Marijuana, Introspection, and Personal Growth

 Once again the powers of the herb open up the mind. Seek deep inside. Tell me what you find.“ 

Cypress Hill, Temples of Boom III

As we mature, we have experiences and gain knowledge about a wide variety of situations and facts. Accumulating knowledge about the world lets us grow into students, teachers, professors, mothers or fathers, skilled professionals or masters of some kind. Clearly, however, there is a special form of knowledge that shapes us the most as we grow: self-knowledge. Our self-knowledge plays a central role in who we are and how we lead our lives. You may remain more or less the same person as you learn new facts about the moon landing, the behavior of red ants or about Fibonacci numbers, but once you learn that your inability to lead a happy marriage is caused by a trauma in your childhood, this one piece of knowledge may change the course of your life forever.

The Ancient Greek imperative “Know yourself” inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi unquestionably confronts us with a task that will never be completed. Nonetheless, the fact remains that we all know how rewarding and life-changing the path can be. Myriad consumers of marijuana, as well as consumers of other psychoactive substances like LSD or psylopsybin have reported instances of important insights into themselves – insights which significantly led to augment their self-knowledge and consequently, to their personal growth. On the basis of his questionnaires sent to 750 consumers, Harvard psychologist Charles Tart found the following to be a description of a characteristic effect of marijuana:

Spontaneously, insights about myself, my personality, the games I play come to mind when stoned seem very meaningful”.

But how, and why, should marijuana be especially helpful in gaining self-knowledge?

Introspection“ in Philosophy and Common-Sense

We usually consider introspection to be the main route to self-knowledge. Literally, the term introspection is a composite of the Latin words “spicere “ (“to look”) and “intra” (within). The metaphor suggests that we see or perceive our own inner mental processes. Obviously, however, this should not be taken too literally: neuroscientists did not find eyes, ears or other known sensory organs in our brains, and we certainly don’t expect them to do so in the future.

So, what is introspection, generally speaking? The Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy states:

“Introspection, as the term is used in contemporary philosophy of mind, is a means of learning about one’s own currently ongoing, or perhaps very recently past, mental states or processes.“

Our common-sense notion of „introspection“, however, seems to be much broader construed: we usually say that we can introspect not only mental states like a current pain sensation, feelings of anxiousness, or a joyful mood, but we often say that we introspect dispositions (like a tendency to overreact to critique)  or other aspects of our personality like character traits. This broader view of introspection is expressed in the following statement by Pete Brady, a contributor to Lester Grinspoon’s website, who mentions an enhancement of introspection under the influence of marijuana:

"Semyniak Beach II", Bali, copyright Sebastian Marincolo 2006 (from the art series "Spaceport Bali")

 The marijuana high made me introspective, and I used it to catalogue my strengths, weaknesses and traits. The drug was a revealer, not an escape mechanism; it helped me see who I was and what I needed to be.“

Another anonymous contributor („Twinkly“) to Grinspoon’s website reports:

I was so much more tuned-in to myself and others. I could concentrate on my fears, my turmoil, my stress, my problems, and turn them into plans on healing and freeing myself from lifelong chains that had bound me. I felt calm and relaxed and capable of dealing with who I was, good or bad. (…) I am able to look deeper inside myself to make good, sound decisions based on my true beliefs and morals.“

These reports show that marijuana users feel that a high can help them to understand aspects of their personality better, to „look deeper“ into their emotions, moods and character traits. In his study „On being Stoned“, Charles Tart also mentions that marijuana users feel that a high can help them to better introspectively access their current bodily sensations and feelings – which is, introspection in the more narrow philosophical sense. Many of the users surveilled confirmed the following effects as a „common“ effect of a marijuana high:

My skin feels exceptionally sensitive”

Pain is more intense if I concentrate on it”

My perception of how my body is shaped gets strange; the ‘felt’ shape or form does not correspond to its actual form (e.g. you may feel lopsided, or parts of your body feel heavy while others feel light”

I feel a lot of pleasant warmth inside my body”

I am much more aware of the beating of my heart”

I become aware of breathing and can feel the breath flowing in and out of my throat as well as filling my lungs“

In the following, I want to explore several different ways in which a marijuana high may enhance our introspection in both senses, in the more narrow philosophical sense concerning feelings, thoughts and sensations, as well as more broadly construed concerning moods and character traits.

The Body Mapping System and the Enhancement of Bodily Sensations

According to neuroscientists like A. D. Craig and Antonio Damasio, we all have an intereoceptive sense which gives us a sense of the body’s interior. Accordingly, this inner sense rests on a representational mapping system, which developed in order for us to observe our internal states such as

(…) pain states, body temperature, flush, itch, tickle, shudder, visceral and genital sensations; the state of the smooth muscular in blood vessels and other viscera (…).“

Our brain has a body mapping system which represents bodily parts. The hands, for instance, are represented in much larger areas than the rest of the body, a fact visualized in this 3d homunculus sculpture.

In their groundbreaking book “The Body Has a Mind of its Own”, the authors Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee focus on recent research on this ingenious body mapping system – a system which has been underestimated so far in the cognitive neurosciences. They describe a system of ‘flesh bound’ somatic senses which fall into several categories, each subserved by different populations of receptor cells, such as the sense of touch, thermoception (feeling cold or hot), and nociception (detecting various kinds of pain, including piercing pain, heat pain, chemical pain, joint pain, tickle and itch). Two other somatic senses would be proprioception, a sense of your body’s position and motion in space, as well as the sense of balance. All these somatic senses deliver information to the brain’s “body maps”:

Every point on your body, each internal organ and every point in space out to the end of your fingertips, is mapped inside your brain. Your ability to sense, move, and act in the physical world arises from a rich network of flexible body maps distributed throughout the brain – maps that grow, shrink, and morph to suit your needs.”

