Cannabis: Enigma on the Shelves

Cannabis: Paranoia, Hype & Public Perception

Then and Now

Until October of 2018, if you wanted cannabis, you had to know a guy, someone willing to risk serious jail time. Since October, many ‘weed dealers’ have either left the business or they went legit. They might wear an NSLC cap and apron, offering a printed receipt upon purchase. Cannabis is just another consumer product: packaged, marketed and branded for public consumption.    

As cannabis sheds its taboo reputation as a street drug, social norms have yet to adjust. Is it, like alcohol, something for dinner parties, bars, and backyard BBQs?  Or does it function more like a coffee? The answer, of course, is that it’s not quite either.

Cannabis has recently gained a lot of attention, often for its alleged medicinal and spiritual potential, as well as its link to psychosis. Before that, in the 1990’s, many people thought of it as mostly harmless, but probably a “gateway” to worse. In the 80’s, the ominous “this is your brain on drugs” meme was born and transmitted via television ads, representing the fearful tone of much public opinion. During the 60’s and 70’s, it was a hippie thing, connected somehow to bliss, revolution and alternative lifestyles celebrated by some, seen as corrupt by others, depending on what side of ‘square’ you were on; a decade prior, the public associated it with jazz musicians and beatniks; in the 1930’s and 40’s it was little known, but when it made headlines it was typically linked to racial panic.  

No longer a target in the Canadian war on drugs, it’s hard to say where this thing–this plant intoxicant–is going to fit in polite society.

The picture does not clear up when you start asking around about what cannabis consumption feels like.  We know what drunk is, but what is high?  Users often describe it with the following adjectives: euphoric, sensual, disorienting, paranoia-inducing, relaxing, intense, hilarious, profound, dissociative, introspective, exhilarating, anxiety-inducing, enhancing (to other activities), inspirational, terrifying, erotic, confusing, and so on. The range of experiences is bewilderingly wide, and the same user might feel many of them over the course of a particularly robust experience.

For those curious about trying cannabis, or for those who aren’t sure whether or not to continue using it, it’s difficult to get useful information. This blog is intended to cut through some of the noise to provide a few solid data points around which, something approaching an informed decision can be made. To be transparent about where my own biases may be, I should disclose that I have had several cannabis experiences and remain rather ambivalent about whether the drug has improved or deteriorated my life and well-being. I find its effects on consciousness very curious.

Let’s start out with the cautions, move on to the hopeful, and then comment on the peculiar.

Difficult Experiences, Psychosis, and Shopping at the NSLC

The NSLC Experience

At the risk of being excessively critical of the NSLC, their commercial marketing of cannabis is misleading and potentially dangerous.

Since cannabis plants grow in different strains, the NSLC sorts different varieties of cannabis into 4 broad categories, which are supposed to reflect how high versus sedating the cannabis is. The categories are: Relax, Unwind, Centre, and Enhance.  Unfortunately, the NSLC justifies these categories based on whether the cannabis is from a Cannabis Sativa or Cannabis Indica plant (or a hybrid), which—contrary to widespread myth— is not a reliable indicator of the plant’s intoxicating potential. For one thing, growers have been selectively breeding for and against various characteristics for a long time, which has radically altered the plants from their original profiles, and the Sativa/Indica distinction may never have been a reliable indicator of the cannabis strength in the first place.

To speak generally, an accurate measure of cannabis strength is its THC content; an accurate measure of its sedative properties is its CBD content. Unfortunately, the NSLC categorizes some of its highest THC content strains (and lowest CBD content) under the label “Relax” or “Unwind”, simply because it is flower trimmed from an Indica plant.  The reverse is true as well. Even if all the research you do is within the NSLC store itself, you’ll see that the categories are not at all reliable indicators of what to expect. At least, the NSLC (thankfully) also labels the THC and CBD content for each strain.

However, though the THC/CBD information is useful, it tends to get buried because the NSLC also provides all sorts of other, much less relevant information. Considerable branding copy and retail space within their stores is dedicated to the terpene profiles of each strain, which gives strains their various distinctive odour and (smoked) flavour. This is, presumably, the NSLC’s efforts to market cannabis like a fine wine. And while this information might interest cannabis connoisseur, it’s noise to novice consumers who might be overwhelmed by all this information in trying to select their product.  Unfortunately, this is exactly when somebody might turn to the four basic categories, which as we’ve said, are not reliable.

Why is this dangerous? The danger here is that cannabis consumption can have adverse effects (see below), and this risk increases with the strength of the cannabis. It would be very easy to become overwhelmed by the volume of information provided at the NSLC, and accidentally buy the strongest strain available despite looking for something weak. Even weaker cannabis these days is generally more potent than average cannabis only 20 years ago. The market selects for strength. So this is a problem.

