Every age has its peculiar folly, and if Charles Mackay, the author of the mid-19th century classic, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, were alive today he would surely see “canabinophobia” as a popular delusion along with the “tulipmania” and “witch hunts” of earlier ages. I believe that we are now at the cusp of this particular popular delusion which to date has been responsible for the arrest of about 20 million US citizens. I also believe that future historians will look at this epic and recognize it as another instance of the “madness of crowds.” Millions of marijuana users have already arrived at this understanding.
For a short period of time in the 70s it was possible to believe that this “popular delusion” was beginning to lose it deeply embedded grip. Whatever the cultural conditions that made it possible, there was no doubt that the discussion about marijuana was becoming more sensible. We were gradually becoming conscious of the irrationality of classifying this drug as one with a high abuse potential and no value. It seemed to me that if that trend had continued, it was likely that within another decade marijuana would be sold and regulated in the United States in much the same way as alcohol.
We had reason to be optimistic at that time. In 1971 the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, appointed by President Nixon, had recommended the elimination of penalties for possession of marijuana for personal use and casual non-profit transfers of small amounts. In 1973 Oregon had become the first state to decriminalize marijuana, making possession of less than an ounce a civil offense accompanied by a small fine. In 1975 Alaska had eliminated all penalties for private possession and cultivation of less than 4 ounces. President Carter had endorsed decriminalization, as had the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Bar Association, and the National Council of Churches. By 1977 most states had reduced simple possession to a misdemeanor, and by 1980 11 states had actually decriminalized possession.
Unfortunately, this trend did not continue and the marijuana reform movement peaked in the late 1970s. In 1978 Dr. Peter Bourne, the White House drug advisor who helped President Carter move toward reform, resigned and was replaced by Lee Dogoloff, a hardliner. Under President Reagan the government instituted a program of “zero tolerance.” By 1983 it was spraying the dangerous insecticide Paraquat on domestic marihuana crops and using military methods to uproot cannabis plants and arrest growers in northern California.
In 1987 Supreme Court nominee Douglas Ginsburg had to withdraw under pressure because he had smoked marijuana as a law professor. In 1989 under President George H.W. Bush, the federal government began Operation Green Merchant; it confiscated lists of people who had ordered indoor plant-growing equipment and raided their homes. The first Bush administration also worked hard to persuade Alaska to recriminalize marihuana possession and succeeded in 1990. That same year Congress passed a bill calling for federal transportation funds to be withheld from states refusing to enact a six-month suspension of the automobile licenses of people convicted of marijuana possession.
It is important to remember that these increasingly harsh government measures (and the growing hysteria of anti-marijuana citizens’ groups) did not reflect any new knowledge about the dangers of this drug. The more than a third of a century since the publication of the first edition of Marihuana Reconsidered has produced remarkably little laboratory, sociological, or epidemiological evidence of serious health or social problems caused by marijuana.
The present attitude of the government and anti-marijuana crusaders bears the same relationship to reality that the film Reefer Madness bore in 1936. But the dissonance is even more striking now, because we know so much more. Since 1971 millions of dollars have been spent by the National Institute of Drug Abuse to study the dangers of cannabis. This vast research enterprise has completely failed to provide a scientific basis for prohibition. Although evidence against the alleged toxicity continues to accumulate, the federal government persists in escalating its war on marijuana use, and to justify this policy it continues to distort, stretch, and truncate research findings to an extent worthy of Procrustes. One of the prices of the present level of enforcement is the growing number of annual marijuana arrests (872,000 in 2007), with enormous collateral costs.
In 1971 I pointed out in Marihuana Reconsidered that since cannabis had been used by so many people all over the world for thousands of years with so little evidence of significant toxic effects, the discovery of some previously unknown serious health hazard was unlikely. I suggested that the emphasis in cannabis research should be shifted to its potential both as a medicine and as a tool to advance our understanding of brain function. Although few government resources have been committed to either of these fields, there have been compelling developments in both.
In 1990 researchers discovered the first of two receptors in the brain stimulated by tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). This exciting discovery implied that the body produces its own version of cannabinoids for one or more useful purposes. The first of the cannabinod-like neurotransmitters was identified in 1992 and named anandamide (ananda is the Sanskrit word for bliss). Cannabinod receptor sites occur not only in the lower brain but also in the cerebral cortex, where higher thinking takes place, and in the hippocampus, which is a locus of memory.
These discoveries raise some interesting questions. Could the distribution of anandamide receptor sites in the higher brain explain why so many marijuana users claim that the drug enhances some mental activities, including insight, creativity and fluidity of associations? Do these receptor sites play a role in marijuana’s capacity to alter the subjective experience of time? What about the subtle enhancement of perception and the capacity to experience the physical world with some of the freshness and excitement of childhood? Today there is a large research enterprise focusing on what is now called the endocannabinoid system, promoting an increased understanding of how the brain functions and the remarkable diversity of mental and physical capacities catalyzed by cannabis.
When I first began to study marijuana in 1967, I naïvely believed that its only use was as a recreational drug. I soon came to understand that it also had a second important utility, as a medicine, and I published (along with James B. Bakalar) Marijuana, the Forbidden Medicine. Just as penicillin, after its discovery as an antibiotic in 1941, was soon hailed as a wonder drug because of its limited toxicity, its versatility in treating a number of different kinds of symptoms and syndromes, and its limited cost, we believe that marijuana, for the same three reasons, will eventually be hailed as a wonder medicine. Over the last decade and a half I have come to believe that there is a third category of marijuana use –enhancement. The three categories are to some degree overlapping.
The use of cannabis as a recreational drug is well known. Recognition of its usefulness as medicine has been growing rapidly over the last decade and a half, so much so that pharmaceutical companies are now investing large sums of money in their attempts to develop patentable cannabinoid-analogs that they hope will compete profitably with herbal marihuana (presently the medicinal cannabis gold standard), which, as a plant, cannot be patented.
Because most of marijuana’s powers of enhancement
are not as immediately available as its capacities for fun and medicine, this third category is the least recognized and most underappreciated. While some facets of this capacity, like the lifting of mood and the enhancement of appetite and sexual experience are obvious to almost everyone who has succeeded in getting high, its more portentous expressions may provide deep insights which have led to significant life-changing personal growth.
Locating and exploring this category of the usefulness of marijuana requires more familiarity with the cannabis psychoactive experience than casual use provides, and some learning may be required. The learning involves exploring one’s own stoned mental possibilities and capacities, and knowing something of what other people have achieved.
As with the other two major categories of cannabis experience, there appears to be, as evidenced by these essays, a great variety of cannabis catalyzed enhancement experiences. Some are so subtle that it is understandable that some nonusers may be skeptical or consider these claims illusionary, just as many continue to believe the same about the medical claims and demand “double-blind controlled” studies to prove the countless anecdote-driven claims of the many medicinal uses of cannabis. And just as the patient with multiple sclerosis, for example, who gets better relief for muscle spasm and pain will not wait for controlled studies to affirm his or her experience that marijuana is more useful and safer than the conventional medicines used to treat these symptoms, users who find cannabis useful to their creative capacities, for example, will not wait for some sort of good housekeeping seal of approval.
This blog is meant to supplement the essays (Read) in an attempt to convey the fullness of the concept of this kind of enhancement and the richness of its potential.