Is Marijuana A Psychedelic?

Explore the blurred lines between marijuana and psychedelics, exploring similarities and differences in their effects. 

Overview: Psychedelics, both natural and synthetic, are being researched for therapeutic potential in mental and physical health conditions. Marijuana, traditionally used for various purposes, is undergoing a shift in perception for its therapeutic applications. The debate on whether marijuana is a psychedelic has gained momentum, with studies exploring its effects on consciousness. While marijuana may induce psychedelic-like effects such as altered perception, challenging experiences, and mystical themes, the intensity and frequency are generally lower than classic psychedelics. Differences in brain mechanisms, particularly receptor interactions, contribute to the distinct effects of psychedelics and marijuana. Contextual factors play a crucial role, and further research is needed for a comprehensive understanding of their effects. While marijuana shares traits with psychedelics, firm conclusions await further research.

Psychedelics and Marijuana: Exploring Their Effects

Psychedelics belong to a category of psychoactive substances that produce altered states of consciousness, bringing about profound changes in the way we think, feel, and perceive ourselves and the world around us. Some psychedelics occur naturally in nature, such as psilocybin in “magic mushrooms” and DMT found in certain species of plants and animals, while others are artificially synthesized in labs, such as LSD and ketamine. 

Renowned for their ability to induce vivid visionary experiences, amplify emotions, and, in some cases, foster an expanded sense of connection with the universe, psychedelics are now being extensively researched for their therapeutic potential. Preliminary research has demonstrated potential efficacy in the treatment of various mental and physical health conditions, including depression, PTSD, anxiety associated with life-threatening illnesses, substance use disorders, and chronic pain.

Marijuana, scientifically known as Cannabis sativa or Cannabis indica, is a psychoactive plant that has been used for various purposes throughout history. Traditionally, it has been employed for medicinal, spiritual, and recreational reasons.

Marijuana contains hundreds of chemical compounds, including cannabinoids. The psychoactive effects of marijuana are primarily attributed to delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), one of over 100 cannabinoids found in the plant. Like psychedelics, marijuana produces a non-ordinary state of consciousness, commonly marked by enhanced relaxation, euphoria, altered sensory perception, enhanced introspection, mild cognitive alterations, and changes in self-awareness. 

Also like psychedelics, cannabis has undergone a transformation in public perception and acknowledgment of its therapeutic potential. Long stigmatized and subject to strict legal controls in numerous jurisdictions, cannabis has increasingly become the focus of scientific inquiry for its potential therapeutic applications.

Research is unveiling promising results, suggesting that cannabis may offer effective treatment for various psychiatric conditions. Notably, many U.S. states have embraced the medicinal potential of marijuana, legalizing the use of medical marijuana for a range of health conditions. This shift reflects changing attitudes towards cannabis, recognizing its potential benefits and prompting ongoing exploration into its medicinal properties. 

Recently, the debate surrounding marijuana's classification as a psychedelic has gained some momentum, particularly with the publication of studies exploring its effects on consciousness. A recent review published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology has brought attention to the unique interplay of marijuana's compounds and their impact on cognitive and perceptual experiences, prompting a closer examination of its psychedelic potential.

In the realm of psychedelic exploration, marijuana sometimes finds itself at the center of a debate: Is it a psychedelic? The ambiguity arises from the plant's diverse effects, which bear some similarities and differences to the conventional classifications of psychedelics.

Notably, philosopher Alan Watts classified marijuana as one of the “five principal psychedelics,” aligning it with the traditionally recognized classic psychedelics — LSD, mescaline, psilocybin, and DMT.

While marijuana and psychedelics have some effects in common, particularly at high doses, marijuana may not fit the traditional definition of a psychedelic, as its effects on one’s state of consciousness are generally much less pronounced than those produced by classic psychedelics like LSD or psilocybin.

Psychedelics vs. Marijuana: Brain Mechanisms

The differences in the pharmacology (how a drug behaves in the brain) of psychedelics and marijuana contribute significantly to the effects produced by these substances. In particular, receptor interaction plays a pivotal role in this distinction.

Receptors are proteins on the surface of nerve cells in the brain (neurons) that receive signals and facilitate communication within the body. Classic psychedelics are considered “serotonergic” because they mainly interact with serotonin receptors. In particular, classic psychedelics bind to the 5-HT2A receptor, a subtype of the serotonin receptor family, to produce altered states of consciousness and perceptual changes.

On the other hand, the psychoactive component of marijuana, THC, acts on a different system — the endocannabinoid system. THC interacts with CB1 and CB2 receptors, widespread in the central nervous system and peripheral tissues. These interactions play a central role in producing the characteristic effects associated with marijuana use, including changes in mood, sensation, perception, and cognitive function.

Understanding these distinct pharmacological pathways provides insights into how psychedelics and marijuana produce their effects. 

Effects of Psychedelics

Psychedelics, as a class of substances, are characterized by their ability to produce altered states of consciousness commonly referred to as “trips.” Psychedelics typically induce alterations in perception, emotion, thought processes, and one's sense of self, commonly referred to as the “ego.”

Perception may be altered, leading to vivid and intensified sensory experiences, such as intensified colors, patterns, and textures. Emotionally, psychedelics can induce profound mood shifts, ranging from euphoria and bliss to intense introspection or, in some cases, anxiety.

Thought processes often undergo significant changes, with individuals reporting enhanced creativity, novel insights, and unconventional thinking. One’s felt sense of self can become fluid and less rigid, often fostering a profound interconnectedness with the surrounding environment or even a dissolution of the self, commonly termed ego dissolution.

