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Why cannabis if often trickier to handle than major psychedelics

August 3, 2015

During a recent conversation I had with a leading psychedelic activist, I was surprised when the person suggested that psychedelic legalization wasn’t really that urgent. Actually, it can still wait, the person said. It was cannabis which needed to be the first legal mind-alterant to introduce psychedelic consciousness into the legal marketplace. Since it is easier to handle, and since it is already ubiquitous anyway,  it will serve as a good introduction for the main dish to come later: major psychedelics.

I could see where this person was coming from. Cannabis is considered to offer a mellower experience than the psychedelics, something which is also implied by its designation as a minor psychedelic. Yet my own experience had been fundamentally different. Over the years I have encountered many serious psychonauts who found that for them cannabis is more tricky to handle than major psychedelics. And here’s why. The difficulty which one might encounter with major psychedelic can be of many types, but more often than not it lacks the kind of confusion and incoherent thinking which is common in an overdose of cannabis, and people tend to overdose on cannabis much more than they do on major psychedelics. Moreover, it is easier to handle a psychedelic “overdose” than a cannabis “overdose”.

Before seeking to substantiate these claims, I should explain what I mean when I use the term overdose in relation to major psychedelics and cannabis. One does not usually speak of overdosing in relation to cannabis or psychedelics because psychedelic overdoses are in no way fatal. You cannot die from over-dosing yourself on psychedelics as you can with Alcohol or Heroin. Nevertheless, if one defines overdosing as getting a stronger effect from a substance than one has intended, and than one is able to handle – then those cannot be denied, and are actually something which any dedicated drug user expects (or should expect) to encounter at one stage or another, same as most casual alcohol drinkers expect to experience a hangover at one point or another of their drinking career.

Luckily, by contrast to the normal type of overdose, a psychedelic overdose of the kind is in no way fatal and most serious psychedelic users learn how to avoid them. This can be easily done by measuring your dose, knowing your limits, and designing a safe environment for the experience. Moreover, by contrast to other types of drug overdose, a psychedelic drug overdose can usually be diverted and turned into a fruitful experience, provided that one is in a safe and positive environment. One person’s overdose can become the same person’s transformative trip with the right type of environment and attitude.

However, the situation with cannabis is substantially different. Because people smoke cannabis more casually than psychedelics, and because cannabis is commonly considered easier to handle, the level of attention given to issues of set and setting is significantly lower.

Furthermore, while people tend to consume psychedelics by oral ingestion, a route of administration which delays the effects and makes the onset more gradual, cannabis is habitually consumed by smoking. This difference in the route of administration is decisive. One of the basic principles of psychopharmacology is that the quicker the onset of drug effects, the more addictive a drug becomes. Changing route of administration or the speed or drug onset fundamentally alters patterns of use. After all a quicker more rapid onset of effect is a crucial factor in what makes heroin more addictive than opium and cocaine more addictive than coca leaves. A quicker onset of drug effects creates an association between the ritual of consuming the drug and it’s immediate effect, and causes a craving of repeating that ritual and achieving the rapid kick-effect. This is why many people enjoy smoking cannabis for smoking’s sake, and will continue smoking even after getting the effect they wanted, whereas the same people would not think about eating another cannabis cookie, if they are already feeling the effect of a cookie they ate an hour ago, and then eating another one two hour later. The eat the cookie for the effect, not for the taste – and so their consumption is more proportional to the state of mind they wish to achieve. This is not the case with smoking cannabis, so while many individuals could settle for one or two puffs from a joint made of pure cannabis, knowing to put the boundary is more difficult for most people who relish smoking. This difference makes difficult cannabis experiences way more common than difficult psychedelic experiences. And in certain ways, these are also much more insidious.

Whereas in a bad psychedelic experience one is obviously ill, and the need to lie down and rest is evident,  in a cannabis overdose the individual usually still seems fine  on the outside – from within, however, he or she might be psychologically undermined by growing fear, uncertainty and confusion. Overall, this experience often proves more difficult to recognize, communicate and to handle than overdoses from major psychedelics. It is also much more sneakier and difficult to shake away, which is the reason why many people stop smoking cannabis. Most difficult psychedelic experiences which are handled properly can be resolved in a cathartic manner. A cannabis overdose, on the other hand, lacks that cathartic quality of a psychedelic “overdose”(which often leads to a positive death/rebirth experience). It might lead to interesting ideas, but more often not, it ends with a head ache and excessive mental ruminations.


A call for serious cannabis education

The good news is that cannabis overdoses are easy to avoid if one knows one’s limit and smokes accordingly. Cannabis doesn’t have to be more complicated than major psychedelics. It is mostly that way because of the way it is normally being consumed. Because cannabis is habitually consumed by smoking and without the same level of attention to set and setting, difficult psychedelic experiences are significantly more common with cannabis than they are with major psychedelics, and for many people the relationship with cannabis turns out to be more challenging to handle than their relationship with major psychedelics.

The slowly spreading decriminalization and legalization of cannabis is an opportunity for introducing psychedelic mind-alterants into society, but with ever more sophisticated technologies which make it possible to get concentrated THC effects, such as dabbing, it is of the essence that these are accompanied by a realistic vision of the challenges of cannabis smoking, and an education that will teach people about how to use cannabis safely and beneficially.

From → Intelligent use

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