This is first chapter of John's book Cannabis The New Way: how I found a powerful tool for a happier life and planet, published August 2022. (Footnotes omitted.) Buy on Amazon. Prefer an audio version? Listen here.
Chapter 1 - The Growth Stalk
Welcome to a new approach to cannabis designed to permanently elevate your happiness level and improve your life, as it has done for me and many others.
This new model differs from the Usual Way of consuming cannabis—for recreation—to relax, socialize, or enjoy media. The New Way also involves no medical use of the substance. It is a third cannabis method. Intake occurs during a carefully structured Session (with a capital S), lasting from half an hour to several hours, either alone or with others. Sessions foster deeply mindful participation in emotionally elevating activities. Just a few such experiences reveal the powerful potential of using cannabis this way.
For example, your ability to listen to music becomes more refined. Your favorite artists never sounded this good before. The same is true for your taste perceptions; a piece of fruit that you might have previously eaten without much attention now gushes pleasure in your mouth. Sex is even more mind-blowing than normal, and your erotic energy flows from deeper within your body. You can also get wonderfully relaxed. You won’t need a tropical beach vacation to really unwind; just ten minutes on your living room floor will now do the trick.
And your relationships shift. You tire of small talk and connect more intimately from the heart. Your spiritual side grows too, as your ego softens and you feel more bonded to the world. A Session promises many other delights, as I will describe throughout the book.
My discovery of this way to use cannabis (which I also call “pot”, “weed”, and “the plant”) capped a multi-decade investigation into the nature of happiness. In my first year of college, I endured a bout with cancer which opened my youthful eyes to the reality of mortality. I realized that if I could die at any moment then I should not waste time doing things I did not value. I should instead focus on finding joy in life and nothing else. I understood the wisdom in Aristotle’s famous saying, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”
My early existential crisis inspired an unconventional life, and I took the path less traveled in pursuit of emotional riches. I’ll spare you the details, except to say that in the bloom of middle age, I began an in-depth study of what science knows about happiness. I learned that positive emotions flow from a relatively few types of experiences which are surprisingly absent from the lifestyles of most folks today.
It struck me that many of the problems our world now faces, including global warming, war, inequality, and authoritarianism, are driven in part by mass unhappiness. When we live perpetually in emotional doldrums, we create harm. For example, we embrace materialism, thinking that shiny new objects will make us feel better. But the evidence is clear that they provide only a superficial, short-term lift. We chew up natural resources and heat up the planet, yet we get little joy. I concluded that there is no more urgent task than helping everyone grow happier. Human survival could depend on it.
To that end, in 2015 I published Joyshift: the journey to primal happiness, a book describing the key findings of happiness science and how people could apply those insights to bring more joy into their lives. I gave seminars and facilitated groups who wanted to push their happiness level higher.
But I saw how difficult real change is for most individuals. Even when you understand that shopping, sitting, browsing social media, overworking, and under-sleeping all dissatisfy our emotional selves, rare is the person who can break free of such habits and pursue happier behaviors. To joyshift, as I called it, turned out to be challenging.
However, a few years later I discovered a solution. Through a series of events described in these pages, I found that using pot strategically and mindfully in a Session, rather than casually and without any structure, could reliably and immediately boost one’s spirits. Such a reward helped motivate continuing commitment to break unhappy habits and find more joy.
There are two key reasons why weed is the best substance to help us grow permanently happier. First is its psychological effect, the result of its main psychoactive ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Unlike other drugs such as benzodiazepines (e.g., Valium, Ativan), which invariably reduce anxiety in those who take it, or amphetamines (e.g., Adderall) which energize the nervous system, cannabis originates no specific subjective response. Rather, it amplifies whatever feelings the user experiences during the high. By feelings, I mean sensations like the scent of a rose or the feel of a kiss, and emotions like joy and anxiety.
If we consume weed when we feel happy and relaxed and do activities that promote those feelings, cannabis will intensify them. We will feel happier and more at ease than if we did not consume. But if we take pot while uptight and in discomfiting circumstances, we will feel more anxious than we normally would. By way of an analogy, cannabis is like the amplifier in our audio system, which does not make the sound, but enables us to hear it better, whether good or bad.
