Cannabis, Mind Enhancements, and Culture

“(…) for the actual experience of the smoked herb has been completely clouded by a fog of dirty language by the diminishing crowd of fakers who have not had the experience and yet insist on being centers of propaganda about experience”

Allen Ginsberg, American Poet, 1926-1997

“Unquestionably, this drug is is very useful to the artist, activating trains of association that would otherwise be inaccessible, and I owe many of the scenes in Naked Lunch directly to the use of cannabis.”

William Burroughs, American writer (1914-1997)


A Distorted and Misinformed Perspective on Marijuana

After more than 80 years of an almost worldwide prohibition our outlook on marijuana and its mind-altering effects is mostly dominated by fear, ignorance, and disinformation.

There are still dozens of myths circulating about the negative effects of marijuana, myths that have been purposefully created and spread for decades. Many activists have tried to argue against these myths and are fighting to legalize the use of marijuana; but even liberal minded activist are often wary of mentioning the positive potential of marijuana when it comes to its mind-enhancing effects. It is also a strategic decision to not talk openly about the positive mind-altering potential of cannabis.

Political arguments are usually based along the lines of proving the incredible usefulness of cannabis as a medicine, or on arguing that prohibition is detrimental to our whole society. The strategy makes sense; both arguments are correct and important. Nevertheless, I think we should not remain silent when it comes to the many mind-enhancing uses of marijuana.

For thousands of years cultures around the world have used cannabis not only for nutrition, clothing, for medical and many other purposes, but also valued its mind-altering potential.

In China, the country that was often described as “the land of mulberry and hemp” in classical times, various uses of hemp go back more than 10.000 years ago. According to legend, Emperor Shen Nung, the founder of Chinese herbal medicine, wrote the first pharmacopeia Pên-ts’ao Ching around 2700 B.C.. It recommends the uses of cannabis as a medicine for many purposes –for example, for absent-mindedness – and also mentions other psychoactive properties, stating that taken in excess, it will make a user ‘see devils’ and that ‘if taken in excess will produce hallucinations’.[1]

However, the Chinese culture did not seem to get too involved in the use of cannabis as a psychoactive plant, even though it seemed to have important influences through shamanic practices and in taoism:

“By the first century AD (…) Taoists were suggesting that cannabis seeds be tossed into one’s incense burner in the direct knowledge that they would cause hallucinations. This time, as advocated by the shamans, the visions were desirable: such hallucinations, it was noted, offered a shortcut to immortality and at the same time would help the intoxicated person to see spirits. But in the same event, cannabis smoking was never a major Chinese preoccupation.”[2]

The cultural history of India is deeply involved with the use of cannabis for mind-altering purposes. Cannabis was brought into India by the Aryans, who invaded it from the North around 2000 B.C. The first mention of the use of bhang – a drink made with cannabis and other ingredients including pepper, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, almonds and nutmeg – for mind-altering purposes can be found in the Vedas (veda is Sanskrit for “knowledge”), a collection of originally orally transmitted songs. The Atharvaveda states that bhang is on of the “five kingdoms of herbs …which release us from anxiety”.[3]

India’s religious tradition is deeply rooted in the use of cannabis as a psychoactive plant; the Hindu god Shiva (“The Auspicious One”), one of the most important gods, is also known as the ‘Lord of Bhang’. Sadhus (holy men) in India have used cannabis for centuries to come closer to their deities in their meditations. Sanskrit, the primary liturgical language of Hinduism, has many names for cannabis all of which praise it: vijaya and jaya, (“victorious”), virapattra (“leaf for heroes”), capala (“the light hearted”), ananda (“the joyful”), vakpradatava (“speech giving”), medhakaritva (“inspiring of mental power”).[4] The 17th century text Rajvallabha describes bhang as follows:

“It creates vital energy, increases mental powers and internal heat, corrects irregularities of the phlegmatic humor, and is an elixir vitae. (…) Inasmuch as it is believed to give victory in the three worlds and to bring delight to the king of gods [Shiva], it was called [vijaya] victorious. This desire fulfilling drug was believed to have been obtained by men on earth for the welfare of all people. To those who use it regularly, it begets joy and diminishes anxiety.[5]

The use of bhang for psychoactive purposes was and still is widespread in India and is part of many cultural rituals and festivities. Cannabis also plays an important role in the Tantric religion, which evolved in Tibet from around 600 A.D.

