Should We Reclassify Marijuana as a Hallucinogen?

A lot goes into classifying a drug, not only it’s effects but how it alters the brain. 

 

Marijuana has been hard to classify, historically. It doesn’t fall neatly into any of the other categories, be they stimulants, depressants, opioids, or what-have-you. As a result, it’s be dropped into a slot all its own. At a recent psychedelics conference in London, New York psychologist Julie Holland suggested a recategorization for cannabis, as a hallucinogen.


Her reasoning, it can cause "dehabituation," or the ability to see an issue from a completely new perspective. According to Holland, "The thing that I'm interested in with cannabis is how it does this thing where everything old is new again." Such an experience is very therapeutic. Consider being able to suddenly see a traumatic memory differently, and to frame it in a healthier way.

Currently, not much is known about marijuana’s effect on the brain. Some research shows that chronic use can increase the risk of psychosis. Psychosis however, is defined in a very specific way. It’s considered either becoming overly paranoid or experiencing hallucinations.

Marijuana’s inducement of dehabituation may be useful for clinical purposes. Getty Images.

Some research suggests that chronic marijuana use doesn’t cause psychotic disorders, but may be a catalyst to an episode that’s already developing. In other words, it’s those who suffer from mental illness who gravitate toward chronic marijuana use, perhaps to self-soothe. But they’re also barreling toward an episode.

So how would dehabituation work therapeutically? In this case, a therapist would have a patient use marijuana and then take them on a guided trance, in such a way as to install a healthier viewpoint in them. Could such a thing be done?

Some fear marijuana use alongside psychological treatment could trigger a mood disorder such as anxiety or depression. But a well-regarded study recently upended such claims. It may cause problems in the developing brain however, particularly in those between adolescence and age 25. There are conflicting views. If it were cleared, cannabis therapy would have to be performed only on those over a certain age.

Marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient, delta9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), can cause “neural noise.” This is experiencing a stream of random, unrelated thoughts, or even a hallucination. The person feels the effect of neurons becoming overactive inside their brain. These electrical disturbances, in marijuana’s case, calm down quickly. Over the course of some minutes, the patient enters an altered state, losing touch with reality and then returns. Most psychedelics meanwhile, last for hours.  

Chronic marijuana use may be detrimental to those under age 25. Getty Images.

According to Dr. Holland, "In psychiatry it seems that cannabis is grossly underused and understudied." Most marijuana studies have looked at it as a way of alleviating the side effects of say cancer treatment or severe epileptic disorders, offering pain relief, dampening Parkinson’s, and mitigating the symptoms of other serious illnesses. Few have looked at it for mental health treatment. Some of those studies do show that it may be helpful for treating PTSD, anxiety, or depression. 

 Meanwhile, a growing body of evidence shows that psychedelics can be useful in overcoming psychological disorders. Research has found that LSD can help addicts and alcoholics overcome addiction. Psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms,” was shown to help cancer patients overcome depression and anxiety. Meanwhile, MDMA has successfully treated PTSD.

As a result of these and other findings, medical research on psychedelics has increased in the last 15 years or so. Even so in the US, marijuana and most hallucinogens are considered schedule 1 narcotics under the federal Controlled Substances Act. Therefore, research on such drugs has been limited. Gaining approval from multiple federal agencies is required, to study either one, which can take years. Even so, interest in using both marijuana and hallucinogens for therapeutic purposes is growing.

Marijuana and psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin, may interact differently within the brain, discouraging reclassification. Studies using the brain scans of patients on psychedelics show that their brains make new connections with disparate parts. Different regions may interact with the visual cortex for example, allowing those on acid to smell colors or visualize music. No such equivalent has been witnessed in marijuana users.

Chronic use of marijuana effects the orbitofrontal cortex, the nucleus accumbens, and the amygdala. The first has to do with decision-making and information processing, while the second and third are both part of the brain’s reward circuit. The amygdala is also the center for our emotions.   

Psilocybin mushrooms. Getty Images.

Could neural noise and the experience of dehabituation, no matter how brief, lead to marijuana’s reclassification? Probably not. It would be of little value, since they’re both are at the same classification level. Would there be any other advantages in seeing marijuana reclassified?

Not really. What a growing number of researchers, policy makers, and journalists are saying, is that there needs to be a change in the classification of both marijuana and hallucinogens in the US, on the federal level. These drugs aren’t deadly, have no long-lasting side effects, and aren’t physically addictive.

A rescheduling would allow for more research, so we can better understand how they affect human health, and if these drugs can be leveraged effectively for clinical purposes, with minimal side effects. Despite obstacles, Holland and colleagues are working on a study which will assess whether or not marijuana helps reduce PTSD symptoms. Veterans have been claiming it does since the Vietnam War era.

To learn more about the use of psychedelics to treat psychological issues, click here: 

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.