Transcribed from a 1991 interview Trialogue with Ralph Abraham, Rupert Sheldrake.
I noticed there was no online record of this excellent discussion. Please forgive me for only transcribing Terence’s stuff, it was a long chat:
Well our subject this afternoon is cannabis, a subject that is of interest to large numbers of people, though it’s rarely discussed, and infact seems to have attained the status of somewhat of a taboo in polite society. My interest in it is intense and lifelong I must say. I remember when I first encountered it, within a few minutes of my first exposure to it I realised that I was going to be able to self medicate myself to normalcy, I was as a adolescent what’s called a nervous child, I had a personal style that was very hard driving and I’m told fairly embracive and it really came with a force of a revelation that a mere smoking of a small amount of vegetable material could completely invert the structures of my personality and socialize me as it were into a reasonably functioning member of the community in which I found myself.
I first encountered cannabis in Berkeley in the easter vacation of 1965 and it took a couple or three exposures to it before I really sorted out what it was doing for me and I brought to it all the programming that my middle class straight parents had given me concerning the subject that this was the weed of death, the road to hell was paved with this particular substance, but I also had been exposed to some of the literature of the beat generation, the writings of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and some of those people, and within just a few months I had integrated into my lifestyle as really the central practice of my life and it has remained so up until just two or three months ago when under the pressure of my apparently dissolving marriage I stopped smoking in order to see really what sort of effect it would have.
I was in the absurd position of being in psychotherapy with a woman who I respected very much and was seen to be a very skilled psychotherapist except that she had no sophistication whatsoever about cannabis and the therapeutic process kept looping back to the issue of my cannabis ingestion. She would ask me ‘how many times a day do you do this?’ , I would say ‘ten to fourteen’ and she would say, ‘and how many years have you been doing this?’ – ‘well, twenty five, twenty six twenty seven’ and finally I saw that it was impeding the therapeutic process, not in its physical effects, but in her attitude toward me so I determined simply to stop in order to remove this issue from the menu of issues that we were dealing with in this therapeutic process and am happy to report though I was the most heaviest and continuous cannabis user I have ever known or heard of it was no big deal I simply stopped smoking it and took up reading in the evenings and it seemed to have no impact on my psychological organisation at all except that I must say that my dream life became considerably more interesting in the wake of that decision and over the years in my traveling when there have been just a few days, my access to cannabis was interrupted I noticed the same phenomenon that in the absence of cannabis the dream life seems to become much richer.
This causes me to form a theory that, just for my own edification, cannabis must in some sense thin the boundary between the conscious and the unconscious mind and I sort of imagine the unconscious as a system under hydraulic pressure, and if you smoke cannabis the energy which would normally be channeled into dreams is instead manifest in the reveries of the cannabis intoxication.
The reason that I have smoked it so assiduously over the years is very simply that it seems to dissolve a local and personalistic perspective, if I don’t smoke cannabis I worry about balancing my check book, the state of my immediate short term career concerns in other words all the anxieties of the petit bourgeois pour in to claim my attention. If on the other hand I avail myself of cannabis I’m able to rove and scan through a vast intellectual world that is composed of all the books I’ve ever read, all the people I’ve ever known, all the places I’ve ever been in no particular order – and what I really value about cannabis is the way that it allows one to be taken by surprise by unexpected ideas.
In the absence of cannabis my creativity is a kind of brick by brick linear extrapolation of certain concerns based on what I’ve just read or heard in conversation if on the other hand I smoke cannabis I can go in one moment from thinking about gertis colour theory to in the next moment puzzling over a particular instance in my own historiography, or well, the examples are endless and I think that my experience is generalisable, specifically by looking at for instance at the art and art historical motifs of areas of the world where cannabis has been institutionalized for thousands of years what we call oriental extravagance is in fact the patina of design motifs and literary conventions that have been laid over ordinary experience in places like Bengal, the Punjab and across the middle east. Islam is a civilization to my mind largely though perhaps unconsciously under the influence of the visions and the attitudes imparted by hashish.
When I attempt to analyze in the broadest sense the influence that cannabis has on myself and on large groups of people who use it, it is that it seems to exert a kind of feminizing influence. It’s a boundary dissolving drug but a very gentle boundary dissolving drug, it doesn’t dissolve boundaries in a spectacular way that the mega hallucinogens do. Of all the drugs that have been used by mankind over the centuries I would venture to argue that cannabis is the most benign, certainly more money has been spent trying to find something wrong with cannabis than has ever been spent on any other drug and the findings are woeful, well, there’s just no support for the idea that cannabis is anything other than as benign as a drug can be when you consider that it has to be smoked so there is the issue of the generation of tars. Now it is true that in India, charas, which is what is smoked as the equivalent of hashish is a much more complex material. Charas often contains opium, nearly always contains parts of the detora plant which contain tropane, alkaloids and usually is held together by resin binders from various varieties of pine trees. Nevertheless, apparently the smoking of charas in India is also an extremely non destructive habit.