Could it be that marijuana has a systematic effect on this system, intensifying the signals and thus leading to a redirection of attention to perceive and feel our own body? I will leave this as a hypotheses for now, but I think we have enough detailed reports here to encourage cognitive scientists to take this to their laboratories using new brain imaging techniques.

Introspection as „Reflective Contemplation“

As to the introspection of moods, more complex emotions and character traits, it is obvious that this is not a kind of ‘direct’ inner observation. If I introspectively realize that I am a courageous person, I have to make a judgement involving the evaluation of many autobiographical memories, of „courageous“ patterns in my behavior compared to the behavior of others, and involving my understanding of the concept „courageous.“ A marijuana high might have several effects on cognition which could lead to the many enhancements described by marijuana users. We could also call this kind of introspection „reflective contemplation.“

Let me briefly explain four effects of marijuana well known under marijuana users which are important here: the „Zen-effect,“ (a hyperfocus of attention), an enhanced episodic memory, enhanced imagination, as well as an enhanced pattern recognition.

One of the most important acute effects of marijuana is a hyperfocus in attention, an effect which I also like to call the „Zen – effect“ of marijuana, because Zen tells you to concentrate on one thing or activity at a time. This attentional focus often leads to an intensified experience of sensations and of a strong feeling of being in the here-and-now, but it can also lead to an hyperfocus on a stream of thought or on episodic memories – memories of past episodes in your life. Myriads of marijuana users have reported not only this hyperfocus, but also the enhancement of episodic memories. User often vividly remember past events, events that they have often long forgotten, with incredible details. Also, it is a very commonly reported effect of a marijuana high that users can imagine things better – and importantly, imagination does not only mean visualization, but it could also be auditory, or tactile, taste or olfactory imagination. Last but not least, we have an incredible amount of reports of marijuana users who describe various sorts of their pattern recognition abilities, like finding a new pattern in a behavior or in a guitar solo. 


Enhancement of „Reflective Contemplation“

"Hand with Reflecting Sphere"
M.C. Escher, January 1935

Now, how could these four enhancements (hyperfocus of attention, enhanced episodic memory, enhanced imagination, enhanced pattern recognition) affect our introspection? I think this is pretty easy to see. Let’s assume you are reflecting on whether you are a courageous person. A marijuana high can help to redirect and hyperfocus your attention on your episodic memories and your inner stream of thought. Now you can search your episodic memories for episodes in which you have acted courageously, and also those in which you haven’t. Of course you want to know about a character trait, not a current mood or feeling, so you have to go back in time. Your enhanced episodic memory during a marijuana high will help you to associatively bring up memories, and the enhanced pattern recognition ability can help you to find similarities between courageous or not so courageous actions or feeling in the past. But also, note how your enhanced ability for imagination might also play a crucial role for a success of reflective contemplation concerning your character trait: if you want to judge whether you are a courageous person in general, you do not only think about your past, but you try to imagine whether you would act courageously in certain situations. Would you jump into the ice-cold Hudson river from a bridge to save that kid, like this man just did on television? During a marijuana high, you can often imagine situations like these more vividly and imagine how it would be for you, what you would actually feel, and how you would act. Thus, an enhanced capacity for imagination could be generally helping you to come to valuable insights about your dispositions and character traits, which is expressed in this statement by a college student:

Pot is very therapeutic to me. When I’m stoned, I can really see myself. I can list my strengths and my weaknesses, and my goals. My mind is clear and eager to learn and understand, even when I have to understand awkward things, like those parts of my personality that I don’t want to change. I can see parts of myself that I don’t like, without hating myself in the process. I’ve learned things about myself that I have brought into my life when I haven’t been stoned, such as how to be less self-centered, and how to be more low-keyed about myself, and less anxious in the presence of others.”

As far as I can see, there are many reports of marijuana users which confirm the effects described here, but of course this is only a beginning. I hope that in the near future, cognitive neuroscientist will start looking more into the effects of marijuana high concerning attention, memory, pattern recognition and imagination.

An Amazing Potential

Let me stress that my claim is NOT that marijuana automatically enhances your introspection. My claim is that marijuana has the potential to enhance your introspection – but in order to use this potential you have to use it appropriately, with the right dose, with the right set and setting, and with knowledge and skills to „ride a high.“ (compare my essay „Marijuana, Surfing, and The Purity of The Moment“).

It is obvious that an enhancement of our introspection can also help us get in touch with our feelings and other subjective states to help us understand others as well. Another anonymous contributor to Grinspoon’s website reports:

Friendships and Relationships, especially those involving sexual and romantic intimacy, can be developed and deepened by the use of marijuana with others. Marijuana tends to cause introspection and by altering one’s habits of thought, yields new perspectives on who one is and how one works, psychologically. Hence, marijuana works as an effective catalyst for understanding oneself and others, and discussing and developing one’s relationships with other people.”

Clearly, then, marijuana holds a potential not only for introspection, but also for empathic understanding and for personal development.

It is about time that we recognize that many people use marijuana not only for „recreational purposes“, but are using it as a tool to find out who they are, to understand themselves and their relation to others better, and to grow as a person.   


Marijuana Insights: Myth or Reality?

Countless users of marijuana have claimed that marijuana can act as a catalyst to enhance creativity and to obtain real insights. Are these reports just exaggerations of users justifying their smoking habit? Or is it true that a marijuana high can lead to profound insights?

In his legendary essay “Mr. X” published in Lester Grinspoon’s study “Marijuana Reconsidered (1971),” an anonymous author stated:

“There is a myth about such highs: the user has an illusion of great insight, but it does not survive scrutiny in the morning. I am convinced that this is an error, and that the devastating insights achieved when high are real insights; the main problem is putting these insights in a form acceptable to the quite different self that we are when we’re down the next day.”

