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Untangling the Web of Maria; On the Consequences of Chronic Cannabis Use

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Join Jonathan Edwards on Monday, April 20, at Fire and Smoke, presented by Evolver and Arborvitae’s Herbal Imaginarium, in NYC, where he will talk about the subject of cannabis from all angles. Learn more here.

Sweet seductress, balm for frayed nerves, scourge of the youth, inspiration in a blossom—Cannabis is many things to many people. From dispensaries to park benches, she’s everywhere you turn these days, and love her or loathe her, marijuana’s enjoying a new golden age.

As a clinical herbalist whose love affair with the plants began with miss Mary Jane, I’ve had occasion lately to think about her nature, what she has to offer and what she takes in return.

Make no mistake, she’s sexy. Glossy magazines are devoted to the sight of those technicolor buds. And the nose is no less seduced than the eyes: the range and intensity of her aromas is astounding. There’s no doubt this is a magic plant, a glamorous goddess who bestows upon her devotees the gift of sensual delight.

Under her spell, time warps and dilates, hard edges blur; the senses are heightened, and the door to another, mystic realm cracks open to offer a tantalizing glimpse.

Touched by such wonder, we may return inspired to compose our own Kublai Khan. And before long we’re apt to return to that magical space where everything good seems enhanced.

For occasional use, perhaps this is all well and good so far. With regular exposure, though, the magic tends to recede; there’s more fog and less color. Our goddess-lover grows indifferent, even cruel, showing us disfavor the more we grovel at her feet. And where we had glimpsed the beyond through a parted veil, the panes are now steamed up.

If we have come to her for inspiration, she may continue to supply the goods for some time. But what we don’t realize is that our own fuel is feeding the creative blaze. Cannabis is no creative rocket fuel—she’s simply the switch that pushes our own engines into overdrive. When the fuel runs out, the fire dies down and so does our creative spree. We find we’ve burnt out.

From the energetic perspective of Chinese medicine, it’s the Liver organ network that takes the bruntof burn-out. As the principle organ of the Wood element, the Liver (capitalized to distinguish it from the strictly anatomical) is responsible for flexibility, mobilization and circulation of resources (blood and qi), the capacity to strategize and envision. Part of the syndrome of a burnt-out Liver is that we’ve flooded ourselves with vision (or actual visions) but crippled our capacity to act on them. The Liver Yang necessary for execution has gone up in smoke, and it’s not terribly easily replenished. At this point continued use may result only in paranoia and disorientation: the dreaded fear (as in, “Oh %&#*, I’m getting the fear!”).

Sooner or later we come to know another side of Maria: she’s sticky. She sticks to our fingers and our bowls; she sticks to our lungs and she stick to our souls. She’d really rather not let us go. She sticks in the subtle spaces of our minds, gumming up the narrative threads of which our lives’ fabric is woven. (What was I saying…?)

With long term use, our linguistic and mnemonic capacities become warped. We have trouble making certain distinctions, keeping things separate or putting things together (like faces and names). We have trouble following the thread. We’re caught in Maria’s web.

Untangling the Web: Mugwort

Those seeking to clear up the fouled-up strands of weed’s web need first of all a firm intention, followed by some herbal aid.

Let’s start with the most specific herb I’m aware for antidoting cannabis: Mugwort, Artemisia vulgaris. Herbalist Julia Graves and Matthew Wood mention this usage of mugwort, and I can verify from experience that it has a powerful capacity to antidote the less desirable effects of marijuana.

In mugwort we have a wild and powerful female archetype equal and opposite to that of marijuana. Where cannabis is heavy, mugwort is light; where cannabis is cloudy, mugwort is clear.

Named after Artemis, mugwort has long been associated with witchcraft, that is with the wisdom and wortcunning of women. It has a deserved reputation for stimulating vivid dreams; it helps bring the light of the waking mind into the nighttime realm. It also pulls the reverse trick, infusing waking life with more of mystery and magic of the night. All in all, it is an herb of lucidity: an ally for helping us tune into what author and dream-worker Paul Levy calls “the dream-like nature of reality.”

Like many powerful medicines, mugwort is subtle. Only something suitably subtle can penetrate deeply into the psyche, likewise into the liver and the brain. There at the subtlest of levels, our huntress encounters the sticky snarls that are cannabis’ legacy. And patently she sets to work smoothing, untangling, unsticking. Slowly, slowly, like a crone at the spinning wheel, she combs out the tangles. In doing so, she starts to restore our capacity for lucid thought and lucid dreams. Behind all the fog, after all, the clear night nature of the mind remains unsullied, unsulliable.

Though tea is a fit vehicle for this silvery queen amongst herbs, she shines as a smoke. (And how different is her smoke from that of cannabis: rich but light and clean, without any cloying stickiness.) Here Mugwort is supported by lavender, mint, and a little white sage, all wonderfully light, fragrant, and clarifying herbs.

Clarity Blend (for tea or smoke)

Mugwort leaf, Artemisia vulgaris. Use fine, wildcrafted leaf if possible.

Lavender blossoms, Lavendula angustifolia

Spearmint leaf, Mentha spicata

White Sage leaf, Salvia apiana (optional)

Long-time cannabis users may notice a slight but definite stoniness when smoking this blend: you really feel the tangles when someone starts combing them out. These folks can also expect a marked increase in dream activity, which may have been suppressed by cannabis; it’s helpful to pay attention to these medicine dreams as they can guide us along the path of healing.

