Introduction to “High. The Mind-Altering Potential of Marijuana”

Marijuana, Taboos, and Logic

When I became interested in the marijuana high almost 15 years ago I knew I was dealing with a taboo subject. I was not aware, however, of the full negative force of this cultural taboo for so many people when it comes to simple reasoning. Obviously, even liberal, intelligent, and highly educated people stop thinking logically when it comes to the discussion of the topic of marijuana – especially when it comes to the aspect of its positive mind-altering potential.

You get a lot more understanding these days if you research the medicinal aspects of cannabis, or if you research the potential of cannabis as a useful plant for nutritional or industrial purposes. What concerns these aspects, the taboo concerning the cannabis plant has already eroded to some degree. In the last years cannabis has been re-discovered worldwide for its medicinal uses. Many of theses medical uses had been discovered and were documented thousands of years ago in various cultures. The Chinese Emperor Shen-nun, considered by many as the father of chinese medicine, recommended the female Cannabis plants for menstrual fatigue, gout, rheumatism, malaria, beri-beri, constipation, and absentmindedness.

The Chinese Emperor Shennong trying some herbs
The Chinese Emperor Shennong trying some herbs

New studies and hundreds of reports of patients and other users indicate that marijuana – the dried buds of the female plant – can be successfully used for the treatment of nausea, spasms, lack of appetite, glaucoma, neuropathic pains, asthma, epilepsy, depression, Tourette’s syndrome, and certain kinds of cancer, to name just a few of the many medical applications.

Hemp products like cannabis chocolate, cannabis oil, or hemp clothing conquer bio and other stores worldwide. Hemp fibers are extremely strong and are used as insulating material for construction. Car companies produce various composite plastic parts with hemp fibers, replacing the synthetic fibers used before. Hemp products are used for many other purposes, including the production of textiles, cosmetic articles, or, for instance, the hemp paper used for the cover of the book you are holding in your hands. The rediscovery of industrial hemp is in full swing. But when it comes to the positive potential of the marijuana high as an altered state of consciousness, the old myths based on decades of disinformation campaigns still prevail. Start a conversation about this topic and you will find many of your conversation partners in a strange, altered state of consciousness: almost panicking in reaction, they are jumping to irrational conclusions and imputations:

If you describe the positive potential of marijuana, does that mean that you children should take it now? Doesn’t your research focus imply that you are denying any risks of marijuana abuse? Do you want to advertise the use of marijuana with this kind of research for everybody, and to justify consuming marijuana while driving a car?

Why is there such a strong cultural taboo surrounding the subject matter of the marijuana high? Why are many people so prejudiced when it comes to this altered state of mind? Naturally, every psychoactive substance brings with it certain risks and a danger of abuses. What concerns marijuana, these risks and dangers have been systematically exaggerated in the past. Nevertheless, there are risks and a potential for abuse when it comes to marijuana. Like many other experts in the field I believe that these risks should be taken seriously and that they are yet another compelling reason to legalize and regulate marijuana, similar to the way we regulate the drug alcohol. Many scientific studies have shown that this is a better way to keep consumers – and especially adolescents – from abusing the substance. In this book I will mostly address the positive potential of the marijuana high, but this certainly does not imply that I want to negate possible risks or to deny the fact that marijuana abuse exists. Rather, I would like to concentrate on the phenomenon of the marijuana high and its positive potential because I am convinced that the worldwide prohibition in the last decades did not allow for much research concerning this topic – and I firmly believe that there is a desperate need for more research in this area.


Voyage Into The High

How do you research an altered state of consciousness like the marijuana high?

The Hotel de Lauzun in Paris, the meeting point for the Hashish Club
The Hotel de Lauzun in Paris, the meeting point for the Hashish Club

My approach included the critical analysis of hundreds of detailed reports from various sources, some of them quite recent, while others came from older literary reports. The French poet and writer Charles Baudelaire for instance had founded a ‘Hasheesh Club’ in Paris with other important intellectuals and writers of his time to eat cannabis extracts and to write about the marijuana high. During my rsearch I contacted Harvard Associate Prof. Emeritus Lester Grinspoon, the most prominent expert for medical marijuana worldwide. I had long been interested in his medical research and his website, where he collects anecdotal evidence from people using medical marijuana. A bit later on, I was stunned reading the many detailed reports and essays about positive uses of marijuana collected on his groundbreaking website

After completing my German doctorate in philosophy in the field of the philosophy of mind and (neuro-)cognition I had researched the marijuana high for many years. My goal was to use my knowledge in the philosophy of mind and in the cognitive sciences to explain how a marijuana high can lead to the many cognitive enhancements reported in the literature by users. When I discovered Grinspoon’s, I was amazed to find a collection of essays with incredibly detailed reports about all of the enhancements which I and some of my friends had experienced and discussed for a long time – enhancements which were independently repeatedly described in literary and other reports from various cultures throughout history.

