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On Being Stoned, by Charles Tart

  On Being Stoned

    Charles T. Tart, Ph. D.

        Chapter 1.    Marijuana

    ONE OF THE MOST persistent and unusual aspects of human behavior, observable in all cultures and through all of history, is man's dissatisfaction with his ordinary state of consciousness and the consequent development of innumerable methods for altering it. Our normal pattern of thought and feeling, useful in many ways, never seems to be enough for some people.
    The reasons for this search for better states of consciousness are many, ranging from desires for greater knowledge to religious, hedonistic, and power motives. The belief that our ordinary state of consciousness is of only utilitarian value and not suitable for insights into basic questions about the meaning of life has been one of the most important motives. Some men have been successful in achieving higher states of consciousness; others have failed. Techniques have been innumerable: religious ceremonies, meditation, hypnosis, self-hypnosis, asceticism, fasting, dancing, yoga exercises, and drugs, to name a few. Some of the men who have succeeded in altering their state of consciousness, such as the Buddha, are revered by hundreds of millions of people. Others have been outcasts of society or considered insane because their views were too different from those of their contemporaries. Still others have gone truly insane in the course of their search.
    Our scientific understanding of altered states of consciousness is minuscule in comparison with what we do not know and the importance of these states. (For a survey of the scientific literature on them, see Tart, 1969.)
    Drugs have been an important means of inducing altered states of consciousness throughout history. Cultures have embraced or rejected this means. Proponents have touted it as the shortcut to enlightenment, while critics, both ordinary men and those considered spiritual giants, have called it an escape, a pseudo-enlightenment.
    Our culture today is one of the most drug-oriented cultures in history; we go by the millions to our doctor (or our dealer) for pills to pep us up, calm us down, wake us up, put us to sleep, relax our tensions, make us forget, or enlighten us. As a whole our cultural attitudes toward drugs are irrational to the point of absurdity. We mightily praise some drugs whose detrimental effects are enormous and well known, such as alcohol, and condemn other drugs about which we know very little. Scientific knowledge about drugs has generally been of little consequence in affecting social attitudes and usage.
    This book is an attempt to broaden our knowledge about one of the most widely used and poorly understood drugs in our culture today, marijuana.



    Marijuana is the term given to preparations of the flowering tops, leaves, seeds, and/or stems of the Indian hemp plant, Cannabis sativa L. The preparation, for eating or smoking, is commonly called marijuana, marihuana, Mary Jane, hemp, pot, grass, shit, and dope, with usage depending on fashions and subcultures.
    Cannabis sativa grows wild all over the world and is a very hardy plant. It is extensively cultivated in many areas, and research of optimal techniques of cultivation has been extensive (Drake, 1970). The plant is desired for its fibers, which are used for rope, as well as for its drug value. Attempts to increase fiber content and decrease drug content of the plant by mutation have succeeded only in increasing the drug content (Warmke & Davidson, 1941-43, 1942-43, 1943-44).
    The drug potency of the plant depends on the particular strain of plant, cultivation techniques, soil, and climate. Different parts of the plant have different concentrations of the drug. Much of the marijuana generally available in the United States today is what is called in India bhang, and is the least potent mixture, made from poor quality plants or from the lower leaves of better plants. Stems and seeds are generally separated out from marijuana by users, as they contain practically none of the desirable ingredients of marijuana. The seeds are also widely reputed to contain substances that induce headaches if smoked.
    A more potent grade of marijuana, termed ganja in India, consists of the flowering tops and upper leaves of carefully bred plants. The most potent marijuana preparation, generally termed hashish or, colloquially, hash (charas in India), consists only of the sticky resin scraped from the tops of mature and carefully bred plants.
    Hashish is often treated as a separate drug, but there is no good scientific evidence to indicate that it is chemically different. By virtue of its containing far more active ingredients by volume, however, the user either can get intoxicated with much less hashish than ordinary marijuana or can get more intoxicated by using an equal amount. Whenever I refer to marijuana effects in this book, I am including those of hashish.


