Let’s do some science. What is your experience with cannabis? How would you describe your state of mind under its influence? What are the effects of cannabis on your consciousness? How does it help you? Here’s a bit to get us started:

“I was 44 years old in 1972 when I experienced my first marijuana high. Because I have found it both so useful and benign, I have used it ever since. I have used it as a recreational drug, as a medicine, and as an enhancer of some capacities…In fact, now, when I have an important problem to solve or decision to make, I invariably avail myself of the opportunity to think about it both stoned and straight.”

The above words are from a gentleman who has been consuming cannabis for well over 40 years now. Obviously he has found great utility in the herb, using it not only for medicinal and recreational reasons, but for “enhancement” purposes as well—including using cannabis to help with problem solving. Now there’s a dedicated cannaphile, and one heck of a testimonial! But why should we listen to this guy? Isn’t he just another proud pothead?

A proud pothead he may be, but this gentleman is also an associate professor emeritus of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and for 40 years was senior psychiatrist at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center. He is also a fellow of both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Psychiatric Association; the founding editor of the Annual Review of Psychiatry and the Harvard Mental Health Letter. He was also the first U.S. physician to prescribe lithium for bipolar disorder. And these are only the highlights of his most impressive career, which also includes numerous articles, awards, and books, including Marijuana: The Forbidden Medicine (1993). This gentleman, as many other proud potheads already know, is Dr. Lester Grinspoon.

Powerful testimonial aside, Dr. Grinspoon’s statement, (extracted from the 2010 book Cannabis Philosophy for Everyone
(p. 28), is important in that it identifies the three major uses or categories of cannabis consumption: medicine, recreation, and enhancement. While these three uses can overlap and coincide—and therefore distinction between them is not always clear or even necessary—the categories can still provide a convenient and ready assessment tool for both consumers and caregivers. Identifying which category a cannabis consumer mostly fits into can help guide therapeutic and monitoring needs. For instance, the daily medicinal user will generally require greater attention in their cannabis usage and therapy (whether through self and/or caregiver monitoring) than the consumer who tokes a couple of times a week or month.

In addition to identifying the three main categories of cannabis use, Dr. Grinspoon’s statement serves equally well as a conversation starter wherein individuals might share their personal experiences with cannabis. In contributing to such a discourse we not only practice science and further our understanding of cannabis, we promote a democratization of science and medicine. One whereby personal qualitative findings can contribute to whatever numbers and conclusions might be garnered from institutionally controlled studies. Indeed such personal findings are invited and gathered on one of Dr. Grinspoon’s websites, marijuana-uses.com (a virtual treasure trove, the site includes a great essay written in 1969 by one Dr. X, who in later years was revealed to be none other than Carl Sagan).

So again, fellow cannabis consumers and citizen scientists, how would you describe your experience with cannabis? Why and how do you use it? How does it affect your mind, your thinking, your feeling, your general state of awareness?

A few of the more well-known and easily described effects include increased appetite (i.e., munchies), enhanced creativity and enjoyment of certain activities (e.g., hiking, skiing, eating, sex), increased libido, alterations in sociability, alterations in time perception (psychological time dilation), and of course, the gentle euphoria and good humor associated with being high, as well as the relaxation and mellowness typical of the stoned state.

These are just some of the major effects that immediately come to mind. What would you add to this brief description and/or how would you amend it? Are the effects of cannabis on your consciousness more subtle or complex than such brief descriptions would suggest? Consider these questions as I prepare to share my own characterization of “cannabis consciousness” in part two of this essay.