Cannabis Psychedelia: The Meaning, History, and State of the Art
‘Is cannabis a psychedelic?’ The short answer is yes. Let’s take a look at what the word psychedelic means, and whether or not cannabis fits the description. Next, we’ll go over some historical facts and writings and discover that cannabis in its edible form was often used as a psychedelic.
Terrence McKenna, in his book Food of the Gods, touches on the issue:
“There is […] no doubt that when used occasionally in a context of ritual and culturally reinforced expectation of a transformation of consciousness, cannabis is capable of nearly the full spectrum of psychedelic effects associated with hallucinogens.”
As we will see, cannabis has been used throughout history to induce psychedelic effects and can still be used that way today.
A secondary pair of questions in this article will be, “what is a psychedelic drug like? Specifically, what psychedelic effects does cannabis confer?” The answers to this question will be woven into each section. I hope that the reader of this article comes away with the sense that cannabis can be as satisfying as the other “mega-hallucinogens,” all while mitigating the potential psychological trauma associated with those drugs.
Meaning of the word Psychedelic
Etymologically, the word is a compound of two Ancient Greek words: ψυχή (psukhḗ, “mind, soul”), and δῆλος (dêlos, “manifest, visible”).
As an adjective, the word literally means “mind manifesting.”
In 1956, Humphry Osmond, an English Psychiatrist, coined the term “psychedelic” in its modern context in a letter to Aldous Huxley, writer of the seminal work on mescaline and psychedelic states, The Doors of Perception:
“To fathom Hell or soar angelic, just take a pinch of psychedelic.”
Cannabis versus Classical Psychedelics
The main difference between the classical psychedelics (LSD, mushrooms, mescaline, DMT) and cannabis (THC) is that the former chemicals excite the central nervous system and primarily act on the neurotransmitter serotonin. THC is unique in that it mimics anandamide and can produce a range of effects from arousal to hypnosis, depending on what the user needs it for.
In my experience, the user of cannabis has more control over what he or she experiences than with the other major psychedelics. This means, that to use cannabis as a psychedelic, you have want that. If you eat a ton of hash, sit down on your couch, and start to use your imagination, you will see that you can reach states of mind comparable to those induced by LSD or mushrooms, but you need to put a considerable amount of effort into it. For this reason, cannabis is more of a “creative” psychedelic than a “consumptive” one. The key with Cannabis is that the visuals will not come to you; you have to induce them out of your own free will, which can be more difficult for those without powerful imaginations to begin with. But believe me when I say it is also much safer to have control over this state of mind, and also hugely gratifying.
“It’s a boundary dissolving drug, but a very gentle boundary-dissolving drug. It doesn’t dissolve boundaries in a spectacular way that the mega-hallucinogens do.” -McKenna
I found one post from reddit that describes the phenomenological psychedelic-but-not nature of a large dose of Cannabis:
“I was not transported to some other realm nor did I see open eye visuals typical of a psychedelic experience. I saw my friend, but my perspective had drastically shifted. I had become the size of a gnat. The room was expansive, and my friend was this epic, massive, almost mythical creature. Time seemed to have slowed by several orders of magnitude. My friend slowly lifted the blunt to his mouth as wisps of smoke rose through the air in slow-motion. He was beautiful, but not in a sexually attractive type of way, more like the universe can be described as beautiful. It was awesome in the true sense of the word. I did nothing but marvel at the view I beheld.”
Unlike DMT and LSD, there is not a veil placed over the world; instead, the world itself morphs and changes according to your particular mind and personality.
Although easier-to-control, and closer-to-the-actual-world than other psychedelics, cannabis, especially when ingested at high doses, can produce hellish and angelic states of delirium and hallucination.
McKenna writes in his book Food of the Gods, “when the resin of the cannabis plant is collected together into black sticky balls, its effects are comparable to the power of a hallucinogen, providing that the material is eaten. This is the classic hashish.”
Cannabis as a Psychedelic in Ancient History
As far back as 685 B.C., Kunubu is mentioned in Assyrian letters, and later in Greek and Latin writings as cannabis. Interestingly, almost no ancient culture, from the Assyrians to the Indians and Chinese, smoked cannabis at all, and instead cultivated the plant primarily for its hemp fibers which could be turned into rope, paper, and fabrics.
But the resin was indeed eaten across many cultures (excluding the Greeks and Romans, who seemed to have no idea about its psychoactive powers) as a hallucinogen and entheogen, giving rise to the heterodox religions such as Sufism and Hasidism. These departures from Islam and Hinduism, respectively, owe their origins to hallucinations and revelations induced by eating large doses of hashish. It was never a secret that these religions were centered around ingesting the plant, but their orthodox predecessors make little mention of the drug.
Democritus, a pre-socratic philosopher attributed with expounding the atomic theory of the universe, writes in a fragment (reproduced by Pliny the Elder), about a plant called potamaugis, which many scholars think references cannabis:
“Taken in drink it produces a delirium, which presents the fancy visions of a most extraordinary nature […] An infusion of it imparts powers of divination to the Magi […] Taken internally with myrrh and wine all sorts of visionary forms present themselves, exciting the most immoderate laughter.”
