The story is told of three men who were traveling across the desert on their way to the great city. The first was a drinker of wine, the second a user of opium, and the third a smoker of ganja. When they finally arrived at the city, it was midnight, and the gates had been locked. The drinker of wine drank mightily from his sheepskin; he beat against the gates of the city, and finally fell down in a slumber. The man who favored opium smoked some of it, looked up dreamily at the sky, and then fell asleep by the side of the gate. The smoker of ganja inhaled deeply on his pipe, went up to the gate, and put his eye up to the keyhole. "Behold," he cried, "we are already in the city!"
— traditional folk story
Over the centuries, researchers, writers, and smokers have all agreed that one of the most constant effects of marijuana is its tendency to alter the user's awareness of time. Smokers routinely find that events seem to take longer when they are stoned and that time itself seems to pass more slowly. One side of a record album can last for over an hour—or so the user imagines—while a simple walk of two blocks may seem like a long hike.
This slowing down of time has at least two advantages for the smoker. First, it prolongs the stoned experience. "When I'm high," claims Carol, "I can spend three good hours between half-past ten and midnight." In addition, marijuana usually relaxes the user, and this too is connected with an expanded sense of time, as Mezz Mezzrow vividly describes:
You know how jittery, got-to-be-moving people in the city always get up in the subway train two minutes before they arrive at the station? Their nerves are on edge; they're watching the clock, thinking about schedules, full of that high-powered mile-a-minute jive. Well, when you've picked up some gauge that clock just stretches its arms, yawns, and dozes off. The whole world slows down and gets drowsy. You wait until the train stops dead and the doors slide open, then you get up and stroll out in slow motion, like a sleepwalker with a long night ahead of him and no appointments to keep. You've got all the time in the world. What's the rush, buddy? Take-it-easy, that's the play, it's bound to sweeten it all the way.
Marijuana smokers occasionally speak of being aware of two different kinds of time: objective, geophysical time, as measured by the clock, and subjective "inner" or personal time. Anybody who has ever sat through a boring meeting has had a similar sensation: time is moving more quickly on the personal scale than it is on the clock. A jazz musician speaks of this double awareness in these terms:
When I began smoking, the elongation of time was very prominent. It was the first occasion I realized that I had a sense of time. It made me feel like a fish in water, who normally isn't conscious of the ocean all around him. Similarly, I had never really been conscious of time, except when I looked at a clock. I had always assumed that the clock was time.
The fish, who is contentedly swimming in the ocean, one day bumps up against a rock. And one day I became aware of a new substance, which had something to do with the roots of my consciousness, where time and space originate in the first place. I didn't think about all of this when it first occurred; I just had the experience, and the ideas filled in later.
For some smokers, the regular sense of time, as measured by the clock, becomes suspended rather than replaced; these users find that smoking makes it easier for them to become totally immersed in the activity at hand, during which they are simply unaware of the passage of time. For this group, words like "timeless" take on a new meaning, and if one is religiously inclined, certain religious concepts having to do with time and space may become more meaningful.
Why does time pass more slowly for the smoker? Some users speculate that it would otherwise be difficult to imagine how so many interesting events and ideas could have taken place in so short a period. Lenny elaborates on this idea:
Remember how long time took to pass when you were a child? So much of what you do as an adult is ordinary, whereas to a child it is new and interesting. With marijuana, you tend to be so fascinated with things that you're much more interested in what's going on and you think, gosh, I must have been here for an hour and a half, when really it's only been thirty-five minutes.
We are used to judging time in terms of important events. When you're high, everything is important, so you assume that a lot of things have happened. Well, a lot of things have happened, but if you weren't stoned, most of them would not have seemed very interesting.
Memory occurs where the present and the past collide. Experts and smokers alike agree that marijuana temporarily impairs short-term memory. But although it has been less studied, marijuana has another effect on memory: in Charles Tart's survey of smokers, nearly 40 percent of those asked said that their memory for otherwise forgotten events was improved by smoking and that it was even better than when, without marijuana, they consciously tried to recall these events. Over half of the sample reported that, high, they spontaneously remembered things they hadn't thought of in years.
