The psychedelic movement is on an upswing. While most classic psychedelics are still controlled substances, psychedelic assisted therapies for difficult to treat conditions like depression and PTSD are on the rise. Research is still in its infancy, but some studies have found benefits from using substances like MDMA and psilocybin in a therapeutic context. As public opinion continues to shift in a more psychedelic-friendly direction, one big question keeps coming up – is cannabis a psychedelic? And if it is, could it play a similar role in psychedelic assisted therapies as substances like MDMA and psilocybin?
A recent review of the scientific literature looked into this question and found evidence that cannabis may have psychedelic effects – particularly with high doses of THC. But unlike classic psychedelics, cannabis doesn’t always elicit these effects.
The question is important, partly because cannabis has become more legally accessible in many states, when compared to classic psychedelics. As new research points towards therapeutic benefits from intense psychedelic experience, some are wondering whether cannabis could be used to evoke the same kind of experiences. Could cannabis provide a more legally accessible route for those unable to utilize classic psychedelics?
Psychedelics have been described in a number of ways. The seminal publication Psychedelic Drugs Reconsidered defined them as a drug which “more or less reliably produces thought, mood, and perceptual changes otherwise rarely experienced except in dreams, contemplative and religious exaltation, flashes of vivid involuntary memory, and acute psychosis.” Others point to psychedelics’ chemical properties – namely their ability to strongly activate 5-HT2A receptors as key.
Cannabis has always been controversial in terms of how it fits into this category. Some, like philosopher and psychedelic icon Alan Watts, include cannabis in their lists of psychedelics. Others consider it in a category of it’s own – often used alongside psychedelics but not quite the same thing.
While cannabis is well known to cause changes in thought and mood, it doesn’t always lead to the kind of hallucinogenic changes that are ubiquitous for classic psychedelics like LSD or psilocybin mushrooms. Still some report experiences that sound very similar to psychedelic trips.
Others have argued that cannabis shouldn’t be classed with psychedelics because it is used so differently, therapeutically. Cannabis is usually used to manage symptoms on a daily basis, while psychedelics are used occasionally to induce a drastic perspective shift.
At a chemical level, cannabis is known best for stimulating the endocannabinoid receptors, not 5-HT2A receptors. But research has also found that some cannabinoids can up-regulate 5-HT2A receptors – suggesting that they may also be capable of similar effects.
To get to the bottom of this mystery, researchers on this new scientific review looked at past literature on the topic to see what evidence they could find for cannabis’ psychedelic properties.
Their research uncovered a variety of studies describing cannabis-induced perceptual changes and visual hallucinations. One centered on 200 adults in India who experienced confusion and visual hallucinations following cannabis use. Another followed eight Israeli men who reported experiencing visual disturbances after the use of highly concentrated cannabis. These disturbances persisted as “flashbacks” up to 6 months after use and were perceived as benign occurrences by the participants.
In another study, a participant became sedated and disorientated after vaporizing cannabis containing 25mg of THC. The participant reported being in a dissociative state, auditory and visual hallucinations, nausea, dizziness, and tingling sensations down the arms and legs. Using the Hallucinogen Rating Scale, researchers determined that this experience was similar to that of classic psychedelics but differed in a few key areas such as Affect and Cognition, which were less intensely affected.
A survey of American undergraduates found that 88% of those who had used cannabis experienced at least one “minor” perceptual effect (either identifying colors as more intense or noticing that objects appeared sharper). 50% reported at least one “major” perceptual effect (seeing colors or designs with eyes opened or noticing objects that appeared to have a distorted shape).
Beyond changes to visual perceptions, some research pointed to cannabis’ ability to elicit other aspects of psychedelic medicine – such as challenging but meaningful experiences, and religious or spiritual experiences. In these studies cannabis use led to participants reporting that they had religious realizations, better understanding of the mysteries of the universe, ego dissolution, or feelings of closeness to God, nature or mankind.
The authors suggest that cannabis’ inconsistent psychedelic effects may be due to the way that THC and CBD influence those 5-HT2A receptors. While THC has been shown to indirectly activate them at high enough doses – CBD seems to have the opposite effect. Since cannabis (and products derived from it) combine the two in varying concentrations, it’s possible that this may account for its varying effects.
The authors also shared that it is likely that the doses of cannabis needed to “reliably evoke a mystical experience may be much higher than those commonly used in casual settings.” They recommend further research to determine an effective dose for this since it can’t be determined from the current research.
The authors’ conclude that “a body of evidence exists supporting the notion that THC-dominant cannabis use may be able to yield effects and experiences more commonly associated with psychedelics.” Still, we cannot firmly conclude this because of the limitations involved in the current body of studies. They recommend randomized controlled trials in psychedelic-supportive settings to explore this possibility more fully. While cannabis has primarily been studied for medical benefits at regular low doses – this research would look at the benefits of occasional, high dose, psychedelic experiences with cannabis. Could this produce benefits like those reported from classic psychedelic experiences? It’s too soon to say. Only more research can give us these answers.