Techniques of Use

    Marijuana is eaten or smoked. Most American users prefer smoking because (1) less marijuana is required for a given degree of intoxication; (2) effects begin within a few minutes after smoking and end within three or four hours, as compared to an hour or more for onset and a duration of six to twelve hours when eaten; (3) more precise control of the level of intoxication is possible, as the user can stop smoking when the desired level is reached; and (4) more aftereffects and unpleasant effects are associated with eating marijuana because of the possibility of overdose. Smoking is done by making a cigarette (commonly called a joint or reefer) or by using a pipe, often a waterpipe to reduce the harshness of the smoke. The smoke is held in the lungs as long as possible to maximize absorption.


Active Ingredient(s)

    Marijuana is a complex substance and has long resisted analysis as to its active ingredients. The reader interested in the chemistry and pharmacology of marijuana should see Mechoulam (1970) and Wolstenholme (1965).
    In the last few years one of the major active ingredients has been identified and named tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).[1] Human subjects given synthesized THC under laboratory conditions report many effects similar to those reported for natural marijuana, and a number of workers feel that THC may be the only active ingredient in marijuana. Numerous studies of the effects of synthetic THC on animals and humans are being funded by the federal government. Experienced users, however, insist that different samples of marijuana differ somewhat in qualitative as well as quantitative effects; some marijuana has a much stronger sedative effect, some tends to make people very silly, and so on. This suggests that there are other active ingredients than THC in marijuana, and research should not concentrate too exclusively on THC, in spite of the pharmacological and medical convenience of working with a pure drug instead of a natural mixture (Weil, 1969).



    Little is understood of the chemical fate of marijuana once it is absorbed into the human body. Older research with marijuana extracts on animals, the usual method of establishing basic pharmacological information, has been fraught with methodological difficulties. Many physiological effects appear in animals that do not appear in humans, species differ markedly from one another, and different individuals of the same species often show opposite effects. It is not known whether the dosages used were really comparable to those used by humans. Ongoing research with synthetic THC may begin to add to our knowledge, but at present we know practically nothing about the pharmacological action of marijuana.



    The most striking thing that can be said about the physiological effects of marijuana on humans is that there are practically no observable effects of consequence. Weil, Zinberg, and Nelson (1968) found that marijuana increases heart rate somewhat and causes a dilation of conjunctival blood vessels (somewhat bloodshot-looking eyes). They found no evidence of dilated pupils, even though law enforcement officers typically use this as a test for intoxication.
    Marijuana seems to be a rather unique drug in having such profound psychological effects with virtually no readily observable physiological changes.


Effects on Human Performance

    The performance capabilities of intoxicated users have been investigated in a number of older studies, but because of methodological shortcomings, discussed fully in Chapter 2, they have yielded little reliable information.
    Two recent studies, both methodologically very good, found essentially no measurable changes in performance. Crancer and his colleagues (1969) tested experienced users for performance in a driving simulator. When intoxicated on marijuana, they were not significantly different in overall performance than under control (non-intoxicated) conditions, although there were significantly more speedometer errors. Speedometer errors have not been found to correlate with actual driving performance in normal drivers, however. When the same subjects were intoxicated on alcohol, they made large numbers of errors on almost all aspects of the driving simulation tests.
    Weil and his colleagues (1968) found that experienced marijuana users showed no significant losses in performance on some simple motor and intellectual tasks; indeed, they sometimes showed a slight improvement when intoxicated. Naive subjects who had not smoked marijuana before the laboratory experiment did not get "high," i.e., felt none or few of the experiential effects of marijuana, but showed significant impairments on a variety of tasks.
    I doubt that alterations of simple sensory and motor tasks will be found associated with marijuana intoxication. Subtle alterations may be found by sophisticated analyses, such as Weil and Zinberg (1969) found for speech patterns, but the effects of marijuana seem to be primarily on the more complex intellectual functions, as detailed in this book. These are probably detectable only by asking users about them and/or by administering psychological tests, which are sensitive to complex alterations of mental functioning.


Psychological Effects

    In one sense this entire book is a description of the psychological effects of marijuana intoxication, so no attempt will be made to deal with them in this introduction.