While the plant amplifies feelings, how you experience this intensification critically depends on how much attention you give the stronger signal. To feel intensely requires that mental energy moves through the neural circuits that process emotions and sensory stimuli and away from the circuits on which thoughts and symbols flow. If after consuming cannabis, your attention stays focused on words, numbers, concepts, and the like, the amplifier effect is muted. Hence an essential feature of a Session is to be mindful of feelings—to deliberately tune into your emotions and senses and tone down the constant chatter in your head. The trio of the amplifier effect, being mindful, and doing innately positive activities creates a powerful rush of joy. That, in turn, will motivate you to do more joyful activities and thus form new happy habits.
Such Sessions exercise your feeling muscles, the parts of your brain that manage emotions and sensory stimuli. And the stronger that specific grey matter becomes, the greater your neural capacity to feel good. I call that part of your psyche your joymind, and because a mindful, carefully designed cannabis Session nourishes that vital mental component—much like weight training bulks up your biceps—that new brain power helps boost your happiness level, long-term.
Aspects of our current milieu, especially mobile technology that is never out of reach, powerfully overstimulate another region of our mind: the networks that process symbols. Every minute of the day, words, numbers, and other abstractions deluge us. The overwhelming attention we give them stunts the development of our joymind. That is another reason we are not as happy as we could be. As you shall see, a Session (which I also call a Joysesh) will bring more balance to your mind, toning down your symbol processing, and that, too, will help you become happier outside your Sessions.
The second reason cannabis is optimal for developing our self in this way is its lawful status in many jurisdictions of the world. For example, in my country, Canada, the adult use of pot has been legal since 2018. Adults can also lawfully consume cannabis in many places in the United States as well. Today over 200 million North Americans can legally consume the plant, and their numbers are growing every year as more states see the terrible folly of prohibiting weed. Mexico, Germany, Italy, and many other nations are also poised to legalize.
A key effect of such reform is the establishment of a regulated industry that produces high quality cannabis products free of the contamination and toxins that frequently appear in bootleg goods. Legalization also brings substantial information about every legal pot product, including its concentration of THC, cannabidiol (CBD), and other contents. Without that information, pot can be hazardous. You don’t know if a single puff of weed or bite of a hash brownie will have no effect or get you so high you can barely move.
The distinctive amplification of feelings that pot produces and its legal status for hundreds of millions of people combine to create the opportunity for a radical new paradigm for the plant. But a key question arises: why has this been so overlooked? Cannabis has been legal medically in various places in North America for decades and for full adult use in several regions for five to ten years. Yet the idea that weed can permanently boost our happiness levels, and thereby change our culture, has received almost zero attention. Why?
The main reason is that a very casual approach to cannabis—which I call the Usual Way—is how it is typically used. This closely imitates how we consume alcohol: as a relaxing, socially disinhibiting mood elevator. Because at low doses both weed and booze have roughly similar psychological effects, and since pot became popular only after alcohol had been the sole mass intoxicant in Western culture for centuries, most first-time cannabis users, including me, adopted alcohol’s casual, low-brow traditions.
Booze, however, has been a legal substance for much of its history, whereas most modern pot use has occurred in an era of prohibition. That legal difference has significant consequences. First, the illegal status of cannabis powerfully promoted a stigma against it. For most of my life a “war on drugs” has put people in jail for actions as harmless as possessing the plant. Such aggression promoted anxiety in those who consumed the substance and a powerful prejudice against it in the non-using population. Second, prohibition ensured that only the illicit market would produce and distribute pot, thereby creating the quality and potency issues mentioned. That, in turn, led to a plague of unintentional overdoses on weed.
I had such an experience. Though as a young man I loved the earthy flavor of cannabis, the smoke from the rolling paper and plant irritated my throat and lungs. I also feared that the weed I bought from roughnecks in back alleys might be contaminated with toxins. But a hippie pot grower who cultivated plants in a beautiful bay on the remote coast of British Columbia gifted me a bag of shake, the stalk and leaves of the plant that have no commercial worth (unlike the valuable flower or bud of the plant). He told me to cut up the shake as finely as I could and simmer it for several hours in a large container with a pound of butter. After the mash cooled, I was to skim off the butter at the top, now infused with the psychoactive compounds. “This will be super potent, so test only a small bit at first,” he warned me.