Not surprisingly, most studies have concentrated on the negative aspects of marijuana's effects on memory. About a decade ago, a group of Stanford University researchers headed by Frederick Melges conducted several experiments to determine exactly which aspects of memory were affected by marijuana. Using graduate student volunteers, the research team administered several well-known memory tests. In one, known as "serial sevens," subjects were asked to begin counting with a number around 100, and then to subtract seven serially until they reached zero, as in: 99, 92, 85, and so on. This test measured long-term arithmetical memory as well as the ability to concentrate, and even very high doses of THC did not affect the scores.
To assess the impact of THC on short-term memory, the experimenters asked the students to repeat a series of random digits forward and backward. This test indicated that the performance of subjects declined under the influence of THC (which had been extracted from marijuana), although increasingly higher doses did not cause a progressive deterioration of memory.
Finally, the volunteers were given a more complicated test, which involved both immediate memory and a mental manipulation of remembered facts. Each volunteer was assigned a number between 106 and 114 and was asked to subtract 7, and then to add 1, 2 or 3, repeating the alternate subtractions and additions until he arrived at a predetermined number between 46 and 54. The students who had ingested THC had considerable difficulty with this test. Apparently, their problems were due not only to impaired memory but also to a lessened ability to coordinate the processes of memory and thought.
In Erich Goode's survey, one-fifth of the respondents reported that they tended to forget simple things when they were high. Goode points out that smokers may indeed discover that their recent memory is affected by marijuana, but, strictly speaking, immediate memory is not. The smoker experiences no present-tense loss: he does not forget who he is, or who his friends are, or where he is, although he may indeed forget what he was saying just a few moments earlier.
Smokers are more amused than disturbed by their lapses of memory. The problem occurs most frequently in a user's inability to remember how he began a particular sentence whose first part sometimes seems to have been spoken twenty minutes earlier. Along similar lines, some smokers find that they have little difficulty in playing chess while they are stoned, but that they are continually forgetting whose move it is. "It's a little embarrassing to be deep in a game," says one serious chess player, "and then suddenly to blurt out, 'Excuse me, but am I playing white or black?'"
One man refers to his lapses of memory while he is stoned as "black holes"; he says that they usually become filled in again within a few days. Mark, not surprisingly, has a more academic explanation:
Psychologists speak of short-term memory in terms of a theory developed by George Miller known as seven-plus-or-minus-two. Essentially, the idea is that you can keep seven discrete things in your mind. If you want to hold onto more than that, you somehow have to chunk things together in a new grouping, so that you still hold seven chunks of information. Marijuana cuts this ability roughly in half.
Think of it as a line of seven things. You put new things at the start of the line, and old things fall off the end. If you want to retain what fell off you have to pick it up and put it at the beginning again. If you keep it around long enough, you'll eventually remember it. Of course, all of this goes on at an unconscious level.
Karl and Martha have never heard of this theory, but their explanation of the effects of marijuana on their own ability to remember is strikingly similar to Mark's theoretical outline. They call it "the train thing":
When you're stoned, your mind is like a train, and it runs on tracks. New cars are always coming on one end, and old cars are falling off the other. Normally, your mind can retain all of these thought-cars, or at least some of them, and there's usually a strong connection between each car and its neighbor.
But when you're stoned, each new car that comes along knocks off one of the others. We visualize this train going down the track, and the track gets increasingly shorter as you get stoned, and you can't hold onto as many cars. Whenever this happens, and one of us forgets something, we'll say, "Oops, a car just fell off!"
Sometimes we can actually feel that car falling off. The thing is that you can feel yourself in the act of forgetting; you can physically feel that car falling off.
The idea that short-term memory is impaired by marijuana may be a negative way of looking at an essentially positive process. "I used to think it was simply a matter of marijuana impairing short-term memory," notes Andrew Weil. "But now I see that a common feature of many altered states of consciousness is increased concentration on the present. When you are high on marijuana, you pay more attention to the present and less to the immediate past, and this shift may be beneficial."
Some smokers agree, and they believe that the effects of marijuana on their memory may be precisely what makes so much that happens while smoking feel new and fresh. For these people, each episode of lovemaking, eating or even watching television stoned may contain at least a suggestion of what the experience was like the first time.