    An addicting drug, such as heroin, generally requires the user to continually increase his dosage because of the tolerance he builds up to the drug, produces acute distress if the user does not get his dose at the regular time, and produces extreme distress, which can result in death or severe withdrawal symptoms, if the drug is completely taken away from the user.
    Much nonsense has been promulgated in the past by narcotics agencies and medical groups about the addicting properties of marijuana. There is no evidence of addiction. Emphasis today is laid on the fact that marijuana produces a "psychological dependence." This is a nonsensical use of the English language, for psychological dependence simply means that people tend to repeat enjoyable experiences.
    Experienced users can stop using marijuana at any time with no distress or physiological symptoms. Once they learn how to get intoxicated, they require less, not more, marijuana.
    Occasional users who are mentally ill may use excessive amounts of marijuana or become temporarily dependent on it, but this says something about mental illness rather than marijuana.
    Similarly, no reliable evidence exists that marijuana use causes users to try dangerous narcotics like heroin. Persons predisposed to narcotic addiction become addicted whether or not they have used marijuana. The vast majority of marijuana users never get involved with narcotics, even though the need to deal with pushers, who may also sell narcotics, gives them ample opportunity.



    The possession of marijuana or its extracts is a serious offense in every state of the United States and its territories. Penalties vary widely from state to state. Although reform movements are under way, the prescribed penalties in many states are still extremely harsh. Years of imprisonment are frequently mandatory for the possession of the smallest detectable amounts of marijuana.
    Penalties for selling or giving away marijuana are even more severe. Since many users also buy marijuana as a favor for their friends, they are generally liable to these higher penalties.
    The actual structure of the laws is exceptionally complex, and some will be changed shortly. By far the best review of existing laws and their social consequences has been made by Kaplan in his recent book, Marijuana, the New Prohibition (1970). Smith's (1970) book also contains excellent discussions of the social issues revolving around marijuana use.



    In spite of the severe penalties attached to possession and sale of marijuana, use today is very widespread. Given the sorts of pleasurable effects reported later in this book, it seems likely that use will continue to increase.
    No definite survey of incidence of use can be made because there is always a (realistic) tendency of wary users to deny their use. Nevertheless, a large number of surveys of drug use on college campuses have been made (Kaplan, 1970; Pearlman, 1968). It is now a rare college campus that does not have a significant number of marijuana users and on many campuses users themselves estimate over 50 percent of the students use marijuana occasionally, primarily at social events. An unpublished study that I carried out in collaboration with one of my graduate students, Carl Klein, found that from 1967 to 1968 the percentage of students who used marijuana at a conservative West Coast university doubled, and various formal and informal estimates of that population since have confirmed that a majority of the students have tried marijuana. (Further details of this study are presented in Chapter 28.) This seems typical. Drug-education programs sponsored by schools and government agencies are viewed with scorn and amusement by users since their own and friends' experiences with marijuana convince them that the instructors are ignorant or lying. This is an unfortunate effect, as the attitude may be generalized to warnings about drugs that really are dangerous, such as hard narcotics and amphetamines.
    Marijuana use is by no means confined to college campuses. In a survey of young adults (eighteen and over) in San Francisco, Manheimer, Mellinger, and Balter (1969) reported that 13 percent had used marijuana at least once. Conservative estimates in the press usually figure that several million Americans have tried marijuana, although it is not clear how many use it with any regularity.
    Difficult political, moral, and religious problems arise when an act generally condemned and illegal spreads at such a rapid rate. This book is not the place to go into them, but the interested reader will find some good discussions in Aaronson and Osmond (1970), Krippner (1968), and Kaplan (1970).
    Leaving aside considerations of social and political problems, what sort of reliable, scientific knowledge do we have about the effects of marijuana? What do users experience that makes the risk of prison worthwhile?
    The following chapter discusses the nature of marijuana intoxication and explains why previous scientific work has gained very little reliable knowledge about it. The remainder of the book describes the method and results of the present study as an attempt to answer the question of what marijuana smokers experience.



    1. Technically this is named 1-delta1-trans-THC. Due to an ambiguity in the system for giving chemical names, it is sometimes referred to as 1-delta9-trans-THC in some literature. (back)

Chapter 2

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