My First Experience With Marijuana
The beginning of a lifelong curiosity about how marijuana works.
Posted May 07, 2020
Marijuana is the key that unlocked scientists’ deeper understanding of the brain. This statement is not the hyperbole of a pothead, but rather a conclusion drawn from studying cannabis research for over two decades and practicing addiction psychiatry for 40 years. My quest to understand how marijuana alters the texture of experience eventually taught me more about the brain than it did about the plant.
I recently wrote the book From Bud to Brain to review the science of marijuana for clinicians and educators. Unfortunately, few of my colleagues learned enough about cannabis during their formal training to provide objective and useful information to their patients.
Over the next few posts, I will explain in plain English exactly how the chemistry in marijuana interacts with our brain. This is a fascinating story for anyone interested in the brain generally, and understanding the neuroscience underlying marijuana’s action in the brain is essential for anyone interested in understanding marijuana specifically.
My own journey through the scientific literature satisfied my quest to understand how marijuana works, and I look forward to sharing this in a series of posts. But perhaps it would be best to begin at the very beginning.
My curiosity about marijuana began 50 years ago when I first met Mary Jane on a cool summer evening in central Ohio. I had just graduated from a small liberal arts college 20 miles up the road and years behind Ohio State University, where I was completing premed requirements. America in 1967 was heading toward worsening turmoil in Vietnam, angrier war protests, race riots, assassinations, and a police riot in Chicago. A close friend from high school, Tom, had marinated in burgeoning radicalism at OSU and now was inviting me to sample a different world from the cornfields that had surrounded me for the last four years. Was I curious? I was.
A skilled guide, Tom reassured me by staying straight, offering ice water when the harsh smoke rasped my throat and sitting me in front of his comforting fireplace. When he asked why I had been staring so intently at the flames for the last 15 minutes, I expounded in awe that I was watching oxygen atoms combining with carbon. When their outer electron shells merged, they released energy—heat and light—from the flickering, dancing hot gas of the fire. “It’s truly beautiful,” I said earnestly.
“You’ve had enough,” he confirmed, then encouraged me to lie back and close my eyes.
The first thing I noticed was the music. It had a new physical quality as my body resonated with individual notes. The stereophonic separation of instruments emphasized the room’s volume. Then I realized the music was only vibrations in air pressure against my eardrums transmitted by sensory nerve impulses to my brain. The only place “sound” occurred was in my experience of the brain activity these impulses evoked. If a tree fell in the forest and no sentient being was present to experience it, there was no sound—only concussive waves of pressure traveling through the air. The most remarkable thing occurred with realizing the sound of music existed only inside my skull. At that moment I experienced my head expand to the volume of the entire room. The “sound” within my brain was being hurled out into the room like a ventriloquist’s voice into the mouth of a dummy. I was experiencing my brain’s internal resonance with the music being projected out into the external environment where stereo speakers were pumping guitars and drum vibrations against the air. I was already in thrall with marijuana.
As this reverie began to fade, I reviewed it a couple of times to fix the experience in memory, then focused on how relaxed and immobile my body felt. I thought of moving, but continued to lie still. I wondered how it was possible for a conscious decision to sit up could cause the whole complex of matter comprising my body to transport through space to a new position in the universe. Mind over matter? I continued lying motionless, seemingly unmotivated to attempt motion, but wondering what would happen if I did want to move.
Tom entered the room and asked if anyone wanted a hot brownie. I sat up immediately without first having to plan how to accomplish the feat. “But first,” he instructed, “open up.” With that, he popped a Sweet-Tart candy into my mouth. He told me to bite down if I dared.
I dared. An immense explosion of chemical flavors seemed to raise not only the roof of my mouth, but the very roof of my skull as well. I had tasted Sweet-Tarts before and thought I knew what to expect. But this was a new experience, more intense and more pleasurable. It started a shiver between my shoulder blades that spread up the back of my head and ended in a shimmy of my whole upper body.
“Are you ready for a brownie?”
“You baked brownies?” I asked, having already forgotten. They soon coated my mouth with a divinely comforting chocolate slurry.
The next morning, I felt entirely normal again, but not the same. I didn’t know it then but the course of my career had shifted. My use of marijuana did not last, but my curiosity about it remains as strong as ever.
The mysteries of marijuana’s power remained hidden until the late 1980s. Then an explosion of research answered one question after another. While marijuana does not affect everyone in the same way, I have sound most people’s experience has a lot in common with mine. How does marijuana stimulate wonder and awe? Why does music feel so fresh and absorbing? How did pot immobilize and relax me? Why the munchies? And failing short-term memory?
The answers to all these questions, and many more, are now known. The mysteries have been solved. I look forward to sharing all these fascinating answers in upcoming posts.