Is Marijuana Dangerous?While there is no such thing as a completely safe drug, marijuana is one of the least toxic substances known to modern medicine. The Shafer Commission, appointed by President Richard Nixon, concluded that "a careful search of literature and testimony by health officials has not revealed a single human fatality in the U.S. proven to have resulted solely from the use of marijuana." It has been calculated that the amount of marijuana required to make up a lethal dose is so great that it is virtually impossible for any human being to consume it; after smoking large amounts of marijuana over a concentrated period, the smoker would suffer a fate no worse than falling asleep.
In 1970, a team of American researchers went to Jamaica to conduct a two-year study on the long-term effects of marijuana use. Sponsored by the Center for Studies of Narcotic and Drug Abuse and by the National Institute of Mental Health, the study was published in 1975 as Ganja in Jamaica. It indicated that there were no significant differences between ganja smokers and a control group with respect to chromosome damage or organic brain damage; in fact, there were no significant differences in any medical, psychiatric, or psychological areas between the two groups. The sole exception was an indication of functional hypoxia (low oxygen level in body cells) among long-term heavy cannabis smokers.
The modern period of marijuana research began with the Weil-Zinberg experiments at Boston University in 1968; since that time thousands of human subjects and many thousands of laboratory animals have smoked or otherwise ingested huge amounts of marijuana or THC, as scientists have attempted to learn more about the effects of cannabis. The amount of marijuana research carried out during the 1970s has made marijuana one of the most widely studied drugs in history, and what is now known is radically different from what was believed in the 1960s.
Not all the evidence is in, but the claims that marijuana is dangerous to human health have not been accepted by most researchers. The public depends upon the news media to provide information about science and medicine; unfortunately, media coverage tends to give more attention to dramatic reports about marijuana's alleged dangers than to reports that suggest that the drug is relatively harmless. In the seventies, a series of controversies arose over medical reports on the possible effects of marijuana; some of the more significant are summarized here.
Male SexualityThe idea that marijuana might have a negative impact on male sexuality was raised in November 1972. Two physicians from Cambridge City Hospital reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that three young men who were heavy marijuana smokers were found to be suffering from gynecomastia, or enlargement of the breasts, accompanied by a milky discharge from the nipples. According to the physicians, marijuana contains a feminizing ingredient that occasionally causes this syndrome in male users. The report attracted a good deal of attention in the media, but in the absence of other evidence, it was not taken seriously by marijuana smokers.
In April 1974, the same journal published the findings of Robert Kolodny and his associates at the Reproductive Biology Research Foundation in St. Louis. The Kolodny study compared the testosterone levels of twenty male marijuana smokers with those of twenty nonsmoking males. Although they were still within normal limits, the levels in the marijuana smokers were lower than the levels in the nonsmokers. And the levels of those men who had smoked ten or more joints a day were lower than the levels of those who had been more moderate.
In addition, six of the smokers had lower than normal sperm counts. The report speculated that intensive marijuana use could alter reproductive physiology through action on the central nervous system and on those glands that regulate the production of testosterone. The study produced no evidence of the development of breasts in men.
Critics noted that the researchers did not measure the strength of the marijuana used and, more importantly, charged that the study had failed to determine the testosterone levels of the men before they had used marijuana. Nor did the researchers point out that testosterone levels are subject to dramatic fluctuations from day to day, and even from hour to hour, for no known reason.
A third article, in the November 1974 issue of the journal, described a study by Dr. Jack Mendelson and his associates at the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Research Center of Harvard Medical School at McLean Hospital. Twenty-seven young men who smoked marijuana regularly were asked not to smoke for two weeks. They were then kept in a hospital ward without marijuana for six days and tested thoroughly. During the next three weeks, the subjects were allowed to smoke all the marijuana they wanted. They were tested daily during this time and for the five following days. In this way, Mendelson was able to establish the serum-testosterone levels of the men before, during, and after they smoked marijuana of predetermined potency. The Mendelson study, with its daily measurements, found that smoking marijuana appeared to be entirely unrelated to low testosterone levels. "High-dosage marijuana was not associated with suppression to testosterone levels," the report concluded.