This process may take place most dramatically in terms of language. An astonishing 88 percent of Tart's sample found that, at least occasionally, "commonplace sayings or conversations seem to have new meanings, more significance" when they are stoned. Jenny provides an example:
We were on vacation at a ski lodge, and people were playing cards. I was stoned, and walked up to the table and took a seat. "Deal me in," I said without thinking. Then, when I thought about what I had said, I felt great pleasure that I was using the phrase in its original context rather than as a metaphor for something else.
The ability of some smokers to recall past events spontaneously has clear implications for psychiatry. This is also one of the causes of "bad trips," wherein a person may be flooded with the details of a feeling or event he has no wish to remember. A parallel and more pleasant experience is a trick often played by the stoned memory: the occasional tendency to "recognize" faces in a crowd that remind the smoker of people he has known. An American traveling in India describes this phenomenon:
Often I see people I know in people I don't. It's especially true traveling. Even with people of different races here in India, and wearing different clothes, it still happens at least once a day. A person at one moment in India is a person I know in Miami, and I have to stop myself from going over to say hello. I find that smoking breaks down restricted ideas of the self and others; in a crucial way, people are other people.
A similar process was noted by Walter Benjamin, the German-Jewish literary critic, in an essay written in 1932 entitled "Hashish in Marseilles":
It was above all men's faces that had begun to interest me. Now began the game, to be long maintained, of recognizing someone I knew in every face; often I knew the name, often not; the deception vanished as deceptions vanish in dreams: not in shame and compromised, but peacefully and amiably, like a being who has performed his services.
Scientists are still undecided as to exactly how marijuana affects the human memory. Does the disruption of short-term memory occur during the acquisition of information into the memory, during the storage of that information, or during the demand for its retrieval? In Aldous Huxley's famous book on mescaline, The Doors of Perception, he wonders whether the brain and nervous system might function in a way that is mostly eliminative. He suggests that at any given moment, each person is theoretically capable of remembering everything that has ever happened to him, which would mean that the function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by so much information. If Huxley's idea is correct, then marijuana may simply shut out peripheral information as it opens the windows of the mind and memory a little wider.
Few activities require as much combined use of memory and mental concentration as reading, and even those smokers who pride themselves on being able to do anything stoned will sometimes make an exception here. Reading while smoking tends to be for pleasure rather than for information, and those who are willing and able to make the effort usually find the experience to be rewarding.
"Reading while high is a great experience," writes a man from Chicago. "It can be the National Lampoon or King Lear. You can feel the way the writer wants you to feel through his words." The notion that the stoned reader can somehow "feel through" what the writer has written is not uncommon among marijuana smokers, although, as French author Henri Michaux recounts, it can sometimes work against the author as well:
Treacherous hashish, hashish as hunting dog, instructive hashish. It sees quicker than we do, pointing to what we have not yet understood. One day when I was looking at a study in a review,... by an erudite young philosopher, I heard something that sounded like the murmur of crowds, gathered to listen to these words! Well, well! The sentence, even when later I read it, cold and philosophic though it appeared, was a model of the kind of false thinking that is trying for effect, a sentence that could never come from the pen of one who had not caressed the idea of multiple approbations and... of appearing on a platform.
Thus, by virtue of a succession of short circuits, I heard the applause with which this writer had felt himself surrounded, having without the slightest doubt sought it. The rest of the article showed in several places that he was not a man to content himself solely with ideas.... Presently, though he was still soft-pedaling this ambition, it was clear that it was acclaim which would interest him in ten years, having an audience right up front and reacting immediately. Hashish opens up the inner space of sentences, and, as the concealed preoccupations come out, it pierces them at once. It is curious that this hashish, when I used it to test a few authors, never proved vain, or eccentric. Set at the quarry, it never faltered. It was diligent as a falcon. The author thus unmasked never altogether recovered his mantle or his former retreat.
A Child's Garden of Grass advises that reading is one of those activities better suited to a relatively mild intoxication. "If you get too high," the book cautions, "reading becomes impossible. You forget the beginning of the sentence by the time you get to the end. If you try to read while stoned, you'll find that you're reading the same paragraph over and over, trying to get it to make sense."