The blend can also be mixed with cannabis to reduce some of its more harmful effects. One anecdotal report so far suggests that the mugwort may actually counteract the cannabis and make it difficult to become stoned, or at least stoned in the way one may be accustomed to.

Other Prime Herbs of Clarity

Basil, rosemary, lavender and mint are herbs of clarity with an affinity for the head and are our allies in recovering from chronic cannabis abuse. They can be used as a hot infusion (tea), a tincture, in essential oil form, or in herbal baths.

As tea, tulsi a.k.a. holy basil works better than does standard dried basil leaf, and has beneficial qualities of its own including a special capacity to de-obstruct the subtle channels and enhance mental function. Tulsi is rich in prana and may enhance cerebral oxygenation. Ayurveda also recommends brahmi or gotu kola as (largely interchangeable) herbs for supporting mental function; combined with tulsi, they help direct its clearing function to the brain, and tulsi and brahmi pair particularly well as a tea.

Rosemary is circulatory stimulant with a spicy resinousness that stokes the metabolic fires and helps our micro-channels burn clean. It’s been known for centuries as an herb for the memory so it’s really indispensable for us here.

Mint has an opening, lifting quality that can help part the thick mists that cannabis leaves us with.

Lavender is a natural cleanser, helpful for sticky resin-residue in our skulls, and as a relaxing nervine can help take the edge off when we might otherwise reach for the bubbler.

In their essential oil forms, rosemary, lavender, basil and mint can be applied to the body and particularly to the head after 10:1 dilution in a neutral carrier oil, such as almond or jojoba. Post bathing is a good time to anoint, or add drops of the undiluted oils to your bathwater. A more direct method for taking an herbal bath, and one that really draws on the subtle and spiritual aspects of these herbs, is as follows. Rub the fresh leaves of a handful of basil, rosemary, lavender and/or mint well in a bowl of water until the water takes on strong color and aroma. Strain, and pour this water over your head and body at the end of your regular shower. Don’t rinse it off, and dry yourself only gently to better absorb the effects. This herbal bathing is particularly useful at the outset of the recovery process, as it sends a strong message to yourself that you are charting a new course of clarity.

Calling on Saraswati

Ayurveda also brings us the traditional formula Saraswati Churna, a powdered blend of nervine and tonic herbs named after the goddess of learning, creativity and oral traditions. This is an excellent formula to consider for anyone with pronounced mental fogginess or cognitive issues.

Rejuvenating the Subtle Fires

Fatty acids are the fuel for the subtle fires of consciousness, and the quality of that flame depends on the quality of the fuel. Omega 3’s are essential to healthy cognition and, while they can be supplemented, they are best obtained directly from a diet rich in whole, unrefined oils and fats from healthy plants and animals.

Amongst the most potent allies in the fats department is ghee (clarified butter) made from high-quality, pastured butter. Uniquely amongst oils, ghee is both light and deeply nourishing. It enters the subtlest channels, clearing them as it restores. Regular and generous intake of ghee may facilitate the detox process while simultaneously nourishing the nervous system.

Another strong candidate for feeding and restoring the integrity of the nervous system is hemp seed oil: it’s not only rich in the right kinds of fatty acids, but there’s a certain poetic justice in using the seed of the plant that bit us. (Whether or not hempseed oil is actually specific for aiding in cannabis detox remains in the realm of speculation, but I think it’s worth investigating.)

Putting the pieces together, our ideal healing agents for mental rejuvenation may well be a medicated ghee or (hempseed oil) prepared with nervine tropho-restorative herbs. Making herb-infused ghee at home requires only the ghee, the herbs, a stove, some water, and a few hours (see Frawley and Lad’s manual, The Yoga of Herbs, for instructions). Quality preparations are also increasingly available commercially, though as with the ghee itself, home-made is best.

The following herbal mixture, loosely based on Saraswati Churna, provides an excellent basis for an herbalized ghee or oil:

Ashwagandha – 5 parts

Rosemary- 3 parts

Shankhapushpi (or substitute Skullcap) – 3 parts

Calamus (known as Vacha in Ayurveda) – 2 parts

Ginger – 1 part

Restoring the Lungs

The lungs bear much of the brunt of chronic smoking of any kind, and cannabis smoke is particularly damaging and carcinogenic. By the time they reach later middle age, regular pot smokers tend to be notably grey in the face, a sign of compromised respiratory function. Herbs can help here too, typically a combination of soothing demulcents like licorice and marshmallow root together with spicy, stimulating expectorants such as angelica, American spikenard, and osha. Throw in some cardamom and fennel seeds and you’ve got the basis for a lung-reviving formula (which should ideally be composed to fit the individual case).

A Long Road

Rejuvenation, especially for long-time smokers, doesn’t happen overnight. Those burnt-out Livers take time to renew, and untangling sticky mind-threads is slow going as well. With a clear intention and consistent use of the herbal tools outlined here, however, it’s possible to make steady progress and eventually to reach the peak of clarity. Meanwhile, for those who don’t intend to break things off with Mary Jane, these herbs offer ways to mitigate her less salubrious effects while still enjoying her gifts.

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