On Being Stoned
Charles T. Tart, Ph. D.
Chapter 2. The Nature of Drug-Induced States of Consciousness
PEOPLE SELDOM do something without a rationale explicitly or implicitly
guiding their actions. Although I have tried to avoid theorizing
as much as possible in this book, there was a theoretical rationale
that led to the initiation of the present study. The theory presented
here is applicable to most altered states of consciousness, although
this presentation focuses on marijuana intoxication. Application
of this theory to more powerful psychedelics, such as LSD, mescaline,
or psilocybin, should take account of the fact that an even greater
range of effects is potentially available with these drugs than
The condition of being under the influence of marijuanaof being
in a state of marijuana intoxicationis one of many altered
states of consciousness potentially available to man (see Tart,
1969). But what exactly do we mean by a state of consciousness,
and more specifically, what do we mean by the particular state
of consciousness we call marijuana intoxication?
A simple answer to this is that marijuana intoxication is a reorganization
of mental functioning that comes about from the ingestion of marijuana.
For reasons explained in detail later, however, to define a state
of consciousness in terms of its obvious initiating procedure,
while "objective" and "operational," can be
very misleading. Some people, for example, smoke marijuana and
experience no discernible effects; are such people in the same
state of consciousness as someone who smokes marijuana and says
time goes slowly, sounds are more beautiful, and his body is filled
A state of consciousness is a hypothetical construct invoked to
explain certain observed regularities in behavior and experience.
That is, we start out by observing a number of people about whose
functioning there is something presumably different. Each
of these people reports experiences and exhibits behaviors that
are unique, a product of the individual's personality and the
particular situations we observe him in. If, however, we can discern
a certain common patterning of functioning in all of these people,
a common pattern superimposed on their individual uniqueness,
we may hypothesize something to explain this common pattern. This
hypothesized something might be a common personality trait, belief
system, physical attribute, or, in terms of our interest a common
state of consciousness. Particularly, if we know that all the
observed individuals ingested marijuana just before we began observing
them, we will be tempted to say that the common pattern of functioning
we observe is the result of their all being in a state of marijuana
Note, however, that it is the empirically observed common pattern
of functioning that
is the crucial defining operation of the state of consciousness;
the fact that they had all ingested marijuana serves secondarily
to specify something we think to be a cause of the hypothesized
state of consciousness.
What, then, are the properties of this hypothesized state of consciousness,
marijuana intoxication? How do we discover these properties?
Clearly the way to answer this is to give marijuana to a number
of people and observe what is common in their experience and behavior.
Unfortunately, the observation process is much more complex and
full of pitfalls than we would expect.
Much of our usual experience with the effects of drugs on consciousness
misleads us into expecting fairly simple relationships. If, for
example, you give a strong dose of barbiturates or other sedatives
to a person, he almost always goes to sleep. Hence we describe
the state of consciousness (or lack of it) induced by barbiturates
as a barbiturate-induced sleep. There is little variability across
subjects, and our observational process is simple.
With a psychoactive drug like marijuana, on the other hand, the
variability across subjects is very high, and the observation
process itself may systematically bias what we observe, as will
be detailed in the next section. It may even turn out that different
people might experience different states of consciousness from
using marijuana, that is, the observed patterns of experience
and behavior fall into several distinct patterns rather
than a single pattern common to all individuals. We generally
consider alcohol intoxication, for example, as a single state,
yet on a second thought there are clearly some individuals who
have very different experiences with alcohol from those the majority
of us have. A drug may thus stimulate a reorganization of functioning,
but the nature of the new pattern may be determined by factors
other than the nature of the drug per se.
Let us consider in detail the question of why a given individual,
taking marijuana (or any other psychoactive drug, for that matter)
at a particular time and place, might experience the particular
things that he does.
VARIABILITY OF DRUG-INDUCED STATES
Our common experience with many drugs inclines us to think along
the line that "Drug A has effects X, Y. and Z." This
is generally adequate for most drugs. Heavy doses of barbiturates
make a person drowsy. Penicillin cures certain diseases. Amphetamines
When it comes to drugs whose effects are primarily psychological,
however, the tendency to think that drug A has effects X, Y. and
Z can be very misleading and introduces confusion. That type of
statement attributes certain sorts of invariant qualities to the
chemical effect of the drug on the nervous system. When dealing
with psychoactive drugs such as marijuana or LSD, however, both
scientific research and the experience of users have made it clear
that there are very few "invariant" qualities that are
somehow inherent in or "possessed by" the drug itself.
Rather, the particular effects of a drug are primarily a function
of a particular person taking a particular drug
in a particular way under particular conditions
at a particular time.