I followed his instructions and collected a small jar full of green goo. I had no idea what a “small bit” was. I took half a teaspoon. When smoking pot I have always felt the effects within a minute or two. I had no idea that edible cannabis could take an hour to kick in. After half an hour and no reaction, I swallowed another half teaspoon. An hour later, with still no effects, I decided to abandon the experiment and seek advice from my hippie friend when I next saw him.
Then the high came on like a roller coaster ride. Too high to stand I lay down in my bed. I tried to read, but the words made no sense. Waves of paranoia splashed over me. Suddenly I worried that the police were about to ram down my door. Then I popped out of my delusion and saw it as just that. But the crazy fears returned. In a ridiculous attempt to hide, I got under the bedspread and covered my head with pillows. My heart thumped and beads of sweat dripped from my brow. That passed eventually, and I became relatively clear-headed. I understood the foolishness in my behavior, and a fit of compulsive laughter engulfed me. Then anxiety crept back. I’d never experienced such abrupt emotional shifts before that time. I worried that I had gone bananas. But slowly the high ebbed, and within a few hours, I was sober again.
That day tempered my enthusiasm for cannabis. The butter stayed untouched in my freezer for about a year, and then I threw it out. I continued to smoke weed sporadically and cautiously, usually at parties or to enjoy music. I came to prefer beer, wine, and tequila.
I’ve been informally surveying pot users for several years and have discovered that close to half report at least one highly negative event like my overdose. Such downers seem to be more common on cannabis than on psychedelics such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), psilocybin mushrooms, and MDMA, commonly referred to as Ecstasy. Consider, for example, the reports of two respected journalists who recently “came out of the closet” to reveal their use of psychedelics and weed. Both said that their worst experiences involved the latter. Ayelet Waldman in A Really Good Day describes her experiments taking tiny amounts of LSD (a process called microdosing). As an aside, she tells of ingesting a cannabis capsule from a dispensary to help her sleep. “I had an experience that was so terrifying I’m surprised I’m even doing this [LSD microdosing] experiment at all. Though I hadn’t taken a psychedelic, I definitely had what can be described as a bad trip.” Convinced that she was dying, she telephoned her husband who talked her down from the frightening pot high.
Michael Pollan’s highly influential 2018 book How to Change your Mind, chronicles the “psychedelic renaissance” arising from the many recent clinical studies showing the medical promise of LSD, psilocybin, and other drugs. He also discloses his own experiments with them, but he also mentions “a terrifying moment in a hotel room in Seattle when, alone and having smoked too much cannabis, I had to marshal every last ounce of will to keep myself from doing something deeply crazy and irrevocable.”
So, many see cannabis as more psychologically dangerous than the traditional psychedelics. This is, in part, a result of the different ways these substances infiltrated our society. Cannabis entered modern culture in the twentieth century, largely via the underclass of Black people and immigrants in the 1930s and before. Racism was a central reason governments outlawed the drug in the 1930s. Illegalization did not stop beatniks from using pot in the 1940s and 1950s, nor did it stop the hippies in the 1960s or millions of average middle-class folks thereafter. Allen Ginsberg, the iconic Beat poet, was the rare individual to see cannabis as a powerful psychological tool. To Ginsberg’s dismay, that never became popular. “I was somewhat disappointed later on when the counterculture developed the use of grass for party purposes rather than study purposes,” he said.
In contrast, psychedelics trickled into the developed world in the 1950s and 1960s when they were legal. Doctors, psychologists, and their patients were the first to experiment with them. A famous early psychedelic institution, the Hollywood Hospital, operated a few miles from my family’s home in suburban Vancouver, British Columbia. There psychiatrists treated addictions and other problems for hundreds of patients including movie celebrities like Carey Grant.
