoke multiple times throughout the day. Today, he describes his usage as maybe every other day, usually limiting it to a few puffs. For him, dosage was key.

“It was the paranoia that really got to me,” he said. “It made me afraid of myself, it’s like your thoughts are screaming at you, and I had very negative thoughts about myself.”

Mental illness runs in Taylor’s family. His Grandmother struggled with schizophrenia all her life. After a conflict with her daughter, Taylor’s mother, over her desire to stop taking her medicine, she disappeared from their life entirely. No one has seen her since, and no one even knows if she’s alive or dead. Taylor was seven years old.

Citing his own familiarity with scientific literature that paints a connection between drug usage and the development of mental illness, Taylor decided to cut back. He describes his relationship with cannabis as being perfectly healthy today, but he regrets the role it played in his life in the past.

“It’s affected friendships,” he said. “A lot of my friends and I bonded over being stoners, so when I cut back, it became clear that there wasn’t much else there. The loose tie that kept us together was cannabis, and when it was gone, they were gone.”

Taylor still lives with his family as he grinds his way through med school. As the children of the family grew older, their ties to the LDS church have lessened significantly. He has a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about his smoking with his mother, and tries very hard to keep his siblings away from any exposure to marijuana. 

“Being the oldest of five siblings, I’m the example,” he explains. “When I was younger, I’d get in trouble because I wasn’t being the example she wanted. I think she understands me better now, so it isn’t really an issue.”

Our conversation concludes. I have a sneaking suspicion that Taylor wasn’t completely forthright with me. He started the conversation downplaying his concerns and insisting he was at peace with his cannabis usage, but seemed to waver as my questions probed deeper and deeper. 

I’m not a mind reader, but I suspect he’s still figuring stuff out. Who can blame him?

Cameron: The Orphan

When I speak with Cameron Burton over the phone, he’s walking around in his neighborhood in Denver, Colorado. He’s got a couple hours before his night shift at the barbecue restaurant starts

“I try to stop smoking an hour before I go to work,” he says. “I don’t really care about being professional, and I know other people do it at my workplace. I just don’t like being high in that environment.”

Maybe not in that environment, but Cameron will be the first to tell you; he’s a man who loves getting high. 

He’s originally from Oklahoma. His dad wasn’t around, and Cameron has no relationship with him whatsoever. HIs home life was, for lack of a better word, a nightmare. His single mother was physically and emotionally abusive, and she had a revolving door of men coming in and out of her life, each bringing their own abuse into the household. It ended with Cameron being forced out of his home, and he bounced around in foster care for the next ten years of his life. Some homes were good to him, others abused him even more.

His memories of those times are vague at best. He says he’s struggled a lot with his long term memory in recent years, although he’s not sure if it’s a psychological response from the trauma, or a consequence of his heavy usage of drugs and alcohol during his younger life. 

“Being a foster kid for ten years after being taken from a violent household definitely played a role as the catalyst for my drug and alcohol use,” Cameron says. “I started drinking at about 14.”

Cameron’s battle with alcoholism defined the next decade of his life. It shaped both the beginning and the end of many of his relationships. It caused multiple serious injuries to Cameron, which in turn led to trips to the hospital. Cameron didn’t have health insurance until very recently, and he racked up thousands of dollars of debt while getting medical treatment. It also paved the way for him to try harder drugs, and this culminated in a life-changing incident in which he overdosed on cocaine, possibly laced with fentanyl. He was unconscious for 17 hours. 

It was a wake-up call. He hasn’t had a drink since 2019, but he still smokes cannabis every single day.

“Feeling shame and inadequacy was the prerequisite for starting to drink and do drugs,” he said. “I don’t feel that anymore and instead feel proud to have overcome my bigger problems and have the opportunity and youth to work on my smaller issues like smoking often.”

Cameron feels like his struggle with alcohol addiction gives him a unique perspective on his cannabis usage. 

“Cannabis is anathema to the addiction I experienced, and I’m oddly humbled to know what an addiction feels and looks like,” he tells me. 

I ask him if he feels like his daily usage of cannabis weighs on him at all, if he sees parallels between that and his alcoholism. 

“Is it a form of addiction? Vaguely, but it’s been a mostly positive force in my life,” he insists. “The fact I’m self-aware and observant of my usage is what’s unique from my alcohol addiction.”

We say our goodbyes. He’s off to the barbecue joint, stone-cold sober…at least until his shift ends. 

Taylor Calls Back

About two weeks after we last spoke, Taylor gave me a call out of the blue. 

“I feel like I didn’t really prepare as much as I could have.” he explains to me. “I’d like to try again now that I’ve thought about it.”

I ask Taylor if he felt he was dishonest with me, or if he was merely unsatisfied with how he expressed himself.

“Both,” he says immediately. “There’s so much shame tied up with all of this stuff for me, that I feel like I’m not even honest with myself about it sometimes.”

One might expect that shame is purely a product of a conservative upbringing, but it’s more complicated for Taylor.

“The thing is, on one hand I think I’m a pretty successful guy,” he explains. “I’m going to med school, I’m working really hard to make something of myself. I already built myself a nice career as a pharmacy technician, but I’m taking it upon myself to go one step further. And I am proud of that, you know?”

So what, I ask him, is the issue?

“There are so many things about myself that I’ve had to change to reach those goals. I’ve cut out old friends, cut out toxic habits, moved to healthier environments…I’ve made so many sacrifices. And honestly, some of those decisions were hard, but most of the time, it was easy. It was a relief. But throughout all that time, in the back of my head, I’ve always known that my smoking habits were one of the bigger problems holding me back, but it’s the one thing I’m powerless over. I just can’t do anything about it.”

I point out to Taylor that maybe it doesn’t matter. He’s still pursuing his goals, he’s still doing what he can to make something of himself. If he’s still on the right path, satisfied with his progress, why does it matter if he enjoys getting high once in a while?

He pauses for a long time, maybe a full twenty seconds. He tries to respond, but falls silent again for another long stretch of time.

“Maybe it doesn’t matter,” he admits at last, letting out a long sigh. “But when so much of your life is about taking control of things, it drives you crazy when such a small thing has total power over you. Maybe it’s okay, but why can I do so many things but I can’t do this?”

I don’t have the answer for Taylor. Perhaps no one does. He’s still chugging forward, working to make his family proud, to be an example for his siblings. He just needs to get high once in a while to stay on course.

“It’s probably not the end of the world,” he says. “I’m probably overthinking it. But it bothers me. It’s always bothering me.” 

Maybe one person’s pleasure is another person’s crippling hindrance. Maybe the way we’re brought up forever shapes feelings about our own personal baggage. 

Huso was disinterested in ruminating on his drug use. Surviving a genocide puts things in perspective. Cameron might struggle with his usage somewhat, but compared to battling alcohol addiction, a few puffs of weed is small potatoes. Taylor’s usage is always on his mind, but it doesn’t seem to be stopping him from achieving his goals.

“I think it’s going to keep bothering me,” Taylor tells me at the conclusion of our final phone call. “But I’m gonna keep going. It hasn’t stopped me yet, it probably won’t in the future.”

Another long pause.

“But I think it’s always gonna be on my mind. I don’t see that changing.”

We say our goodbyes and I hang up. 

Later that day, I walk around my downtown Fargo neighborhood. Tons of people walk and talk around the many storefronts of the neighborhood. A group of disheveled men laugh and talk outside of Sammy ‘s Pizza on Broadway. They’re closely huddled together, but I smell that familiar, skunky odor. One of them sees me smirking and smiles back.

“You want some bro?”

I think about it briefly, but I decline. 

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