Users who have studied high report mixed results. "When I'm stoned," says a Philadelphia college student, "my thought processes are often confused and illogical, and I spin off on tangents. I never smoke when I have a test, or when I'm studying or doing school work or any serious reading." Most students who use marijuana will reduce their smoking while working on a paper or preparing for an exam.
There are, however, many exceptions. A student at Columbia College writes:
When high, I read at almost double my speed. I like to smoke, find a good book and an undisturbed corner, and emerge two or three hours later with one less book on my reading list. I can zero in on the book with more complete concentration, fairly leaping from paragraph to paragraph.
This student goes on to report that he sometimes studies when he is high, but whenever he does so, he also gets high for the exam; this, he believes, gives him special access to what he has studied.
Thinking and Insights
The effect of marijuana on thinking and mental performance is, not surprisingly, a controversial subject. Some experts and a few smokers believe that cannabis has a detrimental effect on cognitive functioning, but many users insist that the opposite is true, that being high can actually enhance the range and clarity of their thoughts. Indeed, in the Boston University study, Weil and Zinberg found that, after they had smoked, regular users actually improved their scores on two of the tests measuring cognitive skills.
Most smokers agree that stoned thinking is different from regular thinking. More than half of Tart's sample reported that, stoned, they were sometimes able to think through a problem without some of the usual intermediate steps required to solve it. One smoker has compared stoned thinking to the moves of the knight on a chess-board, as opposed to the direct moves of the rook or bishop.
In The Natural Mind, Andrew Weil points to three characteristics that mark stoned thinking: first, an acceptance of the intuitive as well as the rational intellectual functions; second, the acceptance of the ambivalent nature of things, and a tolerance for contradictions and inconsistencies. The third characteristic of stoned thinking, according to Weil, is the "experience of infinity in its positive aspects," although this last effect is more likely to occur with the psychedelic drugs than with marijuana.
Weil contrasts stoned thinking with straight thinking, which, he says, depends upon the intellect and the senses, and their perception of reality. Straight thinking relies on rules, appearances, outward forms, a tendency to see the differences between things rather than their similarities, and finally, a tendency toward negative thinking, including doubt, pessimism, and even despair. Bureaucracies are the incarnation of straight thinking taken to its logical extreme, preoccupied with rules and adhering to such concepts as "we've always done it this way," or its converse, "that simply can't be done."
For its part, stoned thinking consistently requires a sense of humor to deal with the inevitable distortions that follow in its wake. Karl and Martha speak of a process they call an alternition, which occurs, they say, when an initial fact about a person, place or event is misunderstood, resulting in various incorrect conclusions. While alternitions do not necessarily occur more often with marijuana, they are frequent enough that most smokers are familiar with them.
For example, Martha recalls when a group of friends came over to their house, and she overheard somebody calling Karl "Pumpkin," which was her nickname for him. Somehow, being stoned, the group got the idea that "Pumpkin" was the name of the cat, and they spent half an hour trying to understand why. On another occasion, Karl was at a party and was under the impression that the man on his left was a psychiatrist. Throughout the entire evening, the man remained silent, pensively pulling at his beard. Karl became increasingly anxious about what the man was thinking. His anxiety was relieved when, as the party was ending, the man suddenly turned to him—and tried to sell him insurance.
Murray and Judy experienced a different kind of alternition one evening in a Boston restaurant. They were both stoned, and as the waiter handed them the menu, Judy automatically handed him her coat, thinking for a moment that he was a butler. A few moments later, another waiter walked by and brushed against Murray, who suddenly whirled around to confront his attacker. These incidents were isolated and momentary, but they required some quick adjustment. "I felt like I was at some fancy dinner," recalls Judy, "while my husband evidently thought he was in combat."
A more common effect of marijuana on the mind is that users find ideas flowing more easily when they are stoned. David elaborates:
When I'm high, the ideas just keep on coming. Sometimes I wonder whether marijuana actually creates these ideas—or whether, perhaps, it functions more like a magnet, drawing together the various iron filings of thought from different parts of my mind (and perhaps elsewhere) and bringing them together at the same time and place. If this were true, though, it would mean that there is only a finite number of ideas within us, and with marijuana they are simply used up more quickly; I thought of this idea, in fact, when I was stoned.