The Aryans also brought cannabis to Persia, where the prophet Zoroaster, who is said to be the author of the Zend-Avesta, the counterpart to the vedes containing approximately two million verses, arguably also used it around 600 B.C. The book tells about two mortals drinking bhanga (probably the Persian version of the Indian bhang) to go to heaven and have the highest mysteries revealed to them.[6]

Around the same time, other groups of Aryans who would later become known as the Scythians moved from central Siberia further west and up to northern Greece, claiming huge territories. Famously, according to the Greek historian Herodotus, their funeral rites included some kind of steam bath in tents, in which marijuana seeds were thrown on hot stones and the Scythians would howl in joy – clearly indicating that they ritually used cannabis for its psychoactive properties.

Findings of the Russian archeologist S. I. Rudenko also suggest that the Scythians used cannabis in their everyday life. Although, the Scythians disintegrated as an entity, their descendants, habits and their use of marijuana spread to Northern Europe, where we can still find traditional ritualistic use of marijuana in many countries such as Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, and the Ukraine.

These are only the beginnings of the worldwide spread of the cannabis plant and its use not only for fibers, food or medicine, but also as a psychoactive plant used in many diverse rituals and practices.

Cannabis went on to the Arabic world, where hashish used as a psychoactive substance has a strong influence on religion and society even today. As early as around 300 A.D., Arab traders brought cannabis to Africa – where it also had a huge influence on culture. From Egypt, Napoleon’s defeated retreating troops brought their habit of hashish use back to France in 1801. More than 40 years later, French intellectuals and artists like Théophile Gautier, Charles Baudelaire, Gerard de Nerval, Victor Hugo, and Eugène Delacroix dressed up in Arabian clothes in a beautifully decorated Pimodan House, which they rented for their “Club des Hashashins” to experiment with large doses of hashish marmalade for inspirational reasons.

Some of their writings on their experiences with hashish as a psychoactive drug will turn out to be vastly influential later. Inspired by Baudelaire’s writings on hashish, the philosopher and essayist Walter Benjamin will for instance start his own experimentation with hashish under the supervision of drug experts in 1927.

In England, the society of the “Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn” is formed in 1888, with its members also experimenting with hashish. Two of their most prominent recruits would be Aleister Crowley and William Butler Yeats.

From then on, the inspirational use of hashish or marijuana by millions of people around the world has left its mark on many cultures and cultural developments and arguably played an eminent role in the development of musical traditions like jazz, reggae, and pop music, as well as in the revolutionary anti-war and global peace movements in the late 1960s.

This is only a small excerpt of some inspirational, religious and other uses of cannabis as a psychoactive substance in world history.

Many important questions remain unanswered. How, exactly, did early shamans in various regions use cannabis in ancient times for psychoactive and healing purposes? How did this influence early cultural developments? What was the role of the psychoactive use of cannabis in the development of religions like Hinduism, Tantric belief system, and Buddhism? How, exactly, did the experience of the altered state of consciousness during a high positively affect writers, philosophers, artists, filmmakers, scientists, musicians, and others?

History as a discipline will need the help of modern science to address these questions more seriously. Certainly, the study of literary sources, new findings from archaeological sites, and ethnological research will help to answer these questions, but first and foremost, we need to investigate scientifically the altered state of the cannabis high itself. How can such a high influence a musician’s performance? Can it actually help a writer or an artist in the creative process? Or lead to deep and meaningful insights and make users see patterns they have not seen before? How does a cannabis high affect our mind?


Cannabis as a Cognitive Enhancer

It is time to openly address the issue and to talk about the mind- and life-enhancing potential of cannabis. What is the positive potential of the cannabis high as an altered state of consciousness? How can a high be used to enhance various thought processes and activities? How much can it mean to individuals? And how much of a positive impact did the use – not abuse – of cannabis as a mind-enhancer have on human culture and history?

I have argued in my two previous books on the cannabis high that it can lead to various systematic changes in cognition and perception, which can be positively used by skilled and knowledgeable users. Many cognitive enhancements have been described by a myriad of users in history over and over again: a hyper focus of attention and a concentrated feeling of being in the here-and-now of experience, an intensification of sensual experiences, often experienced with a sharp analytical ability to distinguish even tiny nuances in perception, an enhancement of episodic memory and of our imaginative abilities; associative mind-racing, enhanced creative thinking, and better pattern recognition abilities – for all kinds of patterns, be it in nature, art, in science, or the behavior of others. Furthermore, numerous users have reported an enhanced ability to introspect bodily states, and, also. to come to other introspective judgments regarding their mood and character.

