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. 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 give you life changing, blissful experiences – but you need to work on some practical skills first: how to paddle out in the waves, how to get up to stand on a board in the water, 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 can be seen like tools in general: they have a potential, but to use this potential, we need to learn how to use them and we need some knowledge what to do best with them. Obviously, tools 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 someone with it on purpose. I can use a car to bring an emergency patient to a 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 skills and knowledge and can be used or abused. This may sound almost painfully trivial. But we often tend to forget this when it comes to discussions about marijuana and other psychoactive substances. And I am convinced that this is a fatal flaw in thinking – with devastating consequences for hundreds of millions of people.
Marijuana as a Tool for Cognitive Enhancement
Marijuana, like any other psychoactive substance, should be seen as a tool. Marijuana and surfboards are tools with a certain positive potential to make great experiences, but also with risks. Our abilities and knowledge will help us to explore their potential and to minimize their risks. Naturally, like for all tools, there is also an abuse potential. With the wrong attitude, I can abuse a surfboard as a beginner and try to show off in large waves, endangering myself and other surfers or swimmers close to me. People abuse marijuana when they for instance get constantly stoned to flee a reality they can not handle for some reason. Many teenagers and others do exactly that: they abuse marijuana to forget about their problems, to constantly be in the here-and-now of watching television or playing a computer game. Even if marijuana is remarkably non-toxic and not very addictive in comparison with other psychoactive substances like alcohol or tobacco, it can help an exiting need for escapism and, thus, have a negative influence on the lives of those who do not want to confront reality. On the other hand, millions of people have positively used the same, basic effect of marijuana with a different attitude to sometimes concentrate on the here-and-now of existence and thereby to relax, to explore sensual experiences, or to enjoy nature. Your attitude is crucially important to whether marijuana will affect you in a positive or negative way.
An unusual attentional focus on the here-and-now during a high is only the very beginning of what users have told us about the positive potential of marijuana. Prohibitionists tend to ignore the inspirational potential of marijuana and to reduce its positive effects to a feeling of relaxation coupled with euphoria. They rather concentrate on mostly invented risks and its abuse potential. This should not be surprising coming from people who have never used marijuana and have mostly been indoctrinated with disinformation. The most important aspect of seeing marijuana as a tool, however, is even ignored even by many marijuana users in current debates about its mind enhancements: Can marijuana lead to an enhancement of creativity? Can a high help us to remember past episodes better, can we come to important insights about others and ourselves during a high? The answer I will give in the following essays is: yes, definitely, marijuana does have this potential. But, importantly, this is a potential – not an automatism. Surfboards have typical design features, but do not let me automatically ride a big wave. A marijuana high leads to certain typical cognitive effects, like for instance a hyperfocus of attention. To positively use these effects, a users need skills and knowledge, just like a user of a surfboard. He will know how much of a certain strain of marijuana to use for certain situation or activity. Maybe a writer will use a Norther Lights #5-Haze strain to get a clear high with fast associative streams of thought. Another user might prefer to use a strain like Black Domina generating a stronger body high to relax, to better feel his body, or to have sex. These users will know when they are in the right mood to get high and if certain people joining them are good company to get high with. They will choose their strain, dosage and consumption method carefully and adjust it to their experiences with riding a high and to their immediate environment, just like skilled surfers will choose the right kind of board matching their 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 user 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 does not 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 the use of surfboards or 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?
The 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.”1
Ginsberg was right to point out that the cultural context of prohibition has a negative influence on the high of many users. The Harvard psychology professor Timothy Leary, later to become famous as the “LSD-guru”, stated already in the nineteen sixties that the character of substance induced altered states of mind like the marijuana high or an LSD trip depends on three factors: the dosage, set, and setting of a consumer. The set includes character, mood and attitude of the consumer, whereas the setting includes the context of consumption including other people present. The French writer and poet Charles Baudelaire had made similar observations in his book “The Artificial Paradises” (1860), where he suggested a favorable environment for the hashish high, “like in the midst of a picturesque landscape, or in a artistically decorated room”.2
The surfboard metaphor adds to this reminder: a high crucially depends on the knowledge, the skill and the attitude of a user to deal with an altered state of consciousness.
The Rediscovery of the Marijuana High
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 what respectful, skilled and knowledgeable users of marijuana have reported for thousands of years.
This is also the fundamental insight to which both the Harvard scholars Lester Grinspoon and Charles Tart had come more than forty years ago. Psychology professor Charles T. Tart published his study “On being Stoned” in 1971.3 He had sent 750 questionnaires to students and asked them specifically for the their experiences with the effects of marijuana on their consciousness. At the same time his colleague associate professor for psychiatry Lester Grinspoon meticulously researched anecdotal evidence from marijuana users about their experience of the high in existing literature and evaluated these reports critically on the background of their situation and their influences and beliefs.4 Later, Grinspoon started the internet project marijuana-uses.com, where he collects a selection of essays and reports from marijuana users about their positive inspirational uses of marijuana.
