In praise of the t-break: why a weedcation can be a great idea

I’ve been taking a little time off lately, both from writing and from smoking my usual once-or-twice a week bowl of cannabis sativa.  There’s no single or urgent reason behind this, no great crisis of health or well-being, but rather I’ve been both traveling constantly, and have also wanted to take a bit of a tolerance break.  I think it’s a great idea — a responsible one even — to take a break from cannabis once in a while.  Part of the enjoyment and benefit of having weed be a regular part of my life is remembering what it’s like to live without its psychoactive components in my bloodstream.  Here are a few notes from my own experiences going on weedcation:

  • whether we use weed to enhance physical or mental health, recreationally, or for self discovery and psychonautics, most of us can actually take a break — we won’t suffer horribly, or even feel particularly out of sorts.  There are exceptions, such as patients who rely on cannabis sativa for the maintenance of their ability to function in daily life.  But for most of us, a t-break is extremely doable, if at some cost to either our health maintenance routine or other parts of our lives.
  • there’s little proof that moderate (once or more weekly, but not daily) pot use damages health in the long run.  There is plenty of proof, however, that short term side-effects of this level of consumption can be annoying.  Call it what you will — feeling washed out, foggy or strung out, etc. — but many of us experience day-after effects of cannabis that aren’t so awesome (though way better, I should say, than an alcohol hangover.)  There are also well understood effects on short term memory that persist some days after consuming.  Aside from offering a respite from these side effects, a t-break provides the opportunity to establish a pot-free baseline for both body and mind.  How different (or the same) do I feel after a few weeks of not consuming?  Knowing the answer to this question is part of knowing yourself as a human being, and part of respecting the power of this amazing plant.
  • Tolerance is not your friend.  It’s a fact of nature that the level of consumption needed to achieve the same psychoactive effect increases slowly over time.  In the case of moderate consumers (like me) the effect is not terribly pronounced, but even moderate users who keep a toke journal or otherwise track their intake might notice changes.  There are only two “solutions” to the problem of tolerance:  more (or more concentrated) pot, or a t-break.  Since I have some doubts about the former (and don’t really care, for example, to enter the world of dabbing etc.) I tend to let time and nature take care of lowering my tolerance.  I find that at least a month, and preferably a couple of months away from marijuana is what’s required to substantially reset my tolerance, but this surely varies person to person.
  • Weedbreaks don’t need to be boring!  Mine generally tend to line up with periods when I’m traveling away from home, which is something I love to do.  (I’m writing this from South America!)  I try to go with the flow — if I’m away from my usual dispensary, I prefer not to scrounge around for other sources or risk taking a supply with me.  I take this sort of inaccessibility as a sign from the universe that my t-break has begun, and then focus on whatever else I might get to do in that time.

I’ll be back to my usual toking ways soon (in fact as I write this I’m reminded how much I want to seek out some more excellent buds of Cactus, a local Seattle strain that his me just right — if you are in Seattle and can find it, you really should grab some.)  But in the mean time I’m quite enjoying a weedless spell, as I hope many of you who read this decide to try one out too.

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Heroes: Oliver Sacks

I was in Los Angeles at UCLA doing a residency in neurology, but I was also very much on the beach — on Venice Beach, muscle beach.  There, there was very much a drug culture, as there was in Topanga Canyon where I lived.  One day, someone offered me some pot, and I took two puffs from it.  And I’d been looking at my hand for some reason, and the hand seemed to retreat from me, but at the same time get larger and larger, until it became sort of a cosmic hand across the universe, and I found that astounding. … I was fascinated that one could have such perceptual changes, and also that they went with a certain feeling of significance, an almost numinous feeling.  I’m strongly atheist by disposition, nonetheless when this happened, I couldn’t help but think that that was what the hand of God was like.

From Terry Gross’ excellent 2012 interview with Sacks.  Definitely worth a listen:

http://www.npr.org/2012/11/06/164360724/oliver-sacks-exploring-how-hallucinations-happen

It’s impossible to summarize the life and work of the great neuroscientist Oliver Sacks.  You can read about him and his many books, including Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat here.  Just today, the New York Times published a beautiful piece in which Sacks reveals and responds to his diagnosis with terminal liver cancer and his impending death.  He concludes:

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

Sacks will leave the world having vastly deepened our understanding of the human mind, and in particular the terrible and glorious aspects of the mind in extremis.  He spoke openly and evenly (if a bit shyly) about his own experiences with psychotropic drugs, including marijuana.  May his own wishes for the end of his life come to pass.

Woah! Your brain erupts into a mega-storm after consuming marijuana.

I have no idea what this means, but it’s cool so I thought I’d share it.

Apparently this is the result of hooking up someone to an EEG before and after they’d consumed some cannabis sativa infused desert items.  Note that this is more science-art than actual science, since it’s completely without context, hypothesis, analysis or conclusion.  But dang — these brains really got jumping (electromagnetically speaking) after a single pot cookie.