Marijuana expert Lester Grinspoon

With the permission of the author, Harvard psychiatry professor Lester Grinspoon would reveal the identity only posthumously. It turned out that the article had been written by Grinspoon’s best friend, the late Carl Sagan, famous astrophysicist and popularizer of science who died 1996. In his essay, Sagan claims: 

I can remember on one occasion, taking a shower with my wife while high, in which I had an idea on the origins and invalidity of racism in terms of Gaussian distribution curves. (…) One idea led to another, and at the end of about an hour of extremely hard work I found I had written eleven short essays on a wide rage of social, political, philosophical, and human biological topics. I can’t go into the details of those essays, but from all external signs, they seem to contain valid insights. I have used them in university commencement addresses, public lectures, and in my books.”

Marijuana VIP’s

Carl Sagan is not the only prominent marijuana aficionado who used marijuana for inspiration. Pulitzer Price winner Norman Mailer once said in an interview for the High Times Magazine:

“What I find is that pot puts things together. Pot is marvelous for getting new connections in the brain. It’s divine for that. You think associatively on pot, so you can have real extraordinary thoughts. But the more education you have, the more you have to put together at that point, the more wonderful connections there are to see in the universe.”

Other prominent testimonials who used marijuana for inspirational purposes include the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, physicist Richard Feynman, musicians Louis Armstrong, Bob Dylan and the Beatles, directors Robert Altman and Hal Ashby, the American writers Jack London and Alan Ginsberg, French writers Victor Hugo, Charles Baudelaire, and Marcel Proust, the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, and comedians Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks, George Carlin, Bill Maher, as well as Groucho Marx, who enriched the world with some of the funniest statements ever made (“Either this man is dead, or my watch has stopped”). As you may imagine, this is only a short sequence of a much longer list of marijuana VIP’s.

French Writer Charles Baudelaire

But how much did marijuana really help them to come to creative insights? Maybe marijuana simply helped to relax and to get their already talented creative minds started. Also, they could be self-deluded about the inspiring powers of marijuana because of what we could call forgetful glorification – ideas during a high often seem to be profound and glorious revelations, just like taste experiences during a high become so much more intense.

The Evidential Challenge

So, even if we document and evaluate myriads of stories from prominent and other users about deep and interesting insights during a high – can we take them at face value? We should expect marijuana users to be biased towards justifying their use, so they will probably emphasize and document their insights during a high.

How could we possibly find better evidence for the insights claim then? I suggest the following approach: first, we have to clarify what kind of cognitive processes insights are in general. We have to find out which cognitive processes are involved when we obtain insights, such as episodic memory retrieval, changes in attention, or pattern recognition. Second, we should look at studies and personal reports which concern the effects of a marijuana high on those various processes. We can then put the puzzle pieces together and see how marijuana affects our ability to produce insights by affecting a whole array of underlying cognitive abilities.

Insights in Psychology and the Cognitive Sciences

We all have those “Eureka” experiences and little or more profound insights once in a while. Suddenly, you realize that you can take a shortcut to drive to the supermarket. In an instant, you understand one day you have to become an artist, or you realize in a flash that your marriage is going nowhere. Insights occur spontaneously, like sudden quantum leaps in understanding; rather mysterious in nature, but sometimes with a profound impact on our lives. For a long time, the mainstream of psychology in the last century has persistently ignored this phenomenon. Insights seemed to be a myth bound to the classic greek concept of a privileged genius who “receives” great ideas through the inspiration of the gods. It was only at the beginning of the last century that a group of scientists around the German psychologist Max Wertheimer started to look for explanations of what he called “productive thinking”. In the last two decades, psychologists and cognitive scientist around the globe have tried to develop the existing models of the so called “Gestalt school” in psychology in order to better understand insights.

The Founder of Gestalt Psychology Max Wertheimer

Insight Problems and The Gestalt School

One of the basic ideas of the Gestalt psychologists was that in the “Eureka moment”, a thinker unconsciously “restructures” his perception of a situation and finds a new pattern, or, as they would call it, a new Gestalt. Let me explain this shortly by looking at one of the most famous experiments of the Gestalt school. In order to study the process of insights in experiments, psychologists created problems that needed an insight on the part of the problem solver. The German psychologist Karl Duncker, Wertheimer’s most talented student, invented the now classic “Candle Problem”, where the subjects are given a matchbox, a candle and some thumb tacks and are asked to attach the candle to the wall.

Karl Duncker's Famous Candle Problem

The candle is too thick to be directly tacked into the wall – the only solution is to use the tacks and attach the inside container of the matchbox to the wall and then to put the candle on it. The crucial step for the problem solution is to see the matchbox container not as container for matches, but as a tray for the candle. The subjects need to restructure their first perception of the matchbox only as a container. Duncker showed that the subjects needed longer to solve the problem if the matchbox container was presented to them with matches inside, highlighting the original function of the container. The subjects were blocked from coming to an insight because their perception and thinking of the box was “functionally bound”; they did not see the box as a mere object with a certain form that can be used in various ways, but as a container with the specific function of holding candles. Duncker’s candle experiment shows that a problem solver comes to an insight only if he overcomes this functional boundness by redirecting his attention to aspects of an object that he has not perceived before.

Let’s assume that the subjects who solved the candle problem be faced with a similar problem a few months later. This time, they are presented needles instead of thumbtacks, a little cardboard box and a little toy figure inside with a similar goal of attaching the toy to the wall. Obviously, subjects who succeeded in solving the candle problem would see the similarity of the solution and would easily solve the toy problem. Wertheimer would call this the use of “structural analogues”: we transfer our knowledge from past similar experiences of problem solutions to new situations.

We now have three crucial notions for the characterization of the process of insight: restructuring a problem representation (where we have to perceive a situation in a different way), thus overcoming functional boundness (where we are bound to perceive or think of certain things as serving a certain function only), and finding structural analogues (or, in other words, finding similarities between patterns).

