The Marijuana Issue: Secular Considerations with a Spiritual Twist
Allan Y. Cohen, Ph.D.
February 28, 2017
Note: This article has been slightly revised by Allan from its first version (dated Feb. 18) published on Feb. 23.
Allan Cohen was one of the first of several young Baba-lovers in the mid-1960s to be asked by Meher Baba to teach others that drug use is not an authentic path to spirituality. In the course of carrying out Baba’s directives, Allan began a four-decade career in substance abuse prevention, as a clinical psychologist, researcher-evaluator, theoretician, university professor, administrator, and media spokesman. Encouraged to spread Baba’s message of love and truth, he delivered over 1,000 lectures and media appearances across America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. An introductory book that Allan compiled was approved by Baba in 1966 and finally published in 1977 as The Mastery of Consciousness (unfortunately out of print at present). Allan was fortunate to be present at Meher Baba’s Samadhi in India in early February of 1969 during the days following Baba’s dropping of the body and before his interment. Now living in Washington, DC, Allan has been involved intensively with the work of Sufism Reoriented.
Recently, some Baba-lovers have shown an interest in the “marijuana” issue, for themselves, their children, and society as a whole. I received two communications that bring up some key issues:
Recently, some Baba-lovers have shown an interest in the “marijuana” issue, for themselves, their children, and society as a whole. I received two communications that bring up some key issues:
Question: With marijuana slowly but surely becoming a legal, recreational drug, state by state, what message are young (and some older) Baba people given as its use becomes mainstream?
Question: Outside of Meher Baba saying so, what is your main argument against legalization? I do not support it, but I have a difficult time when others (non–Meher Baba folks) ask me about this, which they actually do often. My argument often breaks down on economic/cartel diminishment/libertarian rationales.
I find myself writing this short piece, both to respond to the secular issue and to further validate Meher Baba’s messages on the subject. Much more could be written about this, but perhaps some general perspective might be helpful. (Note: I’ve been working in this field for almost 50 years, both as a researcher and as a therapist. I was also one of those whom Meher Baba asked to educate Americans about the physical, mental, and spiritual dangers of the nonmedical use of psychedelic-type drugs.)
Obviously, this is a complex issue both in criminal justice and in public health. But certain points are relatively crucial for understanding a rational response. Meher Baba’s statements about drugs anticipated the following 50 years of scientific and clinical research. He knew that drug abuse would continue to be a problem. His unprecedented direct and public intervention in the 1960s successfully ended most of the fantasy that psychedelic drugs (LSD, mescaline, psilocybin, and cannabis extracts) could generate spiritual advancement. In addition, Meher Baba also articulated specific harms emanating from psychoactive drugs, especially relevant now for the issue of recreational and medical use.
The case of marijuana is particularly timely. The implications of marijuana legalization for recreational and medical use require us to cover a critical piece of the science of the matter. Neither secular policymakers nor 95% of the so-called drug experts understand the real nature of the issue. Laws, policies, or opinions on “marijuana” or “cannabis” cannot be rational without taking into consideration its primary active ingredients. “Marijuana” is a very crudely prepared substance comprised of the dried leaves, small stems, and flowers of the Cannabis sativa plant. Marijuana contains unique chemicals called cannabinoids. Cannabinoids have biological activity and have been the subject of thousands of research studies since the 1970s. To simplify, the active psychedelic (hallucinogenic) chemical in cannabis plants and their extracts (e.g., hashish, wax, and shatter) is THC (delta-9 transhydrocannabinol). Adjusting for dosage, THC is clinically equivalent in action to LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin. That may surprise some folks; however, for example, it’s well documented that “marijuana” overdoses create “bad trips” that appear to differ little from LSD (“acid”) bad trips.
Hundreds of scientific studies have shown a wide range of health problems stemming from long-term cannabis use, the impact being primarily from its THC content—including the increased probability of psychosis; brain, lung, and cardiovascular damage; cognitive deterioration; and a host of other physical and mental disorders. Of additional concern is the danger of THC ingestion during pregnancy. All of these studies would have been even more powerful if they could have precisely accounted for the amount of THC having been ingested. (Old-time marijuana was perhaps 5% THC; cannabis products can now range up to 70 %.) We might mention also that marijuana smoke produces more carcinogens (including pesticides) than tobacco smoke.
