If you would have told 15-year-old me that I’d try marijuana one day, I would’ve laughed at you (... and to be honest, if you’d told 10-days-ago me that I’d be writing about it for the entire world to see, I would’ve called you insane). In the very conservative small town I come from, drug use is… frowned upon, to say the least.

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I remember middle-school health classes that spent far more hours discussing the horrors of illicit substances than learning about the human body, reproductive organs, or safe sex. And marijuana? Marijuana was somehow the worst imaginable—more so than ecstasy or LSD—because it was a "gateway drug."

So I spent years being uncomfortable, even in casual conversations, about marijuana use. I didn’t want to be around it. Although I swore that I wouldn’t judge anyone for choosing to use it, I was kind of freaked out by it. But recently, I traveled to a state where marijuana is legal, and I decided that I wanted to try it for myself.

So, why did I change my mind? Well, I’ve spent the last four years dealing with crippling anxiety and panic disorder.

Over the course of the last year, I’ve heard more and more stories about people with similar issues turning to legal marijuana to ease their anxiety. Earlier this year, I spent months confined to my house in my worst case of borderline-agoraphobia to date, and the tension in my shoulders had been so omnipresent that I could honestly barely feel it anymore.

Anxiety tore my life to pieces, but after trying everything (with varying degrees of success), I wanted to breathe. You name it, I’ve done it: mindfulness, yoga, cutting caffeine, trying various antidepressants, anti-anxiety medication, herbal supplements, weightlifting, therapy, tapping… the list goes on. And, while I’d found some relief during different periods of my life—mostly thanks to weightlifting—I was exhausted.

When I walked into my first dispensary, I felt like an absolute fraud.

The man checking IDs at the door welcomed me with a laugh, saying, "We love getting people from a dark state"—the term for a state that hasn’t yet legalized marijuana. Inside, I was surprised to find it bright, cheerful—nothing like I expected (a smoky, dimly lit back room with a Humphrey Bogart character lifting an eyebrow in the corner? I’m not sure), and the person behind the counter helped explain different options available.

I opted for a watermelon-kiwi flavored gummy infused with a moderate dose, paid (after a second ID check), and left. Nervous, impatient, and entirely unsure of whether or not I would actually go through with it, I popped the gummy into my mouth in the backseat of the car and set a timer for when the man at the dispensary said it should kick in.

Honestly, I didn’t think anything would happen. I’d tried to smoke marijuana the day before with no success, and I ended up camping out with my laptop to get some work done once we got back. When my timer finally went off, I still hadn’t felt like anything had changed.

But then, I didn’t feel out of control—I felt light.

The tension in my shoulders melted, the stress I’ve been carrying around for years disappeared, and the anxiety I’d been feeling all morning simply washed away. It wasn’t anything to write home about, and I didn’t feel like the partier, the stoner, or whatever other perceptions I’d held about marijuana use in my head.

That night, I got the best night of sleep I’ve had in ages, and I woke up feeling refreshed and, well, good. Unlike alcohol, which also has the ability to "take the edge off," I didn’t feel groggy, and I realized that my behavior during was far tamer than I’d ever experienced while drinking, even with a light one-to-two drink buzz. That edible made me feel happy, relaxed, and just… OK.

It wasn’t until months later, while hiking with my husband, that I realized my marijuana experiment turned into a greater understanding of the whole "legalization" debate. I’d always held the belief that marijuana was dangerous, that it was a gateway drug that would lead to further drug use and had the power to destroy lives. But thinking about it, I realized that the only reason marijuana is a gateway drug is because we make it one.

Think about it this way: If you’d been told your entire life that a substance was bad for you, that it’s dangerous, and you finally try it, only to discover the opposite—what would you think about every other so-called dangerous substance? Maybe something like, "Well, if a little bit of weed wasn’t that bad, then maybe trying bath salts will be fine." (Note: It won’t be.)

More and more research shows that cannabis has the potential to offer many health benefits, including the treatment of anxiety, chronic pain, epilepsy, and more.

And while marijuana is not without its adverse effects, a recent study concluded that alcohol and nicotine (both legal substances) are both higher risk than cannabis.

I know that I’m not an expert, but I’ve come to acknowledge that a public health approach, like the one being taken in Canada, offers a much stronger potential to moderate overall drug use through regulation and restriction—the way we do alcohol and tobacco—as opposed to criminalization. (I mean, we all know how well Prohibition worked.) And, more importantly, the racial implications of the war on drugs hold more weight than I could even begin to fully understand or cover.

When it comes down to it, I’ve realized that the legalization of marijuana isn’t as terrifying as some people in my youth made it out to be (and some people are still making it out to be). It’s past time for these conversations to happen, and—if we want to protect younger generations and reduce overall drug use—we have to start examining our preconceived notions about marijuana use and whether or not those are grounded in reality. Mine certainly weren’t, and now I can see that there’s a bigger picture here that needs to be addressed.

Jandra Sutton is an author, historian, and public speaker. She lives in Nashville with her husband and their two dogs, and Pluto is still a planet in her heart. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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