Cannabis, perhaps more than any other recreational drug, has an almost insatiable fascination for its users. Drinkers don’t gather round to watch videos of people quaffing ale, and heroin addicts may find movies like Trainspotting a little close to the bone, but your potheads of the most stereotypical persuasion will often browse through video after video of celebrities smoking, and certain growers exhibiting new strains.
Of course, weed is much more multifaceted than the stereotypes, and when campaigners bring up the medicinal, practical, and spiritual uses of cannabis it can highlight how incompatible these different facets can often appear.
The weed-worshipping rasta certainly seems at odds with the clinicians and concerned parents of their medicinal counterpart. The hemp industry, producing the likes of rope, textiles and paper, is almost irrelevant to your classic bedroom dope-smoker.
Are these contrasting sides complementary or counterproductive? Allied or at odds? And do they reflect the many properties of the plant itself; can we separate weed as a medicine, a therapy, a spiritual aid, a useful plant, and a drug of abuse from one another, or is the overlap too mind-boggling to make any sense of?
Regarding the practical applications of the hemp plant, you may have heard stories like King Henry VIII making it compulsory for farmers to put aside a small percentage of land to hemp or flax, or the founding fathers of America cultivating the plant. Such anecdotes are true, if occasionally exaggerated, and serve to exemplify hemp’s many uses including rope, paper, building materials, and even biofuels.
And it looks like the medicinal properties of cannabis are just as irrefutable. I corresponded with Professor Michael Barnes, a consultant neurologist and expert on the subject who has only ever commented on cannabis for medical purposes. Professor Barnes told me that cannabis has undoubted use for “muscle spasticity, pain, sleep, and epilepsy, as well as anxiety”, but also that it has so far had little use in rehab.
As he points out: “We are discovering new cannabinoids all the time (two more reported this week) [as of 24/01/20] and discovering new medical applications for those already known”. Cannabinoids are the compounds found in cannabis which act upon cannabinoid receptors in the brain, and their effects vary wildly. Some may be harmful, others may be helpful; regardless, it’s clear that pursuing this research is in the interest of public health, rather than a threat to it.
Barnes also states that “the negative campaign in the 1920s was largely politically driven with no basis in evidence . . . Now that it is legal for medical purposes in fifty countries, research has taken off. More papers have been written on cannabis in the last four years than all previous years put together!”
So why’s the stuff still illegal? High-profile weed-lovers like Joe Rogan have often repeated the claim that American newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who instigated the large American anti-weed campaign, did so merely because he had stakes in the timber industry, and feared hemp as a competitor.
Hearst did demonize the plant, often without evidence to his claims, however, there is no proof that he would profit in any way other than through newspaper sales, and some even argue that hemp would have been an enticing alternative for a man who had existing disputes with the timber industry. Either way, It is certainly untrue that Hearst’s efforts were the sole reason for the anti-marijuana campaigns of the 20th century.
The exaggerations and prejudices of this “negative campaign” have at times been laughably obvious, such as in the 1936 cult film Reefer Madness, where depictions of murder and attempted rape sought to vilify marijuana. These impediments to hemp’s practical and medicinal uses often point to an ignorance on behalf of those specific weed-haters. Like a game of Chinese whispers, some weed-lovers turn out to be just as misinformed, as with the claim that cannabis cures cancer, a claim which has little to no evidence to support it.
It is likely that, beneath the fog of emotional propaganda, there is a legitimate concern in both parties, with topics ranging from public health to civil rights.
Putting the debate of medicine and hemp aside, we can also examine cannabis as a street drug. Roy, a 25-year-old climber who uses the drug both recreationally and medicinally, warns: “If you have anxiety problems, or paranoia, or schizophrenia, then just don’t do it. Straight up, if you’ve got anything like that, I wouldn’t recommend taking weed in any form, apart from CBD (laughs) don’t f*ck with it”.
The two most talked-about cannabinoids in 2020 are CBD and THC. Barnes states that “recreational cannabis is mainly available with high THC and very low CBD, and obviously used for its ‘high’. Medicinal cannabis will tend to have much higher CBD which counteracts the THC effect and thus has fewer side effects. There is overlap – pain, for example, will need some THC, but usually the two are readily differentiated”. This echoes Roy, who self-prescribes CBD products for his tendonitis, and distinguishes this from the more psychoactive effects he gets from THC.
Helen, a 68-year-old therapist, admitted of her recreational use that, “I often don’t feel better. Sometimes I feel worse. That depends on the actual variety of weed, and sometimes my mood as well”. She remembers cannabis before the THC-heavy skunk strains were popular, and says that “stuff in the olden days would make you feel quite cheerful and made music sound fantastic . . . Nowadays it doesn’t seem to, but I don’t know if that’s just me, because I smoke more than I used to”.
