Seedsman Blog

Cannabis and the Politics of Intoxication

1. The global use of cannabis 

The cannabis plant probably first disseminated before the last Ice Age (c.13000 BCE) in at least two regions, China and Eastern Europe. As mentioned in a previous blog, the earliest extant evidence of humans using cannabis comes from recent research at the Okinoshima (on the Boso peninsular) site in Japan, which indicates the use of cannabis (adhering to the pottery of the Jomon culture) in 8200 BCE. Cultivation of the plant appears to begin in the Copper Age (c.3500–2300 BCE), increasing in the Bronze Age (c.3500–1600 BCE) (Samorini 2018:64; 2019:68; Sherratt 1991). By around 1500 CE the cannabis plant had spread to all continents of the world (Merlin and Clarke 2013:128). 

In the global cannabis debate that has been going on for the last fifty years or so, despite the hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific reports that have been published on cannabis since the 1830s, some scientists are still saying that more clinical trials need be conducted before any change in the law on the recreational consumption of cannabis might be considered. It could make one wonder if 10,000 years of trials is long enough. 

Cannabis is the most widely used illicit drug in the world (Morrison et al. 2016:661). It has been estimated that it is currently consumed globally by around 183 million people, which translates as about 3.8% of the world’s population. Consumption varies by country: cannabis is used by around 7.5% of the population of the USA (aged between 15 and 64); consumption ranges from around 4% to 12% in European populations; and in England and Wales it is currently around 6.5% of the population (UNODC 2017:41–43). 

It is well known that cannabis is an extraordinarily useful plant that has multiple uses: for food, edible oil (from the seeds), fibre, textiles, canvas, numerous medicinal applications (Grinspoon and Bakalar 1997), building materials, and even for manufacturing aeroplanes (Hempearth 2019). It is used for making paper and is excellent for improving poor-quality agricultural soil. However, cannabis is also, of course, known for its unique properties of intoxication.  

2. Social attitudes to intoxication 

Andrew Sherratt (1995:15) makes the interesting observation that distinct social behaviour is often exhibited by sections of the population who use various psychoactive substances, and that use is often restricted to a fraction of the society, whether this fraction is defined by gender, status or wealth, or a combination of all three. One reason for this is the powerful potential of such substances to accrue symbolic meaning, and to provide focal experiences in the formation of dissident communities. This self-conscious distinction between those in a society who use a particular psychoactive substance and those who do not is also observable amongst populations of other creatures, such as mice, fish or birds that self-intoxicate (Siegal 2005:195–196). 

This observation of the way the way that the use of particular psychoactive substances leads to “insiders” and “outsiders” perhaps goes some way to explain why the cannabis debate is so sharply polarized, between those who highlight the potential benefits of using cannabis and those who emphasize the potential dangers of using it.  

However, beyond the cannabis debate, there is also a wider, more general ambivalence in most societies to intoxication in general. Social attitudes to intoxication are largely conditioned by the terminology used for psychoactive substances. “Medicines” or “foods” are universally approved of but “taking drugs” is generally only condoned when someone is ill, regardless of the fact that nearly everyone in the world takes “drugs” of various kinds, including an uncountable number of medications, numerous psychoactive plants, tea, coffee, alcohol and tobacco. 

What indeed is the difference in many instances between a food, a drug and a medicine? What is ordinary sugar, for example: a food, a drug (think of a kids’ chocolate party) or a potential medicine (think of glucose)? All substances are potentially toxic or dangerous. If you drink too much water over two days you could die. I remember reading many years ago about a man in England who died of poisoning from vitamin A (derived from the beta-carotene in carrots). He had eaten too many carrots. When he died he was bright orange. Practically any substance can be dangerous if too much is consumed; and some of the most dangerous toxins known are occasionally used in medical treatments.  

In perhaps most languages of the world the terms used for an altered state of consciousness induced by a substance carry negative associations. The English term “intoxication” derives from “tox,” meaning poison; Rausch in German, stupéfiant in French, and naśā in Hindi, for example, bear similar negative associations. The reasons for such negative connotations are, however, primarily due to socio-political reasons rather than being based on any scientific evidence that periodically altering consciousness is necessarily “bad” for oneself or society; in fact, the opposite appears to be the case. 

Ronald Siegal (2005) presents abundant evidence for his thesis that most animals, including insects, birds and humans (see also Weil 1975), naturally enjoy periodic intoxication or “getting high” (see also Samorini 2002). Indeed, such pursuits are so universal—unless restricted by severe legal penalties for contravention—that Siegal argues that self-intoxication, the periodic, voluntary alteration of one’s own consciousness, should be considered as “the fourth drive,” a fundamental, biological human drive, alongside the other three scientifically-recognized, primary drives for food, drink and sex. In an intriguing study, Ott (1997) cogently argues that “natural paradises” induced through plant substances constitute what might be called a “primary” form of mysticism; and that non-ordinary states of consciousness induced in religious contexts are often “fake” or “unnatural.” 