Although ancient literature making direct reference to the psychedelic effects of cannabis is rare and obscure, it is certain that, in any case, people were using it in the same way that we use psychedelic drugs today: to incite and conjure up mind-dependent hallucinations and entities, to look deeper into the self, and to have mystical, boundary-dissolving experiences.
The Transcendental Hasheesh Eaters of America
McKenna: “Cannabis entered the West in the 19th century in the form of Hashish, which was eaten. If you read accounts of savants who ate hashish at the time, it will convince you that it was the LSD of the 1800s”
Is this true? At least one written account supports the claim. Bayard Taylor, Atlantic Monthly 1854, describes the phenomenological effects of eaten hash:
“The sense of limitation–of the confinement of our senses within the bounds of our own flesh and blood–instantly fell away. The walls of my frame were burst outward and tumbled into ruin; and, without thinking what form I wore–losing sight even of all idea of form–I felt that I existed throughout a vast extent of space […] The thrills which ran through my nervous system became more rapid and fierce, accompanied with sensations that steeped my whole being in unutterable rapture. I was encompassed by a sea of light, through which played the pure, harmonious colors that are born of light.”
Sounds like LSD to me.
Part of the psychedelic (and cannabis) experience is choosing whether or not to believe in the forms and objects presented to the senses. This is why the most powerful benefit of cannabis when compared to the other psychedelic drugs, as I mentioned earlier, is that it is much easier to have wholesome, reality-reinforcing experiences. It leaves you with an altered, but true view of the world and your mind. It doesn’t conjure up impossible phantasms in the same way.
Get ready for a long-winded, but absolutely essential passage on cannabis, from the journal of Fitz Hugh Ludlow (B. 1836), the picaresque psychedelic writer of the American romantics:
“How far haseesh throws light upon the most interior of the mental arcana is a question which will be dogmatically decided in two diametrically opposite ways. The man who believes in nothing which does not, in some way, become tangent to his bodily organs will instinctively withdraw himself into the fortress of what he supposes to be antique common sense, and cry “madman!” from within. He will reject all of experience under stimulus, and the facts which it professedly evolved as truth, with the final and unanswerable verdict of insanity.
There is another class of men which has its type in him who, while acknowledging the corporeal senses as very important in the present nutriment and muniment of our being, is convinced that they vive him appearances alone; not things as they are in their essence and their law, classified harmoniously with reference to their source, but only as they affect him through the different adits of the body. This man will be prone to believe the Mind, in its prerogative of the only self-conscious being in the universe, has the right and the capacity to turn inward to itself for an answer to the puzzling enigmas of the world. . . .
Arguing thus, the man, albeit a visionary, will recognize the possibility of discovering from mind, in some of its extraordinarily awakened states, a truth, or a collection of truths, which do not become manifest in his every day condition.”
Modern Cannabis Use
Cannabis is finally entering the mainstream. The cannabis experience is inherently counter-cultural. The herb, when ingested, dissolves boundaries, illuminates the flaws in social structures, makes the work-a-day material existence seem utterly absurd. How will its impending ubiquity change the way we view ourselves and our culture? Will it send our culture into a decadent decline? Will we revert back to a partnership-based, non-monogamous, archaic society which worships mother-goddesses and femininity? I don’t know. But one thing is for certain: our culture will become increasingly psychedelic, increasingly mind-oriented. Interpersonal power will become passe, and mind-consciousness will be the new standard by which we measure our self-worth.
McKenna thought deeply about this subject during the 1980’s:
“Everything about cannabis that makes it inimical to contemporary bourgeois values endears it to the Archaic Revival. It diminishes the power of ego, has a mitigating effect on competitiveness, causes one to question authority, and reinforces the notion of the merely relative importance of social values. No other drug can compete with cannabis for its ability to satisfy the innate yearnings for Archaic boundary dissolution and yet leave intact the structures of ordinary society.”
Cannabis, according to McKenna, is “Psychedelic enough that, like all psychedelics, it erodes loyalty to cultural values.” This is the “bullshit” effect. Cannabis unleashes a deep skepticism within us all towards culturally approved behaviour, like having a job.
I’m going to end this article with a thought about how cannabis can be used to improve the condition of the modern world.
It is clear that a cultural paradigm shift is happening, and transformations are always exacerbated and encouraged by our drug choices. Sixty years ago, Alcohol, with its inhibition-reduction and mind-dampening effects, was the norm. This attitude of “brute consciousness” was useful for climbing social ladders and drowning internal demons. But now, people are more interested in conquering themselves, facing their shadows, and integrating themselves whole. Consciousness is the hot commodity and we’ll do anything we can to get more of it. That is why now, more than ever, it is important to use psychedelics responsibly. The benign, inspiring, and, in the long-run, powerful psychedelic drug of all, is undoubtedly cannabis.
In terms of the psychedelic issue: the way to do Cannabis is once a week, in silent darkness, with the best stuff you can get, and then do as much of it as you can do in a short amount of time and sit with it, you will, every single time, be absolutely torn to pieces by it. It’s just astonishing. The problem is, that people get into it, myself included, for other reasons than that hallucinogenic flash. But that would really be the ideal way, and it would prove that you’re a person of great rectitude and self-control if you could do that.” – Terrence McKenna
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