I will now use these three notions to give a rough explanation how marijuana can affect our ability to generate insights.

Marijuana Insights

Macro Photography of Super Silver Haze Marijuana Strain (c) Sebastian Marincolo 2012

Users have described many effects of a marijuana high on their consciousness, but for the sake of brevity, I will name only three here. One of the most common effects of marijuana during a high is on attention: stoners tend to have a stronger focus in attention, they hyperfocus. Sometimes they hyperfocus on sensations, a focus which leads to a more intense experience of the here-and-no. Sometimes they hyperfocus on memories or imaginations or on a stream of thought. Second, many users have reported an enhanced episodic memory, i.e. an enhanced ability to vividly remember past events in their lives. Third, many users describe an enhanced ability to find structural analogues, or, similarities in patterns (“Eric Dolphy sounds like the early Coltrane on this record”), (“This painting looks like an early Edgar Degas”).

There are many other effects of a marijuana high which can positively affect our ability to gain insights, but for sake of brevity, let us for now stick to these three effects: hyperfocusing, enhanced episodic memory, and enhanced pattern recognition. These will be enough to give us a rough outline how marijuana can positively influence our ability to produce insights while high.

Here is a very typical report of a marijuana insight:

Martha found herself smoking (marijuana) with (…) Alice: ’During the conversation with Alice and Karl, I realized that she was being very self-conscious, and kept stepping back out of herself. I looked at her and thought, “That’s a whole new way of looking at Alice.” I had never seen her insecurities so palpable before. (…) I suddenly understood that her insecurity was a key to her personality, and then I also understood how it was a big key to my own, as well. I understood, too, how she and I clashed because both of us are insecure, and that each of us was waiting for the other to give the cue of reassurance that actually never came. That’s the type of insights I get when I am stoned, and for me it’s very useful.”1

Under the influence of marijuana, Martha’s attention is more focused on the here-and-now. She is intensely watching Alice’s behavior. Her attentional focus has changed. Usually, she would probably be sharing her attention more, thinking about the content of the conversation, maybe listening to music and keeping better track of time to make preparations for a dinner for her guests. Her high makes her hyperfocus on a certain patterns in Alice’s behavior. Martha’s attention is not functionally bound anymore to merely following the literal content of the discussion or to catering her guests, as it would normally be. She is now open to perceive a certain pattern in Alice’s behavior, namely, behavior that shows a certain insecurity. In the words of Gestalt psychology, she has “restructured” her perception of Alice. She can see a different “Gestalt”, or, a different pattern in Alice’s behavior and character now.

The change in attention during her high is not the only factor that allows Martha to proceed to her insight. In order for Martha to see this pattern in Alice’s behavior, she must be able to recognize overall behavioral clues as fitting a pattern she already knows. Martha’s enhanced episodical memory during her high might help her to remember past events in which she has seen Alice acting insecure; also, her enhanced episodic memory may help her to compare Alice’s behavioral clues (like avoiding eye contact, or a certain tone in her voice) to behaviors she has seen throughout her life that she has learned to perceive as signs of “insecurity”. Furthermore, Martha has to rely on her episodic memory to infer that she his insecure herself; she needs to remember episodes of herself showing that pattern. The insecurity-behaviors of that Alice has seen or acted out herself before may be similar to that of Alice now. Last but not least, Martha’s enhanced ability to see similarities between pattern allows her to see a “structural analogue” between other behaviors of insecurity and some behavior she sees now in Alice. This allows her to understand that she and Alice are both insecure and therefore clash as personalities.

Of course, this is only a possible explanation of how Martha’s insight actually occurred. Martha’s report is certainly not detailed enough to exactly pin down how exactly she arrived at her insight. But the possible explanations helps us to begin to understand how the interplay of various effects of marijuana may positively influence Martha’s ability to gain an insight on the background of the Gestalt model of insights.

The Path to Evidence

Location of Episodic Memory (above) versus Semantic, Procedural, and Working Memory (below)

But is it really true that marijuana leads to effects like an enhanced episodic memory or to hyper-focusing? We will have to leave it to the empirical studies in psychology and the cognitive (neuro)-sciences to come up with more evidence. However, now we have broken down the question about insights during a high to something that can be studied more easily. We should take the many detailed anecdotal reports about various mind-enhancements during a marijuana high serious and start to investigate them empirically. Once we better understand the effects of marijuana on memory, attention, and other cognitive processes, we will be able to get a better picture of how these changes in cognition can add up to actually lead to more complex enhancements of insights under favorable conditions. So far, the overall anecdotal evidence is already strong, not because we have many detailed reports about stoner insights, but because we have hundreds of independent detailed accounts of many typical cognitive effects during a marijuana high; effects which, as we have seen, are crucial for the generation for insights. 

It becomes more and more clear now that our ability to creative insights crucially depends on right hemisphere activity a fact that Carl Sagan had already addressed in a footnote of his “Dragons of Eden,” where he speculated that marijuana might suppress left hemisphere activity in favor of right hemisphere processing. Surely, further research in this area will be both fruitful for the understanding of marijuana effects as well as for our understanding of creativity and insights in general.

For a long time, our perception of marijuana has been “functionally bound” too much by focussing on its risk potential. Don’t get me wrong: I do not want to argue that we should ignore any risks or negative aspects of marijuana consumption. But we need to free ourselves from the still predominant one-sided fixation to get a deeper insight into the positive potential of marijuana; a potential that so profoundly and positively affected millions, if not hundreds of millions of users – and through them and their work, the history and shape of societies worldwide.