One unique but particularly nasty characteristic of THC is that it binds to fat cells in the body and stays in the body, with traces measurable for up to a year after last use. Thus, a seemingly moderate amount of recreational use can build up a substantial presence of THC and THC metabolites in body tissues, increasing true dosages over time. Researchers and clinicians (no matter what their policy views) estimate that 9% to 11% of marijuana users will become psychologically and/or chemically dependent upon THC, including the tendency to develop “tolerance,” and to require either higher doses or more frequent use.
The Problem with THC. Trying to justify the legalization of recreational use, proponents argue that “marijuana” is not very harmful. Because they do not understand the differential effects of the chemicals in cannabis, they mislead the public. Cannabis plants can be bred to maximize THC content, especially for edible use (candy bars, cookies, etc.). In states that have legalized marijuana, cannabis “edibles” comprise a large proportion of sales. With edibles, overdoses are much more likely to occur and considerably more likely to be mistakenly consumed by young kids. The black market is busy extracting THC and converting it into other forms (e.g., “shatter” and other products delivering extremely high amounts of THC). From a clinical perspective, of particular concern is the capacity of THC to hide its effects from the user. THC actually inhibits the feedback function of the brain, exemplified by the difficulty cannabis users have in perceiving their own “amotivational syndrome.” Chemically dependent users will swear they are fine. Indeed, cannabis (THC) “addicts” tend to be more in “denial” than alcoholics or heroin addicts.
The few public health experts who understand the science object strongly to the legalization of “marijuana” for recreational use, particularly because of the serious threats to mental and physical health, especially for children and teenagers. The American Academy of Pediatrics just released a report (February, 2017) warning of the harm to teens’ developing brains and opposing use by youth. Research is very clear about the greater side effects of THC on kids with developing brains, through both second-hand smoke and access to edible products. Relevant to the possible impact of “second-hand smoke,” a very recent study of children admitted to the hospital for bronchial problems showed THC residue in all of the children with parents who smoked marijuana. (In addition, while visiting Australia, I chatted with a Baba-lover high up in the national organization responsible for training service dogs for the blind. He told me that the effect of second-hand marijuana smoke was seriously disorienting the dogs and mitigating their performance.) There is little question that the effects of marijuana legalization tend to increase use by kids, whether through smoking, “vaping,” or consuming edibles.
“Medical Marijuana”: Pluses and Minuses. We’ll discuss some of the ramifications of marijuana legalization further below. First, let’s look at the issues involving legalized medical marijuana. It is true that Meher Baba stated that psychedelic drugs could be used appropriately for certain medical conditions, including depression and alcoholism, combined with (competent) medical supervision (see God in a Pill?). Indeed, you may have read about recent experimentation with psilocybin for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Also, the FDA has licensed some other synthetic cannabinoids (e.g., Marinol and Nabilone) for specific medical conditions. So, you might think that legalizing marijuana for legitimate medical reasons under competent medical supervision is not a problem. However, again, most advocates and detractors of legalized medical marijuana also miss the central distinction between the harmful effects of THC and the possible beneficial effects of another constituent of the cannabis plant.
Another of the many chemicals in the cannabis plant is an extractable cannabinoid, known popularly as “CBD.” This chemical is not hallucinogenic. You may be familiar with promising research that showed CBD as helpful for certain medical conditions, importantly without the mental/emotional side effects of THC. Unfortunately, most policymakers don’t understand the difference between THC and CBD. Thus, medical marijuana laws allow prescribers to send their patients to purchase ordinary marijuana (containing THC and other undesirable chemicals). Some patients swear that ordinary marijuana helps them with physical symptoms, but getting high from THC is likely not what’s helping them; the CBD is more likely the positive factor. Fortunately, increasingly available are low-THC cannabis plants, as well as CBD oil, virtually free of THC. As one expert (Carlton Turner, former USA Drug Czar) phrased it, “To argue that the ‘natural’ plant form of marijuana should be used over FDA-approved marijuana derivatives is like telling a mother whose child is suffering from a bacterial infection that she should offer her child moldy bread instead of penicillin.” Israeli scientists, who have done a great deal of research with cannabis, are horrified that American medical use has no standards for dosage, quality, or protocols to prevent dependence.
The lesson here is that Baba-lovers or their friends who are validly prescribed cannabis for a known condition can avoid the harmful THC and insist on a prescription for CBD. If a cannabis extract has been demonstrated scientifically for their specific medical condition, and pure CBD is not available, they might best select cannabis with the lowest possible THC content. Obviously, it is wise to beware of uneducated physicians and greedy marijuana retailers who are not well schooled in the science and may be interested more in economic gain.
