Using Cannabis Philosophically

As a result of the 2020 elections, many states voted to legalize cannabis.  They either voted in medical cannabis or full adult-use cannabis.  It is arguable that this pattern of increasing legalization will continue, and that, perhaps after a few more election cycles, cannabis prohibition in the United States will be lifted.  But given that it has been lifted in many places in America, it’s a good idea for spiritual naturalists to think about how cannabis might be used in the context of spiritual naturalism.

One of the first points about cannabis is that it is often used poorly – it is used in ways that are thoughtless and immoral, even if they are legal.  The stereotypical cannabis user is the pothead, the lazy stoner, who smokes everyday and whose goal is to get as high as possible.  There’s no way to morally defend that kind of cannabis use. Even if it’s legal, that’s drug abuse.  It’s pointless and thoughtless.  Fortunately, there are wise and good ways to use cannabis.  But those ways refute the stoner lifestyle.  You can use cannabis without smoking it.  And you can use it without getting high.

How can we use cannabis well?  As a philosopher, I think that using cannabis well means using cannabis wisely.  And it will come as no surprise that I believe this means using cannabis as part of a philosophical way of life. A philosophical way of life provides an ethical framework for regulating the use of cannabis.   It determines whether or not you should use cannabis.  It defines the purposes for which you should use it.  It specifies how much you should use and how often.  It alerts you to the dangers of excessive use and it tells you that some ways of using cannabis are wrong.  It helps you fit cannabis into a pattern of life that aims at goodness.

Three philosophical ways of life are familiar in the United States today.  The first is Buddhism.  As a philosophical way of life (rather than a religious way of life), this is secular Buddhism.  Secular Buddhism gives you general guidance for how to live, that is, how to address the problems you encounter in life, and how to live your life with meaning and purpose.  Although some people have written about using cannabis in a Buddhist context, Buddhists generally regard cannabis as a prohibited intoxicant.  The second philosophical way of life is modern Stoicism.  The modern Stoics are also highly secularized.  Modern Stoicism also gives you general guidance for how to live.  The Stoics might not rule out cannabis, but they have little use for it.  The third philosophical way of life is associated with yoga.  There are secularized forms of yoga that are practiced in the United States.  And one type of yoga, sometimes called ganja yoga, integrates cannabis into yogic practice.  But I will turn to a fourth and less familiar way of life: Platonism.  Here I am interested in secularized Platonism.   Although it is inspired by ancient Platonism, it is modernized and naturalized.

The ancient Platonists were concerned with health.  They were also concerned with health as a part of ethical self-transformation.  And the ancient Platonists went a long way towards developing the experimental method. Plotinus described the application of the experimental method to the self.  You run experiments on your own self to improve yourself.  This will evolve into self-hacking.  The hacker methodology is a test-and-iterate methodology.  It has these steps: (1) You research your own self. You figure out what needs to be improved. (2) You research the techniques for improving those aspects of yourself.  (3) You do self-experimentation: you practice some technique of self-improvement.  (4) As you practice that technique, you keep records.  You act like a scientist running a clinical trial on yourself.  (5) After some time, you examine your results: has the technique helped?  If so, then you continue with it.  If not, then you go back to step two.  This is test and iterate.  Self-hacking is self-experimentation.

Platonists use cannabis for the sake of health. Three popular medical uses of cannabis are to treat pain, anxiety, and depression. These uses all require educating yourself about those conditions.   And you need to learn about how cannabis can be used to treat some condition.  This means learning about the various molecules in cannabis.  Cannabis is a plant, not a medicinal substance. It contains dozens of powerfully bioactive molecules.  The most well-known are THC and CBD.  But there are many other cannabinoids and terpenes.  So you need to learn about the molecules you want to take, and in what dosage.   For cannabis, dosage is key.