Potential Effects Model
The conceptual scheme used in this book for understanding the
variability of effects with psychoactive drugs may be called the
potential effects model. Basically, the observable effects
of a psychoactive drug such as marijuana are of three types. First
are what might be considered pure drug effects, i.e., effects
almost always manifested when a particular drug is taken, regardless
of person, place, situation, and time. Such effects are probably
due primarily to the chemical nature of the drug as it interacts
with common characteristics of human body chemistry. With many
psychoactive drugs, pure drug effects are only a small portion
of the total effects possible.
Potential drug effects are effects that are made possible
by the ingestion of a particular psychoactive drug but that will
not manifest (become noticeable to the user or an observer) unless
various non-drug factors operate in the proper manner; i.e., potential
effects manifest only under certain conditions. These conditions
will be discussed at length below. These potential effects constitute
the majority of effects for a drug such as marijuana.
Insofar as potential effects constitute the bulk of effects for
marijuana intoxication, it is misleading to talk about the effects
of marijuana per se, as is commonly done. Rather, we must speak
of the effects of marijuana on certain types of people under certain
types of conditions. (A third category of effects under this model
is not, properly speaking, drug effects at all, but placebo
effects, or pure psychological effects. These are effects
brought about by non-drug factors entirely. If the particular
configuration of non-drug factors necessary to produce a particular
placebo effect occurs frequently under conditions usually associated
with taking a particular drug, the effect will probably be, erroneously,
ascribed to the drug.)
Factors Controlling Potential Effects
We shall consider all of the current known classes of factors,
which will determine how a particular individual reacts to a psychoactive
drug at a particular time, before looking at the problem of variability
from one time of drug intoxication to another.
Drug factors include the chemical composition
of the drug, the quantity used, and the method of administration.
Marijuana has a very complex chemical composition. Some
investigators feel that THC is the only active chemical of importance;
others feel there may be other active chemicals or chemicals that,
while not active in isolation, may modulate the effect of the
THC. For marijuana use outside the laboratory, the possibility
of significant adulteration exists. These adulterants may have
no effect themselves, simply reducing the potency of the marijuana,
or they may modify the intoxicated state as when marijuana has
been soaked in opium or LSD. Certain active adulterants are valued
by some users, disliked by others. As users generally test samples
of marijuana offered for sale, they often have an opportunity
to reject marijuana with adulterants that produce undesirable
Authoritative figures on the extent and type of adulteration of
marijuana cannot be obtained, but most users feel it is usually
rare for marijuana in the United States to be actively adulterated.
more powerful psychedelics purchased illicitly, on the other hand,
are usually significantly adulterated (Cheek, Newell, and Joffe,
The quantity of marijuana taken at a given time is important
in determining effects, but not as important as we might expect.
Experienced users have a great deal of control over the effects
(see Chapter 17), and can sometimes increase or decrease their
level of intoxication at will.
An important consideration with respect to quantity and
method of administration of the drug used at a particular
time is whether the user himself has control of the method and
quantity. Marijuana users typically smoke marijuana and control
their level of intoxication as desired by the amount they smoke.
Many users consider smoking the ideal method of administration
for this reason. Eating marijuana usually requires about three
times as much marijuana to reach a given level, takes effect more
slowly, lasts longer, is more variable in effects, and is much
more frequently associated with overdoses and unpleasant effects.
For some users, eating marijuana or taking a capsule in the laboratory
produces some anxiety in and of itself, because they know they
will have less control of the level of intoxication.
Long-term factors affecting a particular period
of intoxication include the culture (and subculture) of the user,
his particular personality characteristics, his physiological
characteristics, and the skills he has learned for controlling
his intoxicated state in earlier drug use.
Cultural background is a very important factor about which
little is precisely known. Attitudes toward various drugs vary
tremendously from culture to culture, and this prevailing cultural
climate may have a strong effect on the user. Classical Islamic
culture, for instance, prohibits the use of alcohol but sanctions
marijuana use. Our American culture as a whole believes marijuana
produces undesirable and dangerous effects, and this knowledge
may very well influence an individual user at times, in spite
of subcultural support of marijuana smoking. In our culture, feelings
of paranoia (e.g., fear that there may be a policeman watching)
are frequent and normal, although experienced users generally
treat them rather objectively rather than getting concerned about
them in a maladaptive fashion.
Personality affects marijuana reactions. Users commonly
believe, for example, that authoritarian people, who are not open
to new ways of perceiving and thinking, either get no effects
at all from smoking marijuana or have very unpleasant effects.
They try to maintain their ordinary way of perceiving and thinking
against the drug effects. There is a large psychological literature
on the way in which personality factors affect reactions to a
wide variety of psychoactive drugs other than marijuana.