1 In: William Novak: “High Culture. Marijuana in the Lives of Americans“ 

A High Perspective on Addiction and Marijuana

They really make me nervous sometimes. And they seem to be everywhere. Frantically, they move around in circles, slaves to implemented passions – addicts, manipulated, betrayed, and in self-denial. At six in the morning, the first type of addicts run to get their daily fixes: the classic workaholics.They swarm out of their houses to go and work like maniacs. Some are craving for more power, suppressing the persistent feeling of having slowly turned into corporate marionettes. Others work excessively to satisfy their shopping addiction and buy whatever they have been told makes them more valuable people. Most of them are multiple drug addicts with a long history of abuse: millions are addicted to several caffeine-shots in the morning and afternoon, or they need their drug sugar and its instant hit almost hourly, and many of them are additionally addicted to nicotine and the dozens of other psychoactive chemicals in cigarettes which gives them a short-lived high and staves off their inherent depression for just a few minutes before the craving starts all over again. A growing number of people are physically addicted to alcohol or other depressants, sleeping pills, stimulants like amphetamines or alkaloids like cocaine, pain relievers, or are psychologically dependent on a selective seratonin, noradrenaline or dopamine re-uptake inhibitors or various other new antidepressants. And that is only be the beginning of a much longer list of substance addictions.

A more recent class of addicts are what I like to call the cybersociaholics – those unhealthily obsessed with abundant communication through a multitude of social networking tools. Compulsively, they check their three or four email accounts, then go to their facebook mailboxes and Pinwalls, chat a little while they constantly look up and respond to their sms, viber, or WhatsApp messages on their smart phones, then maybe an occasional glance at their LinkedIn or XING accounts, then switch and check what happened on their blogs or in their internet dating portals or (they don’t just want to be matched, they want to be perfectly matched). Once they finish dealing with the last of their 10-15 communication platforms – not counting landline telephones, one or two mobile phones, their post boxes, or fax machines – they return to the start of the loop. It’s been almost hour .. maybe somebody finally posted something new on facebook? Maybe somebody replied to the blog?

Naturally, the myriads of cybersocioholics are only a subgroup of the larger group of the internetaholics, just like the cyberpornaholics, cyberpokeraholics, and other cybergameaholics. If their internet activities would not be so compulsively restricted to satisfying their respective addictions, they might stumble upon Kimberly Young’s website, which offers treatment services in the categories “Cyberporn/Cybersex, Online Affairs, Online Gambling, Online Gaming, Compulsive Surfing, ebay Addiction.”

Other media addicts are sticking to a more old school addiction for television or computer games. On TV or in the movie theater they watch action movies or war movies, car races, or professional wrestling to kick up their adrenaline levels like nothing else in their safe and streamlined ‘real’ lives does anymore – and so one way or another they spend half of the time in simulated virtual realities. They belong to the larger class of virtuaholics, which includes everyone addicted to the ever-growing virtual world, a safe and controllable refuge helping them to escape from reality.Wiiholics are the blessed ones in the group of virtuaholics: to outsiders, they may look ridiculous jerking their limbs around in a weird way, but the industry actually made a nice little concession to their human nature by encouraging them to actually move around a bit while perceptually hooked up to their virtual reality, whereas the other virtuaholics are usually sitting frozen like dummies, perceptually hooked to screens showing strangely impoverished glowing colors. Most of them seem to have lost touch with their bodies after suppressing the feeling of a self-inflicted paralysis for years. Yet, their bodies come out of a long evolutionary process which predestinated them to run, hunt, and fight, so now they are all starting to feel uncomfortable and becoming addicted to Ritalin for their attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Their doctors are usually part of a “health care” system generating money off of turning people into prescription drug addicts rather than actually improving their health. And so they are handed out prescriptions for all kinds of tranquilizers and sleep inducing drugs to force their bodies to keep quiet even after a virtual day in subconscious paralysis on a stylish wheelchair. This health care system is only a part of an entire industry designed to nourish and satisfy the addictions of its consumers – reinforced addictions are magnificent money-making machines.

Sometimes I feel like I need a break from all these addictions and obsessions around me. I fly to Portugal to play at the Bar do Peixe Ultimate Frisbee beach tournament, chase a plastic disc all day long, breathe fresh air, and jump in cool Atlantic water. In the evening, I sit down on top of a sand dune at the magnificent Meco Beach, light up a joint, and watch the sunset. The marijuana high keeps me in the here-and-now, and my mind frees itself from the daily hustle, needs, and plans. I breathe. Time is slowing down. I focus on the immediacy of my experience and feel my deliciously tired body, the warm wind in my face, and smell the salty scent of the sea. In this expanded head space, I begin to feel free as if standing on a tower, looking down on my life. My high enables me to perceive patterns in my life and in the lives of others, including our routines, addictions, and obsessions. Vivid memories come up and I can relive episodes long past. Marijuana helps to transport me back into my past.

My first day at school

With my enhanced episodic memory, I mind-race through previous experiences, I can see personal developments, stand outside my routines and addictions and identify them as such. And yes, certainly, I realize that many of the addictions described above, like cybersociaholism or virtuaholism, are my own. But now my mind is flying, and my attention doesn’t seem to be drawn away by the usual forces. I feel free like a bird and momentarily liberated from my addictions. The marijuana high helps to break the routines, interferes with my addictions, helps me to step outside of the box, to make conscious decisions on my future behavior, and to get sudden insights. Associations come quickly. New notions occur to me, like “cybersociaholism”, based on my enhanced ability for pattern recognition during a high.

Don’t get me wrong: surely, the fact that marijuana can be used as an antidote for other addictions does not mean that it cannot itself be addictive for some. Marijuana may be generally much less addictive and less toxic than other legal drugs like alcohol or tobacco, and the addiction may only be psychological, but even a purely psychological addiction can be destructive for some. So, well, there is a risk of addiction, even if it is comparatively low. But there is also a risk of getting unhealthily addicted to sex, car driving, or social networking – that does not mean that all these activities bring us harm and have to be prohibited. All these activities can bring us great advantages, if we know how to make good use of them – and I, like so many others, certainly make good use of marijuana.