Meher Baba and the Significance of the Drug Issue. We don’t have space here to summarize all the statements that Meher Baba made about the impacts of psychedelic drugs (including marijuana), their disadvantages for his followers, seekers in general, and their implications for society. Indeed, the issue of drug abuse and its prevention was possibly the only social-political intervention that Meher Baba publicly sponsored, certainly from 1964 through late 1968. A comprehensive source of Meher Baba’s statements about drugs can be found in the small paperback A Mirage Will Never Quench Your Thirst: A Source of Wisdom about Drugs, edited by Laurent Weichberger, with prefaces by Rick Chapman, Allan Cohen, and Robert Dreyfuss (available through Amazon and some Meher Baba bookstores). Relevant statements appear in the broader Meher Baba literature (e.g., Lord Meher, God in a Pill?, Glow International, in videos of Baba (e.g., Beyond Words, 1997, shot in 1967), as well as in Baba’s personal communications to individual lovers. They all contain warnings about drug misuse in general and psychedelic drugs in particular, including specific mention of cannabis products (marijuana, ganga, hashish).
Beyond the Physical. We know from Meher Baba’s specific statements that the misuse of psychedelic substances can produce significant physical, emotional, and cognitive harm. Obviously, he also talked about their spiritual harmfulness. There are hints in his statements that the drugs have dangers beyond the mere gross-world consequences. For example, Meher Baba talks about the reality of “possession” by frustrated discarnate souls (commonly called “spirits”) seeking physical sensations driven by sanskaras of desire remaining after their physical death. Baba illustrates this phenomenon in some of those after leaving the body: Thus the soul may want so much to drink wine that it takes to unnatural methods of gratifying the craving. It awaits its opportunity. When it finds some person drinking wine in the gross world it satisfies its own desire through that person by possessing his physical body. (Discourses, vol. 3, p. 56.). Consistent with my own and colleagues’ clinical observation of certain patients, we have reasons to assume that THC and other psychedelics generate an increased openness to spirits seeking to re-experience sensations through a living person’s body, at the least urging them to drink more or use more drugs.
Obviously, Meher Baba knew the full nature of drug effects on the more astral aspects of users’ consciousness. Stimulated by what Baba wrote, in the late 1960s, while I was at UC Berkeley, I and professional colleagues helped coordinate a scientific study, with the informal cooperation of a regional office of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Results from the study suggested that valid psychics/clairvoyants could distinguish marijuana users from non-users simply by observing the existence of “holes in their auric fields.” (Needless to say, a DEA pharmacologist, who was watching one particularly dramatic demonstration, was extremely surprised.) From the esoteric literature, we know that when the boundaries between gross and astral consciousness are blown open prematurely, considerable damage can be done, manifesting in loss of both emotional and mental control. It may be many years, perhaps decades, before these non-gross impacts are taken seriously by academics in the substance-abuse field. But they were no secret to Meher Baba.
Meher Baba’s Guidance on Marijuana: A Summary. To make it very simple, from both a scientific and a spiritual view, aspirants following Meher Baba can consider the THC in marijuana as essentially equivalent to LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin. In the same way that postage stamps can be a delivery system for LSD, that peyote cactus can be a delivery system for mescaline, and that the psilocybe mushroom can be a delivery system for psilocybin, so is marijuana a delivery system for THC. Whatever one feels about the issue, THC is subject to policy issues, Meher Baba’s analysis of the dangers of the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana is totally consistent with his warnings about LSD and other psychedelics, as well as his specifications of exceptions for legitimate medical applications.
Policy Implications: Public Health and the Criminal Justice System. Turning back to questions and comments from Baba-lovers cited in the beginning of this essay, let’s briefly discuss policy. Given the confusion in the general population and medical fields, you won’t be surprised to learn that US federal and state laws involving cannabis are universally flawed; they don’t account for the difference between the cannabis plant and its extractable chemicals. Analogically, we know that it would be nearsighted to try to regulate opiate use by criminalizing or legalizing the growing of poppies without focusing on heroin as the extractable product. So, the real public health policy question is not whether “marijuana” should be available for adult recreational use, but whether THC should be so easily obtained. Whatever one’s political position might be, we need to consider the parallel implications of making LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin available recreationally.