Some smokers are convinced that when they are high, they have more insights, or at least more access to insights, than they normally do. Curiously, this remarkable claim is dismissed even more often than it is made. There is not only the expected skepticism on the part of the general public but doubt from unexpected sources as well, such as in A Child's Garden of Grass, which states:
There is no such thing as a profound revelation when stoned! At the time of the thought, you may think that when you reveal it the universe will shake, but if you recall it later when you're straight, you'll laugh at its insignificance.
In general, even the most sympathetic experts agree that stoned insights represent just so much wishful thinking. For Norman Zinberg, such claims are not to be taken seriously and represent an example of users investing too much in the magical and mystical properties of the drug itself. According to Zinberg, the claim for insights is also a way of justifying marijuana and moralizing on its behalf. "In many cases," he notes, "the straight culture's moral opposition to marijuana is matched by the counterculture, with its moral insistence that it is engaged in a positive activity."
In actual fact, most smokers do not claim that marijuana leads to particularly original insights. Carol holds a typical view:
I have never had an insight about a patient when I was stoned, and in fact I don't recall ever having a new insight of any kind that I wouldn't have had otherwise. My head rambles on whether or not I'm stoned, though, so it doesn't make that much of a difference.
What also seems to be typical is the experience of the false insight, the ephemeral idea that seems remarkable at first, but soon disintegrates. A high school boy writes that he once had "a profound revelation" when he was stoned: in order to get into a car on the passenger's side, you have to use your right hand to push down on the handle, and when you want to get into the driver's side, you have to use your left hand. "Really profound," he says. "I was so proud of myself—until the next morning." And, in a similar occurrence, a high school girl recalls:
One night I was stoned and munching out and I knew the reason for people getting fat. I wrote it down: "When you get fat, it's because you eat so much that the material in the food you've eaten has so much importance that the bloodstream needs so much of the materials it ends up having to store everything because there's so much that gets to be stored material that you get fatter and fatter the more you eat."
Nobody would dispute that most insights which occur on marijuana are, indeed, trivial—as trivial, certainly, as the insights people have when they are not stoned. But to claim that it's impossible to have an insight of any profundity with marijuana is summarily to ignore and dismiss the claims of many smokers. That pseudoinsights occur frequently on marijuana does not necessarily mean that real insights cannot. Jack Margolis, author of A Child's Garden of Grass, now concedes that he was wrong on this point:
What I meant to say was that those things which sound profound are usually shit. Some are good—maybe one in a hundred. But when you're straight, the odds are even lower, down to around one in a thousand.
When I wrote the book, I said that you can't have profound revelations on grass. If I write a new foreword, I would say that up to that point I myself had never had a profound revelation on marijuana. But since then, they've been coming like eggs out of a chicken.
Some marijuana insights are simply restatements, or new understandings, of previously accepted truths, as this Indiana secretary explains:
Introspection and insights are in the same category as sight, sound, and smell: you always knew something, but you never realized it. For a surface example, you always knew how old you were, or how long you've been married, but one day you stop to realize that fact, and it's astounding.
The things I've realized about myself have changed me considerably, although I don't know for sure that I wouldn't have realized them anyway. But isn't life supposed to be an endless learning experience? What marijuana does is to dismiss everyday pressures enough to let you delve into learning things—about yourself, and about the rest of the world as well.
In his book On Being Stoned, Charles Tart quotes the reply of a forty-year-old physicist to his questionnaire, who wrote as follows on the question of stoned insights:
I smoke marijuana once or twice a week for recreation, but a couple of times I've started thinking about my work when stoned and had real breakthroughs as a result. Once, when I had been in the process of setting up a new laboratory for several months, I got stoned one evening and started thinking about things at the lab and suddenly had all these ideas popping into my mind of little things I had to do if the laboratory was to function on schedule, little details about equipment that were unspectacular but essential. I listed about twenty ideas in an hour, and every one of them checked out the next day. They were all sorts of things that had been pushed to the back of my mind by more obvious problems in setting up the laboratory. Another time I got thinking about a problem area in my work, and all sorts of theoretical ideas came popping into my head. They fit together into a coherent theory which looked damned good the next morning—I have since published the theory and organized a lot of research around it, to my great advantage.