Recently I was talking to a middle-aged man at a party and mentioned my marijuana use. He looked at me with this typically controlled, yet still visible “Oh-my-God-a-drug-addict!”- facial expression and then he said, fully convinced of himself, “I am not using drugs.” I couldn’t help but smile, looking at the cigarette in his left hand, which also held a glass of Vodka Red Bull. Altogether, this guy was holding a cigarette containing dozens of psychoactive drugs and a drink combining sugar, alcohol, and nicotine, and yet he was still completely oblivious. Advertising and decades of disinformation campaigns have successfully managed to convince him and so many others that there are “alcohol, tobacco, and drugs”- a classification scheme that presupposes that the former two are something other than psychoactive drugs.

For a few long seconds, I just smiled at him and the many psychoactive drugs in his hand. He still did not get it. And then I had an idea. I would just write an essay. This essay. And the next time a workaholic, alcohol-, sugar-, and caffeine-addicted cybersociaholic, virtuaholic, gameaholic or pornaholic would react to my marijuana use so condescendingly, I could just hand him something to think about.

And, yes, admittedly, when I wrote the essay I was still a little high.

Nightmare Marijuana Prohibition

Why the Prohibition Against Marijuana Has to End

Watanuga Lahele is radiating. His glassy eyes peep out under a large, conical straw hat, his movements slightly erratic. He has been chewing on a dark-greenish kalangi root and the drug Tetralin it contains now clearly shows its euphoric and mind-altering effects. Lahele sits at a long wooden table at the traditional kalangi root festival in Bomaki, the capital of the Republic of West Africa. Hundreds of thousands of visitors have come here again to get collectively intoxicated.

During the festival there are dozens of rapes each year. Many visitors end in emergency rooms after dangerously overdosing the drug. But these aspects are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the destructive potential of Tetralin. Its effects on perception and motor control during strong intoxication are so devastating that tens of thousands of consumers in the Republic of West Africa die or get injured in traffic accidents every year. Tens of thousands die from overdoses or from the consequences of prolonged overconsumption and addiction. Prolonged heavy use can lead to hepatitis, liver cirrhosis, nerve cell damage, psychosis, laryngeal-, liver-, stomach-, or pancreatic cancers, as well as to cardiac insufficiency, depression, and fatal forms of dementia. The addiction to Tetralin, often initiated by small amounts of the drug, destroys tens of thousands of families each year. Almost every third rape happens under the influence of the drug, as well as one third of cases of aggravated assault and manslaughter.

How is it possible that the Republic of West Africa legalizes and even celebrates this drug? Why is this culture so much more permissive than other countries, where a substance like marijuana, which according to many experts is even less dangerous than alcohol or nicotine, is strictly prohibited?

These are the wrong questions, of course. Some better questions would be: Do you know that the Republic of West Africa does not exist and that there are no such things as the ‘kalangi root’ or the drug ‘Tetralin’? Do you have a suspicion of what I was really talking about?

Oktoberfest Munich - The Biggest Drug Festival Worldwide

Let’s cross-fade to reality. Replace Watanuga Lahele with Michael Wohlgemut wearing his traditional Bavarian leather pants and a big grey conical bowler hat. He is sitting in a giant tent and belting out Bavarian folk songs while occasionally grabbing the backsides of passing waitresses. Michael is attending the biggest and most famous drug festival in the world, the Oktoberfest in Munich, in Germany, central Europe, the self-proclaimed epicenter of civilized European post-Enlightenment society. All the horrible facts on rapes and crime cited above for the invented ‘Republic of West Africa’ and ‘Tetralin’ really apply to the giant annual beer fest and alcohol use in Germany – and the statistics certainly do not look significantly different for most other countries.

So, do we need a prohibition against alcohol to protect our society from this dangerous drug? Of course, an alcohol prohibition would be a bad idea – we all know that now. But as a reaction to the story of Watanuga Lahele, a prohibition probably seemed to you a necessary measure to fight the use of the ‘kalangi root’ – a drug for which I described in detail exactly the side-effects known for alcohol. What is wrong with our perception here? Could it be that we have heard too often phrases like “drugs, tobacco and alcohol”, phrases that presuppose that dangerous drugs like tobacco and alcohol are not really drugs at all?

It’s been evident for a long time now that the marijuana prohibition is just as inefficient and destructive as the alcohol prohibition during the first world war. Some politicians claim that without a prohibition, however, things would get even much worse. We now know, however, that decriminalization of marijuana in the Netherlands and other countries did not lead to higher increase rates of consumption than in countries with a brutally enforced prohibition. On the contrary, the numbers dropped compared with countries with strict prohibition. Why haven’t we still learned our lesson from history?

The marijuana prohibition for the most part has its origins in a disinformation campaign which began in the 1930s. After the end of the catastrophically failed alcohol prohibition, the federal prohibition agency had to look out for a new task to stay in business. To that end, Harry G. Anslinger, the head of the new “Federal Bureau of Narcotics”, started a mixed media campaign. It portrayed marijuana as a deadly poisonous drug that would turn consumers into out-of-control rapists and killers, leading even the occasional user to chronic insanity and death. One of his extremely cynical strategies was to exploit existing racial prejudices against those minority groups who predominately used marijuana at the time:

“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others. … The primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races. Marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality and death. You smoke a joint and you’re likely to kill your brother. Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.”

Early Anti-Marijuana Propaganda Poster

Years later, in the heated atmosphere of the anticommunist McCarthy era, Anslinger changed his strategy and claimed that marijuana would make users too peaceful and communist China would illegally bring in marijuana to the U.S. to undermine the defensive morale of the military and the public. The absurd twist in Anslinger’s argumentation did not seem to bother anybody – the prohibition was prolonged. Anslinger also served as the American representative of the United Nations Drug Commission and used his influence to implement global ban of cannabis cultivation.