Soon afterward, Kolodny, evidently skeptical of Mendelson's conclusions, arranged for thirteen marijuana smokers to be confined to a hospital setting for three months. For two weeks before the experiment and for the first eleven days of confinement, the subjects abstained from marijuana. Then they were given several joints of predetermined potency every day. Kolodny found that the Mendelson conclusions were correct, but only up to a point. Curiously, during the fourth week of his study, Kolodny observed that testosterone levels began to fall, and they continued to drop in the weeks ahead. This led Kolodny to conclude that he had been right all along and that Mendelson had simply stopped too soon.
Not necessarily, cautions Norman Zinberg. "One of the things we know about serum testosterone is that in humans, sexual excitement raises the levels. Locking up male animals in close confinement lowers the level." Zinberg argues that Kolodny's study would be more revealing if it had included controls, such as giving marijuana to only half the group that was locked up. Then, Zinberg quips, if there had been similar declines in both groups, one would at least have learned something about the effects of incarceration on young men.
Damage to LungsAlthough the evidence is inconclusive, it seems reasonable to assume that marijuana smoke may be as damaging to the lungs as tobacco smoke. Indeed, some studies have indicated that marijuana smoke contains more carcinogens than the smoke of tobacco cigarettes, and there is some concern that smoking marijuana could be related to lung cancer.
The key factor here, however, may have more to do with quantity than anything else. While any smoke is bad for the human lungs, experts on lung cancer estimate that the level at which cigarettes made from tobacco produce definite changes in the cells of the human lungs is, on average, about twenty years of pack-a-day smoking. If marijuana is roughly equivalent to cigarettes in terms of carcinogenic dangeror even if it is two or three times as dangerous, as some authorities believethen only extremely heavy marijuana smokers have any real cause to worry.
Birth DefectsConcerned about the reports of chromosome breakages as a result of the use of marijuana and LSD, the National Institute on Drug Abuse convened special conferences on the subject in 1973 and 1974. They concluded that "it is still doubtful whether cannabis is a danger to human genetics and reproductive processes, under the conditions and in the doses commonly used by marijuana smokers." Supporters of this conclusion point out that if there were a link between marijuana and birth defects, the millions of marijuana users in America and elsewhere would by now have given birth to large numbers of deformed babies.
The reason for the concern is that several studies have indeed suggested such a link. The best known is an article by Morton A. Stenchever, an obstetrician at the University of Utah, in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology in 1974. Stenchever claimed that a group of twenty women and twenty-nine men who used marijuana had almost three times as many chromosome breaks as a control group that did not use marijuana. More frighteningly, such chromosome damage did not appear to be related to the frequency or the quantity of marijuana smoked.
Critics of the study point out that Stenchever did not take into account what other drugs the subjects may have been using; caffeine, aspirin, and Valium are all capable of inflicting chromosome damage. They also point out that even if marijuana does cause chromosome breaks, there is no evidence that such breakages will in turn cause birth defects.
Here, as in other cases, different studies produce different results. Dr. Warren N Nichols of the Institute for Medical Research in Camden, New Jersey, checked the chromosomes of twenty-four occasional marijuana smokers and found them to be healthy. The subjects were then given measured doses of marijuana for either five or twelve days and their chromosomes checked again; they were still healthy. And the Jamaica study found that long-term marijuana smokers actually had a lower rate of chromosome damage than an equivalent group of nonusers.
It is still not clear whether marijuana represents a danger to pregnant women. Research with rats suggests that if the dosage in rodents could be mathematically extrapolated to dosages in human beings, a woman would have to smoke over a thousand joints a day before the size of her baby would be affected.