A strikingly similar statement appears in Marihuana Reconsidered. "Mr. X.," we are told, is a leading American scientist, in his early forties when this statement was written:
There is a myth about such highs: the user has an illusion of great insight, but it does not survive scrutiny in the morning. I am convinced that this is an error, and that the devastating insights achieved when high are real insights; the main problem is putting these insights in a form acceptable to the quite different self that we are when we're down the next day....
I find that most of the insights I achieve while high are into social issues, an area of creative scholarship very different from the one I am generally known for. I can remember one occasion, taking a shower with my wife while high, in which I had an idea on the origins and invalidities of racism in terms of Gaussian distribution curves. It was a point obvious in a way, but rarely talked about. I drew the curves in soap on the shower wall, and went to write the idea down. One idea led to another, and at the end of about an hour of extremely hard work I found I had written eleven short essays on a wide range of social, political, philosophical, and human biological topics. Because of problems of space, I can't go into the details of these essays, but from all external signs, such as public reactions and expert commentary, they seem to contain valid insights. I have used them in university commencement addresses, public lectures, and in my books.
Several correspondents provided examples of their own stoned insights, and while they may not be profound, neither are they entirely trivial. Stoned insights tend to fall into one of three categories: first, a deeper recognition or understanding of an already-known truth or perception; second, a new way of looking at something, or a metaphor that renders an abstract idea more complete; and finally, playful fantasies and ideas.
The first category, deeper recognition of known truths, tends to occur privately to smokers: "I ought to give Henry a call," a smoker who is high may decide for no apparent reason. Playful fantasies and ideas, the third category, tend to be idiosyncratic. "You share heaven with everybody you've ever been in a photograph with," suggests a Los Angeles smoker, who offers this stoned idea as well:
Just as our nerve endings give information to the brain, perhaps every living organism is a nerve ending that tells God—the Central Processing Unit—information about reality. Each of us knows only our own reality, just as each of our nerve endings has a true but limited picture of what is. Presumably, there are things all around us that may be as inaccessible to each of us as emotions are to the tips of our fingers.
The second category, in which the smoker conceives of a new way of looking at something, which may be a concrete representation of an abstract idea, seems to be the easiest form of insight for smokers to communicate. Here are three examples:
Thoughts on taking a shower, stoned, one evening. Shall I take a longer shower than usual tonight? No. Then yes. Then: why, even though longer showers are more enjoyable, do I not usually take them? Normally, I have a variety of ways and excuses to avoid taking a long shower: I don't have time, there's work to be done, we'll run out of hot water, or whatever. In fact, these answers come so automatically that I normally don't even ask the question.
But tonight I feel free and easy, and I take a longer shower. I start thinking about how sometimes you have to look for the barrier on the road (in this case, the short shower rule), take it off the road (examine it closely), drive your car through that spot (violate the rule), and then put the barrier back on the road for the next person (actually, for yourself, the next time you travel this path).
An image of psychotherapy: like Alice, we all fall down the rabbit hole occasionally. A person in trouble is one who has fallen in, and is stuck on a ledge. The task of the therapist is to direct the person to let go of the ledge, even though this means a further fall. But only on the ground, at the real bottom of the hole, can the fallen person find the steps which lead back up.
"Trust me," says the therapist. "You're not the first person to fall down the hole. I know how it works. There is a way to complete the fall without getting hurt, and there's also a way up when you can get to the bottom." In an emergency, the therapist or a friend can sometimes throw down a rope, but this is unreliable, and it doesn't help the person learn what to do the next time he falls.
Perhaps there is a kind of circulating dream library, like a central service film distribution company, from which the unconscious borrows dreams. The particular faces might be interchangeable for each person, but there is still a finite number of dreams. Some of them are classics, like the dream you have when you're a kid about the creature in the wall, or the one in which you're traveling somewhere and never reach your destination. And some get retired after a while, to be shown only in dream festivals and in late-night dream television.