Prohibitionists still use spin doctors to create absurd arguments in support of their cause. In the last years, convinced marijuana users were increasingly forced to either go to jail or to a therapeutic institution. The growing numbers of users ‘seeking therapy’ are often used in public debates to claim that there is a growing problem with marijuana use. The PR strategies for the prohibition of marijuana can also be illustrated by analyzing the misleading rhetoric of the slogan ‘war on drugs’ introduced under President Nixon.

"I now have absolute proof that smoking even one marijuana cigarette is equal in brain damage to being on Bikini Island during an H-bomb blast." Ronald Reagan

The truth is that there has never been a war on drugs. If we look at our history, we can only see an ongoing conflict amongst various drug users – and producers. In ancient Mexico the consumption of alcohol was punishable by death, while the ritualistic use of the psychedelic drug mescaline (from the peyote cactus) was highly worshipped. In Russia, tobacco smokers were threatened with mutilation or decapitation, while alcohol was legal. In Prussia, coffee drinking was prohibited in the second half of the 18th century (except for by higher state officials and noblemen) and was punished with a jail sentence of up to four years or birching, while other drugs like alcohol were legal at the time.

But even if we agree with a more scientifically informed view which sees the risk potential of marijuana as much lower than that of alcohol, we certainly have to take the risks seriously. Adolescents are especially vulnerable to problems with marijuana abuse – mainly not because marijuana would physically harm them, but because psychological addiction and chronic abuse can heavily contribute to failure at a critical stage in their educational careers. Tragically, though, it is exactly in this respect that the prohibition of marijuana fails the most. In recent surveys, high school students say that despite the strict and ongoing prohibition, marijuana is easy to get on the street these days. In spite of all the efforts, prohibition is not only ineffective – it is also destructive and deadly on a monstrous scale; parents lose their jobs or even go to jail for even minor cases of possession, students are expelled from school or college. Every year, more than half a million marijuana users are jailed in the U.S. alone, most simply for possession of small quantities of marijuana. We could protect our adolescents and citizens in general much more effectively with a regulation of marijuana similar to that of alcohol. According to a 2005 report by Dr. Jeffrey Miron, replacing marijuana prohibition with a regulation similar to that used for alcohol would save the U.S. government between $10 billion and $14 billion per year, based on the expected savings and tax revenues.

It is unreasonable to think that we should demand complete abstinence from all drugs from our citizens. The psychopharmacologist Ronald K. Siegel, perhaps the world’s foremost scientific expert concerning the interaction between animals and psychoactive plants, states:

“History shows that we have always used drugs. In every age, in every part of this planet, people have pursued intoxication with plant drugs, alcohol, and other mind-altering substances…Almost every species of animal has engaged in the natural pursuit of intoxicants. This behavior has so much force and persistence that it functions like a drive, just like our drives of hunger, thirst and sex. This “fourth drive” is a natural part of biology, creating the irrepressible demand for drugs. In a sense, the war on drugs is a war against ourselves, a denial of our very nature.“

Instead of trying to preach abstinence or a war on drugs, we should educate people to come to a more respectful and meaningful relationship with them. We also need to acknowledge the fact that psychoactive substances have not only risks, but also a positive potential. New findings in endocannabinoid research are beginning to deliver explanations for the thousands of reports of healthy and otherwise law-abiding citizens who use marijuana not only for medical, but also for inspirational purposes. They have reported how they better focus on the immediate experience while they are high, to be in the “here-and-now”. Many reports offer detailed descriptions of an enhancement of users’ ability to vividly recall past events and of an intensification of all kinds of sensations. Others describe an enhanced ability of introspection as well as empathic understanding. Innumerable people have used marijuana for an enhancement of creative thinking, while others report enhanced pattern recognition as well as scientific or personal insights occurring during a high – a claim famously stated by astronomer Carl Sagan. Jazz musicians Louis Armstrong or Billy Holiday used marijuana for inspiration just like the French writer Charles Baudelaire, the American writer Jack London, the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, filmmaker Hal Ashby, the businessman Richard Branson, or the physicist Richard Feynman – to name just a few. If only a fraction of those reports is correct, we must seriously ask ourselves if prohibition is not a severe intrusion into the personal rights of millions of citizens who have decided to explore the enhancement potential of marijuana.

The legalization of marijuana is not a dangerous experiment – the prohibition is the experiment, and it has failed dramatically, with millions of victims all around the world. The Global Commission on Drug Policy recently presented their new report, which makes a clear case to end the war on marijuana and other drugs. Members of this commission include Kofi Annan, the former United Nations’ chief secretary; George Shultz, the former foreign minister of the U.S.; Fernando H. Cardoso, the former president of Brazil; Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo, as well as the former NATO’s chief secretary Javier Solana. On July 2, the renowned activist group “AVAAZ” submitted a petition with half a million signatures to end the drug war to Ban Ki-Moon, the present chief secretary of the UN.

Massive lobbying interests such as the pharma-, alcohol-, and private jail industries still stand in the way of a sensible political change in our drug policies. These lobbyists will need to see that they are out of touch. They need to understand that people have started to wake up from the nightmares Anslinger and his followers made us all dream.

Marijuana, Surfing, and The Purity of the Moment

Marijuana, Surfing, and The Purity of the Moment

Imagine yourself in the early nineteen sixties visiting Hawaii for the first time. Walking over the beach you meet a funky guy who shows you an oddly shaped wooden board and tells you to go out and ride the waves. You have heard stories about that thing called “surfing” before and you think this might actually be fun! Five minutes later, a 9 foot high wave throws you on the shore. You try again, but after you have been thrown back on the beach for the third time you look at your skin rashes and begin to wonder what this is all about.