Even without the understanding of the THC/CBD issue, there are very few advocates on any side of the issue who believe persons should be jailed simply for the personal use of marijuana. The strategy of deterrence may have had some impact, but the damage created by earning a criminal record for personal private use is arguably disproportional. Absent a clear differentiation between THC and other constituents, many responsible opponents of full legalization recommend that “marijuana” be decriminalized, with personal use in public and minor possession treated as a civil, not criminal, infraction, much like a serious traffic ticket. They argue that, without some civil sanction (even a mere $25 fine) and potential judicial oversight, there is no leverage to get vulnerable users into educational programs or assessment, counseling, or treatment. For more serious drug-related offenses, the growing deployment of “drug courts” appears to be quite successful, featuring compassionate judges who are able to exonerate offenders of serious drug-related crimes if the offender goes through comprehensive rehabilitation. (Obviously, illegal sales or misuse of any hallucinogen in impaired driving, drug-induced violence, sexual assault, etc., would likely remain under the current criminal justice system.)
In general, society is moving toward seeing drug abuse (and alcohol abuse) as a public health rather than a criminal justice problem. The public health approach features education and prevention, early intervention, and access to treatment, while making the environment less conducive to use and abuse.
Economics and the Cartel. Returning to a specific concern expressed by one of the questioners above, it is tempting to think that full legalization of recreational marijuana use frustrates the black market and necessarily reduces the influence of the Latin American drug cartels. But even now, using laundered money, cartel surrogates likely are attempting to become hidden investors in the burgeoning marijuana industry. True, the cartels are now less interested in cross-border marijuana smuggling, but instead are expanding their sponsoring of US-based cannabis farmers to grow (e.g., in Colorado and California) cheaper marijuana for the black market, and also to traffic in the new high-THC edibles. On the economic side, in terms of the great “tax benefit” to states, the profits may seem robust at first, but they will be eventually exhausted due to the need for more resources down the road (emergency room admissions, treatment facilities), the loss of productivity in the workforce, co-occurring mental disorders, and higher medical costs.
I should mention also that I haven’t forgotten the Libertarian concern raised by one of my correspondents. Ah yes, if only we could assure all that drug-induced deficits would ONLY affect the individual user and not harm anyone else. Not so—chemical dependency is bad news for spouses, families, employers, and health care providers.
Vulnerability of the Young. I must report with some sadness an alarming increase in marijuana and opioid use among young Baba-lovers and children of Baba-lovers. I have talked with too many parents in severe pain and helplessness over their late-adolescent and early-adult children caught in the mire of addiction. Histories are similar—experimental use of cannabis, alcohol, and prescription pills; smoking heroin (cheaper than prescription opioids); and ultimately injecting heroin. Contrary to the fashionable mantras, marijuana (THC) has proven to be a “gateway drug.” The relationship is not inevitable nor is it chemically based, but when the THC high becomes less and less satisfying, looking for a better high can be a serious temptation. Predictably, many Baba-lover parents were in denial until the progression of dependency in their children went too far.
In his statements about drugs, Meher Baba showed particular empathy for youth and “the student world,” and implied a special effort to educate them (e.g., in God in a Pill?). Current data already suggest that laws legalizing the recreational use of “marijuana” reduce the perception of risk among the young, even if underage use is still considered illegal. From a more optimistic perspective, the emergent evidence of harmful effects on the young will undoubtedly highlight the importance of the problem and force intelligent education and treatment for those who might be afflicted. As a society, we will not be able to ignore the problem.
Meher Baba’s Compassion. For Baba-lovers, it may help to remember that Meher Baba is not being “judgmental” on this issue. A history of drug use or dope smoking never disqualified anyone from retaining their essential divinity nor from following Baba’s path. Still, in his universal compassion, Avatar Meher Baba gave us extraordinarily relevant guidance about drug-related problems in the 1960s and offered prescient and sophisticated information for the future decades. His guidance and wisdom gifted us with a cosmic perspective on how to think about this issue, and continue to allow us to be of loving service whenever it is possible. Jai Baba!
P.S. I apologize for the limitations of this mini-discussion, but perhaps some of it can be helpful in a greater understanding of how Meher Baba guides, informs, and heals, both in spiritual realms and in everyday society. If you or friends have further questions or wish links to the scientific literature, I am happy to try to respond and/or direct you to some very rich references (aycohen[at]aol.com).
P.P.S. Kudos to the several Baba-lovers across the US and Canada currently working on the marijuana issue carrying Baba’s perspective—bibliographers, researchers, writers, videographers, clinicians, and service workers. For their Baba-inspired determination, special thanks to Debjani Ray in Toronto, Jill Davis in Portland, and many others. Thanks also to Kendra Crossen Burroughs and others for their editorial assistance.