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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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

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.

While high: feeling linearity

Just flipping back through my toke journal I notice that I don’t tend to draw images that often, but when I do it tends to be in response to a feeling of what I can only call linearity.  I tend to draw simple designs including parallel lines contracting to a perspective point, or lines originating from a point as rays, and it always seems to be in response to what I describe as a feeling that is wordlessly connected to this geometric arrangement.

Some examples:

(describing a high)  now it’s all coming into the linear groove:

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A linear, sonic experience:

P1010991

I’m not altogether sure that this is remarkable, but two things:  I want to draw and sketch more while high, and maybe I care about this because I’ve always harbored a certain amount of jealousy towards those with synesthesia —  a condition wherein a cognitive or  sensory stimulus of one kind stimulates a sensory or cognitive response of another kind.  Synesthetes can, for example, experience sounds as colors, or sights as tastes.  It’s always seemed like a gift

Surprise! that study that said pot shrinks your brain was apparently total crap

In the fall of 2014 there was an outburst of media noise regarding the results of study by researchers at the University of Texas, Dallas which seemed to show that certain brain changes — both in shape/volume and other characteristics — were associated with prolonged marijuana use.  The news spread far and wide, was all over the web and TV, and penetrated deep into the major media.  The message that most of these articles and stories conveyed to the average consumer of the news is pretty easy to summarize, especially since it fits so comfortably into the traditional media narrative about pot:  marijuana is bad for you.  marijuana shrinks your head.  marijuana makes you stupid.

Predictably, it seems like evidence has emerged that that study might have been flawed, or maybe just wrong.  This is because a second, larger and better-designed study, the results of which were published recently in the Journal of Neuroscience, found absolutely no correlation between quite heavy, long term marijuana use and the changes in brain characteristics reported in the older study.

I come to this issue as a moderate consumer of cannabis, and someone who cares about whether this drug has any long-term side effects that I should know or care about.  I’m neither an expert nor a scientist, nor do I have time to review the complete literature on Cannabis and its side-effects (though to be fair, nor do plenty of psychiatrists.)  Therefore, what I particularly value when I read news about the latest studies and results in marijuana health research are clarity and impartiality.  It seems to me that most writing about cannabis seems to have little of either.  On the one hand, we have cannabis blogs and cannabis media — voices that seem forever reluctant to expose any news that discusses any possible health risk associated with marijuana use, at least without adopting a very defensive tone.  On the other hand, the major media is so used to reporting negative narratives about marijuana (and receives so much attention when it does) that it over-plays stories of the same kind.  What’s more, the studies that are the subjects of these stories, like the study in this case, are often beset with all sorts of problems, which are either not clearly reported, or relegated to what amount to footnotes.

Once the genie of a bad science story is out of the proverbial bottle, it’s very hard to put it back.  There are plenty of examples of completely bogus scientific results being widely reported as fact.  If and when these stories are retracted, their retractions almost never penetrate the media to any great extent.  This was the case with a correction of a widely circulated story about a study that had purported to show very high levels of lead in some kinds of  imported rice.  As a result there were interesting calls for a way to retract bad science articles.

Even a cursory scan of some of the literature shows that a great number of studies about the deleterious effects of marijuana have been inconclusive or poorly designed.  The Dallas study was typical of this in at least three ways.  For one, it used an extremely small sample size.  Also, it did not (apparently) adequately control for factors like alcohol use.  Thirdly, and this is a problem that bedevils nearly every study about the bad effects of pot that I’ve encountered, the study has nothing to say about cause and effect, only correlation.

This last problem is quite serious, because in many cases there’s a very plausible argument that whatever bad effect that marijuana is supposed to have been shown to cause is actually — completely on the contrary — a condition that caused or made more likely the marijuana use.  A perfect example of this, and one that I’ve observed from a rather intimate vantage point in my own family, is the case of bipolar disorder and depression.  I’ll write another time about public perception, scientific opinion and family myth surrounding pot and mental illness — these are subject very near to my heart and many others.  Suffice it to say, though, that the onset of mania has not been shown to be causally linked to marijuana, though it is often very coincident with it.   In addition, I’d simply say that both the media and the scientific community should be much more upfront about the lack of proof of causation when it comes to cannabis and a number of potential ill effects.

I’m quite open to the idea that marijuana is bad for you in some ways.  It’s already been proven that it is — for example, it’s known that smoking weed increases a man’s risk of testicular cancer.  All I ask is that the media — on both sides of this debate — look at emerging science carefully, and report it for what it says, particularly when it comes to causation.