Props to Vice and neuromarketer (is that a thing?) Anna Iorga.

The times they are a changin (in the supermarket aisle)

You pretty much know the dam has broken when the CEO of Whole Foods is saying he’d

consider launching a gourmet-cannabis aisle in his stores, as long as local communities approved

To register or not to register medical cannabis users

The other day I was watching this video from VICE about marijuana in Uruguay.  Reporter Krishna Andavolu (who in the same piece also smokes pot while hanging out with the Uruguay’s former president Jose Mujica) seeks out cannabis advocate, farmer and long time consumidora Alicia Castilla at her home.  Here, they talk about Uuguay’s new law, which was to require all marijuana consumers to register themselves:

Observo que los únicos que irán a registrarse son los jóvenes.  Porque no han vivido con una dictadora.  Todos los que sabemos lo que el estado puede hacer con los individuos, no queremos (registrarnos.)

It seems to me that the only people who will go register with the government are young people.  this is because they have never lived under a dictatorship.  Those of us who know know what the state can do to individual people, we don’t want to register.

Following a coup in 1973, the people of Uruguay — in a similar way to their neighbors in Argentina —  lived under a series of dictators until 1985, when democracy was restored.  You can hear the mistrust of official registries in the voices of people like Castilla who lived through that period.

I myself am very far from being a conspiracy theorist.  I have a general level of trust as well as skepticism when it comes to the governments which guarantee the basic frameworks of my civic life.  Without strong governments, the idea that I have rights and freedoms would be pure fiction — I’m grateful that they exist.  On the other hand, who doesn’t worry about over-reach.  See, for example, the massive over-collection of data by the NSA and other arms of the US Federal Government among many other example of what can go wrong when power concentrates itself in the shadows.

The time as come for my own state of Washington to decide how to regulate our own medical cannabis market, in which I am a participant.  I suppose I’ll never know why this wasn’t done before now.  After all, we’ve only had medical cannabis for about twenty years.   Nor will I really understand why our recreational legalization law was not designed (like Colorado’s was) to responsibly harmonize the medical and recreational markets.  Personally, I’ve never been too bullish on the ability of our state legislatures to attract to its polished wooden chambers something resembling a competent cross-section of the population of this state.  General gripes aside, though, the Washington is now deciding how treat the large number of medical patients who rely on cannabis for health.  One aspect of this decision is whether or not to maintain a “list”.

Ann Rivers, Steve Litzow, Mark Schoesler
These Republicans want the state to register medical marijuana patients. Photo Credit: The Columbian

A couple of days ago, the Washington State Senate passed Senate Bill 5052.  On first inspection, this seems to me to be an incredibly dunderheaded law in many ways (no collective gardens, no home grows for non-patients, etc. etc.)  It also includes a registry of all Washington State medical patients.

Clearly this would not be unprecedented.  Other states — most notably California and Colorado — maintain such lists.  There’s also something slightly precious about those who oppose such lists, particularly if they’re one of los jovenes who as President Jose Mujica ends up pointing out in the VICE interview can’t seem to restrain from chronicling their every meal and fart on Twitter and Facebook, to then say that the fact that they’re doing something legal can’t possibly be recorded by the government for fear of … ?

In the end however, I think that in the US at least there is some rational basis for worry about central registries.  For me, it’s simply the fact that Federal Government still heavily criminalizes cannabis.  Do I have absolute faith that if my name appears on a state list, that this list will never fall into the hands of a federal authority that uses it to impinge on my rights, say by harassing me at the border or otherwise getting all up in my business?  The answer to that question is simply no. I have a modicum of faith about that sort of thing not coming to pass, but it’s only a modicum.

Change often comes from below.  The optimal way for legalization to happen would probably be for the feds to decriminalize cannabis nationwide, no longer enforce possession laws, and leave it to the states to regulate their own local markets.  So it was (pretty much) with the end of alcohol prohibition.  But this is not going to happen.  Instead, we’re left to work all of this out on a state-by-state basis, and this means that for now, at least, states must provide protection for their citizens against federal over-reach.   I think that states who maintain patient databases are failing to do this, and for that reason I hope that Washington State decides to not register patients, at least for now.

Back in Uruguay, the anthropologist Daniel Vidart, sitting next to Castilla reflecting on the propensity of governments to use and abuse the powers they are given:

La ley es como un cuchillo — hay que probarla para ver si corta.

The law is like a knife — you have to try it to see if it cuts.

While high: music in the body

Re-reading Carl Sagan‘s Mr. X essay made me think about recent experiences with music while high.  He writes:

A very similar improvement in my appreciation of music has occurred with cannabis. For the first time I have been able to hear the separate parts of a three-part harmony and the richness of the counterpoint. I have since discovered that professional musicians can quite easily keep many separate parts going simultaneously in their heads, but this was the first time for me.