Molecules like THC are biphasic – they have different effects at low doses than they do at high doses.  There is evidence that THC is a depressant at high doses. But it acts as an anti-depressant at low doses.  Here low dosing means microdosing: taking less than 5 milligrams (mg) of THC; or even less than 3 mg.  At 5 mg, many people will feel some intoxication; at 3 mg, most people won’t feel intoxicated.  But there are other effects, like improved mood and reduced pain. And THC has synergistic effects with other molecules, especially CBD.  Likewise it has synergistic effects with terpenes like alpha-pinene and D-limonene.  Different terpene ratios often contribute to the distinctiveness of different strains of the cannabis plant.  But today you can buy these terpenes directly.  You can buy CBD oils which contain various ratios of terpenes.

So self-experimentation means finding the right ratio of THC to CBD.  It means figuring out how much of each you should take to get the results you want.  It means doing research on the effects of other cannabinoids and terpenes.  Of course, this also means that you need to figure out the method for taking these molecules.  You’re not going to be able to control dosage if you smoke flower, and you probably won’t be able to control your dosage by vaping.  Controlled dosage means using tinctures or oils which tells you exactly how much of each molecule you get in every drop. Any philosophical use of cannabis (or anything else) means knowing exactly what you’re doing.  It doesn’t mean wild and undisciplined use – that’s not use, it’s abuse.

The Platonists were heavily influenced by mathematics.  Of course, numbers play crucial roles in dosing: you’re counting or measuring milligrams. But numbers also play essential roles in tracking your success.  If you want to know whether cannabis is helping you to reach some goal, you have to have something to measure.  This is part of the quantified self movement: self-knowledge through numbers. If you’re using cannabis to treat pain, how can you measure your success (or failure)?  If you’re dealing with joint pain, you might use an app to measure how many steps you can walk each day.  Or at the very least, you’ll keep a pain diary in which you record your pain levels.  There are many smartphone apps for symptom tracking and journaling.

It’s popular to divide the uses of cannabis into the medical and the recreational.  So any non-medical use is recreational use.  From a philosophical perspective, this division makes little sense.  The term “recreational” is like “miscellaneous”.  It’s meaningless.  And many recreational uses are in fact medical.  If you’re using cannabis to relax, then you’re using it thereapeutically.  Your using it to improve your mental health – that’s a medical use.  If you’re using it to reduce social anxiety, that’s medical.  But if you just find that taking some cannabis helps you to enjoy socializing more, that’s probably not medical.  But it’s also not recreational.  It’s more precise to say its social or pro-social.   Your using it to enhance your social experience. But enhancement (like therapy) is open to experimental fine-tuning.  You can apply the self-hacking method to figure out exactly how cannabis helps (or hinders) your social experiences.

There are many non-medical uses of cannabis. Traditionally, these have included artistic uses, ascetic uses, and religious uses.   Platonists value beauty: we value both the creation of art and its appreciation.  Cannabis has a long history of use for enhancing both artistic creativity and art appreciation.  Here again the hacker methodology applies.  You can use it to figure out the best way to take cannabis to enhance your artistic creativity or art appreciation.  The key point is that you’re using cannabis for a greater purpose, and the purpose constrains and ethically regulates your use. So you need to at least keep a journal which tracks how cannabis affects your creativity: Do low doses help? Do high doses hinder creativity? And what about other molecules? Terpenes like alpha-pinene and D-limonene have powerful psychoactivity that may enhance creativity.  There the Platonist recommends self-experimentation and good record keeping.

Thought of naturalistically, spirituality is ethical self-transformation.  It consists of practices which aim to make you a morally better person, to increase your virtues and decrease your vices.  Cannabis can be used spiritually in this naturalistic sense. But this means you use it in ways that are regulated by some greater moral purpose or goal.  To realize your goal, you have to use the right amounts in the right way.  And to realize your goal, you need to keep careful records.  For the Platonist, the proper use of cannabis includes scientific self-knowledge and scientific self-experimentation.


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