The last thing worth noting here is that cannabis is typically either smoked or eaten, and the NSLC warns against smoking, for concern about lung health. However, by smoking, one has the advantage of taking one puff and, in a couple minutes, assessing whether one wants a little more or not. When eaten, effects are delayed roughly an hour, and often then come on deceptively gradually. If you’ve eaten too much, you’re probably in for an unpleasant 5 hours, give or take (Smoked cannabis, in contrast, lasts only about 2 hours, though as with any drug, individual results will vary). Many novice users make the mistake of eating some and then deciding, 45 minutes later, to eat more because it hasn’t started working yet. By the time they realize that they’re getting too high, the second batch is just beginning to kick in.  Many adverse reactions follow this pattern.

October 17, 2018: Halifax, Nova Scotia: Patrons and media wait in line outside the Clyde Street NSLC on the morning the cannabis becomes legal in Canada

Psychosis

There is enough scientific data now linking psychosis and cannabis that very little credible doubt remains regarding (a weak) correlation.  The general consensus among cannabis researchers is that for those at particular risk for a psychotic disorder (such as schizophrenia), cannabis consumption is probably more likely to trigger a psychotic break, sometimes catalysing a chronic condition. Anyone with a family history of psychotic disorders is discouraged from using, but people without a known genetic susceptibility have also suffered chronic psychosis following cannabis use.  

Many people have argued that perhaps the correlation exist not because cannabis causes psychosis in some people, but because people who are at risk of psychotic disorders use cannabis to self-medicate. In other words, perhaps chronic psychosis was inevitable.

However, some evidence does point to a causal relationship. Anybody who has had a really bad experience on cannabis will likely concede that the drug brought them uncomfortably close to the precipice of madness; while interesting, the experience is fundamentally terrifying and unpleasant beyond description.

Bad Trips

Much more common than the psychotic break is the ‘bad trip’, or ‘difficult experience’. It’s unknown how common these are, but everyone knows someone who’s had one.  Often, difficult trips include one or more of the following: paranoia, excruciating levels of anxiety, bizarre thoughts and/or being stuck in thought loops, the fear that one is either dead or in the process of dying, extreme time dilation, fear that one is going crazy, cognitive disorganization, delusion, hallucination, an overwhelming sense of religious/metaphysical doom, and fear that the cannabis will never wear off.  It’s hard to overemphasize the discomfort associated with any of these symptoms in their extreme.

It’s worth noting too that once a person has had a difficult experience, it tends to become a persistent phenomenon.  Worse: difficult experiences predict (albeit, weakly) eventual psychotic reactions to cannabis.  In other words, if you’re having unpleasant reactions to cannabis, it may mean you’re at a slightly increased risk for serious mental health suffering, and you might want to take time to think about why you’re still using a drug that is giving you these difficult experiences.

If you find that you or somebody you know is going through a difficult experience, it’s helpful to remember that despite however strange and terrifying you or someone else might be, difficult episodes aren’t too uncommon. It’s generally not advised to go to the emergency room unless the person becomes threatening to self or others, which is extremely rare. If you’re the one having the experience, it’s best to not resist the experience, as much as you can, allowing it to wash through you however terrifying and overwhelming. Remember: you’re on a drug, and it is working. If someone else is going through a difficult experience, don’t panic or judge the other person.  Be available if they need water or somebody to talk to, or if they just need a hand on their back (ask before touching).  Here is a ‘best practices guide to helping someone cope with a cannabis or psychedelic crisis.

Other Negatives to Consider

More common than psychosis or bad trips, is “burn out”, which is a foggy, mental haze that many users experience hours or days after the high wears off. Unlike an alcohol hangover, cannabis burnout isn’t painful or even unpleasant. It’s characterized by decreased motivation and reduced short-term memory. Think of it like being too chilled out for your own good. If you’re into the hustle, this can cramp your style. Even if you like a clean bathroom, this might make life more of a chore. People you live with will probably start to get on you about cleaning up after yourself.

Long-term, chronic use seems to be associated with modest declines in cognitive capacity, especially if the person began using cannabis in adolescence (or before). It’s not clear if this is causal relationship, however, and findings have been disputed.

Cannabis use also reduces REM sleep, which is why users typically sleep dreamlessly in the days following a high. Now, it’s postulated that emotional learning is solidified in REM sleep, so if you’re seeing a psychologist with the aim of resolving a trauma, there’s good reason to believe that cannabis could be slowing your progress.