Alcohol on the other hand is demonstrably one of the most destructive of all social habits. I mean, I think what a bright world it would be if every alcoholic were a pot head. What a bright world it would be if every user and abuser of speed and caffeine were a pot head. It seems to be a plant which has evolved in a very intimate association with human beings from a very early time and hence whatever deleterious effects it has we have managed to accommodate ourselves to them very well.
One of the most interesting things about cannabis is the cultural phenomenon. First of all notice how cannabis is the resin product of the hemp plant. The hemp plant is, since the neolithic foreword, the preferred source of fibre and cordage and I think its interesting to note how the language of story and the technical language of weaving are very very similar, in other words we untangle a narrative, we weave a story. Lies are made of whole cloth. All of these words which describe the use of fibrous materials are also the words that we use for story telling and narrative, and we think it’s because probably these two concerns, weaving and story telling and linguistic facility go back and find themselves in congruence in the hemp plant.
The other thing that’s interesting is in cultivation of hemp for resin purposes, for drug production purposes all the emphasis falls upon the female plant. The male plant does not produce a useable drug material and infact female plants if in the presence of male plants become contaminated with male pollen and then produce an inferior drug product. So hemp literally demands the honouring of the female. Now I’m not suggesting this was consciously in the minds of primitive people because the female hemp plant does not particularly appear female in any way that can be associated to human femaleness but it is nevertheless true that hemp plants come in two very distinct forms and we now know that one of these forms is the expression of the male plant. The other is the expression of the female plant, so waves of gylanic resurgence that have been coming and going since the neolithic seem to me in many cases to carry along as one of the appurtenances of the gylanic sensibility, devotion to this particular drug and this particular plant above all others.
….One thing I might say, we in the 20th century tend to smoke our cannabis aside from the occasional holiday cannabis cookie, cannabis for us is something that is smoked. On the other hand for the 19th century and for all of European civilization cannabis was something that was eaten in the form of various sugared confections that were prepared and this method of ingestion changes cannabis into an extremely powerful psychedelic experience. If you read the accounts of people like Theodore Gautier, Bob Lair? and Fitz Hugh Ludlow written in the mid 19th century they are describing experiences that are obviously, or are for them as powerful as a 500 micro gram dose of LSD proved in our own life times, and we forget this, we tend to think of it as a social drug and a kind of a minor drug on a par with smoking a cigarette or having a cognac or something like that. Well infact for the serious eater of hashish it is the portal into a true artificial paradise whose length and breadth is equal to that of any of the artificial paradises that we’ve discovered in modern psychedelic pharmacology.
To my mind all of – by oriental I mean Indian and middle eastern civilization is steeped in the ambience of hashish. I mean, the mosque of Omar for example is a beautiful example of the aesthetic of hashish at work or jama masjid mosque in new delhi, or the interiors of the mosques of Isfahan. This ideal of sensual beauty, of the richness of abstract design and vaulting spaces and vast concourses of polished marble and travertine. These seem to be the motifs of hashish in the same way that the gothic vision of black ocean waters sucking at haunted islands is a part of the repertoire of the opium vision that so entranced the romantic poets. Hashish cannabis has an ambiance of its own morphogenetic field. If you enter into that morphogenetic field you enter into an androgynous, softened, abstract, colourful and extraordinarily beautiful world, and in our own time it seems to be the intense hatred of hashish and the efforts to eradicate it that reach hysterical proportions in our own country have nothing do with pharmacological impact of the drug or any deleterious effects that it might be perceived to have.. it is sensed as the carrier of a different set of cultural values which I would broadly describe as gayan or gaylanic or feminizing or androgynous and that this is what really brings the program of the dominaters of society upon it. It is profoundly disloyal to the value of modern industrialism where for instance a drug like caffeine, exemplified in coffee and tea has been made very welcome in those same societies. No other drug other than caffeine has ever been written into the industrial contracts of workers as an inalienable right! And yet in the coffee break we encounter contractionally defined rights to drug use that seem to work in favour of manager and worker.
Cannabis is very different. It promotes a dreaminess, an imbibing of the imagination that is the stuff of romantic poetry rather than the stuff of the modern assembly line and I’ve used in that way as a tool for creativity. It’s incredible how just a few puffs of cannabis can carry you over a creative problem or a block in seeing a particular problem so that suddenly the perspective shifts and what was previously occluded becomes patently obvious, so I’m thinking there’s a great argument for – above and beyond the well known and familiar arguments – for legalizing this drug. It would provide revenue for the governments, it would decriminalize a class of people who if it weren’t for their devotion to cannabis products would be seen to be one of the most law abiding of all classes within society. These arguments are familiar and have been made very eloquently by other people but behind that there’s a deeper issue which is the zeitgeist if you will of cannabis which carries a certain implied danger to establishment values which puts such a premium on clear eyed hard work and presbyterian rectitude.