We have countless detailed descriptions from marijuana users about the enhancement of empathic understanding during a high, as well as a generally enhanced ability to come to deep insights in all kinds of intellectual areas.


Set, Setting and the ‘Robustness’ of Cognitive Effects

As Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary and others have pointed out, the high (as well as psychedelic states induced by substances such as LSD or psilopsybin ) heavily depends on the set and setting of the user, whereby the “set” for him included the preparation of the user, his personality structure and mood.

The “setting” is the physical environment of use, but also the social environment of others present during the experience and the cultural environment.[7] That may sound a bit technical, but is easy to understand: the son of a catholic priest smoking his first joint under peer pressure in his college dorm in Muskogee, Oklahoma in 1954 will not experience such a relaxed and happy high as a liberally educated hippie smoking a joint of the same size and quality in Denver, Colorado in 2014.

Some of the more basic cognitive changes during a high are more robust and not as heavily dependent on set and setting, for instance, the hyper focusing of attention or the intensification of various sensory perceptions. When you watch television while getting high, you will focus on what you see and forget about reality; when you eat, you will strongly focus on your food, and when you have sex, you will have a stronger focus on your sensations and your partner. In other instances, you may just focus on an inner stream of thoughts, memories or images. In all those situations, the content of what you focus on may be different but your focus, your selective attention will always becomes stronger during a high.

Other cognitive enhancements during a high are more complex and more dependent on set and setting. Take for example the ability for introspection. Many users have described in various ways how a high helped them to come to introspective insights about their character. I have argued that cannabis can indeed affect cognition in a way that can help you to come to introspective insights; but you will probably not get valuable introspective insights when you decide to play an ego-shooter computer game every time to get high. If you want to use marijuana to come to introspective insights, you should be in a less distracted environment willing to reflect upon yourself in some way. I have therefore always emphasized that cognitive enhancements during a high do not come automatically; marijuana has the potential to lead to all those enhancements, but it needs skills, knowledge, and the right attitude to experience the more complex enhancements of empathic understanding, introspection or insights.

Users have to carefully choose their environment and they have to learn what dosage of which strain is good for them in a certain mood and for a certain kind of activity.


The Many Positive Uses of the Marijuana High

Many cannabis users in history have managed to develop their skills to use cannabis under certain circumstances for various mind- and life-enhancing uses.

In current discussions about the various uses of cannabis, these uses are often lumped together under the category “recreational”, or as “inspirational”. In my view, these expressions definitely do not fully capture the immense spectrum of uses reported by cannabis users. Naturally, many users value cannabis for relaxation, for fun or other “recreational” activities; and, let us not understate the case, these uses are definitely extremely valuable to many. Also, artists, writers, musicians and others have used cannabis for “inspirational” purposes to produce art, to enjoy the view of a landscape or to generate all kinds of ideas. Again, this kind of use is incredibly important and has helped many to develop their art, to grow as a person, or to generate valuable ideas in many areas of their lives. But if we take a closer look at how skilled users have managed to actually integrate and positively use a cannabis high in their lives in so many ways, it becomes clear that “recreation” and “inspiration” account for only a small percentage of the many positive uses and the vast potential of this plant.

During my research in the last 10 years I have read and analyzed hundreds of accounts of users describing a huge range of uses of the cognitive effects of marijuana. Many users report how hashish or marijuana can get them in the “here-and now”; they explain how they feel more connected to others, and to their own feelings, how their high led to a better understanding of their kids, of their partners, to deep conversations and family healing.

They perceive more nuances in a painting or suddenly expand their musical or artistic horizon. Numerous users value the ability to travel back in time during a high and to re-live experiences and to feel like a child again and they report how it helped them with ideas for problem solving or got them off an alcohol or other addiction.

Others report in detail how it helped them to enjoy sex more and to be more empathic lovers. They become creative in cooking and come up with new desserts, they use a high to find recognize patterns in music, or introspectively find patterns in the way they lead their marriage or in the way they walk – and after this perception decide to eventually change their bad habits forever.

They use the slowdown of time in their perception to dwell in an infinite moment of bliss swimming in thermal water. An illiterate describes how a high for the first time helped him to read full sentences, others describe how they understand a foreign language better.

Let us take a look at some prominent marijuana users to shed some more light about how important the enhancing use of marijuana has been to them – and through them and their work, to millions of people.


