Note: This post, “Cannabis Overdose?” is a follow-up from a related post at cannabisandspirituality.com called “The Secret to Optimal Cannabis Dosage.”
Overdose? Or Inability to Handle Amplified Experience?
My family doctor doesn’t like cannabis at all. His only connection to it is through people coming to see him distressed from an “overdose.” He sees only a medical problem demanding a physical remedy to eliminate or at least mitigate the distress, such as a tranquilizing antidote of some sort.
But those quotation marks on “overdose” are there because it ain’t necessarily so. I don’t want to encourage anyone to overdo it* with cannabis, but if you find yourself in such a situation, it may not be that you’ve done too much. It may just be that you don’t yet know how to work with the ‘power surge.’ I’ll explain shortly.
*People with much experience of skillful use of cannabis often say “less is more.” And if you’re young and as reckless as many of us were during our misspent youth, you might not be paying much attention to knowing the particular plant material you’re taking in, but doing so can be very beneficial for producing positive experiences.
The brief anecdote about my doctor actually supports the argument for cannabis’ potential as a spiritual medicine, or ally. What he calls an overdose is often the experience of being frightened and overwhelmed by the power of the plant and as a result physically and psychologically distressed. As author (and contributor to the forthcoming book Cannabis and Spirituality) Joan Bello describes it, “People who try marijuana and reject it do so usually because they feel uncomfortable and confused in the altered, fuller consciousness. Instead of life being safely framed by the rigidity of the societal dogma, the world becomes unfamiliarly bigger, brighter, fuller, yet less manageable, more unpredictable and full of mystery.”1
No doubt there are sometimes exacerbating complications, such as the potentiating, complicating presence of other substances, oral ingestion of way too much cannabis, or a persistent pre-existing condition of spiritual distress, such as what authorities label “mental illness.”
The Energy Amplification is Workable
But otherwise, that energy may very well be workable. It’s like trying to ride an especially effervescent horse. A kind of “passive leadership” (an equestrian term) is required. The simplest way to say it is just “breathe and relax.” If that’s not sufficient guidance to put into practice, there are lots of ways to work with the energy. The foundation principle could be encapsulated with the word “meditation.” Meditation in this context means bare-attention, sometimes called “emptiness,” meditation—returning to full presence in the now, the technique being something as basic and natural as paying attention to the breath and allowing thoughts to dissolve when you notice them.
If it’s too hard to sit still and work at letting freed-up breathing settle things down—such as when dizziness or nausea are present—it can help to stand up, stretch a little, sway gently, and allow the flowing movement of wave energy to loosen the body and release that power, while still putting gentle attention on the breath. Moving to music, maybe especially to something with heart, soul, and sensual grooves, can also loosen up the energy, although you may not want to be dealing with machines in that condition.
If you have the opportunity to lie down on the ground, I’ve seen that physically connecting to the Earth can help ease those difficult-to-handle energies. If Mother Earth isn’t immediately accessible, stretching out on a bed, couch, or floor can substitute. Applying the “breathe and release thoughts” technique is still very beneficial when lying down.
There are other ways to counteract the effects of a rough ride with cannabis, but this post is about how to work with the energy, not how to get away from it. There is likely a reality component to such difficulties and the premise is that it’s often possible to free and transmute that energy.
Nothing Like a Narcotics Overdose
If it can be said that you can overdose on cannabis, it’s nothing like a narcotics overdose. Okay, some exceptions. If you eat or drink way too much cannabis (not hard to do), it can be extremely disorienting. The effervescent horse may get pushed aside by a truly wild animal. Difficult as it might be to accept and relax into such powerfully strange and discomfitting, distressing experiences, the general principle holds. It still comes down to how much you can ride, how much you can surrender, how much you can step out of “head traffic.”
I doubt the people who come to see my doctor arrive narcotized, in the sense of the literal meaning of the word “narcotic” as a substance that induces stupor or numbness. I imagine the people he sees are showing up full of worried energy, wild minded. The core element of the ‘overdose release’ program is that breathing and the release of thinking work together. When you can put your attention on the breath, you’re simultaneously stepping out of the thinking mind.
Fear Lives in Thought
I can’t say enough about the importance of not buying into the thinking mind’s interpretation of the situation. You can’t think your way out of a cannabis overdose but you can feel your way through. As you let deep breathing calm you, the space opens up. It can even produce a beautiful, sweet, healing. We just have to let the identity dissolve for a while. I’ve experienced and observed the changes when you get a handle on the energy and relax into it. The psychophysical symptoms just disappear. Gone, evidence that they weren’t real in the first place, or at least that they weren’t at root physical symptoms beyond the person’s control but instead were fed by thought. As the old master J. Krishnamurti put it, “Fear lives in thought.”
Those psychophysical symptoms could be the ego’s desperate defense against vulnerable, painful feelings. If you’ve kept a protective wall around yourself, and cannabis, or anything else, steals it from you for a bit, it can be shocking to suddenly realize your persona was just that—an act, not authentic. Depending on the intensity of your attachment to that persona, seeing that it was false and created for self-protection and public consumption can knock you hard.
Learning to Ride
There’s a further challenge for some of us. If you are able to work with the amplified energy of a potent pot experience and do some releasing, you may also be shocked to discover your raw, beating heart. You may realize in that moment of releasing the constricting bands around your heart how tragic it is that this beautiful heart has been walled off and silenced. To handle strong cannabis you may at some point have to stay present for some strong heartache. (Note to men especially: A bout of unrestrained crying is not weakness, it’s healing.)
In these ways cannabis is a truth serum. She can strip away the protective layer of that false persona. If you’re not able to accept that in the moment, if it freaks you out to have your game or your vulnerable heart exposed and you try to resist and look away, the difficult body experiences may kick in. This is probably more likely to occur with stronger doses, hence the “Cannabis Overdose?” question.*
*Note that with the high THC cannabis we have now, for some people a very strong dose can be as little as one toke.
So it’s a journey of learning how to ride the energies. Struggling physically is a common experience for people new to several of these sacramental plant medicines. Peyote and ayahuasca, for two prime examples, can make you dizzy and nauseous until you learn how to relax and surrender to them. I’ve been around both those medicines a lot and I’ve seen how new people have physical difficulties, like purging, far more often than the more experienced participants.
The beautiful news with these challenges that cannabis can run us through is that that’s exactly why she can be so beneficial for spiritual healing and awakening. Our dearly beloved ego absolutely refuses to be submerged into the greater reality. It is unbelievably clever and tricky and will do anything to preserve the status quo. Unfortunately for the ego, it can be overwhelmed by strong sacramental medicine experiences and may be forced to resort to desperate smokescreen measures like these kinds of psychophysical symptoms some call an overdose.
But those very same challenges to the status quo, to ego’s fortress, are where you find the gift and the power of cannabis. She can amplify and empower opening into deeper, truer states of being.
So again, there are some likely exceptions—like extremely high doses (especially of edibles), potentiation due to mixing substances, pre-existing mental conditions, and possibly inexperience. But often, instead of being a problem to be eliminated, what feels like an overdose of cannabis may be a golden opportunity to learn to work with the ways of a powerful sacred medicine plant “kindly bent to ease us.”
- Bello, The Benefits of Marijuana (final edition), 71