Would you blame the board now? Obviously, the board was not the problem. You have tried out a wonderful tool that can get you a life changing experience of fun – but you need to work on some practical skills first: how to paddle out in the waves, how to get up on a board, how to find your balance and keep it on a wave. Also, you need to acquire a lot of knowledge: which waves are the best to ride on, what kind of board should I use for which waves, which beaches can be dangerous. Importantly, also, you will have to learn to judge your own skills: am I good enough to ride this kind of board in this weather? Am I really ready yet to ride this tube wave?

Surfboards are like tools in general: they have a potential, but to use this potential, we need to learn how to use it and we need some knowledge what to do best with them. Obviously, tools do have not only a potential for use, but also for abuse: I can use a hammer to built a house, but I can also abuse it and hit it over your head. I can use a car to get an emergency patient to the hospital and save his life, but I can also abuse it for carelessly speeding on the highway and causing a fatal accident.

So, tools need skill and knowledge and skill and can be used and abused. That may sound pretty trivial, but we often tend to forget this when it comes to discussions about marijuana and other psychoactive substances.

Marijuana, like any other psychoactive substance, should be seen as a tool. Certainly, like for all tools, there is an abuse potential. People abuse marijuana when they e.g. get constantly stoned to flee a reality they can not handle for some reason. But certainly there is also a potential for positive use. This point, as obvious as it may seem, has been by and large ignored by marijuana prohibitionists, who have persistently focused on aspects of risks and abuse. The second aspect of seeing marijuana as a tool is ignored even by many marijuana users in current debates about its mind enhancements, like the enhancement of creativity: if we see marijuana as a tool, it also becomes obvious that we can use its full potential only if we acquire certain skills and knowledge. A skilled marijuana user knows how much of a dose he needs to ride a comfortable high – just like a surfer knows which kind of waves he can handle. He will also choose his strain and dose carefully and adjust it to his experience of riding a high and to his immediate environment, just like a skilled surfer will choose the right kind of board matching his own skills and the conditions out there in the waves.

If a novice surfer goes out on a Hawaiian beach to ride high waves with a pro board and gets in trouble, he will probably get in panic – but we wouldn’t judge, therefore, that panic is a typical effect of surfing, would we? When a marijuana users gets in panic during a high, it usually happens because he lacks the skill and the knowledge how and under what conditions to ride a marijuana high. It happens to many people, but that doesn’t mean that marijuana normally causes panic. It just means that novice users with poor judgement should have more respect, more knowledge and better skills before they go out there ‘riding a high’. There is of course a big difference in our society today as it concerns using a surfboard and using marijuana. The globally influential disinformation campaign concerning marijuana started by drug czar Harry Anslinger in the nineteen thirties invented horror stories about marijuana and its risks which are still influential. If we would convince every novice surfer that they are for sure going to be attacked by sharks, and that most of them will break their necks or drown in the waves, how many of them would become back paranoid even on a bright sunny and peaceful day out in moderate waves? And how many more would become paranoid going out there in the waves if surfing was strictly prohibited and punished with jail sentences?

American Poet Allen Ginsberg

The famous American poet and writer Allen Ginsberg once wrote:

… most of the horrific affects and disorders described as characteristic of marijuana “intoxication” by the US Federal Treasury Department’s Bureau of Narcotics are, quite the reverse, precisely traceable back to the effects on consciousness not of the narcotic but of the law and the threatening activities of the US Bureau of Narcotics itself. (…) I myself experience this form of paranoia when I smoke marijuana, and for that reason smoke it in America more rarely than I did in countries where it is legal.

 (The Great Marijuana Hoax. First Manifesto to End the Bringdown” 1966)

It is becoming more and more clear now even to skeptics that marijuana has an incredible medical potential and can be used for many medical conditions. But when it comes to the much sought-after inspirational uses of marijuana, it is even more important that we free ourselves of governmental lies and deceptions and rather carefully listen to respectful, skilled and knowledgeable users of marijuana. They have described how a marijuana high brought them a whole array of astonishing mind enhancements, ranging from the intensification of sensory experience to a better concentration on the “here-and-now”, and to the enhancement of episodic memory, imagination, pattern recognition, introspection, creativity, empathic understanding, as well as to an enhanced ability to produce remarkable insights.

Beth Amberg, a contributor to Lester Grinspoon’s magnificent website collection, is one of those many who reported how marijuana helps her to better remember past events:

 “Perceptions are heightened tonight, my mind unencumbered and slippery. I’m still so close to the wonder and sensations of the past. My thoughts are swimmy-silvery fountains of assorted memories, the novelty-generator of marijuana turning its freshness backwards into history. My past selves have awoken: their experiences aren’t distant; they happen again as I read and remember. The shimmering glaze on memory has opened up and let me back in for the night.”

 (Beth Amberg, Memories of the Moment, in:

Astronomer and marijuana user Carl Sagan

 I can remember on one occasion, taking a shower with my wife while high, in which I had an idea on the origins and invalidity of racism in terms of Gaussian distribution curves. (…) One idea led to another, and at the end of about an hour of extremely hard work I found I had written eleven short essays on a wide rage of social, political, philosophical, and human biological topics. I can’t go into the details of those essays, but from all external signs, they seem to contain valid insights. I have used them in university commencement addresses, public lectures, and in my books.”

(Carl Sagan, “Mr. X”, in: Marijuana Reconsidered, Harvard University Press 1971.)

These are only a two quotes from hundreds of detailed reports about marijuana enhancements which we have from skilled and experienced users. Whatever reason one may have for using marijuana, if you decide to do so, I would recommend you go and learn from them. Whatever reasons you may have to go and ride ocean waves on a surfboard, if you decide to go out there, wouldn’t you want to learn from a master?

Whether you are riding ‘high’ waves of your own mind or ocean waves on a surfboard, only skill and knowledge will get you to a point where you will ‘step into liquid’ and understand what legendary surfer Bill Hamilton meant when he said: “Surfing equates to living in the very moment of ‘now’. When you ride a wave you leave behind all things important and unimportant, the purity of the moment is upon you.”