Music has always been a part of my own life.  I’m a piano player with some years of classical training, and some experience as a jazz player.  Though I’m well out of practice, my ear is relatively well developed, at least in terms of things like following harmonies and counterpoint etc.  That said, my experience of listening to music while high is enhanced in what I take to be same way as Sagan’s.  In particular, the way I experience counterpoint, melody and structure in music changes when I’m high vs. when I’m straight.  I notice many structural elements and compositional choices … or maybe it’s that I notice them in a new way — they seem somehow more important, crucial.  I also experience sequences and passages of notes in new ways.  When I close my eyes and listen to some music rich in counterpuntal lines, I’ve oftentimes felt as though the lines of music were physically present in my body — a line in a Bach cello suite, for example, may present itself as a trail of connected feelings in my left arm.

A rapid, staccato sequence might make its way up my trunk and into the core of my body, and then dissolve or sublimate as it encounters another thread of sensation corresponding to another musical line from some other region of my body.

Not surprisingly, I experience the emotional aspects of music much more fiercely when high than when straight.  The emotions I feel are sometimes just amplified versions of what I’d feel while straight, such as the extra-powerful rush I feel while listening to something like this:

But the emotional changes are sometimes even more powerful than that:  I’ve felt as though my experience of choral music in particular has produced some extremely powerful feelings and experiences.  For example, in the following piece (which is gorgeous and worth a listen, high or not):

… when the choir hits and holds its glorious harmonic resolution (around 5:13 in the video.)  At the time, I was laying in a warm dark room, wearing headphones and looking inward as the music wound and swelled through my body.  When that penultimate chord dropped — the one where the basses descend to their lowest point and the choir widens into a stunningly open chord — it was as if at that moment, the dark space within me opened in a kind of dimension-defying way.  I felt as though I had discovered that the black tunnel within my closed eyes had suddenly opened into a vast and unexplored space that while still obscure to my vision, was incomprehensibly more huge and all-encompassing than I’d ever realized.  It was as if I’d been walking in a small dark passageway and suddenly stumbled out of a doorway and onto the foyer of a dark cavern whose dimensions were equal to those of the universe itself.  It was that music, and in particular the openness of that chord, which allowed that perception to explode within me.  Without the chord I would not have felt the space, or the wonder accompanying the perception of it.  And as with the musical chord, as soon as it was there and established, the wideness began to fade and recede and before long resolved back into normal sensation as the harmonic tension was released.

As Sagan notes, these sensations are intensely present in these kinds of moments while high, but they also tend to persist.  This seems to be a matter of memories becoming reactivated when we listen to the same piece of music.  But these experiences also alter musical perception permanently in some way that I don’t yet fully understand.

Heroes: Carl Sagan

Like so many others,  I first encountered the great thinker, astronomer and teacher Carl Sagan through Cosmos (the original PBS series.)  Though too young to have watched it when it first aired, I probably first saw and understood it in the mid-eighties.  I particularly remember sitting on our family room couch with my father watching weekly installments of the show, which, if you haven’t seen it, is as amazing a picture of the scope and contents of the universe as we are likely to ever see.  The updated series, featuring Neil deGrasse Tyson is almost as sublime.  Both series are fantastic straight, but are also really compelling when under the influence of a reasonable amount of your favorite cannabis.

Carl Sagan was a scientific polymath whose career spanned astrophysics, genetics and astrobiology, planetary science (he discovered many early facts about the atmospheres of Venus, Saturn and various moons) the early formation of life and the consequences of nuclear war. He was also a great communicator and teacher whose legacy now includes thousands of scientists now working in all of these fields, and millions of others who were inspired by his television work and writing.

What’s perhaps known by fewer people (though now can hardly be called much of a secret) is that Sagan was also a passionate user of cannabis sativa and a brave advocate for its legalization. Though he publicly endorsed California’s medical marijuana bill before his death in 1996, his most famous and eloquent expression on the subject came long before. Writing as Mr X, Sagan composed a marvelous essay for inclusion in the 1971 compilation Marijuana Reconsidered. Even in those days just before the madness of the mega-criminalization introduced by Nixon and super-charged by Ronald Reagan, it’s likely that his public credibility and possibly his scientific career would have been compromised had he revealed his identity. But Sagan’s anonymity doesn’t lessen the importance or interest of this essay. If you haven’t read it, I invite you to have a nice toke, sit back, and take a few minutes to read it now. Or, for those in a hurry, here’s a snippit from the essay’s last paragraph:

There is a very nice self-titering aspect to cannabis. Each puff is a very small dose; the time lag between inhaling a puff and sensing its effect is small; and there is no desire for more after the high is there. I think the ratio, R, of the time to sense the dose taken to the time required to take an excessive dose is an important quantity. R is very large for LSD (which I’ve never taken) and reasonably short for cannabis. Small values of R should be one measure of the safety of psychedelic drugs. When cannabis is legalized, I hope to see this ratio as one of he parameters printed on the pack. I hope that time isn’t too distant; the illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization of a drug which helps produce the serenity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world.

If only he had lived to see the day.