Immunity to DiseaseIn May 1973, The New York Times published a long letter to the editor by Dr. Gabriel Nahas of Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons, claiming that marijuana interferes with the ability of the white blood cells in the human body to fight disease. The research of Nahas and his associates was published the following year in the February 1974 issue of Science. In a complex series of laboratory procedures, Nahas claimed to prove that marijuana smokers lacked an essential means of defense against infectious diseases and cancer. In October 1974, a similar report appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine, and before long, laboratories across North America were discovering a weakened immunity response in cultured cells that had been exposed to very potent solutions of marijuana.
Critics argue that the evidence suggesting a link between cannabis and the impairment of immune response is usually derived from test-tube research and has not been confirmed by experiments on live subjects. A study of marijuana use in Costa Rica found no evidence of weakened immunity among long-term smokers. And Dr. Melvin J. Silverstein of UCLA, who tested marijuana smokers by directly injecting foreign antibodies into their skin, showed that the immunity response of a group of twenty-two marijuana smokers was healthy and normal. A study published in the April 1975 issue of Science by S. C. White and his associates also found no evidence to support Nahas's contentions. And finally, the thirty long-term smokers examined in the Jamaica study showed no greater history of infection than did the nonsmoking members of the control group; in fact, they showed no signs of ill health related to their use of marijuana.
Brain DamageIt has long been known that marijuana produces temporary and dose-related alterations in brain waves, but an idea has lingered, probably dating from the anti-marijuana propaganda of the 1930s, that cannabis might cause irreversible brain damage. Two studies have produced disturbing evidence in this regard. The more important research was reported by A. M. C. Campbell and his associates in the December 1971 issue of The Lancet, a British medical journal. The authors claimed that there was evidence of cerebral atrophy (a wasting away of brain tissues) in ten patients who had used cannabis extensively. This observation was the result of a painful and potentially hazardous procedure known as an air encephalogram, and other researchers have been reluctant to repeat it.
Critics of the experiment point out several problematic facts about the ten subjects. All had used LSD, some fairly often, and eight of the ten had extensive experience with amphetamines. Most of the subjects had used various other drugs as well, including morphine and heroin. At least one of the patients was an epileptic another was mentally retarded, as many as five were thought to be schizophrenic, and several had suffered head injuries from accidents. Moreover, the subjects in this study had been selected because they all showed symptoms of senility, and a few were actually known to have birth defects. In other words, this study was so flawed as to be virtually meaningless.
The other study that has caused concern was concluded by Dr. Robert Heath at the Tulane University School of Medicine. Heath recorded the brain waves of six rhesus monkeys before, during, and after exposure to marijuana smoke and found that the monkeys showed changes for as long as five days after such exposure. In addition, two of the monkeys suffered "structural alteration of cells in the spetal region of the brain," and Heath stated that previous correlations between monkeys and human beings suggested that the chronic smoking of marijuana produces irreversible damage in humans.
Heath's report was made public at a Senate subcommittee hearing investigating marijuana and health. Dr. Julius Axelrod, who received the Nobel Prize in 1970 for his work on the effects of drugs on the brain, was asked to evaluate the Heath study. He told the senators that the amount of smoke inhaled by the monkeys was equivalent to a human being smoking over a hundred marijuana cigarettes each day for six months. "The results indicate that marijuana causes an irreversible damage to the brain," said Axelrod. "But the amounts used are so large that one wonders whether it's due to the large toxic amounts Dr. Heath has given." A large enough dose of almost any substance will produce negative results in animals or human beings, said Axelrod, who believed that Heath should have administered doses of varying degrees to determine which effects would have been produced by different levels of marijuana. Lester Grinspoon, another critic of the Heath study, points out that the monkeys in the experiment were forced to ingest excessive amounts of marijuana smoke, although a monkey's lung size is only about one-fifteenth as large as that of a human being.
At the University of Pennsylvania, a research team headed by Dr. Igor Grant examined twenty-nine marijuana smokers and an equivalent control group, all of them medical students. Grant and his team administered the most sensitive neurological and neuropsychological tests available and found no appreciable differences when they examined the brains of the students in the two groups.
