There are two key reasons why cannabis is the best substance to help us grow permanently happier.
First, is its psychological effect, the result of its main psychoactive ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Unlike other drugs such as benzodiazepines (e.g., Valium, Ativan), which invariably reduce anxiety in those who take it, or amphetamines (e.g., Adderall) which energize the nervous system, cannabis originates no specific subjective response. Rather, it amplifies whatever feelings the user experiences during the high.
By feelings, I mean emotions like joy and anxiety, and sensations like the scent of a rose or the feel of a kiss. If we consume cannabis when we feel happy and relaxed, and do activities that promote those feelings, cannabis will intensify them. We will feel happier and more at ease than if we did not consume. But if we take cannabis while uptight and in discomfiting circumstances, we will feel more anxious than we normally would. By way of an analogy, cannabis is like the amplifier in our audio system, which does not make the sound, but enables us to hear it better, whether good or bad.
While cannabis amplifies feelings, how you experience this intensification critically depends on how much attention you give the stronger signal. To feel intensely requires energy in the brain to move through the circuits that process emotions and sensory stimuli and away from the circuits that process thoughts and symbols. If after consuming cannabis, your attention stays focused on words, numbers, concepts, and other abstractions, the amplifier effect is muted.
Hence an essential feature of a Session is to be mindful of feelings–to deliberately tune into your emotions and senses and tone down the constant chatter in your head. The trio of the amplifier effect, being mindful, and doing innately positive activities, creates a powerful rush of joy. That, in turn, will motivate you to do more joyful activities and thus form new happy habits.
Such Sessions exercise your feeling muscles, the parts of your brain that process emotions and sensory stimuli. And the stronger that specific grey matter becomes, the greater your neural capacity to feel good. I call that part of your psyche your joymind, and because a mindful, carefully structured cannabis Session nourishes that vital mental component—much like weight training bulks up your biceps—that new brain power helps elevate your happiness level, long term.
Aspects of our modern lifestyles, especially mobile technology that is never out of reach, powerfully overstimulate another part of our mind: the networks that process symbols. Every minute of the day, words, numbers, and other abstractions deluge us. The overwhelming attention we give them stunts the development of our joymind. That is another reason we are not as happy as we could be. As you shall see, a Session (which I also call a Joysesh) will bring more balance to your mind, toning down your symbol processing, and that, too, will help you become happier outside your Sessions.
The second reason cannabis is optimal for developing our self in this way, is its lawful status in many jurisdictions of the world. For example, in my country, Canada, the adult use of cannabis has been legal since 2018. It is the same in many places in the United States. Today over 200 million North Americans can legally consume the plant, and their numbers are growing every year as more and more states see the terrible folly of prohibiting cannabis. Mexico, Germany, Italy, and many other nations are also poised to legalize.
A key effect of such reform is the establishment of a regulated industry that produces high quality cannabis products, free of the contamination and toxins that frequently appear in bootleg goods. Legalization also brings substantial information about every legal pot product, including its concentration of THC, and cannabidiol (CBD) and other contents. Without that information, cannabis use is hazardous. You don’t know whether a single puff of cannabis or bite of a hash brownie, will have no effect, or get you so high you can barely move.
The peculiar amplification of feelings that cannabis produces, plus its legal status for hundreds of millions of people, combine to create the opportunity for a radical new way to use the plant. But a key question arises: why has this approach been so overlooked. Even though cannabis has been legal for medical use in various places in North America for decades, and for full adult use in several regions for 5-10 years, the idea that cannabis can be used to permanently boost our happiness levels and thereby change the world, has received almost zero attention. Why?
The main reason is that a very casual approach to cannabis—that I call the Usual Way—is how most people use it. This closely imitates how we consume alcohol, as a relaxing, socially disinhibiting mood elevator that little alters the normal course of our day. Because at low doses both cannabis and booze have roughly similar psychological effects, and because pot only became popular after alcohol had been the sole mass intoxicant in Western culture for centuries, most first-time cannabis users, including me, adopted alcohol’s casual, low-brow traditions.[i]
Booze, however, has been a legal substance for much of its history, whereas most modern use of cannabis has occurred in an era of prohibition. That legal difference has many consequences. First, the illegal status of cannabis powerfully promoted a stigma against it. For most of my life a “war on drugs” has put people in jail for nothing more serious than possessing the plant. That promoted anxiety in those who consumed the substance and a powerful prejudice against it in the non-using population. Second, prohibition ensured that only the illicit market would produce and distribute pot, thereby creating the quality and potency issues already mentioned. That, in turn, led to a plague of unintentional overdoses on cannabis.