Overall physiological functioning shows very similar patterns
in healthy individuals; i.e., their bodily reactions to a given
drug are similar enough to not be important. For some drugs and/or
for some individuals, however, unique physiological factors might
cause special reactions. I know of no solid information on this
for marijuana, but it should be kept in mind as a potential source
Learned drug skills are particularly important in marijuana
intoxication. A neophyte commonly must use marijuana several times
before becoming aware of its effects; he must learn to recognize
certain subtle effects that indicate he is intoxicated (see, e.g.,
Becker, 1953). With increasing experience and contact with other
marijuana users, the neophyte learns of other effects that he
may try to experience himself and of techniques for controlling
his intoxication experience (see Chapter 17). He may learn to
reproduce many of the usual effects of intoxication without actually
using marijuana, as in "contact highs" (feeling intoxicated
just by being with intoxicated companions) or "conditioned
highs" (feeling intoxicated to some extent by the action
of preparing to use marijuana).
Immediate user factors include several factors that
assume particular values for hours to days before using a drug,
such as mood, expectations as to what will happen, and desires
for particular happenings.
Mood is particularly important with a drug like marijuana,
as many users report the intoxicated state amplifies whatever
mood they were in before taking the drug (see Chapter 16). If
they were happy, they may become very happy; if they were sad,
they may become particularly gloomy. An experimental study that
picked student subjects just before exams, for example, might
find that marijuana depressed people. Mood interacts with expectation,
the user's beliefs about what the drug can and will do to him.
This, in turn, derives from what he has heard about the drug,
the situation he will be in, and his own past experience.
The user's desires may or may not be congruent with his
expectations; he may want to have insights about himself or find
a new appreciation of beauty, but he may expect that the drug
will not do this, or will make such an experience unlikely, given
The experiment or situation includes the immediate
factors surrounding the taking of the drug, such as the physical
setting and social interactions. In the experimental situation,
both the formal instructions and the implicit demands given a
subject can strongly influence the user-subject's reactions.
The physical setting in which the drug is taken can have
important effects. If it is cheerful, warm, esthetically pleasing,
it may help create a positive mood in the intoxicated state with
consequent effects on a variety of other drug phenomena. If the
physical setting is cold, sterile, or ugly, negative emotions
may be amplified. Effects that only manifest if the user relaxes
his control would not manifest in a setting that makes the user
insecure. Experienced drug users may attempt to turn inward and
ignore unpleasant aspects of the physical setting, with varying
degrees of success.
Social events include all interactions with companions,
experimenters, other subjects, and casual droppers-in. A major
way of controlling marijuana intoxication is the direction of
attention; interactions with others also direct attention, and
this can have a major effect on what the user experiences and
how he behaves. Strangers, people the user does not trust, manipulative
people, and the like can produce strong negative, paranoid reactions.
Warm, cheerful, enthusiastic, interested people have an opposite
The formal instructions given in an experimental situation
("We are here in order to study X by doing Y") further
shape the user-subject's expectations as to what will and should
happen, provide norms for behavior, and a goal to be sought. All
reports of experiments specify the formal instructions to the
subjects; they are indispensable to understanding the results.
Unfortunately, most experimental subjects now know that experimenters
frequently lie to them or mislead them with instructions, implying
that the subjects are dumb, unimportant, or untrustworthy. This
does not make for an honest experimenter-subject relationship,
and may encourage the subject in turn to lie or mislead the experimenter.
This brings us to the problem of the implicit demands of
the experimenter, what Orne (1959, 1962) has called demand
characteristics and Rosenthal (1966) has called the problem
of experimenter bias. Briefly, when psychologists and psychiatrists
began copying the methods of the physical sciences, they took
up the idea of the neutral observer, whose presence did
not itself affect the experiment. It is now clear, however, that
an experimenter, in addition to his formal instructions, which
are available for public assessment, makes all sorts of covert,
implicit demands on his subjects to perform in a certain manner.
These demands are not open to public examination and so
cannot be fully evaluated for their effect on any given experiment.
Particularly, the experimenter frequently has an a priori belief
or hypothesis as to how an experiment should turn out,
and this belief can be covertly communicated to the subjects.
Since subjects are there to "help science," they often
modify their behavior or experiencesunconsciously, semiconsciously,
or consciouslyto do the "right" thing (or the "wrong"
thing if they are in a negative mood). I believe we shall see
a major reformulation of the methods of the social and psychological
sciences in the next decade as we realize that experimenters interact
with subjects, that they are themselves one of the variables in
the experiment, and that science is a human activity. The
bases for this change are nicely summarized in Kuhn (1962), Lyons
(1971), Maslow (1966), Polanyi (1958), and Rosenthal (1966).