Recently, there is media attention being given to studies that suggest marijuana may have a negative effect on the developing brains of youths.  To read more on this, you might want to check out this article at the following link: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health-and-fitness/health/your-kids-brain-on-pot-the-real-effects-of-marijuana-on-teens/article21127612/[O1] 

Last, despite its reputation for not having addictive properties, cannabis dependence and withdrawal is real, following chronic use. Abstaining is difficult for many habitual users. Withdrawal symptoms include headaches, moodiness, insomnia, and digestive issues. Symptoms are generally not severe, compared to say, alcohol or heroine.

Why Do People Like Cannabis?

Peace

A lot of people find cannabis relaxing, social, anxiety relieving, fun, and uplifting. Often the sensation is like ‘slowing down’ and suddenly finding some psychological slack in the rope of time, and falling back into the present moment. It’s a rare experience, for most people, to be relieved of the constant sense of ‘going somewhere’, and to find oneself to be just here, now. The sensation of connecting to the present can, if strong enough, balloon into euphoric and mystical dimensions, but usually people just get chilled out.

Love

 Plenty of people find cannabis inter-personally enriching, and can forge deeper connections than usual on cannabis. One might find oneself opening up to others rather than resorting to shallow banter. Empathy is often amplified. Perhaps this is because cannabis interrupts regular social habits, allowing people to connect more authentically, or try new ways of communicating and forming relationships. Many people in the 1960’s and 70’s formed communes and experimented with various styles of social arrangement, for example.  

 Many people also, report cannabis to be an erotic intensifier, adding depth and new dimension, not only to the pleasure of sexual contact, but also to the emotional connection. Books have been written about this aspect of it, and recent research supports it.  

Rock & Roll

Artistic accomplishment, especially music enjoyment /creativity,   often jumps several rungs up the aesthetic ladder for many people under the influence of cannabis. It’s not uncommon for somebody on cannabis to “suddenly get” a new genre of music or artist, unexpectedly able for the first time to revel in the depths of Mozart, or see the genius of John Lennon. Someone may become spellbound by a hip hop artist who, until then, they’d perceived as making noise and a beat. Other types of art can be equally impactful, taking on hitherto unseen, breath-taking dimensions. The term “museum dose” of cannabis (or other psychedelics) refers to a dose that will enhance a museum visit without blowing one’s mind to a degree that one shouldn’t be in public.

Not just art, but the natural world takes on new dimensions and splendor.  One might become enchanted by the trees in a forest. One might find oneself feeling they’re experiencing nature for the first time or in a new or novel way:, as William Blake  wrote

“To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.”

­–William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

One plausible explanation for this attribute of cannabis is that it is, among other things, a non-specific psychological amplifier. What this means is that cannabis is like a telescope turned inward, magnifying whatever is happening within the psyche. Artistic appreciation turns to ecstasy; curiosity turns to profundity; physical ease turns into bliss. Food becomes sublime. This metaphor also explains why anxiety could turn to abject terror.

High Weirdness

Psychological Drift and Dramatic Shifts

In the 1999 film ‘American Beauty’, the main character, Lester Burnham (played by Kevin Spacey) is a middle-aged magazine executive who becomes increasingly untethered from the work-a-day routine. The film depicts him smoking cannabis in his garage evermore disenchanted with his suburban life, looking for meaning elsewhere than social status, work or consumerism. He starts exercising, takes a job flipping burgers, and indulges a ‘crush’ on a teenaged girl. The film is (until the end) wonderfully ambiguous about whether or not his trajectory is an overall improvement.

The movie touches upon a curious feature of cannabis: it tends to have a deprogramming influence upon people. During cannabis high, whatever psychological structures support the personality and maintain the straight-and-narrow of our usual lifestyle seem to be temporarily suspended. The reasons for this are varied and largely speculative, but one plausible contributor is that, while intoxicated by cannabis, the very experience of being changes. Subjectivity itself morphs and reality itself has a new shape. During, and in the wake of such an altered state, one’s sense of what’s real and what’s possible may come into question.  One may become more agnostic about metaphysical assumptions previously held, about the dominant cultural scripts, about values adopted long ago, or any other mode of being that makes reality seem narrow and ordinary. The positive element to this is that one might gain some freedom from those “mind-forg’d manacles” (London, by William Blake).  On the other hand, it may not be in your best interest to drift too far from structures that might be serving you (or people who rely on you), nor is it always pleasant, convenient or desirable to find oneself asking such fundamental questions. Preoccupation with this sort of thing, by the way, is often what gets labeled as ‘pothead philosophy’—a pejorative label that it sometimes (not always) deserves.

Cannabis can cause shifts in personality through another route as well, namely the “peak experience”. One might attend a concert on cannabis, for example, and be so deeply moved that the music takes on a mystical dimension, causing one to resolutely decide to learn the violin. Indeed, the entire trajectory of one’s life might suddenly take a sharp turn. Many of the well-known North American Buddhists have recently come out of the psychedelic closet, admitting that their interest in Eastern religion (and subsequent, lifelong devotion) was caused by a peak experience. Many peak experiences are seen as bearing religious or mystical significance by those who’ve had them. Our western society has very little in the way for those who have had such experiences (in contrast to cultures where a shaman plays a significant role), which can leave people feeling alienated, isolated, and/or just peculiar.

