How Cannabis Could Be a Psychedelic—And Why That’s Good

Photo by Vortex Farmacy

Psychedelics can have a bad name, even among dedicated recreational drug users.

LSD, psilocybin and other mind-rearranging substances require investments of time and mental energy many of us don’t have to spare on a weekday night after a long day of work. We just want something to take the edge off, strong enough to relieve pain or other symptoms of living holding us back, able to throw a warm-hued filter over our normal reality—not blow it apart entirely. We have stuff to do!

For most people, alcohol will do the trick. For others, a few hits of cannabis is the tonic.

But! As anyone who’s dabbed just a little too much can tell you, THC is absolutely powerful enough to seriously distort things. This means, according to some of the most respected experts in the field, that cannabis is absolutely a psychedelic substance—and that’s a good thing. It means marijuana has immense value for psychotherapy.

LSD pioneer Timothy Leary believed cannabis to be a psychedelic.

A psychedelic experience, Leary wrote in a landmark essay “On Programming Psychedelic Experiences,” is any “period of intensely heightened reactivity to sensory stimuli within and without.”

Marijuana is the “mildest” of the psychedelics, but it is nonetheless able to distort or enhance sensory perception (who among us hasn’t beheld a sunset or music differently… on weed), conjure visual effects and patterns behind closed eyelids and bring about “unrestrained, abstract and creative thought patterns.”

You may not behold your bedroom wall morphing into a technicolor tapestry and you may not be called before the Goddess for a royal audience—you may need to apply stronger tools, like peyote or ayahuasca, for such transcendence of your ego—but if using marijuana makes you more sensitive to touch from a lover, recall past memories with greater lucidity, or appreciate art or music more profoundly—then, you, friend, are having a cannabis trip.

Dr. Julie Holland is a New York-based psychiatrist who’s spent most of her career studying psychopharmacology—seeing what drugs can do to the mind.

She wrote a book on MDMA and another on cannabis, and is serving as the “medical monitor” for the research sponsored by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) studying whether marijuana can be a balm for military veterans struggling with PTSD.

Therapists are slowly rediscovering psychedelics’ value in solving mental illness.

For 20 years beginning in the 1950s, LSD was used to treat alcoholics, autistic children, people with depression, schizophrenics and many other conditions for which treatment today remains elusive. And before it too was added to the government’s list of banned substances in the mid-1980s, MDMA was praised by some therapists as a miracle drug.

As Michael Pollan wrote in 2015 for the New Yorker, therapists are rediscovering this knowledge and trying out psilocybin on PTSD sufferers and patients with terminal illnesses struggling with end-of-life anxiety—and, so far, results are positive.

Cannabis’s value for someone struggling with conditions like PTSD, Holland told Business Insider, derives from its ability to bring about “dehabituation,” the “process of looking at something with fresh eyes.” Much of therapy is focused on a change in perspective. Talk therapy hopes to bring about these insights with extended question-and-answer sessions.

But if something as simple as a few puffs on a joint could be a shortcut?

The potential seems to be there, although to date, it’s been unrealized.

“In psychiatry it seems that cannabis is grossly underused and understudied,” Holland told BI.

This isn’t going to improve anytime soon.

As has been widely reported, the government-mandated marijuana that American researchers are required to use in research studies is of laughably poor quality. This same bad weed is what has to be used in the study involving veterans and PTSD. There are ample anecdotal tales that cannabis helps calm the existential fears of someone scarred by combat, but whether it can be replicated in a clinical setting is still unclear.

Weed’s potential to bring about a mood-altering—and perhaps life-altering—experience is well-known, but for the time being, most users will have to be their own spirit guides.

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