Lester Grinspoon answered my mail with great enthusiasm and interest. Since then, we corresponded for many years and discussed the marijuana high in dozens of conversations over Skype I can’t even imagine how this book would look like without his research or without all those conversations. His work and experience was a true treasure for my research.


The Complex Effects of The Marijuana High

The essays collected by Lester Grinspoon show an astonishing spectrum of cognitive effects during a marijuana high. Many users experience an enhanced ability to vividly remember past events in an amazing detail, they can better focus their attention, their sensations become more intense, and they often experience them with more complexity and details in structure. They report an enhanced imagination, a heightened perception of more nuances in music or art, or become more creative when cooking or in sexual encounters. They generally discover new patterns of which they were previously unaware of – visual patterns in star maps, acoustic patterns in music, or complex behavioral patterns in human actions. Many users report spontaneous, deep insights, which they sometimes evaluate as positively life changing

Many users report an enhanced ability for introspection, or tell us how a marijuana high helped them to better empathically understand other people.

Lester Grinspoon points out that these anecdotes have to be critically analyzed and that we need to extremely careful not to jump to conclusions. However, he also emphasizes that the present successful use of medical marijuana mainly rests on medical evidence from users and reminds us that anecdotal evidences have generally played a major role in the development and modification of medications in our history.


Interdisciplinary Research with A Psychonautic Component

Many people have asked me with a bashful smile whether I had “researched marijuana empirically” myself. Of course I have. But does this not imply that I am biased as a researcher?

Let me ask you this: If you want to know something about the culture of Tibet, would you rather read the book of an author who never set a foot in the country and only read about its culture? Or would you rather read a book from an author who travelled and lived in the country and also knows books and reports about the country? Don’t get me wrong: If you want to get an objective report about all the aspects of the Tibetan culture, you should of course not only read this one book of an author who travelled there, maybe even showing an affection for the country and its inhabitants, but you should also include the opinions, reports and books of other knowledgeable people. But I think it is clear that the author who travelled will know about aspects of the country which an unexperienced person cannot know.

To put it differently, then, I have researched the marijuana high also as a psychonaut – the notion was termed by the German writer Ernst Jünger and denotes the act of finding out about one’s own psyche through the use of mind-altering substances or techniques. However, this approach for me was but one of many approaches to investigate the marijuana high. I believe that my own experiences with the marijuana high are an irreplaceable source for my research, but I know that my own experiences have to be compared and evaluated in the light of many reports of other users.

My research did not aim to uncover the content of my own consciousness or subconsciousness, but to describe the psychoactive effects of marijuana on the human mind in general. If you want to research the effects of a marijuana high on such complex states like pattern recognition, introspection or empathy, you have to take a look at what we know about the nature of these incredibly complex cognitive abilities today from a scientific point. Therefore, I integrated the knowledge of various scientific disciplines about these abilities in my research, mainly from the philosophy of mind, cognitive psychology, Gestalt psychology, the neurosciences and evolutionary biology. My multiperspectival, interdisciplinary approach surely reflects the influence of my philosophical teachers William G. Lycan, Simon Blackburn, Gianfranco Soldati and Manfred Frank.


An Inspiration for Further Scientific Investigations

My research led me to generate hypotheses about how marijuana might positively influence cognitive abilities like introspection, creativity, or empathic understanding under favorable circumstances. I am hoping to inspire scientists in various fields such as the cognitive (neuro)sciences, psychology, or psychotherapy to investigate this phenomenon. Further research in this area could for instance help us to better understand the endocannabinoid system. We already know that this signaling system in our brain controls many somatic and cognitive processes by using its own cannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors, chemicals which are produced in our brains independently of whether we have ever consumed marijuana or not. Scientists believe that the endocannabinoid system plays a role in the control of appetite, in stress response, and that it has a homeostatic function by controlling several metabolic functions. They also think that the endocannabinoid system is involved in various memory functions, pain sensation, anxiety reactions, in functions of the immune system, and that it plays a role for many other somatic and cognitive processes.