I have come across a conjecture that in most if not all human populations perhaps 5% of the population are socially dysfunctional in some way, for a variety of hereditary or social reasons; such people are likely to remain partly dysfunctional even with the assistance of healthcare professionals. These people tend to draw attention to themselves through anti-social behaviour, sometimes in the form of some kind of self-harm. One of the easiest ways to self-harm is to take so much of a substance that one becomes socially dysfunctional—you need attention and help; some people drink too much alcohol and become abusive or alcoholic; others may repeatedly or continuously binge on crack or smack.  

It seem more sensible to concentrate the efforts and resources of society on the 5% of society who are “dysfunctionals,” people who noticeably cause problems for themselves and others through excessive self-intoxication, rather than waste the time and resources of the authorities pursuing hard-working people who are simply enjoying themselves in a perfectly natural way and periodically getting high on various substances. Some people drink alcohol heavily, some drink very little; the same is true of cannabis. Socially adjusted individuals—and other animals—will naturally experiment with intoxicants but will then regulate consumption so that their enjoyable habit does not adversely affect their private, social or working life. 

3. Plants and chemical concentrates 

This is not to deny that some substances are particularly addictive and should be taken only with great caution, with the user fully cognizant of the strength and dangers of some concentrated substances. There is no doubt that in distinction from most commonly-used psychoactive plants, refined drugs, such as cocaine or heroin, are extremely habit-forming and thus have the potential to impact negatively on the consumer’s health. However, the main problem with drug addictions revolves almost exclusively around concentrated, chemical preparations of drugs. For well-adjusted people, plants such as cannabis or coca pose very little—if any—short- or long-term risk to the user or to society. 

Among Ronald Siegal’s (2005) many experiments on animals, coca was introduced into a pen containing mice. The mice then gradually experimented with chewing coca, soon establishing an observable routine of chewing and then continuing normally with their daily mice activities; moderate and not significantly detrimental behavioural changes were similarly observed in several other self-intoxicating animal communities. However, in another experiment, when rats were permitted unlimited access to concentrated cocaine, most of the animals binged on the cocaine until 90% of them had died (Siegal 2005:183). For unknown reasons, monkeys appear capable of regulating a cocaine habit much better than either humans or rats (Siegal 2005:181). 

Interestingly, one of the most potentially effective medicines currently being explored for treating schizophrenia and psychosis, including cannabis psychosis (Isega et al. 2015) is cannabis, in the form of CBD (Zuardi et al. 2012; Nia 2019), which has also recently been extracted in commercial quantities from Humulus kriya, a variety of the hop plant (Humulus) specially bred for providing a higher level of CBD (Cushing et al. 2018). Recent research into the chemistry of cannabis also indicates that two phytocannabinoids—CBD and THCV—may possess anti-addiction efficacy (Gardner 2016:180).  

4Conclusion 

It is abundantly apparent that the global prohibition of various plants and substances, which has became a global issue since their prohibition became globally effective, via the UN in 1921, has failed spectacularly on all fronts. It is ironic and abundantly apparent that the most popular substances—such as cannabis—on the official list of “controlled substances” are plainly uncontrolled. If “controlled” substances are unavailable, some people will buy cheap and potentially dangerous cannabis substitutes or “chemical highs” (Zawilska 2015) on the dark web or elsewhere, or sniff substances like glue or paint to become—literally—intoxicated. 

A more enlightened social policy would surely entail not condemnation for “taking drugs,” which is a natural activity, but one that aims to establish the safest compounds and substances, which provides reliable and easily accessible information on the most suitable ways to ingest substances, the most appropriate settings in which to take them, and information on potential adverse reactions, dose levels, and possibly dangerous cross-reactions with other substances if taken at the same time. 

As any informed person knows these days, cannabis is one of the safest psychoactive substances that has ever been used by humans, associated potential harms being less than those for tobacco or alcohol, for example (Nutt et al. 2007). It is remarkably non-toxic and is one of the few psychoactive substances that has the rare property of being cross-tolerant with nearly all other drugs, medicines and psychoactive substances. 

In distinction from the use of concentrates or chemicals, which is a much more complex issue, there seems to be a strong case for legalizing the use of all psychoactive plants, cannabis in particular. The central imperative must surely be to promote the scientifically informed use of any substance or plant. As Timothy Leary used to say: “Just say know!” 

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Matthew Clark

Matthew Clark

Since 2004, Dr. Matthew Clark has been a Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London), where he taught courses on Hinduism between 1999 and 2004. He has spent many years in India, which he first visited in 1977, visiting nearly all important (several hundred) pilgrimage sites and trekking around 2,000 miles in the Himalayas. He first engaged with yoga in the mid-1970s and began regularly practicing Ashtanga Yoga in 1990. Since 2006 has been lecturing worldwide on yoga, philosophy, and psychedelics. He is one of the editors of the Journal of Yoga Studies and is one of the administrators of the SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies. His publications include The Daśanāmī-Saṃnyāsīs: The Integration of Ascetic Lineages into an Order (2006), which is a study of a sect of sādhus; an exploration of the use of psychedelic plant concoctions in ancient Asia and Greece, The Tawny One: Soma, Haoma, and Ayahuasca (2017); and a short book on yoga, The Origins and Practices of Yoga: A Weeny Introduction (revised edition) (2018).