Amotivational SyndromeThe belief that marijuana leads to a lack of willpower and motivation is a fairly old one, and in the United States, at least, it is probably connected with the early identification of marijuana with various minority groups and fringe elements, such as the beats and the hippies. This prejudice was greatly reinforced during the 1960s when many middle-class marijuana users also renounced ambition and upward mobility and seemed instead to be pursuing a passive and nonproductive life.
The phrase "amotivational syndrome" was first used in 1972, by Dr. Louis West, chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at UCLA. It spread quickly through the mass media, although, two years earlier, the National Clearing House for Drug Information had reported that there were no significant differences in motivation or self-discipline between students who used marijuana and those who did not. A report issued the following month by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs claimed just the opposite.
In 1972 both the annual Health, Education, and Welfare report on marijuana and health and the Shafer Commission took issue with the idea of the amotivational syndrome. The Shafer Commission also released data from the Jamaica study, which concluded that users in that country who had smoked several joints a day for many years were, if anything, more motivated than nonusers.
In 1971 Joel Hochman and Norman Brill of UCLA studied the drug habits of fourteen hundred UCLA students and found no statistically significant differences in grade point average or educational achievement between users, even daily users, and nonusers They did discover that chronic marijuana users were more likely than other people to drop out of school, but upon their return they were as successful as nonsmoking students. A similar study at Berkeley during the early 1970s produced like results.
In 1974 Canada's Le Dain Commission concluded that there was no connection between the use of marijuana and a lack of motivation, and a 1975 report by the Drug Abuse Council stated that after one year of decriminalization in Oregon, there was no evidence of decreased motivation among the users in that state.
It should be noted, however, that most marijuana smokers do not feel especially motivated to work while under the influence of marijuana, preferring instead to listen to music, watch television eat, or socialize. An exception are those smokers who sometimes smoke marijuana deliberately before working, using it as a light stimulant. But most users do not smoke in circumstances in which a high degree of motivation is required.
In addition, there are many people using marijuana who were amotivated long before they began smoking. Marijuana is a convenient symptom for an already unmotivated person to add to his list; amotivation is more often the cause of heavy marijuana use than its effect.
DrivingMarijuana smokers are divided as to whether they should drive when high, and marijuana researchers are divided as to whether doing so is dangerous. Long-distance driving is popular with many smokers, especially if the car is equipped with a good sound system. Many smokers report that although they are capable of driving well when they are high, they prefer not to, because they have to concentrate so hard on the driving that all the enjoyable parts of the high are used up.
Is it safe to drive under the influence of marijuana? There is no clear answer; it depends most of all on the driver's past experiences with smoking and with driving. On the surface, the issue seems clear: normal use of marijuana can produce distortions in perception and impairment of cognitive functions and short-term memory. But the real answer seems to depend more on the user than on the drug. An important experiment was conducted several years ago by Alfred Crancer, chief of research at the Department of Motor Vehicles for the State of Washington. Crancer's research team used a series of driving simulator tests, having previously shown that the simulator provided an accurate assessment of a driver's performance and ability. The team demonstrated that there was no significant difference in driving performance between subjects who had smoked marijuana and those who had not. A parallel test with the same group of subjects indicated that six ounces of whiskey led to considerable driving difficulties.
But there is a catch: all of the subjects recruited for the study were experienced marijuana smokers, and it is well known that smokers generally teach themselves to compensate for being high while they are driving. With alcohol, only a certain amount of compensation is possible, but since marijuana has no significant action on the lower brain centers, with practice a marijuana user's degree of compensation can reach 100 percent.
A more recent study by Harry Klonoff concludes that smoking marijuana has a detrimental effect on driving skills and performance in a restricted driving area, and a more serious detrimental effect on regular city streets. At the same time, some of the subjects in Klonoff's study actually improved their driving performance while on marijuana.
So long as the issue is further clouded by the tendency of some smokers (generally men) to brag about their ability to drive well on marijuana, it will remain unresolved. To hear some smokers tell it, marijuana usually improves driving ability. While this may happen on occasion, it is still the exception, not the rule.
