Does pot have a place on the journey of awakening?

I generally avoid taking a position on controversial topics because I have an appreciation for all the different points of view. In the case of marijuana, however, I felt it was important to provide a counterweight to the growing tendency not only to legalize pot, but also to legitimize regular use even among folks on the spiritual path. Recent research suggests that it can be detrimental to our health, and our spiritual unfolding, in ways we hadn’t anticipated. Here’s my latest blogpost.

About 20 years ago, at the age of 15, my stepson began smoking pot. Since I no longer lived with him and only saw him occasionally, and since most teens hide these things from their parents, I had no idea until about six months later, when he started to report hearing voices that seemed to be plotting against him. At first, he told me, he only had these hallucinations when he smoked, but soon he was having them all the time. Increasingly terrified, he quickly unraveled and had to be put on antipsychotic medication just so he could function at a minimal level. Unfortunately, the medication numbed his affect and made him so withdrawn that he was barely relational. On our annual river-rafting trip, he hardly spoke a word.

Fortunately, his mom, a psychologist, pursued aternative remedies for his malaise and eventually discovered a nutritional and herbal regimen that gradually weaned him off all medication. Now in his 30s, he shows no vestiges of the schizophrenia that sidelined him socially for years and led him to drop out of high school. At the time, we suspected that the pot smoking may have precipitated his paranoia, but there were other factors involved, and we couldn’t be sure.

ecent research has corroborated our hunch—pot-smoking does seem to correlate with an increased risk for schizophrenia, not only in adolescents, an age when schizophrenia often begins, but in middle-aged users as well. And there are other risks, which have been downplayed in our rush to legalize ot. According to a new book by Alex Berenson, Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence, research into the effects of pot have been inconclusive and underreported, but studies do suggest, if not prove, that marijuana use—despite its reputation as a mellow, feel-good high— correlates with increases in violent behavior and fatal car accidents, as well as reductions in motivation and cognitive functioning. (And the supposed health benefits of cannabis are largely unproven, despite the hype suggesting that CBD* is a miracle cure for a range of ailments.) These are rather serious potential consequences for a substance that is still heralded by some as a source of inspiration, creativity, even spiritual insight.

(*I realize that CBD contains little to no THC, the active mind-altering ingredient in pot, and that many people have found it helpful with their health condition. But so far scientific research into its effectiveness has been inconclusive, despite individual, anecdotal evidence for its benefits.)

In my role as a psychotherapist as well as a spiritual teacher, I’ve worked with a number of people who’ve claimed that pot has helped them along their spiritual journey. Even such a purported authority as Ram Das has smoked pot regularly and recommended it to others. But in the cases I’ve encountered I’ve found that marijuana use tends to dull people’s minds, hinder genuine insight, short-circuit motivation and devotion, inhibit authentic, heart-centered relatedness, and add endless distractions to the already overly distractable mind we all share. Those on the path who continue to use pot regularly despite persuasive evidence for these debilitating side-effects seem to be lost in the smokescreen of denial and craving that every addiction generates—and it’s a difficult addiction to kick because there’s so much cultural rationalization to support it. Unfortunately, legalization adds to this rationale. If it’s legal, we may think, it must be OK, even beneficial.

Now, occasional, judicious use of a psychedelic like psilocybin, mescaline, LSD, or ayahuasca does sometimes seem to elicit profound insight into the nature of existence, which may propel one forward on the spiritual journey. For a fascinating account of some of the new research into the spiritual and psychological effects of these substances, I recommend Michael Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind. In my own case, several pivotal “trips” in college convinced me that drugs did not constitute a path unto themselves but did provide a window into a deeper dimension of reality that I could explore by gentler, more tried-and-true means. After my last acid trip, I went searching for a zendo in New York City, where I attended school, and began the lifelong practice of meditation. 

But as Adyashanti has pointed out, psychedelics steal from our  house, that is, they wrest by force an innate wisdom that might be more effectively mined by more gradual means. As with anything else, it’s most important to be ruthlessly honest with ourselves and trust our heart wisdom, our intuitive discernment, about how best to proceed—wisdom that, unfortunately, is generally dimmed by marijuana use.