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Is Cannabis a Psychedelic Drug?

Sunday July 15, 2018

P sychedelics are back in the public eye in a big way. Substances like psilocybin (magic mushrooms), ayahuasca (a South American vine known for its potent hallucinogenic properties) and LSD (acid) have experienced a resurgence, with widespread visibility and research not seen since the mid-twentieth century.

Michael Pollan, an American author and journalist, has recently shined a bright light on psychedelics and their profound, positive implications in the treatment of mental health and other conditions. He is the author of How to Change Your Mind, a book that acts as a partial retelling of psychedelic history and research, and recalls his personal experiences with psychedelics like psilocybin, DMT, (N-Dimethyltryptamine, a short-acting but powerful hallucinogen) and LSD. Pollan is an acclaimed author, with bestselling books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and In Defense of Food as part of his canon.

Many people, including Pollan, who have taken strong doses of psychedelics with intention have reported a sense of ego dissolution, an enhanced feeling of compassion and connection to humanity, an affinity for the natural world, and a profound sense of gratitude.

A lot of cannabis users have reported similar experiences and feelings, leading some to ask, “Is cannabis a psychedelic?”

Cannabis and Psychedelics: A Shared History

Human use of cannabis and psychedelics is literally ancient history. Archaeological evidence points to both substances being utilized for rites of passage, in religious rituals, and for medicine as far back as 3500 B.C. Even today there are some who continue to use substances as religious sacraments, like the Native American Church, who use peyote, the Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal (UDV), whose sacramental tea is hoasca (ayahuasca), and Rastafarians, whose religious cannabis use has been upheld by the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act of 1993.

Cannabis could be found in home medicine cabinets until the 1930s, and psychedelics were studied frequently to understand their medicinal and psychological effects until the 1960s. But it was harsh political reaction to their widespread recreational use in the 1960s that drove them both underground.

Shortly after President Nixon declared a War on Drugs in 1971, cannabis and psychedelics were both designated as Schedule 1 drugs. This means that, according to the federal government, these substances show a high potential for abuse and no currently accepted medical use, thwarting legitimate research efforts that are painstakingly being repaired today.

How Psychedelics and Cannabis Differ

Both psychedelics and cannabis can produce mind-altering effects. But their work in the body and brain occurs in very different ways. LSD, DMT (the active ingredient that gives ayahuasca its psychedelic kick), and psilocybin are all tryptamines. These are naturally occurring neurotransmitters and produce serotonin, a natural mood regulator, and dopamine, associated with the reward center in our brains.

THC, the molecule in cannabis that gets you high, also interacts with dopamine, which can lead to feelings of euphoria. But cannabis interacts with the body’s own endocannabinoid system, a system that helps to maintain the body’s homeostasis, or obtain a state of equilibrium, where everything is just right.

Psychedelics change brain activity in profound ways. Brain scan research has shown that they bind to the 5-HT2A serotonin receptor and activate a nerve growth factor called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). This process showed that regions in the brain that normally operate independently from each other essentially started talking to each other.

Simultaneously, the Default Mode Network (DMN), a group of regions in the brain, actually slows down when using psychedelics. The DMN is the self-referential part of our brains, associated with daydreaming, worrying or replaying the day in our minds.

Some recent psychedelic research has shown that a high level of activity in the DMN is associated with mental health disorders like depression and anxiety. Many researchers in the psychedelic space believe that learning how to get the DMN offline could have benefits for people with mental health disorders, especially those who are treatment-resistant.

But the most well-known aspect and defining characteristic of psychedelics are powerful visual images and synthesia, or a jumbling of the five senses. Though some cannabis users have said that they experienced some visual changes like tracers and enhancement of colors or music for example, even high doses of cannabis do not produce similar visual effects.

It’s All About Intent

Stephen Gray is a co-curator of the Spirit Plant Medicine conference, and editor and contributor to the book Cannabis and Spirituality: An Explorer’s Guide to an Ancient Plant Spirit Ally. He leads cannabis meditation sessions for those looking to use cannabis intentionally and for personal development.

“What cannabis does is similar in some key respects to what major entheogens do,” he says. “You could refer to it as a non-specific amplifier.” Entheogens are chemicals from plants like cannabis or peyote, for example, taken to induce a non-ordinary state of consciousness and for religious and spiritual explorations.

Gray believes that cannabis can generate ego dissolution, a shared story among those who have taken high doses of psychedelics. “Cannabis is both gentle and intense,” he continues. “If you take a large enough dosage to actually do that kind of work, it can be quite powerful. But it also has a gentle way about it, which is different from ayahuasca, psilocybin or LSD.”

A guided cannabis session with Gray generally entails taking doses of marijuana throughout the day, with contemplative practices like yoga, sitting meditation or sound healing sprinkled throughout. “People have very powerful experiences,” he explains. “People have reported in our sharing sessions experiences of complete dissolution for a short period of time, or some people tapped into the same kind of healing from challenges and releases that you might feel with other substances.”

So, is cannabis a psychedelic? The short answer is no, not really. But, if you take psychedelics or cannabis with intent, you may find that you make peace with an illness, heal an old wound or see the world with new, sparkling eyes, for a little while at least. It’s really up to you.

Do you think cannabis is a psychedelic substance? Why or why not?