A potentially beneficial result of marijuana on driving is its tendency to relax the driver. Murray tells of having to navigate through the streets of Boston under difficult circumstances:When I lit up a joint, there was no sign of snow, but suddenly it started coming down very heavily, and I had to go out. At first I thought of not going, but I decided to give it a try. I was nervous but I soon concentrated on driving, and decided to go with my stoned energy, rather than trying to fight it. I don't know if I actually drove better, although it certainly felt that way. I do know that I drove in a more relaxed way, without lessening my hard concentration on the difficult drive. It was an odd combination for me, this sense of relaxed concentration, and it helped me be confident that I would do all right. In fact, the drive went smoothly; I drove slowly and well, and I got there without any problem.
Stoned drivers have a tendency to drive slowly and cautiously to compensate for their condition, and there is a joke from the 1960s that the easiest way for the police to arrest all the marijuana smokers at once is to round up everybody under thirty driving fifty miles per hour or under in the right-hand lane of the highway on a Saturday night.
Smokers who enjoy driving stoned point out that it provides constant visual excitement: roadside scenes become interesting, and traffic lights on a rainy evening are positively glowing with color. On the other hand, there are smokers who worry about getting lost or having an accident:I don't like to drive when I'm stoned, because I become too careful, stopping at every corner and looking at signs until my neck muscles hurt. When I'm stoned, I can't drive and navigate at the same time, and if I'm alone in the car, it can be difficult.
Bad Trips and Unusual Experiences
Kif is like fire; a little warms, a lot burns. Moroccan folk saying
Unpleasant experiences, or bad trips, are relatively uncommon, but when they occur, they can be intense, frightening, and very disturbing. There are no reliable statistics, but it appears that bad marijuana experiences are becoming rarer each year, as marijuana becomes increasingly familiar as a recreational drug. Indeed, those smokers who recalled bad trips usually indicated that they had occurred some years previously. During the 19605, there were scattered instances of smokers seeking professional help during or immediately after a bad trip; today, such occurrences are virtually unknown.
Most bad experiences on marijuana are directly related to the fears and insecurities of the user. For obvious reasons, the novice is especially susceptible. Bad trips can result from smoking too much marijuana or from unexpectedly potent material. Marijuana adulterated with other drugs can also produce a bad trip, although this occurs less frequently than is commonly believed.
In describing their fears and anxieties, marijuana smokers inevitably speak of "paranoia," using the term to describe a wide range of emotional states from mild discomfort to terror. One of the most common negative feelings experienced by smokers is the suspicion that they are not really liked by other people who are present, or that, aware of their state, nonusers are looking down on them. Other smokers report that they sometimes feel vulnerable in busy places, such as restaurants or shopping centers. "People naturally look rushed and bitter and hostile in such places," observes Sarah, "and when I'm stoned, it's magnified many times." Most smokers who experience such feelings are careful to avoid situations where they might occur. But occasionally, as Jenny discovered, a bad trip cannot be anticipated:We went to the Virgin Islands for our honeymoon. One night we got very stoned, and I couldn't stand up at dinner. I felt claustrophobic, as though I couldn't breathe. I wanted to get to a bright, open place. My fear was that I was going to die there, at the resort, and that nobody would know who I was because I was registered at the hotel under my new married name. How would they know I was really Jenny Smith from Queens? How would they know who I belonged to? I imagined annihilation. Of me. Destruction. The end.
Jenny's bad trip was clearly related to her anxiety about her new identity as a married woman. But not all such experiences are so easily explained. Sandy can recall having only one bad marijuana experience, but it was memorable:I had been smoking on and off all day with friends, and a few of us were sitting around listening to records. All of a sudden I became convinced that my breathing was going to stop at any moment, and I panicked. A friend talked me down, telling me to relax, that it was just the grass that made me feel that way. When I felt a little better, she and I went outside and sat on the steps for a few hours. It was very peaceful there, and after a while I felt fine.
