Cannabis gets a lot of bad press, but perhaps it is undeserved. While alcohol, cocaine, heroin, and even tobacco are known to be highly addictive and damaging to the physical body and brain, there’s not a lot of negative research on cannabis. In fact, quite the opposite. More and more research is finding medicinal properties. From anti-depressent and anti-anxiety effects to its ability to help generate new pathways in the brain, is cannabis and its effects on psychology, health, and our social fabric worth having a closer look at?
I recently read an astounding article on Marijuana (Jiang, et. al, 2005). As it turns it out, cannabis is implicated in neurogensis or the generation and regeneration of brain cells in the hypothalamus. In layman’s terms, consuming pot encourages your brain to grow (or at least the hypothalamic portion of it). Even more astounding is that this is in direct opposition to other drugs like alcohol, nicotine, opiates, and cocaine which have been demonstrated to suppress hippocampal neurogenesis in adult rats (Jiang, et. Al, 2005). Even more astounding still, if I could really be more astounded at this point, is that this brain regeneration is linked to antidepressant and antianxiety effects, something you pay the big pharmaceutical companies big bucks for.
But that’s not the end of this story. I was so fascinated by what I had read that I had to know more. So, I looked up the functions of the hypothalamus. Turns out the hypothalamus is hugely important. It regulates the physical unit. The hypothalamus regulates bodily temperature, feeding behaviour, circadian rhythms, and is also implicated in the emotional and sensory systems of the body. It plays a role in the sex drive, arousal (in particular autonomic “fight or flight” responses) and expression and communicates directly with the body’s endocrine (hormone) system. The hypothalamus is an important piece of your body’s brain and it very cool that cannabis can help with the regeneration of hypothalamic nerve cells.
But why would we need to regenerate hypothalamus cells? Well, as it turns out, the hypothalamus (like other parts of the brain) is easily damaged by stress, and this is particularly true of children and adolescents. Of course this raises the question about the experience of childhood stress which, it must be said, isn’t any good. As children and teenagers we all experience relatively high levels of ongoing stress. It is a social truism justified, at least when I was in undergraduate school, by the psychologically stamped lunacy that some levels of stress are actually good for you. Of course, it does not matter how many teachers and psychologists might have said it, stress is not good for our children. You may be able to make a case that minor and controlled stress might be functional for adults, but in the sensitive brain development periods of childhood and adolescence, stress (like poison) is particularly damaging to the mental and emotional development of the child.
So I ask the question, what kind of stress did I experience as a child and how might that have damaged my physical brain? Well, from the beatings with sticks that I got from my mom to the abuse of teachers to the incredible and demeaning stress of competition and constant comparison I have to say my life as a child was pretty stressful. Because of the general lack of concern and empathy on the part of the adults all around me, I spent a lot of time worrying about what was going to happen next (chronic stress) and it is just this kind of chronic stress that impacts, in a negative way, brain development. And sadly, my childhood wasn’t, by comparison, that bad. I know others who experienced profound emotional, physical, sexual, and psychological abuse for extended periods of time at the hands of parents, teachers, and loved ones. What can I say about that except psychologists are beginning to see that stress and abuse leads to neurosis, psychosis, and even schizophrenia. Obviously, something to be avoided. Sadly, something we all accept.
At this point you will perhaps understand why I was so astounded by the articles I read. In a world where our societies advocate stress, pressure, competition, and violence as if it is a good thing for us, in societies where the very act of existence is likely to damage our physical units, here was a naturally occurring substance that potentially provided a cure for this disease we call modern life. From anti-depressant and anti-anxiety effects to actual neurogenesis, this was a long way from the paranoid fantasies of government propagandists who drink their martinis and smoke their fags while proselytizing in an anti-empirical way about the evils of substance that seems to function exactly opposite of the way they suggest.
Of course, I am speculating at this point. It is long way from neurogensis in the brain of a rat to the miraculous healing effects of cannabis postulated here, but I think it is something to consider. After all, natives have been using entheogens like Peyote and ayahuasca. for centuries and, despite some weirdness on the part of Harvard psychologists in the sixties, LSD and other entheogens seemed to show great promise in curing intractable addictions like alcoholism. Not that I’m advocating LSD as a therapeutic. I think they called it acid for a reason. But still, keep an open mind and ask some hard questions; when our mental and physical (not to mention emotional and spiritual) health may be at stake, we don’t want to allow ourselves to be led down the garden path by people who do not know, or who let their own fears cloud their ability to objectively assess and think. As Sociologists, Psychologists, students, and researchers of all stripes, what are we waiting for? It is time to stop letting fears, misconceptions, and government propagandists set the boundaries of our research interests. It is time to take a look at the potential healing properties of cannabis and other naturally occurring entheogens.
At the very least pause and re-consider.
Rather than demonizing cannabis, take a good hard look at the real devils of modern society – stress, alcohol, nicotine, opiates, cocaine, methamphetamines, and other brain damaging activities and substances are the premier choices of the stressed out and damaged addicts of this world, and for a reason. They all function like Soma, further deadening the nervous system and hiding us from the very damage we seek to heal. It is true, we may still argue the benefits of entheogens and the jury may still be out on Cannabis, but the same cannot be said of these other drugs. We’ve known for decades just how bad they are. In our struggle to overcome the bondage and damage of system socialization, these are the real devils of this hellish capitalist world.
Jiang, Wen, Zhang, Yun, Xiao, Lan, Cleemput, Jamie Van, Ji, Shao-Pint, Bai, Guang, and Zhang, Xia (2005). Cannabinoids promote embryonic and adult hippocampus neurogeneis and produce anxiolytic and antidepressant-like effects. The Journal of Clinical Investigation. 115. [http://www.jci.org/articles/view/25509]
Kleiner, Kurt (2005). Marijuana might cause new cell growth in brain. New Scientist: October. [http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn8155-marijuana-might-cause-new-cell-growth-in-the-brain.html]
SpiriWiki Entheogen Page – http://www.thespiritwiki.com/index.php/Entheogens
Child and Teen Brains Very Sensitive to Stress, Likely a Key Factor in Mental Illness – http://www.schizophrenia.com/sznews/archives/005410.html
Does Stress Damage the Brain – http://www.benschweitzer.org/WORK/stress/Bremner-does%20stress%20damage%20the%20brain.pdf
Wikipedia page on Hypothalamus http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypothalamus
Study Finds No Link Between Marijuana Use And Lung Cancer – http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/05/060526083353.htm
About the Author: I'm a sociologist at Athabasca University where I coordinate,amongst other things, the introductory sociology courses (Sociology I and Sociology II). FYI I did my dissertation in the political economy of scholarly communication (you can read it if you want). It's not that bad. My current interests lie in the area of scholarly communication and pedagogy, the sociology of spirituality and religion, consciousness research, entheogens, inequality and stratification, and the revolutionary potential of authentic spirituality. The Socjourn is my pet project. It started as the Electronic Journal of Sociology but after watching our social elites systematically dismantle the potential of eJournals to alter the politics and economies of scholarly communication, I decided I'd try something a little different. That something is The Socjourn, a initiative that bends the rules of scholarly communication and pedagogy by disregarding academic ego and smashing down the walls that divide our little Ivory Tower world from the rest of humanity. If you are a sociologist or a sociology student and you have a burning desire to engage in a little institutional demolition by perhaps writing for the Socjourn, contact me. If you are a graduate student and you have some ideas that you think I might find interesting, contact me. I supervise graduate students through Athabasca Universities MAIS program.