I’ve been informally surveying cannabis users for several years and have discovered that close to half report at least one highly negative experience like my overdose. Such downers seem to be more common on cannabis than on “psychedelics” such as LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, and MDMA (Ecstasy). Consider, for example, the reports of two respected journalists who recently came “out of the closet” to reveal their use of psychedelics and cannabis, and both said that their worst experiences involved the latter. Ayelet Waldman in A Really Good Day (2017) describes her experiments taking tiny amounts of LSD (a process called “microdosing”). As an aside she tells of ingesting a cannabis capsule from a dispensary to help her sleep. “I had an experience that was so terrifying I’m surprised I’m even doing this [LSD microdosing] experiment at all. Though I hadn’t taken a psychedelic, I definitely had what can be described as a bad trip.”[ii] Convinced that she was dying, she telephoned her husband, who talked her down from the frightening cannabis high.
Michael Pollan’s highly influential 2018 book How to Change your Mind, chronicles the “psychedelic renaissance” arising from the many recent clinical studies showing the medical promise of LSD, psilocybin, and other drugs. He also discloses his own experiments with them, but also mentions “a terrifying moment in a hotel room in Seattle when, alone and having smoked too much cannabis, I had to marshal every last ounce of will keep myself from doing something deeply crazy and irrevocable.”[iii]
So, for many people, cannabis is seen as more psychologically dangerous than the traditional psychedelics. That is in part a result of the different ways they infiltrated modern society. Cannabis entered modern culture in the twentieth century largely via the underclass of blacks and immigrants in the 1930s and before. Racism was a central reason why governments outlawed the drug in the 1930s. That did not stop beatniks from using it in the 1940s and 1950s, and then hippies in the 1960s, and then millions of average middle-class folks thereafter. Allen Ginsberg, the iconic Beat poet, was one of the rare people to see cannabis as a powerful psychological tool. But that use never became popular, to Ginsberg’s dismay. “I was somewhat disappointed later on when the counterculture developed the use of grass for party purposes rather than study purposes,” he said.[iv]
In contrast, psychedelics entered modern society in the 1950s and 1960s when they were legal. Doctors, psychologists, and their patients were the first people to experiment with them. A famous early psychedelic institution, the Hollywood Hospital, operated a few miles from my family’s home in suburban Vancouver, British Columbia. There psychiatrists treated addictions and other problems for hundreds of patients including movie celebrities like Carey Grant.
In the early 1960s a group of Harvard professors began experimenting with psilocybin as a therapeutic tool for prison inmates and divinity students. They also used psilocybin and LSD themselves. Two of them, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (Ram Dass), formed a legendary commune in New York to explore the drugs to access new realms of consciousness, as an alternative to yoga, meditation, and “religious or aesthetic ecstasies”.[v] They saw parallels between such use and Buddhist and Taoist practices. In time Leary became a self-described psychedelic “high priest”, and large numbers of young people followed his lead.[vi] The American government, and most others around the world, then outlawed psychedelics.
But the fact that prior to such prohibition, doctors, professors, and proponents of Eastern religions recommended these substances, entrenched a high-minded attitude towards them. Psychedelic users tended to show their drugs more respect than they did cannabis, seeing the psychedelic experience as a “trip” that they carefully planned for, rather than a substitute for alcohol at parties.
Yet the late Terence Mckenna, one of the most respected authorities on psychedelics, saw that potential in cannabis. In The Fruit of the Gods he writes: “when used occasionally in a context of ritual and culturally reinforced expectation of a transformation of consciousness, cannabis is capable of nearly the full spectrum of psychedelic effects associated with hallucinogens.”[vii]
[i] . “For example, both drugs are associated with tension reduction, mood enhancement, and social bonding.” Simons J, Correia CJ, Carey KB, Borsari BE. Validating a five-factor marijuana motives measure: relations with use, problems, and alcohol motives. J Couns Psychol. 1998;45:265–73. [ii] Ayelet Waldman, A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life, 2017, p. 138. [iii] Michael Pollan, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, 2018, p. 270. [iv]Barry Miles, Ginsberg: a biography, 1989, p 97. [v] Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, Ram Dass, The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, 1964, p. 11. [vi] Timothy Leary, High Priest, 1968. [vii] Terence McKenna, Food of the Gods: the search for the original tree of knowledge, a radical history of plants, drugs, and human evolution, 1992 p. 163.
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