In recalling this experience, Sandy added that it had a positive result: if the same feelings were to recur, she knew that she would be able to talk herself down, having learned how from her friend. This talent was more often required during the 19605, when many novices experienced feelings of anxiety. Lenny recalls the procedure for talking somebody out of a bad trip:The thing you wanted to do was to communicate directly and calmly with the person, to remind him as often as necessary that what he was going through was temporary, that it was a temporary bad reaction as a result of a drug. Sometimes it would help to move the person to another room, or even outdoors, and to focus his attention on some concrete and familiar object. The worst procedure was to take the person to a hospital or a doctor; in such cases, the anxiety would feed on itself, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
During their bad trips, both Jenny and Sandy believed they were going to die. In the following case, another smoker's fears of death were grounded in a feeling of paranoia with regard to strangers:The only really bad pot experience I've had in twelve years of smoking was on a vacation in Jamaica, where I had some strong stuff in one of those huge joints called a spliff. I was with a group of people I didn't know very well. The insects and the rustling trees suddenly became unbearably loud; both they and the people I was with seemed to be scorning my worth as a person in both snickers and whispers. My whole body was agitated so as to be out of control. I thought I was going to die, and I wished I already had.
More often, feelings of paranoia are experienced less dramatically, since a user may be only routinely anxious about the presentation of himself to others. For some smokers, marijuana leads to a heightened sense of noticeability, a feeling of being conspicuous. A young receptionist elaborates:Sometimes when I'm stoned, I get bad feelings when I go out with certain people. I get very self-conscious, which is unusual for me. In high school I was a real individual, and would even wear crazy clothes just to draw attention to myself. Now, if I even wear makeup I feel self-conscious. It makes me think that people are staring at me, or talking about me, and I get nervous and feel upset.
I think I probably create these feelings myself. Most of the time I find this out after I'm stoned, when the feelings have vanished. I've got a certain amount of normal paranoia, but when I'm stoned, it becomes intense. When I'm high, anything can make me paranoid.
A Boston poet experiences another version of the same problem:Sometimes when I'm stoned, I have the feeling that other people are spotting me for a phony, a deceiver. I play a lot of games imagining that they don't know I'm stoned, and I have occasionally ventured into the scary experience of being stoned in the presence of people who I definitely don't want to know. That's a danger I sometimes even court. But more and more, I think people are spotting me as stoned when I'm not aware that they are, so it may be time to cut down on my smoking.
Another smoker explains why he smokes only with close friends or when he is alone. The source of his feelings of paranoia is external rather than personal. He lives in a small town and is aware that marijuana is not accepted by his colleagues and acquaintances:I'm concerned that somebody I work with or know will see me stoned in public. They might think I was a "pothead" or "on drugs" and draw all sorts of conclusions. I know that when I see somebody who is stoned, it doesn't offend me at all. But if I'm the one who is stoned in public, I'm not so sure that other people will be so tolerant. I'm worried that they will label me, or judge me adversely.
Another common fear among smokers is that marijuana will lead to a loss of control. A New Jersey man is especially concerned about being alert in the event of a sudden emergency. Although he understands that when he is high he is still connected to his "normal" consciousness, he is anxious nonetheless about whether the "ladder" he used to get up will be available should he suddenly and unexpectedly need it to climb back down:I feel incapable of dealing with a serious problem when I'm high, and I worry that I could make a wrong decision that could result in serious injury or death, and which would make me feel guilty for the rest of my life. I know that I would blame myself for being stoned, that I would feel that if I hadn't been stoned, I would have done the right thing. When I first started smoking, I didn't have these worries. They developed over time, as I became more mature and more responsible.
Some smokers fear other kinds of loss of control. For the receptionist, the fear that she would lose control of her emotions once took on a physical manifestation:We were sitting around the kitchen table, me and some friends, sharing a few joints. I had been feeling bad to begin with, and smoking made me feel worse. Suddenly I became frightened that somebody was threatening my relationship with my boyfriend, and I felt that I couldn't control the jealousy and the fear inside of me.