[on the subject of cannabis making you lazy] ….Actually it hasn’t. I’m interested in the question. It has to be said that cannabis is chemically complicated, it’s not simply one cannabinol, there are a number of these cannabinoids and various strains have various ratios and proportions of these things but for instance I find when I’m writing books that I can only write for about three hours and then either the day is finished for work or I smoke hashish and twenty minutes later I’m ready to go two hours more at it, and I can do that twice in a day. If I judiciously control my intake of cannabis it gives me a second wind, and a third wind to go forward with creative activity, and if you just sit down and smoke to a stupor you’re not going to be able to do this, but if you stop this now tiresome and boring activity and have a couple of puffs and you sit and you have a few interesting thoughts and you feel completely revitalized and able to go back to it – and I notice it’s not only with creative work, but with physical work, for instance if I’m stacking wood I’ll stack half a quart of wood and I’ll think either i’ll finish stacking it tomorrow and then I’ll go in and smoke some cannabis and half an hour later I’ll say well if I wait till tomorrow, I’ll just go and finish it right now. I think you all know Paul Burrels? book, or the statement that a puff of kief makes a man strong as twenty camels in a courtyard.
There’s something to this. It’s not simple. It can turn you into a stupor, a sort of lazy loutish person on he other hand it can allow you to do very hard work for very long periods of time – so you have to manage it and a lot of people don’t learn to manage it. One of the things that is always put against marijuana is that it destroys your memory. Well I daresay I have a prodigious memory and I’m the heaviest smoker I’ve ever known and my memory for dates, names of painters, writers, literary and scientific minutia, vocabulary and specialized areas is very great and I don’t credit cannabis with that but I certainly can’t believe that is has damaged my ability to do this.
Now it is true that sometimes in a conversation you will lose your thread, but on the other hand, it gives you an equal power to brilliantly fake the situation and to pick up the thread and re stitch together the narrative.
The other point I might make which we haven’t mentioned yet, well two points actually is that I think it gives an extraordinary verbal facility and this is actually what won me to it in the first place. My reputation as a public speaker is based on my supposedly dazzling oratorical abilities but I come out of a peer group, a class in Berkeley where everyone was able to do what i do everyone seemed to be able to hold fort for hours on the most arcane subjects so Infact when I got into cannabis the style of doing it that I enjoyed most was run a kind of cannabis salon as it were – and people came and they smoked and they talked and talked and talked and this is all we did is talk. I know recordings exist from that era and I believe that the conversation was brilliant, wide ranging, prescient, to the point and extraordinarily creative and capable of astonishing and I give complete credit to cannabis for that.
I remember the second time that I smoked cannabis, I was a great fan of Herman Melville at that time and a friend and I smoked some cannabis and then called at some young women at a dormitory that we were courting at that time and we went into the visitors room of the dormitory and I was able to hold forth for an hour in pseudo movellian? style and created on the spot without hesitation a short story in the style of Herman Melville that was dazzling apparently to my heirs. This is verbal facility of an extraordinary sort.
The other area where i think it has an important role to play that we haven’t talked about is in sexual performance and sexual stamina. When I first became sexually active, and I think this is a problem of many young men, simply because they have so much juice going and premature ejaculation. All my sexual encounters were haunted by that possibility simply because I was just so hyped up over the idea of having intercourse with someone. Well I discovered that smoking hashish gave me an incredible ability to control my ejaculation and also my sexual stamina, so these were invaluable social skills. It gave me verbal facility, sexual stamina and control of my ejaculation, beautiful visions, a prodigious memory, (laughs) it did everything but suppress appetite which it certainly did not do, the munchies, regardless of what pharmacologist tell us about how this is an illusion, the munchies seem to be a very real part of cannabis use meaning that fourty minutes or an hour after smoking cannabis one does find oneself rummaging through the cupboards looking for chocolate chip cookies, but this is hardly grounds for hanging, which is the current legal response in Malaysia.
…it may in fact be happening. I mean I certainly feel much more at the center of novelty when I’m in Germany where by the way people smoke cannabis in restaurants quite openly. The US seems to be on a kind of fundamentalist religous bender that carries into women’s reproductive rights, drugs and all these things that is making us a kind of pariah in the first world. We represent values that are incomprehensible to educated Europeans. One thing that occurs to me that I am sure Rupert would have enthusiasm for because it involves his grass roots science is this question of does it make you lazy, does it give you energy, does it destroy your memory.
Because I have smoked so many years so many different kinds of dope, of cannabis, I’ve come to hold pretty strong opinions about its various forms and I think that number one charas is a debilitating drug. It has opium in it. It has detura? in it and it has various additives and binders that are not good. Marijuana, which is how most americans smoke their cannabis involves the incineration of too much inert vegetable material, so that you are getting pesticide residues, carbon monoxide, tars all of these things are complicating the question of what does cannabis do. To my mind the true test of whether or not cannabis is, what the effects of cannabis are, we should almost restrict our discussion to high grade lebanese hashish, which is truly nothing but the compressed resin of the female cannabis plant and that’s the consical? hashish of the era and that’s what I prefer and feel almost to be a different drug from both mexican marijuana and pakistani or indian hashish. Those things do carry detrimental qualities that are not present in the pure for instance three lion or so called red lebanese hashish once the hashish that we want and that’s the cannabis product that everyone should smoke before they judge or form a strong opinion about what cannabis can do.