Obviously, the psychoactive effects of marijuana are produced by an interaction between ingested or inhaled (“exogenous”) cannabinoids from the cannabis plant with the already existing endocannabinoid system. I hope that my research leads to a better understanding of this system and its role for the control of various higher cognitive functions – which could lead to the development of remarkable drugs and medical treatments. Furthermore, I believe that my contribution in this field helps to lead to a better understanding why people use (and abuse) and in which ways people personally profit from a marijuana high. Also, I hope to inspire scientists to further explore medical uses for marijuana such as in psychotherapy, the treatment of autism, traumatology, and other areas.

Researching the marijuana high does not only produce fascinating insights into an altered state of mind, but also gives us deep insights in the nature of human consciousness as such: in the origins of creativity, the power and importance of attention, the abundance of episodic memory, the relevance of imagination, and into the unbelievable gift of empathic understanding. The voyage into the high is not only a voyage into an altered state of mind, but also a fascinating trip into the human mind itself.


the structure of anandamide (from the Sanskrit word ananda, "bliss"), an endogenous neurotransmitter which binds to cannabis receptors in the human body
The structure of anandamide – from the Sanskrit word “ananda” (bliss) – an endogenous neurotransmitter which binds to cannabis receptors in the human body

A Science-Art Crossover Project

The essays in this book are based on my much more detailed study “High. Insights on Marijuana” and are essentially about the potential of the marijuana high. My first essay “Surfing, Marijuana, And The Purity of The Moment” is a reminder stating that the potential of marijuana can only be explored by users if they learn how to do so. In the following essays I describe how the marijuana high can enhance cognitive processes and abilities like creativity, introspection, personal development, empathic understanding, and our ability to produce deep insights. In my essay “Marijuana and Addiction” I explain how marijuana can also be used to perceive one’s addictions and to help get away from them. In my last essay “Nightmare Prohibition” I analyze a part of the history of the worldwide marijuana prohibition, a prohibition which has been mostly backed with governmentally financed disinformation campaigns. The strong taboos concerning marijuana are firmly based on a wrong public image of the plant based on decades of disinformation

The visual concept of the book aims to circumvent the learned associations concerning marijuana based on these campaigns, which is also why I have abstained from showing the cannabis leaf in its typical symbolic form. My artistic macro photography shows the living buds, the parts of the plant which are called “marijuana” after they have been harvested and dried, as well as other plant parts throughout the growth and flowering phases of the cannabis plant. The last photos in the series show tiny parts of the plant which are only a few millimeters in length, making the fine stigmas of the plant look like strange trees from another planet. The photos show the fascinating world of the crystalline mushroom-shaped trichomes on the plants buds and leaves, which produce the psychoactive cannabinoids. The photo series does not only aim to uncover the unbelievable beauty of the plant, but also to illustrate the different morphology of various cannabis strains of cannabis. On a visual level, then, the perceiver can relate to the claim that various strains with their unique combination of dozens of cannabinoids produce significantly different highs – a fact often unknown and underrated by many who see marijuana as a simple drug with only one active ingredient.

"Silver Haze Calyx and Stigmas I"
“Silver Haze Calyx and Stigmas I”

The limited photo art series “The Art of Cannabis” was shot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II and a Canon MP-E 65 macro lense. The photos were generated with a ‘deep focus fusion’-technology, which allows for a much greater depth of focus on the extreme macro level. For the backgrounds of the plants I took macro photos of air bubbles entrapped in ice and color-inverted the photos. My goal was to produce backgrounds giving a more three dimensional visual experience when looking at the plant, an experience typical for the marijuana high – with strange structures, leaving the perceiver – especially the high perceiver – room for interpretation.

The essayist Gertrude Stein once wrote in a poem the famous line “A rose is a rose is a rose”. She meant to remind us that a name evokes many images and thoughts which are actually not really part of the denoted object, but come from our culturally learned associations. She concluded that we can only come closer to the object if we manage to cut off these associations. As opposed to the mostly romantic associations that arise when we are hearing the name “rose”, many of us have mostly negative associations concerning “marijuana” or “cannabis”, associations that have been drilled into us for many decades by the use of various disinformation campaigns. I wanted to give a new perspective on the plant which circumvents those learned associations, a perspective which reminds us that in the end, cannabis is just a plant; and ..

a plant

is a plant

is a plant.