Can Cannabis Be Considered a Psychedelic? 

With all the attention being paid to the potential therapeutic uses for psychedelic drugs, where does cannabis fit in?

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ZBYNEK POSPISIL
  • Photo by Zbynek Pospisil

Since Berkeley author Michael Pollan published his new book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, in May, there's been a surge of renewed interest in the potential for psychedelic drugs to treat various mental health disorders. Drugs such as LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, MDMA, and ayahuasca have been shown to have the capacity to expand consciousness, with ramifications for curing addiction, posttraumatic stress disorder, and the fear of dying, among other things.

Studies and anecdotal evidence suggest cannabis also has the potential to treat mental health ailments. So, why isn't cannabis being discussed in the same breath as psychedelics?

The answer is in how the drugs are used in therapy and their differing psychological effects.

"The term 'psychedelic' itself is not related to a chemical structure of a compound," noted Brad Burge, director of strategic communications for Santa Cruz-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, aka MAPS. When it comes to psychedelic drugs, "most of them have little, if anything, in common chemically," he said.

What they do all have in common is their ability to "bring up the contents of the mind," whether that's subconscious thoughts or repressed traumatic memories, said Burge.

While cannabis can be used in related ways, such as augmenting a meditation practice or sparking creativity, Burge said the plant is mostly used in ways similar to alcohol or nicotine: It "smooths over symptoms that people are having." Cannabis also has the potential to be abused, he said. "It's harder to use psychedelics to avoid your issues."

Another important distinction between cannabis and psychedelics is the way in which they're used in therapy. Whereas psilocybin, the chemical in magic mushrooms, is used to enhance therapy, it's not the treatment in and of itself. "The goal is getting at the root of people's problems," said Burge. Cannabis, on the other hand, mostly treats symptoms.

Another point of confusion is the difference between psychedelics and hallucinogens, said Burge. While all hallucinogens are psychedelic, not all psychedelics are hallucinogens. (MDMA is an example.) In very large amounts, cannabis can cause people to see or hear things that aren't there, but it turns out that the hallucinogenic aspect of psychedelics doesn't appear to be important to their therapeutic effects. "Maybe on the recreational side it's very important, but not on the therapy side," he said.

Rather, Burge said research has shown that for psilocybin-assisted therapy for anxiety and depression to be effective, the key is whether people have a "mystical experience," meaning an experience of something greater than themselves.

That's not to say that cannabis doesn't have the potential for many therapeutic uses. MAPS is currently conducting a study on smoked marijuana for symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder in veterans — the first-ever U.S. study of smoked cannabis for a mental health condition or medical condition, which could lead to the development of a drug.

The study is directed at controlling symptoms, such as paranoia and trouble sleeping, which can be helpful for people who don't have the funds for psychedelic-assisted therapy and need symptom management on a daily basis. But, "people have to keep smoking the cannabis so that it keeps working," Burge noted. With psychedelic-assisted therapy of PTSD using MDMA, treatment may only be needed a couple times.

Burge doesn't rule out the possibility that cannabis could be considered a psychedelic, but more research is needed. The problem, of course, is that cannabis is still considered a Schedule I drug — meaning the federal government deems it to have "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse."

Burge said it took MAPS more than a decade to get permission from the federal government to study smoked cannabis. But the group's research will be limited because the federal government-supplied cannabis its using in its study lacks the proper certification to fully complete clinical trials.

Burge said there are clinical studies on the parts of cannabis, such as THC, that are patentable, but the therapeutic effects may be reduced because of the lack of other cannabinoids found in whole cannabis plants — the combined effects of which is called the "entourage effect."

Burge said MAPS is looking into ways to import cannabis that has been certified to complete clinical trials, but the DEA would have to approve it first. "They said they were going to approve new licenses for people to grow marijuana 18 months ago," he said.

"That's sitting on Jeff Sessions' desk."

To learn more about MAPS' research on psychedelics and cannabis, go to MAPS.org.

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