Marijuana users 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. A geologist working for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration research center explains how a marijuana high helped him to finally merge two stereo photographs into a single three dimensional view – after he had unsuccessfully tried for months.5 Others report a more refined sense of taste and how marijuana helped them to develop their cooking abilities. Very often, marijuana users report a heightened sense of appreciation for nature, art and music, and they expand their limits of understanding. Users have described how a marijuana high helped them to better imagine situations, be it visually, auditory, tactile, gustatory, olfactory, or tactile. They find themselves to be able to open up to others and to themselves, to think about death and other difficult subjects without fear. Many have said that the high allowed them a better understanding of humor. It is crucially important to the research of the marijuana high that we listen not only to the facts they state; it is also amazing to see in how much detail some users are describing their experiences with these mind enhancements.
Beth Amberg, a contributor to Lester Grinspoon’s magnificent website collection marijuana uses.com, 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.”6
The Jazz saxophone player Milton Mezz Mezzrow worked with musicians like Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, and Bix Beiderbecke. His colleagues highly esteemed not only his musical talent, but also the quality of his marijuana. Mezzrow wrote about the influence of a marijuana high on his playing:
„The first thing I noticed was that I began to hear my saxophone as though it were inside my head. . . . Then I began to feel the vibrations of the reed much more pronounced against my lip. . . . I found I was slurring much better and putting just the right feeling into my phrases. . . . All the notes came easing out of my horn, like they’d already been made up, greased and stuffed into the bell, so all I had to do was blow a little and send them on their way, one right after the other, never missing, never behind time, all without an ounce of effort. . . . I felt I could go on playing for years without running out of ideas and energy.There wasn’t any struggle; it was all made to order and suddenly there wasn’t a sour note or a discord in the world that could bother me. . . . I began to preach my millenniums on my horn, leading all the sinners to glory.“7
For thousands of years, marijuana and hashish users have told us about the aphrodisiac potential of cannabis. In Erich Goode’s book “The Marijuana Smokers” (1971), an Atlanta woman reports:
“The most terrific experiences I’ve had while stoned have been sexual encounters. I finally learned how sensual my body really is, and I can say without a doubt that marijuana contributed to this discovery. I often get high before making love. My body responds in a more fluid, warm manner, with visual imagery intensified, and every touch sending notes of ecstasy to my brain. No, I have not become a “loose woman” because I smoke pot. But I’m a lot looser than I was ten years ago. I’m not sure how much of this is due to grass, and how much is because of my personal growth; for me, the two go together and can’t always be separated. But I do know that my sexual expression has been greatly enhanced since I started getting high.8
These are only a three quotes from hundreds of detailed reports about marijuana enhancements which we have from skilled and experienced users. Certainly, we also have many other reports of people who found that a marihuana high negatively interfered with many of their activities, .i.e. reports from users who found that the marijuana high confused them or made them too tired or introspective for sex. But it should be clear now that it doesn’t make sense to simply count these reports as evidence that marijuana does not have a positive potential for these activities. When looking at the role of a high marijuana for creative purposes, for sex, or other activities, many analysts take a superficial look at anecdotal reports from users to find that it is a fifty-fifty situation, with half of the users saying they experienced various enhancements, whereas the other half reports that the high actually made things worse for them in various ways. Commentators often conclude that therefore, it must be a myth that marijuana really does have a potential to enhance the abilities in question. But the surfboard metaphor should make it clear that this evaluation approach is highly questionable. Many negative reports come from consumers who have used marijuana in the wrong way, taking a dosage too high to handle in a certain situation, using bad quality marijuana from a black market, or consuming marijuana in the wrong social context without skills and knowledge. Also, many of those consumers are negatively biased.
If we really want to evaluate and research the positive potential of marijuana, it will not be enough to make statistics with superficially counting positive and negative reports about marijuana use for various purposes. If we want to study the positive potential of surfboards, it will not help us to ask thousands of novices to get on a surfboard and to go out with it in the ocean. Naturally, many of them will come back with negative reports. Even if we scientifically set up the situation for them and if we make a very precise count of their negative and positive reports, the outcome will tell us nothing about the real potential of surfboards. As trivial as this may sound for the case of surfboards, many do not get this point when it comes to the evaluation of the positive potential of marijuana. The lesson of the surfboard metaphor, then, is as simple as it is important: if we want to learn about the positive potential of marijuana, we will have to listen to the reports of skilled, knowledgeable users who consumed good quality marijuana under favorable conditions.
Whatever reason you may have for using marijuana, if you decide to do so, I would recommend you go and learn from skilled users who know what they are doing. 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 once said:
“Surfing equates to living in the very moment of ‘now’. When you ride a wave you leave behind all things important and unimportant, and the purity of the moment is upon you.”