Most of the scientific literature on LSD demonstrates the effect
of experimenter bias. Researchers who believed that LSD was a
"psychotomimetic" constantly reported psychotic-like
reactions among their subjects. Researchers who believed LSD was
mind-expanding or psychedelic saw these beliefs confirmed. Both
groups were partially right. What they did not realize was that
they had unconsciously acted in ways to make their beliefs come
true. They both demonstrated some of the potential effects
of LSD, but were mistaken in thinking they had demonstrated pure
drug effects or invariant effects.
Selective Amplification, Inhibition, Interaction
None of the above factors affects the intoxicated state in isolation.
Some may be important at one time, others unimportant. Users may
choose to concentrate on some of these factors, amplifying their
effect, or try to inhibit others, with varying degrees of success.
Some of the factors may interact at a given time. A cold and sterile
setting, an angry or unfriendly experimenter, and a poor mood
on the subject's part can all combine to produce negative effects
beyond the subject's ability to control.
The ranges and combinations of these important factors are enormous,
which means that the variety of drug intoxication effects is correspondingly
large. We know little about exactly how important some
of these are, or how they interact. Some extreme
values of these factors, however, do produce known effects.
For example, suppose we wanted to know how to produce a pleasant
marijuana experience or an unpleasant one. Table 2-1
some extreme values of controlling factors that will maximize
the probability of a "good trip" or a "bad trip."
If all the controlling factors take one or the other of the extreme
values, success in manifesting the potential effects that constitute
a "good" or "bad" trip is highly likely. If
some factors take on "good trip" values and others "bad
trip" values, the outcome is uncertain.
Feedback Modification of Intoxication
It should be stressed that the user is not a passive object to
which a certain configuration of controlling factors can be applied
and, as a consequence, certain results will automatically manifest.
The user is monitoring his own state of consciousness; he may
deliberately seek to intensify the effects of certain factors
and diminish those of others in order to obtain effects he considers
This applies both to specific effects and the level of intoxication.
If a room is depressing, the (free) user will leave it. He may
select music that will remind him of (and thereby induce) certain
experiences, or he may seek out companions more intoxicated than
himself in order to raise his level of intoxication by means of
a "contact high" (see Chapter 17). The effects of all
controlling factors are constantly subject to modification by
the actions of the user.
Variability over Time
Any or all of the above controlling factors may vary from one
period of intoxication to the next, and many are likely to vary
considerably over longer time periods. While long-term factors
may generally stay relatively constant for a given user, they
can change; as when the user associates with a new subculture.
For example, many students who have used marijuana extensively
get interested in meditation and, once associated with a formal
meditative discipline, are often told that the "spiritual"
experiences they have had with marijuana are unreal and diversionary,
so that they no longer value such sorts of experience.
The increasing skill in control and wider range of possible effects
as a drug user becomes more experienced are particularly important.
A given user taking marijuana for the tenth time is, in many ways,
a very different person from when he took it for the first time.
THE LEVEL OF INTOXICATION
In the previous discussion, we have treated marijuana intoxication
as something that is simply present or absent; but, in fact, it
may be present in various degrees, from the lowest degree possible
for a user to recognize that he is intoxicated, up to the maximum
level of intoxication he may obtain. Variation in level from time
to time constitutes another source of variability, as well as
being of interest in its own right.
In studying drug-induced states of consciousness, it is tempting
to assume that the level of intoxication is specified by the dosage
of the drug, and this has been done in most laboratory studies.
With respect to marijuana (and other psychedelic drugs), however,
comments of users indicate that dosage is only an approximate,
and sometimes quite fallible, guide to level of intoxication.
Neophytes may ingest very large quantities of marijuana without
feeling any effect. Experienced users generally report they can
become very intoxicated on quantities of marijuana that are small
compared to what they originally required. Further, not only will
using the same amount of marijuana from the same supply result
in different degrees of intoxication for a user at different times,
many users have special techniques for raising or lowering their
level of intoxication by psychological means.
Users commonly evaluate the potency of marijuana offered for sale
by smoking a fixed quantity of it and rating the level of intoxication
thereby attained. In the present study I formalized this procedure
by asking users to rate, on the basis of their extensive experience,
the minimal level of intoxication necessary to experience
various intoxication effects. That is, certain effects may be
experienced at all levels of intoxication, others in the moderate
and high levels, others only at the high levels. The minimal-level
model, then, assumes there is a threshold level of intoxication
below which a certain effect cannot usually be experienced and
above which it can be experienced (assuming other conditions are
right for a potential effect). Once this minimal level is passed,
the effect is potentially available at all higher levels. For
example, slowing of time is practically never reported at very
low levels of intoxication, but is usually reported at moderate
and higher levels. This model is further discussed in Chapter
The theoretical rationale for self-reporting of depth of an altered
state of consciousness may be found in detail elsewhere (Tart,
in press). Briefly, in the course of his marijuana use, a user
finds that certain phenomena become available when using more
marijuana and that the progression of phenomena with increasing
dose follows a fairly regular sequence through most of the times
he has become intoxicated. In the future he can then examine what
is happening to him, survey the phenomena he can and can't experience,
and estimate his degree of intoxication from this.
