Cannabis: what’s it good for?
A main effect of cannabis is to make whatever you do while on it easier to continue doing. Since “whatever you do while on it” could include anything from martial arts to munching out to melding into your couch, its effects can be hard to adequately characterise. It’s usually thought to be category breaking: it’s unclear whether it’s a “depressant,” “stimulant” or “hallucinogen,” because in practice it paradoxically behaves as all three. This becomes simpler if we instead emphasise intentionality and dynamism, tracking why people use it, what it’s good for and what it’s not good for. Below I will quickly run through some varieties of its uses and conclude with a brief discussion of its health effects.
Contrary to its reputation as a “mild” or “soft” drug, cannabis can be extremely inebriating, in the sense that a large dose can make it nearly impossible to “act sober” or “think clearly.” For those who “have to be in control,” it can be a scary experience, as flights of fancy and sensory immersion dominate the cognitive and perceptual fields. This is compounded by the notorious difficulty of controlling dosage. Variation in potency between batches, variation in the amount actually consumed in a given session (especially in a social setting where it’s passed around repeatedly among people who may have differing tolerances), and variation in the ratios between the many active alkaloids can make it very easy to get way higher than was intended. Users frequently become familiar with the batch they have and the method of ingestion they use, and then end up getting completely fucked up the next time they try a different variety a different way (bongs, vapourisers and baked goods are all notorious for taking people by surprise).
This variability, combined with a manageable duration and an excellent safety profile, makes cannabis ideal for anybody who wants to experience something powerful, different and not altogether predictable. It’s therefore the drug of experimentation par excellence. Because of the completeness of its change compared to sober consciousness, it’s also effective for sedation or relief from stress or pain: if you simply don’t want to feel how you’re currently feeling, that can be accomplished. Thus, it’s highly suited to two of the three Inebriation subcategories: Variation and Negation, but less suited to the third: Disinhibition. While it is sometimes used for this purpose, it’s much better at helping you continue something rather than do something new, and users often become introverted or cautious when stoned, exactly the opposite of what you want to help you loosen up and engage in behaviours you otherwise couldn’t.
As already noted, pot makes it easier to continue activities already being performed. As it turns out, it works by activating the receptors in our body that are responsible for the “runner’s high.” If you smoke pot but you’ve never tried exercising while high, try it! You’ll be surprised how amazing it is. The feeling of effort in your body will become more intense but also more enjoyable, making it far easier to push yourself harder or keep going longer. There is, of course, a danger here: it’s possible to push yourself too far and risk injury. For this reason my yoga instructor cautions against highly vigorous practice under the influence, although he adds it does synergise well with meditation. It can help with the physical practice, but just be careful not to overdo it: as an anti-inflammatory it can make it easier for your muscles to get into extreme postures, but that doesn’t mean your tendons are ready for that.
Cannabis also often makes sensations of all sorts more enjoyable. Massage, music, sex, film, art, landscapes, food… everything becomes more salient, and it’s easy to become absorbed. This makes it highly suited to anything primarily about sensation and experience, though poorly suited to things which require a long attention span. Good media for pot is anything that grabs you and takes you somewhere; poor media for pot is static and requiring of a robust short term memory.
It’s therefore good for some kinds of Ability Enhancement, great for Sensory Enhancement, and nigh unparalleled for Immersion. “Flow” states (suspension of neurotic self-consciousness as action and awareness merge) become far easier to access. Whether you’re giving massage, playing video games or making music, it’s easy to become lost in the experience.
As noted above, marijuana sometimes causes flights of fancy: intense thought patterns often on a specific subject, colloquially termed “tripping out.” While for some people this may be unpleasant (anathema to relaxation, and sometimes anxious or even paranoid in character), for many it’s the primary reason they use the drug: it makes them think about or reflect on things, and they often end up learning a whole lot through the process. This is what’s meant when people talk about cannabis “boosting creativity.” As size or frequency of doses increase, however, mental stimulation tends to get subsumed by haze and lethargy. Best practices are to take a relatively small dose in a safe, creative setting, jot down whatever seems important, and then look over those notes the next day, searching for gems (not everything that seemed brilliant when high will still seem brilliant when sober, but some of it might!). The other approach is to meditate while high, which can be more powerful than either the pot or the meditation would have been separately: personal insights and mystical truths may flow forth. Because of the way that cannabis often strengthens aesthetic experience, taken in the right situation it can also be conducive to a feeling of Communion: awareness of beauty, intimate feelings of interconnectivity, love and gratitude. This seems to work best when consumed outside in a beautiful location.
