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Much ado has been made nationally about legal and voter-sanctioned “recreational” marijuana use in the states of Colorado and Washington, as well as “medicinal” marijuana available in 19 other states. Thirty-nine states, combined with federal policies, continue policies of prohibition — policies that are untenable for reasons of interdiction costs, taxation and regulation, prison population, budgets, medicine, making criminals of ordinary citizens, etc. But as laws and attitudes change, I’d like us to consider another aspect of marijuana use — not recreational, not medicinal, but spiritual.
From the standpoint of pharmacological science, drugs can be divided into multiple classes and genres, all of which have different chemical properties and effects, with some number of drugs having measurable effects on a user’s consciousness. There may be other ways or standpoints of perceiving drugs, but my concern here is what may be termed the psychological or psychoactive, with an element of spiritual science included.
In short, a sort of “psycho-spiritual” standpoint can be used to categorize drugs and their effects, and is key to understanding the spiritual implications of the use of marijuana or, more broadly, the products derived from cannabis sativa. This is the botanical name of the plant containing the chemical tetrahydrocannabinol, and from which natural products such as leaf marijuana, hashish, kief, and various oils are produced. All of these products have approximately the same effects on the consciousness of users who purposefully use cannabis for hieratic or religious purposes.
The Seven Tongues of God
In 1963, then-Professor Timothy Leary of Harvard University presented a paper titled “The Seven Tongues of God” to a group of psychologists meeting in conjunction with the 71st annual convention of the American Psychological Association. In that lecture, later published in Psychedelic Review (No. 3, 1964), Leary made reference to a chart that listed “seven levels of energy consciousness, the drugs which induce them, and the sciences and religions which study each level.” In addition to correlating certain drugs to the seven levels of consciousness, Leary posited that there are correlations to religions and religious metaphors pertaining to each level.
Let’s briefly review the levels: the highest of the levels of consciousness in Leary’s table is “atomic,” or cosmic, where the user’s consciousness is centered in the atomic unity of all matter. Leary argued that this level is induced by LSD and STP.
The second highest of these levels of consciousness is “cellular,” where the user’s consciousness is centered in the organic, cellular structure of life. This level can be induced by peyote and psilocybin.
The third level is “somatic,” where the user’s consciousness is centered in his or her bodily organs and anatomy, and which is induced by MDA.
Fourth is “sensory,” where the user’s consciousness is centered in the intuition and heightened senses; this is induced by cannabis and its products, including the pill form of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.
The fifth of these levels of consciousness is “mental-social,” which is the default consciousness of the average person and which can be amplified (rather than induced) by amphetamines.
The sixth level of consciousness is “emotional stupor” (i.e, intoxication), where the user’s consciousness is centered exclusively in lower emotions and personality, and which is induced by alcohol and moderate use of narcotics and opiates.
The seventh and lowest of these levels of consciousness is “void,” where the user is rendered unconscious, which is induced by excess amounts or overdoses of alcohol or narcotics and opiates.
Whatever one may think of the life and legacy of Timothy Leary, his contribution of this psycho-spiritual or “consciousness” standpoint of categorizing drugs and clarifying their effects remains a valuable tool for understanding the rising popularity of cannabis — and, for that matter, understanding drugs as a whole. Even though the edges of his “Table 1” model may be in need of additional development, the underlying premise is cogent: every drug known to science that has a perceptible psychoactive effect on the consciousness of the user can be placed somewhere along the hierarchical axis of this model.
In other words, most psychoactive drugs will ultimately either expand or contract the user’s consciousness. The use of cannabis products, as milder entheogenic agents, tends to expand and thus induce the higher states of consciousness described in Leary’s table. So, when intentionally used in such a way, cannabis can be an aid to spiritual insight.
This is hardly a new theory. The great historian of religions, Mircea Eliade, was among the first to illustrate the widespread use of natural indigenous psychotropic plants among shamans and healers within tribal or primitive societies on every continent of the earth. In such societies, shamans ingest these plants — including cannabis — and then access spiritual “dream” realms and/or serve as psychopomps for other tribal members.
One can hardly imagine a closer correlation between cannabis and spiritual insight than these shamanic uses. It remains to be seen whether a similar use, suited to our own culture, will equal the medicinal and recreational uses now evident in the United States.
None of this is meant to suggest that we should resolve to institutionalize the use of cannabis within or as part of an organized religion, such as one finds in certain denominations of Jamaican Rastafari. Neither is this to suggest that the use of cannabis should, or ever could, serve as a substitute to a disciplined path of spiritual development or supplant such genuine methods as daily prayer, sitting meditation, and yoga. I mean only to point out that marijuana, and cannabis products generally, have, since protohistory, been used for spiritual insight, and that our laws ought to recognize and accommodate this use as well — much as they have done for peyote use among American Indians.
Image courtesy of Mark.