Writers and Their Use of Marijuana

The American writer Norman Mailer won the renowned Pulitzer Price twice as well as the National Book Award. In an interview with the High Times, he said about marijuana:

I always tell my kids – I don’t know if they listen or not – that what I think is, get their education first and then start smoking pot. At least there is something to run downhill with. Because what I find is that pot puts things together. Pot is marvelous for getting new connections in the brain. It’s divine for that. You think associatively on pot, so you can have real extraordinary thoughts. But the more education you have, the more you have to put together at that point, the more wonderful connections there are to see in the universe.”[8]

Many other writers found marijuana helpful for their work for various reasons. The French poet Charles Baudelaire was part of the Club des Hashischins in Paris, where in the mid-19th century famous writers including Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo and other French intellectuals and artists would meet to experiment with large amounts of hashish marmalade.

Whereas Mailer mentions how good pot worked for him to make new associations, Baudelaire described also how fast these associations often come:

“But a new stream of ideas carries you away: it will hurl you along in its living vortex for a further minute: and this minute, too, will be an eternity, for the normal relation between time and the individual has been completely upset by the multitude and intensity of sensations and ideas. You seem to be living several men’s lives in the space of an hour.”[9]

Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, best known for his famous poem “Howl”, used marijuana a lot and wrote extensively on its effects:

“(…) marijuana consciousness is one that, ever so gently, shifts the center of attention from habitual shallow purely verbal guidelines and repetitive second-hand ideological interpretations of experience to more direct, slower, absorbing, occasionally microscopically minute, engagement with sensory phenomena during the high moments or hours after one has smoked.”[10]

The influential philosopher, literary critic and essayist Walter Benjamin was strongly influenced and inspired by Baudelaire and Marcel Proust who had also used cannabis. Benjamin experimented with Hashish and wrote several essays about his experiences. In my essay “What Hashish did To Walter Benjamin”, I will argue that contrary to the belief of many Benjamin interpreters, his essays on the effects of hashish contain brilliant observations and, even more importantly, that many ideas in Benjamin’s important work have probably to some degree been influenced by his use of hashish.

Many other writers used marijuana; according to, the list includes Arthur Rimbaud, William Butler Yeats, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Jack Kerouac (“On the Road”), Jack London and John Updike, to name only a few.


Artists and Musicians on Cannabis

Countless artists and musicians experimented with cannabis, many of them were long-time users and some explicitly reported how the cannabis high had helped them to work on their music or art.

The French painter Eugène Delacroix had made experiences with hashish, was also a member of the Club des Hashischins and known for his vivid imagination and his use of expressive colors, paving the way for expressionism. His famous painting “The Woman of Algiers” depicts Algerian concubines smoking a water pipe used for opium and hashish, a painting much admired by another painter who used hashish, Pablo Picasso.[11]

The influential Mexican painter Diego Rivera also used marijuana:

“The Book of Grass contains an account by the actor Errol Flynn telling how Rivera asked him whether he had ever heard music come from a painting. Then the artist proffered Flynn a marijuana cigarette, explaining, “After smoking this you will see a painting and you will hear it as well.” Flynn tried it and had a fascinating experience, in which he heard the paintings ‘singing’.’“[12]

The marijuana high was not only crucially important for the evolution of jazz with its altered rhythmic structure based on an altered sense of time during a high and its creative, free flow improvisation on stage. The experience of the high was also central for other musical traditions such as reggae. Bob Marley, who smoked massive amounts of marijuana, knew about the potential of the plant also when it comes to introspection and insights. He once said: “When you smoke the herb, it reveals you to yourself.”

The Beatles, turned onto marijuana in 1964 by Bob Dylan, were strongly influenced by their use of marijuana; it helped them to open their minds and to get deeper involved in the thinking of the evolving counterculture of the ‘60s:

“The crucial catalyst for the Beatles’ transformation from lovable mop-tops to high-minded rebels was their involvement with consciousness-raising drugs, specifically marijuana and LSD. No one liked fun more than the Beatles, but for them drugs were not simply about having a good time. Marijuana and LSD were also and more profoundly tools of knowledge, a means of gaining access to higher truths about themselves and the world. Indeed, it was above all the “desire to find out,” as Harrison later put it, that lay beneath their involvement not only with mind-expanding drugs but with Eastern philosophy as well. (…) It was marijuana that came first and triggered “the U-turn,” as McCartney put it, in the Beatles’ attitude toward life.[13]

Clearly, the marijuana high affected The Beatles and therefore their music and with it, hundreds of millions of people around the world – not just their everyday fans but bands, songwriters, artists, even politicians.