Erin Hiatt is a New York City-based writer who has been covering the cannabis industry for more than six years. Her work – which has appeared in Hemp Connoisseur Magazine, PotGuide, Civilized, Vice, Freedom Leaf, MERRY JANE, Alternet, and CannaInvestor – covers a broad range of topics, including cannabis policy and law, CBD, hemp law and applications, science and technology, beauty, and psychedelics.

Many people have used cannabis to affect their spiritual outlook on life, but is marijuana really a psychedelic? Take a look at some of the key differences between psychedelics and cannabis as we try our best to answer this question.

‘A tipping point’: Psychedelics, cannabis win big across the country on election night

As the nation awaits a final result from the presidential election, a clear winner emerged Tuesday: drugs.

Measures to legalize cannabis and decriminalize other drugs won major victories this week as five states — Arizona, New Jersey, South Dakota, Montana and Mississippi — legalized some form of marijuana use and Oregon became the first state to make possession of small amounts of harder drugs, including cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine, violations not punishable by jail time.

Voters in Oregon and Washington, D.C., also approved measures to allow for the therapeutic use of psychedelic mushrooms, which are already being prescribed to help some terminally ill patients in Canada cope with pain and end-of-life anxiety.

“People are realizing it’s not just about getting high,” said Avis Bulbulyan, CEO of SIVA Enterprises, a cannabis business development and solutions firm based in Glendale, California, near Los Angeles. “This is a tipping point for drug policy absent any federal reform.”

On Tuesday, South Dakota became the first state whose voters approved both recreational and medical cannabis in the same election. Medicinal marijuana also was made legal in Mississippi. Meanwhile, New Jersey, Montana and Arizona all legalized recreational cannabis.

“Despite this public consensus, elected officials have far too often remained unresponsive to the legalization issue,” Erik Altieri, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, said in a statement.

NORML has lobbied for the end of marijuana prohibitions since it was founded in 1970.

“These results once again illustrate that support for legalization extends across geographic and demographic lines,” Altieri said. “The success of these initiatives proves definitively that marijuana legalization is not exclusively a ‘blue’ state issue, but an issue that is supported by a majority of all Americans — regardless of party politics.”

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Just 10 years ago, recreational cannabis was illegal in all 50 states, but that started to change in 2012, when Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational use. At the time, California, which has one of the biggest and oldest marijuana markets in the country, allowed only medicinal use of cannabis.

A domino effect followed, with several more states venturing into the medicinal markets, including Pennsylvania in 2016 and New York in 2014. Now, 15 states, two territories and Washington, D.C., have legalized marijuana for recreational use, while 34 states and two territories allow medical marijuana.

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“It’s fantastic to see this cannabis sweep,” said Stuart Titus, CEO of Medical Marijuana Inc., a hemp products company based in San Diego. “There is a tremendous momentum building. I think we’re right on the precipice of changing federal policy with so many states coming online.”

Despite the ballot initiatives, marijuana and other drugs remain illegal at the federal level. The Drug Enforcement Administration continues to classify cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug akin to LSD, heroin and ecstasy.

In New Jersey, some advocates for cannabis legalization worry that the state ballot measure remains too murky and would not tackle social justice concerns surrounding the so-called war on drugs.

The question posed to voters appears simple at first glance: “Do you approve amending the Constitution to legalize a controlled form of marijuana called ‘cannabis’?”

While the majority of voters said yes, the language would not necessarily decriminalize all adult-use cannabis. Instead, it would make only “a controlled form” of the plant legal, said Chris Goldstein, a regional organizer for NORML.

“New Jersey voters sent a message to the Legislature — they want prohibition to end,” he said. “They want people to stop getting arrested.”

The Legislature will now have to pass another measure to set up the new cannabis marketplace. Whether that will reduce marijuana arrests and convictions remains to be seen, Goldstein said.

Meanwhile, Arizona’s measure allows people convicted of certain cannabis crimes to seek expungement of their records. Arizona voters narrowly defeated a legal pot proposal in 2016.

Cannabis was not the only drug on the ballot.

In Oregon, voters approved Measure 110 to allow a person found in possession of small amounts of hard drugs to avoid jail time by paying a $100 fine or attending an addiction recovery center. The centers would be funded through tax revenue collected from the state’s legal cannabis program.

Separately, Oregon voters passed measures to decriminalize psychedelic drugs, as did voters in Washington, D.C.

In Washington, D.C., Initiative 81 will lower the enforcement priority for “entheogenic plants and fungi,” or psychedelic mushrooms and mescaline-containing cacti. The ballot measure would not legalize psychedelics in the nation’s capital.

Oregon, however, became the first state to legalize psilocybin, also called magic mushrooms.

Measure 109 calls for the manufacture and therapeutic use of psilocybin to treat patients with mental health disorders. Some research suggests that psilocybin, when ingested in small doses under supervised settings, can ease stress and induce feelings of happiness.

In one recent study, patients who were given a single dose of the psychedelic drug to ease depression and anxiety still felt its positive effects years later. The patients were given small amounts of psilocybin in 2016 to look at whether it could ease cancer-related anxiety and depression. Eighty percent of the patients said their symptoms faded.

“What is permanent is that I don’t have anxiety about cancer. Not only about my cancer returning, but how I viewed my reoccurrence when it did happen,” Dinah Bazer, who was diagnosed in March with a type of rare gastrointestinal cancer, said at the time.

Alicia Victoria Lozano is a Los Angeles-based digital reporter for NBC News.

'A tipping point': Psychedelics, cannabis and even harder drugs win big across the country on election night with voter-approved ballot measures in five states and D.C.