I have found this kind of self-estimation of level to be extremely
useful in the study of hypnosis (Tart, 1970a), and Frankenhaeuser
(1963) has found estimates of intoxication correlate very highly
with dosage levels for nitrous oxide intoxication.
STUDYING MARIJUANA INTOXICATION
In spite of all the sources of variability and uniqueness discussed
above, we still commonly talk of marijuana intoxication as a state,
implying that there is a relatively common pattern superimposed
on the varied manifestations that result from using marijuana.
Our present information as to what that pattern is, is very poor.
We presently have two sources
 of information
about marijuana. On the one hand, we have individual anecdotes
of marijuana users. These are valuable but cannot be generalized
very reliably. We don't know how much of what is reported is a
product of marijuana intoxication and how much of the individual
writer. On the other hand, we have clinical and laboratory experiments.
These are as limited in applicability to the state of marijuana
intoxication in general as are the anecdotal accounts, for the
reasons detailed in the next section; the laboratory or clinic
is an unusual constellation of conditions, which accentuates certain
potential effects and inhibits others in a way that is atypical
of the general use of marijuana.
The ideal study of the nature of marijuana intoxication should
proceed in a number of stages. First, we must determine the range
of effects; i.e., what are all the various effects supposedly
associated with marijuana intoxication?
Second, since it is impractical to study everything at once, we
must determine which of these effects in the total range are important.
We may determine importance on theoretical grounds, which will
vary with our own background and beliefs; or we may, somewhat
more objectively, decide to study the frequent effects and let
the rarer ones wait.
Third, we may set up controlled experiments to investigate each
important effect in isolation. What causes it? How does it relate
to dosage? Do different personality types experience it with important
variations? Is it adaptive or nonadaptive for certain individuals?
Fourth, we may study the relationships between important effects.
Must effect X always appear before effect Y? Does B inhibit A?
Does investigator M always observe effects N. O. P and investigator
Q always observe effects R. S. and T? Why?
Finally, all this knowledge may be put together for a general
theoretical understanding of what marijuana intoxication is. As
with any scientific theory, this understanding will then be judged
on its informational usefulness (does it "make sense"
and order the observations conveniently?) and its ability to predict
further observations (i.e., if it orders all presently known facts
elegantly and can't handle the next new fact, it's not very good).
In steps three and four, it is important to remember the restricting
effects of the laboratory; i.e., the gain in precision of observation
may be offset by the narrowing of the range of potential effects
observed and the distortions caused by experimenter bias. However,
if we know the range and importance in advance, from steps one
and two, we can compensate for the restrictions of the laboratory
to a great extent; we will be careful not to overgeneralize and
misapply laboratory findings.
THE SCIENTIFIC LITERATURE ON MARIJUANA
There is a vast medical and scientific literature on marijuana,
dating back over half a century. The reader interested in perusing
this should consult Gamage and Zerkins' A comprehensive guide
to the English-language literature on cannabis (1969).
It is traditional in a scientific book for the author to thoroughly
review all other scientific literature on the subject. I shall
not do this, for this literature represents work that is generally
methodologically unsound, so no solid conclusions can be drawn
Most of this literature rather uniformly attributes almost every
human ill imaginable to marijuana intoxication. It is rather reminiscent
of the medical literature on masturbation in the last century.
As a first methodological warning sign, the intelligent reader
might wonder why the practice of marijuana smoking is so widely
indulged in if all its effects are negative?
More formally, let us consider the literature in two categories,
the medical literature and the experimental literature.
The medical literature to date on marijuana consists primarily
of clinical observations of patients identified as marijuana smokers
by physicians treating them. Because marijuana was used before
the patient came to the physician, marijuana is considered the
cause of the disease. The logic of this is fallacious. Cause and
effect cannot be established simply because one thing precedes
another unless all other preceding events can be eliminated as
possible causes. For example, various medical disorders prevalent
among people of underdeveloped nations where marijuana smoking
is widespread are attributed to its use. We could equally well
reason that the medical conditions in underdeveloped nations lead
to marijuana smoking, or that they have nothing to do with it.
Thus practically all the medical literature on marijuana is useless,
being moralizing under the guise of medicine.