Does marijuana enhance creativity? The debate on this point is strikingly similar to the one on the question of marijuana-related insights The American Medical Association, for example, maintains that "while some persons assert that marijuana improves artistic and other creative endeavors, there is no evidence that this is so." Sidney Cohen, a respected drug researcher at UCLA, is equally skeptical. Marijuana, he writes, doesn't make you more creative. It only makes you feel that way. "Actually," he argues, "your drive to create may be considerably reduced, and drive is as important as any other factor in the creative process."
Part of what Cohen says is undoubtedly true: marijuana does make some people feel more creative, even when in actual fact they aren't. It has also been known to reduce the drive of users, although it often does just the reverse. But drive is not the issue here, nor do smokers claim that marijuana is a magic substance that produces instant creativity. The question is whether marijuana can facilitate creativity, and the answer is a qualified yes—sometimes, and for some people. A Manhattan painter elaborates:
I find it odd that if a writer or an artist points to a good marriage, a sunny day, an active imagination, disciplined work habits, or even the moderate use of alcohol as facilitators of creativity, the public will nod understandingly. But let that same individual make a similar claim for pot, and he is usually thought to be deceiving himself. It is apparently attractive and perhaps even necessary for many observers to believe that marijuana has no effect whatever on creative endeavors, despite the testimony of those artists and writers who say that it does.
Marijuana's effect on the creative process takes place mostly in the mind, where art begins. Over and over, smokers assert that it is the idea for art, the plan rather than the execution, that is most influenced by marijuana. The drug does not provide creativity, but it does appear to help some creative people in thinking and imagining, and above all in their ability to see. Several artists said that they like to look at art—both their own and that of other artists—while stoned, because in that state they felt they could see it better and understand it more clearly.
Harriet is a painter in New York who uses marijuana extensively, but only in the preliminary stages of her work, as an aid to seeing and thinking:
I've got a heavy sense of scruples about marijuana when it comes to the production of art. But art appreciation is another matter. The weed is definitely an enhancer there, and spurs ideas like crazy. What I will allow myself to do—and succeed quite well in doing—is to paint mentally while I'm stoned. An image comes into my head, and I refine it, rearrange it any number of times, and then let it float.
The final state of the image often comes back to me, in a flash, later, when I'm straight. I can then use the mental painting as a series of shortcut steps. I have recently used this method of conceiving an idea when, straight, I simply don't have time for the first numbers of sketches and painting on paper in a series. Marijuana enables me to begin my work at a more advanced point in the process.
Harriet's friend Elaine, a potter, has had similar experiences and contends that "there's a lot of connection between my pottery and my pot." She prefers to do only hand-formed pottery while stoned, rather than the more physically demanding work at the wheel. Like Harriet, Elaine finds marijuana most useful at the early stages, when she is thinking about and planning what she will do. Other artists report similar experiences, and several add that marijuana gives them the confidence to try new things, whether it be new art forms or, more modestly, new combinations of color and design.
Writers appear to use marijuana more than visual artists. In view of the difficulties that most people have in reading while they are stoned, it may seem surprising that writing under the influence of marijuana is so common. It is difficult to know how many well-known writers have used marijuana while working, for what is considered appropriate and allowable for the jazz or rock musician is regarded somewhat differently by the public when it comes to the work of journalists, novelists, critics, and even poets. There are, of course, a few prominent exceptions, like William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Norman Mailer, but they occupy a special niche in American letters. Burroughs wrote parts of Naked Lunch while he was high, explaining in a magazine article that "cannabis serves as a guide to psychic areas which can then be re-entered without it." He added that he had discontinued using marijuana in this way in favor of achieving similar results by nonchemical means.
"I write all my stories while stoned," says a younger writer of fiction who has just sold her first two efforts. "Coupled with good music, marijuana relaxes the control I try to harness to the creative flow and lets the idea develop itself, producing a more natural story." The key here is the link between the twin needs of control and creative flow, and writing under the influence of marijuana requires that special attention be given to the balance between these frequently competing forces. The most common solution is for a writer to work on a first draft while stoned and then to go over it later, eliminating excesses and unsuccessful experiments. Like many artists, some writers find it more useful to do their thinking high, preferring not to be stoned during the actual production stages. As one essayist put it:
I just can't write well on grass. My grammar and syntax get screwed up, and I get caught in the details. I do some of my thinking stoned, and I will write outlines after smoking, but I'll try to structure them in such a way that I can fill in the details later on.