Thus, it’s great for the psychedelic category of Insight, and though it’s less consistent for Communion and Mystery, it certainly is used for and can accomplish both some of the time.
Sometimes, when people get stoned… strange things happen. There’s no real consistency here and so it’s impossible to adequately describe, but profound experiences do sometimes happen under the influence, often leading to personal transformation. How this will be interpreted depends to a large extent upon network situatedness and cultural conceptions of the Other. Stigma surrounding unusual states of consciousness can lead any strange experience to be interpreted as a sign of mental illness, and the truth is that pot use appears to have genuinely triggered persisting pathological effects in some rare cases. However, it has also left many other people mentally healthy but with a new-found awareness of the transcendental, or of God. Note that sometimes mystic awakenings, drug occasioned or otherwise, can be dramatic and overwhelming. Spiritual emergencies like unexpected kundalini awakenings and many other phenomena have been reported, and must be taken seriously: appropriate guidance and discretion is necessary. Attempting to interfere with or block whatever was activated can do far more harm than good. If this happens with a friend, don’t panic or jump to conclusions, just keep them safe and try to contact somebody qualified to act as a guide.
Symbolism and Religious Associations
Cannabis has a place of distinction in many religious, mystical and magical traditions. To begin with, it has strong associations with Goddess worship: what is smoked is literally the sex organs of the female plant, and its effects are considered to have a distinctly “feminine” character. For Rastafari, it grew on the grave of Solomon the Wise and which, when used in meditation, gives you access to that wisdom yourself. For the Church of the Universe, it increases connection to God. Reverend Brother Walter Tucker once told me that while LSD let him behold God in full majesty, such an experience is too much to handle regularly, and that the Sacrament brings him just a little closer to and reminds him of that sacred connection, while still being mild enough for him to use regularly: not a mountain-top experience, but a daily reminder. It’s also sacred to the Hindu world-destroyer, Siva, because it relieved his anxiety, allowing him to dance, thereby sublimating the poison of Time, and he therefore bears the title Lord of Bhang.
As a major agricultural plant, it is deeply associated with the Harvest and the cyclical nature of Time; because of its mental stimulation and inebriation it is used to occasion ritual madness and ecstatic experience. In China it has associations with death and immortality.
Certain people want you to think that pot is really dangerous, while others make it sound like a cure-all. Fact is that it has some fairly straight forward health effects, and it can be either good or bad for you depending how and when you use it.
- It lowers blood pressure. This can be beneficial in some circumstances and dangerous in others. Especially when combined with alcohol it can cause light headedness or nausea, sometimes referred to as “greening out” or “the spins.”
- As an anti-inflammatory, it’s useful for dealing with certain kinds of pain and injury. There is some concern that this effect may increase susceptibility to certain kinds of infection (inflammation, though unpleasant, is sometimes important), but there’s no good evidence that this is something users ought to worry about (maybe if you’re immune-compromised or visiting the Amazon).
- Regular, long term smoking reduces lung capacity and may lead to chronic bronchitis
- It appears to treat or protect against certain kinds of cancer; unlike tobacco smokers, marijuana smokers do not have massively elevated rates of lung cancer. Its anti-carcinogenic effect appears to balance out with the inherent carcinogenic nature of smoke inhalation, but of course it’s better for your lungs not to smoke anything.
- It blocks nausea, particularly chemically induced, and it therefore may be useful to combine with certain chemicals for which that is a problem (such as in the case of chemotherapy).
- It stimulates appetite, very helpful in certain situations. Despite what might then be expected, its use is not associated with obesity: quite the opposite.
- Some people are allergic to cannabis (remember, they call it “weed” for a reason). If you personally react badly to it, this may be why.
- It has neuroprotective effects on adult brains and may prevent such degenerative conditions as Alzheimer’s Disease. However, processes that slow degradation may also impede development, and so we ought to caution against regular use by young people.
- It potentiates or interacts with many other drugs, so combine with caution. In particular, if you’re going to mix cannabis and alcohol, one idea is to smoke first and then drink, as it’s easier to control the dosage of alcohol than the dosage of cannabis: you can nurse your drink, but you can’t un-smoke that joint. Smoking pot when already drunk often ends very badly.
- It reduces dream activity. For people who have regular nightmares this can be a godsend; for others it’s an unfortunate, if not altogether important, side effect. Sudden cessation of regular use can produce a rebound of extremely intense dreams.