I felt myself getting dizzy. My head was spinning, and I couldn't focus on anything. I was sweating, and my hands were shaking. I felt nauseous, and I couldn't think straight.
I began to feel more frightened than I already was, and I freaked out. When I tried to get up and walk around, my legs were like rubber. I felt my body was rising out of itself, and I couldn't control it or talk myself out of it. This lasted about five minutes. I don't think anybody in the room knew I was feeling these things, but I felt then as though they were all watching me.
In rare and extreme cases, a smoker may lose control of his own consciousness. A veteran user recalls an incident that took place when he was a freshman in college:Lying down on the bed, I started to believe that I was going to die. I remember thinking that my heart was beating too quickly. I felt myself traveling through rings and rings, faster and faster like the end of the film 2001. Finally, I stretched the center core of rings enough to have them enclosed behind me, at which point I passed out. Waking up, I thought about what had happened until it started all over again. This time, I remained conscious, although my body shook with convulsions. It was a very frightening experience.
Another veteran smoker recalls his worst marijuana experience, when his imagination took over from his other faculties:There was the time I saw the Devil on the Trailways bus. No, seriously. I was with a close friend and we got stoned at dawn before an all-day bus trip. The first hour or two was on a rollercoaster mountain road in the Adirondacks, and both of us were bus sick, really ready to puke. It was horrible. In the seats next to us were two army guys who had just reenlisted; they were telling a third guy who was with them all about the neat things they did goofing around in the army. One of the neat things was torturing squirrels. We had to listen to this.
Eventually, I noticed up at the front of the bus something about the stainless steel luggage racks, the windows, and the red "watch your step" lights. They formed a surrealistic, robot-like shape. The windows in the bus roof were big, snazzy, sunglass eyes, and the luggage racks were ski feet. It was the Devil. Or rather, it was the personification of evil. He was a living character, not an abstraction. This, I realized, must be the kind of apparition that has caused all the world's belief in demons and evil spirits. I've always remembered it. I felt I had discovered one of the ways religion comes into being.
The man who saw the devil on the bus did not quite have a hallucination. He almost lost control of his rational powers in favor of his imagination, but he was able to retain some objectivity about what he thought he was seeing. Real hallucinations are rare among American smokers, but they do occur. Murray recalls a time in college when after a heavy session of smoking, he saw a friend's head turn for a flash into the head of a lion. Several users spoke of hallucinations involving light. A woman from Minnesota recalls that she once saw an image of a multifaceted diamond for a split second, just before going to sleep; at that moment, she believed she was seeing a reflection of the structure of the universe. Another user saw a light on the ceiling turn momentarily into a giant eye in the sky.
Hallucinations are rare among American smokers for a variety of reasons. First, smoking marijuana is the mildest form of cannabis consumption. Smokers are able to self-titrate, to measure and estimate how much they need to smoke before they get high; overdoses (one cause of hallucinations) are uncommon. When cannabis is eaten, however, its effects are not felt for about an hour, and are therefore much more difficult to control. Second, the marijuana consumed by American smokers is only rarely fresh enough to have psychedelic qualities. Finally, marijuana is considerably less potent than hashish, which was the inspiration for the florid descriptions of such nineteenth-century cannabis users as Baudelaire, Gautier, and the American Fitz Hugh Ludlow. Marijuana scholar Michael Aldrich, director of the Ludlow Memorial Library in San Francisco, elaborates:There is a myth that pot is a mild and minor drug. Usually in the context of American usage it is, but it doesn't have to be. The hard part about expressing this, however, is that the anti-marijuana people who pose visions of disaster about "hashish" or about "legalizing this stronger form of cannabis" are also wrong. In and of itself there's nothing wrong with cannabis being a potent hallucinogen; this has certainly accounted for its vast popularity through these many centuries. When one seeks a shaman's drug one generally wants something more powerful than a "mild hallucinogen." Of course, knowing when and where to use cannabis at a dosage or strength suitable for real visions is also important. It's obviously not a good idea to try it in an unrefined social context, or when working in the fields or factory. This use of cannabis has traditionally been confined, by rational custom in ancient societies, to rituals which help define and control, measure and magnify, the raw experience.