This is a particularly regrettable situation. It seems a priori
likely that prolonged use of any drug would have some effects
on the body (good or bad), and we very much need factual medical
knowledge of marijuana's effects.
The experimental literature on marijuana, with an occasional and
notable exception, represents research carried out under a set
of circumstances that are almost certain to produce results that
have practically no applicability to the normal use of marijuana;
i.e., they emphasize certain potential effects that are atypical
of our society's normal use of the drug.
Some of the most notable atypicalities of the experimental research
to date are as follows.
Control of the drug has been in the hands of the experimenter.
The subject usually had to take one of a number of unknown substances
in an unknown dosage. This can produce a good deal of anxiety
and an intensified need for control and defense. As discussed
earlier, marijuana users prefer to control their own level of
intoxication. (User control of dosage could be allowed, even if
it is somewhat less convenient for the experimenter.) Note also
that subjects in many laboratory studies of marijuana have been
given what are, judging by the effects reported in Chapter 11,
overdoses, i.e., dosage levels they would not choose for themselves
because of the probability of unpleasant symptoms and loss of
Physical setting has usually been a hospital or laboratory,
typically ugly and impersonal. The social sciences generally,
in their pursuit of "objectivity," have adopted cold
and impersonal settings in order to gain it. In reality this gains
a particular set of limiting conditions, not objectivity. Scientists
are just beginning to become aware of how physical settings affect
people (Sommer, 1969).
Social setting often paralleled the physical setting. Experimental
personnel tended to be impersonal, evasive in answering questions,
and manipulative of the subject. There were seldom the sort of
people the experienced user would have chosen for companions.
They were often typical of our culture in that they considered
drug use "bad" or "sick."
Learned drug skills were typically non-existent in that
naive subjects were almost universally used because their
reactions were supposedly "uncontaminated." Thus much
of subjects' reactions in such experiments represented coping
activities of naive people under stress in an unknown situation.
The effects of coping may have been much more prominent than many
drug effects and may have been mistaken for them. Studying adaptation
to drugs is fine and necessary if the experimenter realizes
that that is what he is studying, a realization rare in the literature.
Implicit demands, difficult as they are for a reader of
the literature to judge, often seem to have been negative in that
"sick" or "maladaptive" reactions were expected.
Aside from the unknown degree to which such demands might have
been communicated by the verbal interaction of the experimenter
with his subjects, such practices as keeping psychiatric attendants
nearby, locking the subject in a room and keeping him under surveillance,
and having subjects sign legal release forms prior to the experiment,
seem sufficient to communicate strong expectations of adverse
effects to subjects.
Orne and Scheibe (1964) carried out a classical study demonstrating
that demand characteristics of sensory deprivation experiments
might be responsible for many of the effects supposedly resulting
from the "drastic" treatment of depriving a person of
sensory stimulation for prolonged periods. Because the procedure
in so many sensory deprivation experiments parallels that in laboratory
studies of marijuana and other psychedelic drugs, it is worth
reporting this study in some detail.
Two groups of normal male college students, naive as to what sensory
deprivation was about, took part in the experiment. The experimental
group reported individually to the hospital where the experiment
was to be held and were greeted by an experimenter dressed as
a physician. The experimenter interviewed the subject about his
medical history, including dizziness, fainting spells, and so
forth. A tray of drugs and medical instruments, labeled "Emergency
Tray," was clearly visible in the background. No reference
was made to it unless a subject asked about it, in which case
he was told that this was one of the precautionary measures taken
for the experiment and that he had nothing to worry about.
Instructions for the four-hour experimental period, termed "sensory
deprivation," were given. They included the fact that a physician
was always available should anything untoward develop, and pointed
out that if the subject couldn't take it, he could push a button,
labeled "Emergency Alarm," to summon assistance.
The subject then had his blood pressure and pulse taken to further
reinforce the "medical" atmosphere and was asked to
sign a form that released the sponsoring organization, all affiliated
organizations, and their personnel from legal consequences of
The actual experimental treatment, spending four hours in a small,
well-lighted, comfortably furnished room, had nothing to do with
sensory deprivation. Except for the observation window through
which the subject could be observed, it was essentially a normal
room and all that happened to the subject was that there was no
one to talk with for four hours.
A second group, the control subjects, were greeted by the same
experimenter but he wore ordinary business clothes and acted in
a less officious manner. There was no "Emergency Tray"
in the interview room, nor was a medical history taken. The subject
was told he was a control subject for sensory deprivation studies.
The procedures typical of such studies were described to him,
such as white noise on earphones, translucent goggles to block
out all patterned vision, soft beds to reduce touch sensations,
and rules prohibiting physical movement. There was no "Emergency
Alarm" button in the experimental room.