Of course, the list of prominent users does not only include writers, artists and musicians but also scientists, business people, comedians, actors, and others who used marijuana for various enhancements that influenced their lives and work. Projects like Lester Grinspoon’s (where he collects reports and essays about positive enhancing uses of marijuana) and are an important start for a better understanding of how much a whole spectrum of enhancing uses of marijuana has influenced our culture and society as a whole – how much we probably all owe to people who have used marijuana for various enhancements. However, if we want to arrive at a deeper understanding of the positive impact of these enhancements on our society, we have to investigate deeper. We have to free our minds from past disinformation campaigns and reconsider and research our cultural involvement with this outstanding plant, cannabis.

In my research I have mainly tried to come to a better understanding of the effects of cannabis on higher cognitive functions, episodic memory retrieval, attention, pattern recognition, imagination, introspection, empathic understanding and insights. As our knowledge grows about the marijuana high we are beginning to understand why so many people have used cannabis for so many purposes, and how artists, writers, scientist, musicians and others benefited from this altered state of consciousness. I suggest that we take a closer look at the involvement of culturally influential personalities with marijuana (and, for a bigger picture, with other mind-altering substances) and reinvestigate their biographies to see how much their experiences and use of mind-altering substances like cannabis influenced their work – and with it, on all of us. The overview of personalities here is only the very beginning, and my essay on Walter Benjamin can also only be the beginning of such an investigation. I hope to see more scientific projects in this direction soon. I firmly believe that future generations will come to a completely different understanding of what marijuana – as well as other psychoactive substances – have done for our culture, and I am convinced that its mind-altering potential should be considered at least as important to us many of the other wonderful uses of cannabis as a medicine, a nutrient, as a resource for clothing, fibers and other useful products. I am fully convinced that the mind-altering potential of marijuana, once unleashed, could significantly help to heal a sick world.

Many of the positive influences of cannabis on society through the work and inspiration of artists, writers, scientists and others came during years of worldwide prohibition. Now, we know that many of the marijuana mind-enhancements crucially depend on the skills of informed users and a favorable environment. So, let me conclude here with a question: How much could the skilled and careful use of cannabis do for our culture if we legalize it and educate the public better as to its benefits?

[1]    Compare Jonathan Green (2002), Cannabis, Thunder Mouth Press, New York, p. 40.

[2]    Ibid., 41.

[3]    Compare Ernest L. Abel (1980), Marihuana. The First Twelve Thousand Years. Plenum Press, New York.

[4]      Marincolo, Sebastián (2010), High. Insights on Marijuana, Dog Ear Publishing, Indi­anapolis, and Marincolo, Sebastián (2013) High. Das positive Potential von Marijuana. Tropen Verlag, Stuttgart.

[5]    Grierson, G. A. (1993-4), “On References to the Hemp Plant Occuring in Sanskrit and Hindi Literature,” in Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report, Simla, India 3:247-8.

[6]    Compare Abel, Ernest L. (1980), Marihuana. The First Twelve Thousand Years. Plenum Press, New York, p. 22.

[7]    Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, Richard Alpert (1964/1992), The Psychedelic Experience. A Manual Based on the Tibetian Book of the Dead. Citadel Press, Kensington

[8]    In: Hager, Steven (ed.) (1994) High Times Greatest Hits. Twenty Years of Smoke in Your Face. St. Martin’s Press, New York, p. 66.

[9]    Baudelaire, Charles “The Seraphic Theatre”, translated by Normann Cannon, in: David Solomon (ed.) (1966), The Marijuana Papers, Signet Books, New York, p. 190.

[10]   Ginsberg, Allen “First Manifesto To End The Bringdown”, In: Deliberate Prose. Selected Essays 1952 –1995, Edited by Bill Morgan (2000), New York: Harper Colins Publishers, p. 87.

[11]   Komp, Ellen (2014), www.veryimportantpotheads, entry on Eugène Delacroix,

[12]   Ibid., entry on Diego Rivera,

[13]   Hertsgaard, Mark (1995) A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. Chap­ter 6: We All Want to Change the World: Drugs, Politics, and Spirituality. In: Lester Grin­spoon (ed.),

Share this