Legal Weed: A Musician’s Canna-Comeback Tour
Mark M. Ward, front man of Massachusetts heavy metal band Synthetic Mindset, recounts the story of how cannabis brought him out of a depression that kept him confined to his home for nearly seven years.
Songwriting and music have always been forms of healthy self-expression for closet introverts like me. It’s like Billy Joel says, “Music in itself is healing. It’s an explosive expression of humanity. It’s something we are all touched by. No matter what culture we’re from, everyone loves music.”
In high school, before I was in my first band, I was always one of those fake-it-til-you-make-it types, posing as a popular and well-rounded social chameleon, floating seamlessly from clique to clique even though I felt like I didn’t belong in any of them. I was often considered one of the smart kids in school, though I often found I couldn’t even bring myself to attend class. Truth is, I had developed anxiety disorders—social and otherwise—after having experienced trauma at a young age. My mother left when I was young and my father was killed before I reached my sixth birthday. I was left to grow up during a tough time in a city full of hostility bred in socio-economic turmoil.
Following a tough childhood, I was assaulted more than once. In my senior year of high school, I was out late visiting a friend after work. While leaving his apartment building, I was rushed from behind by a mob of gang members and held against a fence while they took turns beating me and rummaging through my pockets. I was certain things would have ended up way worse if it weren’t for a friend who intervened.
Fearing these individuals planned on finishing what they started, I moved to Rhode Island to finish high school. It was there I discovered metal. I got in as the vocalist of my first performing band, Sully of Souls, and never turned back. I also started writing lyrics, which is not merely a pastime for me; it is a passion. The bands I fronted played at every location possible, including bars, clubs, festivals, and music halls.
Numerous bands and projects later, I had played at all my favorite local venues, and I felt like I was finally communicating with the people around me.
But not all was well. The pressures of managing a young professional life—I had begun training and managing at a marketing agency soon after graduation— and dealing with unresolved past traumas collided with physical ailments with an unimaginable force.
Suddenly, there I was: a 20-year-old man who was once able to sing in front of hundreds of people, but could no longer leave his home. My anxiety disorder and depression quickly spiraled into PTSD and agoraphobia, a crippling fear of leaving one’s home or safe environment. From what I can only attribute to nerves and pharmaceutical medications, I also developed agonizing digestive disorders.
That was rock bottom for me—and you’re always alone at the bottom. In my early twenties, I had lost friends and loved ones due to my illnesses, which they could neither see nor understand. I was even hospitalized at one point when I told a doctor I was thinking about weaning myself off my addictive pharmaceutical benzo pills because I felt like they were making me feel worse.
For about seven years, I barely left the room I was renting. I cooked my meals with a toaster oven and microwave. I lost track of the days and took the pills my doctors said would make me better, though this was usually followed by extended periods of staring at the wall in what could only be described as a mild state of catatonia. When I could, I pretended I was still a functioning member of society by promoting bands, events, and causes I supported via a social media group I created called Local Noise Entertainment. During this time, I also wrote many songs I felt would never be heard.
But then there was a saving grace: I received a call from 20-year-old Corey Agin, initiator and executive director of the Rhode Island National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (RI NORML). He explained he admired my marketing background and wanted me to work with him to help legalize cannabis.
During my time with RI NORML, Corey taught me a lot about cannabis and cannabis laws. He informed me of the ideal ways to use medical marijuana, and I truly started to grasp how to use the plant for desired therapeutic and remedial purposes. I also wrapped up a degree in psychology and tried to mix and apply this information to that I was regularly acquiring from my new friend and mentor. We started to create and attend cannabis events together, and I even started to manage some of my own despite the fact I had barely been able leave my home months before.
A few short years later, Corey tragically and unexpectedly passed away. I moved back to Massachusetts and took his lessons with me. Here, I continued to fight for cannabis legalization by rallying and writing articles. I starting volunteering for MassCann NORML and attending their events as an educator.
During this time, three significant personal milestones occurred, beginning with my first nationally distributed published article, “Legal Weed: Are We Good to Grow Yet?” The next of these milestones was a year of sobriety from cigarettes and addictive pharmaceuticals, and last was obtaining the physical health and emotional confidence to once more try out for, and perform with, a band.
When an old friend saw that I had moved back to Massachusetts, he reached out to me about a band called Synthetic Mindset that was looking for a vocalist. There was no way I could pass up the opportunity; the band was one of the area’s metal scene giants. I packed up my lyrics, met with the guitarist, and took a drive to their practice space. I gathered my emotions and experiences, and I sang with as much heart as I could possibly muster without blowing a blood vessel. We worked on a few songs, had a few laughs, and just when we were all about to leave—before I could ask how my try out went—I heard, “See you at next practice; good jam!” as the drummer entered his car to leave.
Since that day, I have been practicing and performing regularly with Synthetic Mindset. We’ve played at packed concert halls all over New England, headlining for stoner metal bands like Scissorfight and performing with Nullset while on tour. We’ve also written a new album, which we are currently almost ready to record.
At the same time, I’ve also continued to speak and teach at cannabis events and rallies, such as the Deschedule 420 Rally in Washington DC and the Boston Freedom Rally.
In the end, it was cannabis that saved my life, not teams of doctors with their barrage of addictive pharmaceutical regimens. For the first time in years, I truly feel free. For too long, I felt as if I was a prisoner of my own mind, destined for the isolation of my own cerebral solitary confinement. This road has been nothing less than a new beginning, an indication of now unbridled possibilities. And as my long-missed outlet was made possible once again, I felt as if I was rising through the ashes of despair that once was.