Each control subject then spent four hours in the experimental
room; experimental conditions were thus the same except for the
Both groups were interviewed after the experimental period and
given various psychological tests.
The experimental group showed a number of significant changes
on the psychological tests typical of those found in sensory deprivation
studies. Further, this group reported many more classical sensory
deprivation effects than the control group, including more perceptual
aberrations, feelings of intellectual dulling, unpleasant emotions,
spatial disorientation, and restlessness. Thus many of the effects
commonly attributed to a "powerful" treatment, sensory
deprivation, can be obtained by the implicit demands in experimental
I fear that the reader who is not himself a physician or psychologist
(i.e., who accepts such experimental conditions as "normal")
will find the above description of experimental conditions rather
ludicrous. How can we expect to find anything but unpleasant and
unusual reactions under such circumstances? I regret to say that
such conditions have been standard for almost all the research
that has been done on marijuana intoxication or studies of other
Indeed, practically all the conditions outlined in
Table 2-1 as
maximizing the probability of a "bad trip" are standard
conditions in laboratory studies of marijuana. This was not a
result of deliberate malice on the part of earlier investigators,
of course, but stemmed from inadequate knowledge of the importance
of non-drug factors and from the pervasive belief in "pure"
Future experimental studies of marijuana intoxication should note
the importance of the many controlling factors discussed above
and report their values in particular studies. If this is done,
we may begin to round out our overall picture of marijuana intoxication.
Further, these controlling factors should be systematically varied.
Different environments, varying from cold and sterile to warm
and esthetically pleasing along various dimensions, can be tried.
Experimenters and experimental personnel can be deliberately selected
in terms of their personal attitudes toward drug use in order
to assess how important this parameter is, and so on.
On a very practical note, political pressure is now very strong
for scientists to produce better knowledge about the effects of
marijuana in order to guide changes in legislation. If experimental
results are to be socially relevant, priority must be given to
studies carried out under conditions comparable to the ordinary
use of marijuana today. Overdosing a naive person under very stressful
conditions is not very relevant to answering questions about the
dangers of marijuana, for an overdose of multitudes of common
substances under stressful conditions can produce adverse effects.
Experimental research can be both valid and relevant. I
hope it will be.
The previous scientific literature on marijuana intoxication,
then, generally represents sets of conditions under which an extremely
limited range of potential effects is likely to emerge. This set
of potential effects is quite unrepresentative of the effects
ordinarily associated with marijuana intoxication. The old research
literature can be of some scientific value in detailing the effects
of marijuana on people under conditions of high stress.
THE PRESENT STUDY
The present study is intended to begin to provide answers to the
first, second, and fourth questions discussed earlier under the
general question of how do we scientifically study marijuana intoxication.
That is, it is intended to investigate: (1) the range of effects
associated with marijuana intoxication under its usual conditions
of use; (2) the importance of such effects in terms of which effects
are frequent and which infrequent; and (3) the relationships of
these effects to level of intoxication, to some important background
factors, such as education, and the relationships of some of the
effects to each other.
By asking experienced users to report on various intoxication
effects in the course of their last six months' marijuana experience,
all the various controlling factors, which determine potential
effects, will have obtained most possible values many times, so
the range can be determined.
By knowing these sorts of things about the ordinary use of marijuana,
we may then estimate whether a given experimental study's results
may be generalized to non-laboratory conditions, and, more importantly,
we may plan future experimental studies from this base to be relevant
to normal marijuana use.
Also, because of the lack of scientific information about the
entire range of marijuana effects, the data of the present study
provide a unique kind of information about the experiential effects
of marijuana intoxication that cannot be obtained elsewhere. They
are of considerable interest to the reader who simply wants to
know "What do people experience when they use marijuana?"
and to the marijuana user who would like to compare his experiences
with those of others.
It should again be emphasized that the present study is itself
limited; the marijuana users studied were mostly young college
students or rather well-educated older users, and the results
should not be glibly generalized beyond such groups. I hope that
this study will serve as a stimulus to better and broader studies
that will supersede it, both general studies and intensive laboratory
Most psychological effects of psychoactive drugs such as marijuana
are primarily potential effects; i.e., the drug action
makes certain experiences and actions possible if and only
if various non-drug factors are just right.
This means there is a tremendous range of experiences possible
with marijuana, depending on conditions.
Previous experimental and medical studies of marijuana have been
carried out under such an unusual and restrictive range of conditions
that their results have little applicability to the ordinary use
of marijuana in our culture today.
The present study, by inquiring about intoxication experiences
of many experienced users over a long period, provides information
on nearly the total range of potential effects, because the many
controlling factors have varied over most possible configurations
in that time.