Psychedelic science, Chemical Sacraments, and Psychonauts

In this last section, I talk about psychedelics (like LSD) in general. Cannabis is considered a ‘minor’ psychedelic. However, a strong cannabis dose–especially if consumed orally–can be just as powerful as a full-blown psychedelic experience. The reason I comment upon psychedelics generally is that research pertaining to psychedelics is applicable to cannabis consumption, and can inform your decisions.

During the 1950’s and early 60’s, psychedelics weren’t yet prohibited, and university psychology departments across the continent were running strange experiments, obtaining strange but hopeful results (note: these experiments are not to be confused with the ethically reckless experiments by  groups like the CIA, who sought to weaponize these chemicals). Within university and clinical settings, psychedelics were found to help chronic alcoholics sober up; convicts exposed to psychedelics were less likely to reoffend, and schizophrenic children made large improvements toward healing. These were just some of the very promising findings.

Timothy Leary, a Harvard psychologist during the 60’s, postulated that the psychological effects of psychedelics depend on 3 factors: set, setting, and dose. The dose of course, refers to how much of the psychedelic substance is being ingested. The setting is the environment, including other people, the amount of distraction, etc. in which the drug is taken. This affects the drug experience because the setting impacts the third factor: the set.  The set is the psychological state of the person who consumes the psychedelic substance, including their  temperament, personality, expectations, experiences of his/her environment, and so on.  A large dose, taken in a chaotic environment (setting) by an anxious person whose psychedelic ingestion is due to peer pressure, will likely be in for a terrifying and destabilizing experience. The same dose, taken in a church by a devout Christian, however, might result in a powerful gnostic experience that forever deepens her spirituality.

The idea is that psychedelics (including cannabis) do two things.  First, they suspend the usual frame of mind, allowing not for new experiences, but new categories of experience, as well as some that stretch the boundaries of everyday experience. Second, psychedelics amplify whatever psychological state the person is in (the ‘nonspecific psychological amplifier’ theory, as mentioned above).  Therefore, the set, setting, and dose act like a  rudder to put one’s hand upon in an attempt to direct the psychedelic experience towards a specific destination, one which is not only out of the regular bounds of the user, but experimentally and experientially magnified. Manipulation of dose, set and setting allows one to become, in theory, an ‘experiential engineer’, and research was continuing along these lines (and others) in efforts to direct not only drug experiences, but personality transformation along desired direction.  

In the mid-60’s, however, psychedelics were prohibited and legal research was unfortunately shut down, and so these findings have not been peer-reviewed, replicated. The theories have not been verified.

Research (of various qualities) went underground, where it continues today.  

A revival is underway, gaining in momentum from the early 2000’s onward, as the FDA began allowing (tightly controlled) experiments with psychedelics for the treatment of certain anxieties, as well as (more recently) treatment-resistant depression. The current research is drawing largely upon the findings of the 50’s and 60’s, and results are fascinatingly promising.

Michael Pollen’s new book “How to Change Your Mind” is bringing new attention to this research, as well as to the underground networks of psychedelic therapists who have been operating since the prohibition, conducting research, taking clients, and sharing notes with one another.  

As with all things underground, the lack of regulation yields a motley bunch of practitioners, many of whom think of psychedelics as spiritual substances, or who refer to themselves as ‘psychonauts’. The language can be confusing and even off-putting for some. However, between the underground and legitimate research being conducted, best practices are being developed, refined, published, and distributed. If your interest is in experimentation, resources are available for you to direct your cannabis experience, and to learn to navigate the experiences it can summon. I caution once more, however, that ‘best practices’ are still in beta mode, and much more peer-reviewed research is needed before we can draw strong conclusions about what these drugs are, what they can do, and how to handle them.

Conclusions

Cannabis appears to be, physiological and psychologically, of little threat or harm to most adults, but it does appear to have some destabilizing effects, which may be a real threat to some folks. For those curious to try, caution is best: it’s generally best to start with a low dose, and to do so in a comfortable, supportive environment. Pay attention to dose, set and setting. If the intended method of consumption is to eat the cannabis (rather than to smoke it), much greater care is needed to ensure that dose is not overdone.  As dose increases, the impact it can have on one’s life increases, whether that’s good or bad is up for debate. 


Chris Moule

Chris Moule is a student of psychology with plans to become a registered psychologist within the next 5 years. His interest is in different maps of what the mind/body is, and how such maps might relate to the resolution of trauma

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