One of the biggest challenges to marijuana’s legitimacy is its longstanding characterization as unproductive. Marijuana’s federal legal status stems in large part from the popularity of its recreational use by racial minorities in the early twentieth century. Without delving into the other political nuances of that generalization, suffice it to note that marijuana is associated with leisure time and not industry. Consider also that the overuse of marijuana, and certain strains more than others, can induce lethargy, poor motor coordination, impaired decision making—in short, can take us out of the physiological state in which we’re more adept at getting practical tasks done. Finally, prohibition itself effectively casts marijuana as unproductive in an economic light, since the underground herb trade sucked money out of legal areas of the almighty market.
Luckily, the recent boom in the marijuana industry has done much to erode that economic stigma. But as support for marijuana gains traction through legalizing cannabis at the state level and increased popularity of taking cbd oil, US culture is experiencing a radical decline in its support for, and appreciation of, the arts; programs in schools and communities across the nation are underfunded and losing money every day. Everywhere, there is an emphasis on practical training and pursuits, particularly the STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. (Of course, there’s also a heavy emphasis on football, an activity that is itself relatively unproductive—but then again, the sporting industry is an economic powerhouse, so I digress.)
But what if the expanding marijuana industry was able to revitalize the appreciation of art and creativity, beyond their commercial potential? If this sounds like a utopian ideal out of Moore or Huxley, you’re probably right. Nonetheless, the counterculture’s love of creative innovation and love of marijuana raises an interesting question: what if marijuana is a catalyst for deeper understanding and appreciation of the non-practical things in life?
Oscar Wilde (himself an occasional marijuana user) once wrote that there is no point in creating something completely useless (like a piece of poetry) unless one is going to admire it utterly. Can the “uselessness” of the marijuana high be a key to understanding the usefulness of “useless” (read: nonutilitarian) works of art? And, by the same turn, can this relationship validate both on an entirely different standard of “use”?
This is Your Brain on Marijuana
While marijuana works by influencing many different points in the body’s endocannabinoid system, the mental high comes from THC’s action on the brain—the seat of our thoughts and personalities and the most complex region of the nervous system. The nervous system functions through the actions and interactions of individual cells called neurons. Neurons communicate with one another by passing chemicals across the gaps between them, which are called synapses. When a neuron’s receptor sites are densely saturated by these chemicals, the cell activates and sends an electrical pulse down its length; the various branches of the neuron, called dendrites, release their own neurochemicals, which cross synapses and bind to receptor sites on neighboring neurons.
Thoughts, actions, and memories all involve the activation of innumerable neurons. Take, for example, the concept of a puppy: that one word evokes thoughts and sensations like a wet nose, fluffy coat, a friendly disposition—all the notions that we have associated, in our minds, with the concept of a puppy. All of these notions are produced by the lightning-fast activation of interconnected neurons in the brain. Every single human thought and action is the result of these vast, interlocking, overlapping networks of electrochemical reactions.
The neurons in the brain are organized into larger, physically well-defined structures; the seat of cognition is the cortex, the large outer covering of the brain, which is subdivided into lobes. Electroencephalographic imaging of the brain shows that marijuana acts on the brain’s occipital lobe, which is involved in processing visual stimuli; the temporal lobe, which processes auditory stimuli; and the parietal lobe, which integrates the various modalities of sensory perception. In short, marijuana acts on larger neurological structures that are active during the artistic experience.
Back on the neuronal level, there is evidence (physical and, of course, anecdotal) that marijuana facilitates more wide-reaching stimulation of these neural networks. In a game of connect the dots, a coherent image only emerges once we make explicit the relationships between each point on the page, emphasizing some connections (by drawing a line) and ignoring others (by not drawing that line). Marijuana helps us to draw the lines and get perspective on larger patterns, discerning a gestalt that is not apparent without a very broad scope; it widens our scope and lets us see larger patterns that exist beyond the details.
Cannabis and Creativity
Alan Ginsberg admitted to using drugs, including marijuana, in attempts to recapture a sensation of artistic inspiration and ecstasy. Carl Sagan praised marijuana for its ability to enhance his personal comprehension and understanding of creative forms ranging from the musical to the culinary. Journalist and novelist Hunter Thompson considered marijuana a staple of life and an important part of his professional toolbox. (There were, of course, many other things in that toolbox as well.) The critical theorist Walter Benjamin began, but did not finish before his untimely suicide, a book called On Hashish that outlined the intellectual uses for concentrated marijuana extract and other mind-altering substances.
The list of artists and thinkers who have advocated the cognitive benefits of marijuana goes on and on.
But the creative benefits of marijuana are not limited to the luminaries of art, philosophy, science, and other intellectual pursuits. As noted by the Victorian literary critic and poet Matthew Arnold (you probably know him best for his Dover Beach), the interpretation of a piece of art is just as much a creative act as the making of said work of art. Grasping the complexity and depth of works like Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow or Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” requires an ability to recognize the same far-reaching patterns that artists and thinkers have embodied and presented to us through their respective media.
Marijuana, the hypothesis goes, helps us become more sensitive to patterns that we might otherwise miss by allowing our brains to make cognitive leaps and associations beyond the normal expanse of our neural networks. It may be the sudden recognition of something that we’ve always seen but never realized; it may be the realization of something that we’ve always intuited but never seen explicated before; but it always involves a sudden flash of insight, that light-bulb moment of epiphany. It expands the mind in the sense that it expands the scope of the mind and what it’s able to perceive.
These benefits are not limited to the realm of art. Creativity is a necessity in all tasks—the entrepreneur is defined as anyone who innovates, and innovation relies on the ability to see the patterns and potentials that others cannot. Progress occurs when we act on those realizations, for the betterment of ourselves and the world around us.
It is not hard to argue that, at this moment, public policy and even public opinion have lost sight of the potentials of art and marijuana in everyday life. And so we return to our point of departure: is there a different scale of legitimacy on which we can measure art and marijuana, aside from building boats or bridges or corporations? Can marijuana boot strap us into a new understanding of these things? Could the emerging marijuana market possibly be the thing that saves our foundering humanistic and cultural educational systems by helping more of the population to comprehend their value?
The idealist’s answer is, of course, a resounding “yes,” and that opinion is finally finding a foundation in empirical observation.
But, for practical purposes—we’ll just have to wait and see.