This study thus provides basic data on the range of intoxication
experiences, their relative frequency or rarity, their relationship
to level of intoxication, and the effects of various background
factors on them. This information provides an answer to the question
"What is it like to be high on marijuana?" and provides
experimental and psychological guidelines for making future experimental
research more relevant and profitable.
Note that the method of the present study can provide valuable
data on the general effects of marijuana intoxication in
experienced users, but it is not suited to investigate questions
about individual differences among users. Some users, for example,
might experience primarily cognitive alterations while others
might experience primarily sensory enhancements. Individual differences
are an important topic for future study.
1. Note that a pattern of functioning is not
the same thing as the observed effects per se. Different restructurings
of mental functioning may lead to the same overt effect in some
cases, the report that one event followed rapidly after another
could stem either from a change in experienced time rate or from
falling asleep between events. Relationships between observed
effects determine the overall patern. (back)
2. Ironically, users generally feel that increased
government crackdowns on marijuana usually result in more adulteration
as dealers attempt to pass off the poor quality marijuana then
available as higher quality material. (back)
3. The great importance of the user's modification
of his effects was strikingly (and humorously) demonstrated to
me some years ago when, as a graduate student, I participated
in an experimental study in which psilocybin (a psychedelic drug
similar to LSD) was administered. I had to take a "symptom
check list" type of test, sort a bunch of cards into true
and false piles. Each card had a phenomenon on it, such as "I
feel dizzy." As I started to sort these, it became clear
that, by reading the card several times, I could make the effect
manifest. So if I read a card that said, "My palms are sweating
green sweat," I would decide that that would be interesting
to experience, and, sure enough, in a few seconds I could see
green sweat on my palms! If I read a negative effect, such as
"I feel anxious and afraid," I would immediately toss
that card in the false pile, and the effect wouldn't happen. (back)
4. For example, one of my informants, an engineer,
reports that he can scale his level of intoxication on a ten-point
scale by whether or not certain phenomena are available. He uses
zero as non-intoxicated; one as a level where he
feels a little different but nothing is clear enough for him to
be sure he is intoxicated; two as the lowest degree of
clear intoxication manifested by a full feeling in his head, clearer
and more beautiful sounds, and calmness; five for the level
where he first experiences time slowing down; eight for
clear shortening of the memory span; and ten for the maximum
level of intoxication, where he has large visual distortions and
may begin to feel ill. (back)
5. A simplifying assumption underlying the
present study is that there is one state of consciousness,
marijuana intoxication, common to all users and that it vanes
in a continuous fashion. It is possible that there are several
states across individuals and/or that there may be qualitative
alterations in patterns large enough to be called a different
state of consciousness for a given individual (Tart, in press).
The latter possibility cannot be properly investigated with the
present data. (back)
6. The user has a third source of information,
his own experiences, and may consider our other two sources quite
secondary to this. If he is interested in understanding the nature
of marijuana intoxication in a general sense, however, he should
realize that his own experience is limited just as the other two
sources are; namely, it is a selection from the total range of
potential effects determined by his own personality characteristics
and life situation. (back)
TABLE 2-1(back to text)(second instance)
VALUES OF VARIABLES FOR MAXIMIZING PROBABILITY OF "GOOD" OR "BAD TRIP"
(back to text) (second instance)
|VARIABLES||GOOD TRIP LIKELY||BAD TRIP LIKELY|
|Drug||Quality||Pure, known.||Unknown drug or unknown degree|
of (harmful) adulterants.
|Quantity||Known accurately, adjusted|
to individual's desire.
|Unknown, beyond individual's control.|
|Culture||Acceptance, belief in benefits.||Rejection, belief in detrimental effects.|
|Personality||Stable, open, secure.||Unstable, rigid, neurotic, or psychotic.|
|Physiology||Healthy.||Specific adverse vulnerability to drug.|
|Learned drug skills||Wide experience gained|
under supportive conditions.
|Little or no experience or preparation,|
unpleasant past experience.
|Mood||Happy, calm, relaxed, or euphoric.||Depressed, overexcited, repressing|
|Expectations||Pleasure, insight, known|
|Danger, harm, manipulation,|
|Desires||General pleasure, specific|
|Aimlessness, (repressed) desires to harm|
or degrade self for secondary gains.
|Physical setting||Pleasant and esthetically interesting|
by user's standards.
|Cold, impersonal, "medical," "psychiatric,"|
|Social events||Friendly, non-manipulative|
|Depersonalization or manipulation of|
the user, hostility overall.
|Formal instructions||Clear, understandable, creating|
trust and purpose.
|Ambiguous, dishonest, creating mistrust.|
|Implicit demands||Congruent with explicit|
|Contradict explicit communications and/or|
reinforce other negative variables.
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