Reprinted from "Cannabis" issue of Visions Journal, 2009, 5 (4), p. 9
“Lots of people know me, know I do pot, and they think that I’m a pothead. But really, the thing they don’t realize is that I have a reason for it.”1
Cannabis users are often portrayed as unmotivated, lazy “stoners.” But research into why people use cannabis paints a different picture. It shows that most people use cannabis as a rational choice to enhance their quality of life.1-2
Cannabis affects people in different ways. It depends on the person, the situation, the type and quality of cannabis, and the method of use. Research shows most people who use cannabis use it moderately. Since cannabis has a low risk for physical addiction,3-5 most people are not compelled to continue to use it. Instead, people use cannabis when they perceive its effects are beneficial. People all over the world have used cannabis for thousands of years—for social, medical and spiritual reasons. Sometimes these reasons are distinct, but often they overlap.
On social use
“Just about any activity is enhanced while under the influence of cannabis. I like hiking, cycling and dancing when I’m stoned or high and... I enjoy art, music, philosophy and meditation while intoxicated. Going to a museum is one of my favourite activities under [the] influence.”1
“In my humble opinion, weed is not a drug; it’s a seasoning... like salt for your life. So, just the same as a person would use salt to enhance a bland soup or what have you, smoking weed can make things more intense and enjoyable...”1
The social use of cannabis includes its use for recreation, socializing and generally improving quality of life. Most people who use cannabis today do so for these reasons.
Historical records also point to the social uses of cannabis. Ancient Hindus in India were against the use of alcohol, but accepted social cannabis use. In ancient Rome, wealthy people finished banquets with a cannabis-seed dessert that was known for the good feeling it caused. At ancient Indian weddings, cannabis (bhang) was served for good luck and as a sign of hospitality.6
Today, people often use cannabis for specific activities and occasions. When used properly, it helps some to relax and concentrate, making many activities more enjoyable. Eating, listening to music, socializing, watching movies, playing sports, having sex and being creative are some things people say cannabis helps them to enjoy more. Sometimes people also use it to make mundane tasks like chores more fun.1
Cannabis, used socially, often becomes part of a person’s daily routine without negative health, social, legal or economic consequences.7 Most people use it responsibly to improve the quality of their lives, similar to the way others use alcohol or coffee.1
The World Health Organization Constitution defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”13 Therefore, the social uses of cannabis sometimes coincide with, or complement, its medical uses.
On medical use
“Those persons in our lives that we met that think it’s all about getting high often misunderstand that that high often relieves us of the tears, of hurt, of stress, of living with a terminal illness and a lot of other things in our daily lives.”16 “It relieves the nausea from the meds and allows me to have an appetite and to stick to the regimen of taking pills. And certain strains work better for the pain.”16
Like people who use cannabis for social reasons, people who use cannabis for medical reasons also use it to improve their quality of life. Medical use is linked to managing physical and mental problems and to preserving health.
Cannabis has been used medically for thousands of years. In 2700 BCE, Shen Neng, Chinese Emperor and father of Chinese medicine, used cannabis as a remedy. The Ebers Papyrus, an ancient Egyptian medical text, also mentions cannabis. It was written in 1500 BCE and is one of the oldest pharmaceutical works known.6,8
In Canada, cannabis was used as a medicine until it was added to a list of controlled substances in 1923.9 In 2000, patients won the right to again use cannabis legally as a medicine. The court ruled that people should not have to choose between their liberty and their health because both are protected in the constitution. In July 2001, in response to the court’s decision, Health Canada introduced the Marihuana Medical Access Regulations (MMAR).10 Under the MMAR program, people can apply for a licence to legally possess and grow cannabis for medical use.
Currently, there are many barriers to the Health Canada program. For example, some physicians don’t want to participate. Also, the options for a legal supply of cannabis are limited. As a result, only about 3,000 people have licences at this time. However, about 4% of Canadians (1.2 million people) use cannabis medicinally.11 In BC, about 200,000 people report using cannabis as medicine.12
Cannabis is used to treat many medical conditions and symptoms. It is effective in treating nausea, loss of appetite, pain, anxiety, insomnia, inflammation and muscle spasms. These symptoms are often part of physical or mental conditions. Arthritis, cancer, HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, ADHD and post-traumatic stress disorder are some conditions cannabis can help treat.
Sometimes cannabis is more effective than pharmaceutical drugs and has fewer negative side effects. Some people use cannabis to help them cope with the side effects of, or to replace, these medications. Others use cannabis to deal with withdrawal symptoms from other legal or illegal drugs.
On spiritual use
“Marijuana actually, what it does to me beyond all other social aspects of it, it actually really combines me with nature. A lot of my religious experiences have actually come through marijuana. It is just that connection, an awareness of yourself, I think, and that you are part of nature...”1
“When you ingest plants that have psychoactive effects, it’s sort of like the consciousness of the plant expresses itself vicariously through your body and your mind... I like to use it for learning and to gain knowledge on how to treat people and how to live...”14
Spiritual well-being is widely accepted as an important part of overall health. Spiritual use of cannabis relates to seeking a sense of meaning, enlightenment and connection.
Cannabis has a rich history of spiritual use. It is listed as one of the five holy plants in the Atharvaveda, a sacred Indian text from the second millennium BCE. The Scythians, who lived in what is now Eastern Europe, used cannabis at funerals to pay respect to departed leaders. Ancient Chinese texts say that cannabis can lighten a person’s body and allow them to communicate with spirits. The Persian prophet Zoroaster (7 BCE) relied on the intoxicating effects of bhanga, a cannabis drink, to bridge heaven and earth. Some researchers believe that kannabosm, a plant mentioned in the Old Testament as an ingredient in the sacred anointing oil, was an ancient name for cannabis.6
Today, some people use cannabis in their spiritual practice. Rastafarians and some Hindus and Sikhs use cannabis in religious ceremonies. Other people use it in ways they consider spiritual, such as for reflection, contemplation or personal growth. The relaxing effects of cannabis help some people gain a different perspective when trying to understand difficult life situations.1 Some believe that cannabis, as a plant, has something to teach them.14
Cannabis is used by some to increase an appreciation for and connection with nature.1,14 People also use cannabis to bond with each other. These feelings of connectedness contribute to an overall sense of “oneness.”1
Despite the criminal laws in Canada surrounding cannabis, about 50% of Canadians have tried cannabis at some point in their lives. About 14% of Canadians are current users.11 People who don’t use cannabis may not understand why others do use it. The same is true for those who have tried it and didn’t see any benefit. However, with a better understanding of the reasons people use cannabis, we can look past the stigma and assumptions. From here, it will be easier to find ways to enhance the benefits and reduce potential harms to individual cannabis users and the wider population.
About the author
Rielle worked eight years as a Policy Analyst and Research Coordinator with the BC Compassion Club Society. She was a Research Associate at the Centre for Addictions Research of BC (CARBC) and is currently an Associate Researcher at the Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction at SFU
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Preamble to the Constitution of the World Health Organization as adopted by the International Health Conference, New York, 19-22 June 1946; signed on 22 July 1946 by the representatives of 61 states (Official Records of the World Health Organization, no. 2, p. 100) and entered into force on 7 April 1948. www.who.int/governance/eb/who_constitution_en.pdf.
Moffat, B.M. et al. (2009). A gateway to nature: Teenagers’ narratives on smoking marijuana outdoors. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 29(1), 86-94.
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Canadian Aids Society. (2006). Cannabis as therapy for people living with HIV/AIDS : “Our right, our choice.” www.cdnaids.ca/cannabis.