The most common pattern, then, is that the creative part of writing is done stoned, and the more linear work is done straight. For one book reviewer, the creative work comes in the editing stages, which means that his preferred way of writing is an inversion of the norm:
I have tried to write stoned, but it doesn't work. My mind has no control over the flow, so everything whizzes out too fast and generally makes little sense afterward. Now I write straight, and then I edit my work when I'm high. That way, my concentration is on what I'm doing, yet my mind is still relaxed enough to be really abstract. I can change things that didn't work, and come up with fresher images and ideas.
A retired professor of psychology takes this process one step further, using marijuana to solve specific writing problems as they arise. When he comes to a passage that doesn't flow as smoothly as he thinks it ought to, he'll stop, light a joint, put on the headphones with classical music (he says it blocks out the noise of the typewriter), and this, he claims, will usually get him past the difficult spot. "Part of me is absorbed in the music and the high," he explains, "while the other part is writing, uplifted by the first part."
Both the professor and the book reviewer use marijuana in essentially the same way, and both feel that creative work is sometimes helped by the merging of two different states of consciousness. A few writers, like this Boston poet, use marijuana for the execution of their writing:
I often write while I'm stoned. I did most of my dissertation that way, and quite a number of published poems and articles. This does not mean that I turned in exactly what I wrote under the influence. I always revise a lot—including some revisions while I am stoned—and always double-check and adjust things when I'm not. Still, I generally allow a few doper's ramblings to get by. It's a juggling act.
Karen is a Radcliffe student who won a poetry contest on the basis of a poem she wrote the first time she was stoned. Her concern here is less with the process of the creation than with the attitudes she has noticed on the part of those who would discredit her experience:
I keep reading these articles about people who think they're getting all these profound revelations when they're stoned, and going and painting or something, and then you find out that they've painted the hangnail on their big toe and weren't very creative or anything, really. And this is supposed to prove that people aren't creative on grass; they just think they are. Well, I've met plenty of these idiots, but they don't know anything about poetry or art when they're down, either. Grass doesn't give you anything you don't have potentially—it just brings out what's there.
1. Mezzrow: in The Drug Experience, p. 89. (back)
2. See Alan Watts, The Joyous Cosmology, p. 27. See also Charles Richet, "Poisons of the Intelligence: Hasheesh," Popular Science Monthly, 1878, pp. 482-86. (back)
3. Tart: On Being Stoned, 153. (back)
4. Melges experiments: Frederick Melges et al., "Marihuana and Temporal Disintegration," Science 168 (29 May 1970): 1118-20; Melges et al., "Temporal Disintegration and Depersonalization During Marihuana Intoxication," Archives of General Psychiatry 23 (1970): 204-lo. See also Solomon H. Snyder, Uses of Marijuana, pp. 66-67 (back)
5. Goode: Marijuana Smokers, pp. 159-60. (back)
6. Tart: On Being Stoned, p. 171. (back)
7. These are discussed more fully in the following chapter. (back)
8. Walter Benjamin: Reflections (New York, 1978), p. 140. (back)
9. Henri Michaux: Light Through Darkness, p. 124-27. Reprinted in George Andrews and Simon Vinkenoog, The Book of Grass, p. 107. (back)
10. A Child's Garden of Grass: p. 123. (back)
11. Tart: On Being Stoned, p. 168. (back)
12. Chess analogy: The Cannabis Experience, p. 66. (back)
13. Weil: The Natural Mind, chapter 7. (back)
14. Weil: The Natural Mind, chapter 6. (back)
15. A Child's Garden of Grass: p. 27. (back)
16. On Being Stoned: p. 172. (back)
17. Marihuana Reconsidered: pp. 113-14. (back)
18. American Medical Association: Marihuana Reconsidered, p. 157 (back)
19. Sidney Cohen: The Drug Dilemma (New York, 1969), p. 60. (back)
20. William Burroughs: "Points of Distinction Between Sedative and Consciousness-Expanding Drugs," Evergreen Review, December 1964. Reprinted in part in The Book of Grass, pp. 207-8. Quoted in Marihuana Reconsidered, p. 156. (back)
21. Radcliffe student: quoted in Bennett. (back)