These effects are distinct and uncommon in everyday experiences, somewhat resembling phenomena encountered in dreams, states of contemplative reflection, and religious experiences. Psychedelics can also evoke transformative mystical-type experiences, leading individuals to perceive themselves and the world with a heightened sense of awareness, connectedness, and profound emotional resonance.

The unique nature of these effects sets psychedelics apart in the spectrum of psychoactive substances. 

Psychedelic Effects of Marijuana 

Emerging research findings suggest that marijuana may elicit effects that overlap with or are similar to those produced by classic psychedelics. These shared characteristics include alterations in perception, challenging experiences, and mystical-type effects, highlighting parallels in the subjective experiences induced by these substances.

is marijuana a psychedelic

Effects of Marijuana on Perception 

Some research suggests that marijuana can produce perceptual effects akin to those experienced under psychedelics. For example, one case study reported instances of profound visual distortions following the use of highly concentrated marijuana, with some individuals experiencing persistent flashbacks for months, although these were typically described as gentle and not harmful in any way.

In a clinical trial, one of the participants reported dissociation as well as auditory and visual hallucinations after consuming vaporized marijuana containing 25 mg of THC. Researchers assessed the participant's experience using the Hallucinogenic Rating Scale, comparing the results with data from studies on psychedelics like psilocybin, dextromethorphan (DXM), and salvinorin A.

The participant's marijuana experience showed elevated scores in intensity of perception, somaesthesia (the perception of one's body), and volition (the ability to make conscious decisions), aligning with some effects observed in the comparison psychedelics.

Notably, only two human studies have explored the psychedelic effects of marijuana. In a self-report study, 88% of individuals who confirmed previous marijuana use reported experiencing colors as more intense or noticing that objects appeared sharper, while 50% reported seeing colors or designs with eyes opened or noticing objects that appeared to have a distorted shape. 

Another study assessing psychedelic effects of marijuana and cocaine in regular users found that cannabis use was associated with significant increases in the Bowdle Visual Analog Scale (B-VAS) score compared to placebo. However, it is important to note that the context of marijuana use (known as set and setting), a factor known to significantly influence its effects, likely varied among participants and may have impacted study results.

Bad Trips on Marijuana 

The use of psychedelics may lead to challenging experiences, commonly referred to as “bad trips.” Bad trips are typically marked by anxiety, confusion, fear, or paranoia.

Research indicates that these challenging experiences can be significantly destabilizing for some individuals and may contribute to long-term difficulties. However, contrasting evidence suggests that challenging experiences during psychedelic use have been associated with profound meaning and insight, and can be important for long-term benefits and positive therapeutic outcomes.

Interestingly, marijuana use can also induce similar bad trips characterized by paranoia and anxiety. A recent survey study explored challenging experiences with edible marijuana, revealing that 63% of individuals who reported adverse effects felt that their challenging marijuana experiences had at least some meaning, with 8% defining the experience as one of the most meaningful in their lives.

The study's authors write that challenging marijuana experiences may share similarities with the unpleasant effects observed in challenging psychedelic experiences. Notably, the amount of individuals describing challenging experiences with classic psychedelics like psilocybin as among the most meaningful in their lives exceeded that of those using cannabis.

While challenging experiences with marijuana might seem to resemble those with psychedelics, a direct comparative study is yet to be conducted.

Marijuana and Mystical Experiences 

Psychedelics can trigger mystical experiences characterized by a deep sense of unity, time and space transcendence, and positive emotions. These experiences often correlate with positive therapeutic outcomes in clinical studies.

Marijuana use has been linked to mystical themes like the “realization of God” and the “mysteries of life.” Additionally, 40% of marijuana users in one survey study reported feeling closer to God, nature, or mankind, and being able to cultivate a better understanding of the universe. 

In a 2021 survey study, the authors suggested that combining classic psychedelics with marijuana showed a potential synergistic effect, possibly due to the effects of marijuana’s main compounds on some of the same receptors activated by classic psychedelics.

While rates of complete mystical experiences with marijuana (20%) are lower than classic psychedelics (up to 70%), this might be influenced by contextual factors and dosage considerations. For example, unlike psychedelics, marijuana is rarely administered in therapeutic settings. 

A study using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) found that marijuana induces a highly connected brain state correlated with “oceanic boundlessness,” a key aspect of mystical experiences. This further suggests that marijuana may induce mystical experiences similar to those induced by psychedelics, depending on dosage and context. 

Making Sense of it All: Marijuana and Psychedelic Effects

In conclusion, research suggests that marijuana may induce psychedelic effects similar to classic psychedelics, impacting perception, challenging experiences, and mystical-type effects. However, these effects are generally less common and less intense than those produced by classic psychedelics like LSD or psilocybin.

The distinction in mechanisms of action, with marijuana acting on the endocannabinoid system and classic psychedelics primarily interacting with serotonin receptors, is thought to significantly contribute to the differences in their subjective effects.

It's important to note that existing studies have limitations, preventing a firm conclusion about marijuana reliably producing psychedelic effects. Contextual factors such as dosage, set and setting, and user expectations likely play a role in shaping the subjective effects of marijuana.

Future studies exploring THC dose effects, randomized trials comparing marijuana to classic psychedelics in the same context, and further investigation into the interplay between marijuana and psychedelics could provide a more comprehensive understanding of their effects.

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