Unusual ReactionsIn addition to occasional hallucinations, marijuana smokers have reported other uncommon reactions to the drug, which do not fit into any particular category. These are not necessarily unpleasant, but the unpleasant experiences are more often remembered and reported. Several users claim that they have had out-of-body experiences after using marijuana. "I left my body by astral projection," one smoker writes, "and saw it not as a mirror image, but as another person would see it." More commonly, smokers report having the sense of separating from their body; few people claim to have actually made a "real" separation. An Oklahoma woman writes of her ability to travel through time when she is stoned; she sometimes imagines herself in a cabin in the woods in the 1860S, and then suddenly she is transported back to her "real" environment.
"Have you ever heard of anybody else experiencing the 'missing person feeling'?" asks a college student. He explains that when he is very stoned, in a room where people are coming and going, he will become convinced that somebody has become lost in the shuffle. "Sometimes I feel that it's happened to me," he adds.
Very often, as we have seen, unpleasant or unusual experiences involve the sense that the user is about to die. Carol's experience was undoubtedly frightening, but in retrospect, it is also amusing:We were at a concert. I turned to my friend and asked, "When is this going to start?" She replied: "It's been going on for half an hour." I had no sense that this thing had already started. Then I thought, oh no, that means I must be dead. And I got into this whole weird fantasy that I was dead. Of course I couldn't tell anybody that I was dead, because I was stoned, and they'd know that, and they'd say, "She's stoned, she only thinks she's dead."
I knew I couldn't convince anybody that I was really dead, that this was what being dead was like. And nobody was paying any attention to the fact that I was dead. I thought to myself, what am I going to do now? I considered running over to the hospital across the street from the concert to get some Valium or something, because here I was dead, and I was freaking out about it. And if I was dead, I at least wanted them to have a look at me and see if I was okay.
Well, I thought to myself, what am I going to do? I can't tell them that I'm a professional person; they'll take away my license. But then I thought, if I'm dead, that shouldn't make any difference. So I told my friend I was dead, and she said, "Boy, you're really stoned, aren't you?" I figured, well, she's not going to pay any attention to me because obviously she's dead too, and she doesn't even know it! So I kept thinking: how am I going to deal with this? Perhaps I should focus on the music? Maybe being dead isn't so bad after all. So I sat there and I curled up in a ball in my seat, and held onto myself, and pretty soon the feeling of being dead went away.
Notes1. Information in this chapter is drawn from the following sources: Robert Carr, "What Marijuana Does (And Doesn't Do)" Human Behavior, January 1978; "Marihuana: The Health Questions, The Legal Questions," Consumer Reports, March and April, 1975; Norman E. Zinberg, "The War Over Marijuana," Psychology Today, December 1976; Sidney Cohen, "Marijuana As Medicine," Psychology Today, April 1978.
See also David Blum, "Marijuana Therapy," The New Republic, 16 September 1978, and Rory O'Connor, "Rx Marijuana: How the Government Thwarts the Use of Grass as Medicine," The Real Paper, 25 March 1978.
For more on bad trips, see Andrew T. Weil, "Adverse Reactions to Marijuana: Classification and Suggested Treatment," New England Journal of Medicine 282 (1970): 997-1000, and A Child's Garden of Grass, pp. 40-49. For more on marijuana hallucinations, see Marihuana Reconsidered, chapter 10. (back)
2. Several researchers, including Andrew Weil and Lance Christie, have suggested that the occasional incidence of gynecomastia among male smokers, as well as the occasional lowering of sperm counts, may be a result of a similarity between THC and the female hormone estradiol. In the metabolism of certain men, THC might actually be mistaken for estradiol, resulting in a certain falling off of biological masculinity. (back)