Cannabis is a psychedelic drug. Religion is no stranger to it, from the Hindu imbibing of bhang, a cannabis-infused drink supposed to unite one with Shiva, to the Rastafarians who smoke ganja as part of ceremony. Especially since the 1960s, it’s been synonymous with spirituality and introspection — Black Sabbath’s Ozzy Osbourne’s singing of it: “You introduced me to my mind!” is a strong example.
But all of the above, bar Ozzy, have preached the importance of context. The drinking of bhang is not condoned outside of religious rite, AND Rastafarianism does not support what it deems to be ‘recreational’ use common in the West, and psychedelic advocate Timothy Leary, alongside many others, emphasised “set and setting”; the importance of a drug-takers surroundings and environment in order to achieve a productive high. Undisciplined or addictive behaviour is considered the opposite of this.
Many things can bring about anxiety, depression, or emotional difficulty of any kind, and not all of these are bad for you. Within the context of introspection – deemed essential for spiritual development – cannabis could be put alongside psychotherapy, meditation, exercise, or creative endeavour. All can involve struggle and confrontation of a reparatory and constructive nature, and it’s no mistake that controlled use of psychedelic drugs has its success stories in this respect. But who decides when the use becomes uncontrolled, and therefore unproductive?
Whether it be the individual that takes it, the religion that preaches it, or the government that condemns it, Roy points out that “it’s really important for people to realise that it’s very personal, and depends on your background”. Self-realisation and mental illness are two sides of the same coin, and a lack of caution or discipline can lead to the latter, a little like tearing a muscle at the gym.
Roy, a self-proclaimed “high-functioning stoner”, is fortunate. “I’ve got the ability to calm myself down and accept and acknowledge why I feel that way. You have these things that you’ve been worrying about anyway throughout the day, and then you smoke a joint, and those things get blown out of proportion. It’s being able to pull back into that third-person thing again, look at yourself from the outside, and say that it’s just an everyday worry that is out of proportion. But the ability to do that, everyone doesn’t have that, and some people can seriously start freaking out”.
Roy smokes it because of the way it makes his body feel, and points out that “there are some real good things that come from it, like creativity and eye-opening-ness. But then to deny that there’s anything bad about it is not the way to go”. It looks as if the level of discipline employed is one of the many variables which makes weed use differ from one person to the next.
“The stereotypical lazy stoner – I think it is true, but the common misconception is that you don’t have motivation. You can be really highly motivated, and have lots of really creative ideas, but actually starting them is the issue”. Roy works hard and attends the gym regularly; perhaps he doesn’t have to be seen as a special case, but a shift would have to occur within weed culture itself.
There are claims that cannabis isn’t addictive, but this is another grey area. Helen: “Partly for me I think it’s become a habit. I don’t think it’s addictive as such – or maybe it is, maybe some of the more skunky stuff is. Psychologically dependent.” It puts one in mind of video games, which involve no chemical intake whatsoever, and yet can still result in a serious craving for the way it affects dopamine levels in the brain. One final claim worth taking down a notch is that nobody has ever died from cannabis use. This ignores the vast myriad ways in which a life can be ruined besides death, and the many factors which contribute to ill health, even suicide.
It’s common for any drug addict to find reasons to justify their habit, and marijuana isn’t necessarily an exception. It was unjustly demonised for a long time by those who really did see your stereotypical stoner as a representation of every user, and who were unaware, or afraid of, the benefits which weed can have.
Whether weed attracts a certain type of person, or makes a certain person of its users, the two I spoke to were honest about their vices and did not underplay dangers or put the drug on a pedestal. However, they both know people who, and perhaps have known themselves to, justify and confirm use of the drug. This could be blamed on the fanatical culture, but when the purpose and effects of usage are so personal, it turns to the individual also to monitor their own vices.
So when should the government intervene? Helen isn’t shy about her opinions on legalisation: “There’s some kind of ethical debate there to have about when should a plant, that you can plant with a seed in God’s earth, be illegal? You’d be able to grow your own, it’d be cheaper, there’d be less underground activity.” Portugal, who decriminalised all drugs in 2001, saw their number of overdoses plummet. This harm-reduction approach, whereby support is offered but the substance is not condoned, is incredibly delicate if individuals are going to suffer or recover as a direct result of legislation.
This article is aimed primarily at users. Whilst campaigns for legalisation are in full swing, perhaps it’s time for the pro-cannabis side to bust that stereotype of a lazy, drug-abusing and in-denial stoner, but in order to do that one must acknowledge why the stereotype exists.
Nobody is clean-cut – we’re all changing from day to day and have the potential to be disciplined, lazy, mindful, or compulsive. If progress is to be made, pedestals ought to be brought down a peg or two. But we should also reject outright condemnation as a counter to putting something on a pedestal, as neither of these viewpoints are helpful when talking about something so complex and confused, and so medicinal and as potentially harmful, as cannabis.
Louis is a writer, musician, and filmmaker from Warwickshire. He likes long walks, thinking about the universe, and performing with his band Women Gone Missing.