In the early 1960s a group of Harvard professors began experimenting with psilocybin as a therapeutic tool for prison inmates and divinity students. They also used psilocybin and LSD themselves. Two of them, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (Ram Dass), formed a legendary commune in New York where members experimented with the drugs to access new realms of consciousness as an alternative to yoga, meditation, and “religious or aesthetic ecstasies.”[v] They saw parallels between such events and Buddhist and Taoist practices. In time, Leary became a self-described psychedelic “high priest”, and large numbers of young people followed his lead.[vi] The American government, and most others around the globe, then outlawed psychedelics.
But the fact that prior to such prohibition, doctors, professors, and proponents of Eastern religions recommended these substances, entrenched a high-minded attitude toward them. Psychedelic users tended to show their drugs more respect than they did cannabis, seeing the psychedelic experience as a “trip” that they carefully planned for, instead of a substitute for alcohol at parties.
I was introduced to psychedelics in that more high-minded way. I consumed mostly magic mushrooms, which grow prolifically in farm fields outside Vancouver, British Columbia where I live. I never used them alone, and I never used them casually as a party drug. Like millions of others, I considered weed the poor cousin of the psychoactive family, unworthy of mindful, disciplined experience. With that lack of respect came widespread overdoses, which further stigmatized the humble weed and, in turn, inspired recreational users to play it safe with pot and keep their doses mild. Few of us detected that when used wisely at higher doses, cannabis is similar to psychedelics.
The late Terence Mckenna, one of the most respected authorities on psychedelics, saw that potential in cannabis. In The Fruit of the Gods he writes: “when used occasionally in a context of ritual and culturally reinforced expectation of a transformation of consciousness, cannabis is capable of nearly the full spectrum of psychedelic effects associated with hallucinogens.”
So, like millions of my baby boom generation, my relationship with pot evolved in a different direction than my psychedelic experience. My weed consumption was informal, unplanned, lacking ritual, and rarely “mind-blowing” in contrast to my more intense and mindful use of psychedelics.
My psychedelic background taught me that, when used consciously, such substances had the potential to improve the lives of individuals and society in general, mainly by loosening the grip of our ego. British philosopher Aldous Huxley wrote of this effect (on mescaline) in his famous 1954 book The Doors of Perception. He later foresaw that such psychoactives will “deepen the spiritual life of the communities in which they are available.” However, in prohibiting psychedelics in the late 1960s, lawmakers denied society their benefits.
I could understand governments not wanting to make psychedelics as available as chewing gum. Consumed unskillfully, they can cause real harm. But the authorities could never articulate a rational basis for a total prohibition that prevents responsible citizens from all conscientious use of the drugs or scientists from studying them. Emotional and irrational impulses, and not clear-sighted reason, motivated such legislation.
Democracies enshrine human rights in their constitutions to restrain such prejudice, and I used such provisions in my law practice to convince courts to strike down irrational prohibitions pertaining to sexuality. With that legal background, I thought I could craft a case to persuade the courts to allow LSD and magic mushrooms in carefully controlled settings for personal and spiritual growth. In the early 1990s, I reached out to experts in the field of psychedelics including Rick Doblin, who, a few years earlier, had founded the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). I also contacted Dr. Charles Grob who was doing pioneering work in the medical applications of psychedelics at the time. In 1994 I attended a legendary psychedelic conference at Chapman University in California’s Orange County, where in a crowd of admirers I met Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, and many younger luminaries of a budding psychedelic science and movement.
While most experts in the field supported my proposed case in principle, they thought it doomed to failure in the courts. It was thought better for scientists to first prove the medical benefits of the substances, which in turn would reduce the knee-jerk stigma against them and open the minds of decision-makers to the personal and spiritual benefits of regulated events. At the conference, I met several characters practiced in leading psychedelic ceremonies and helping clients integrate these experiences into their regular life. But they did not want to participate in a court case and disclose their illegal activities. I decided that my case was premature and abandoned the plan.
A few years later, the prohibition system began to weaken. Starting in the mid 1990s, some state governments in the US, and later the Canadian government, recognized medical applications of cannabis and amended laws to allow the sale of pot to people with a doctor’s prescription. Medical cannabis dispensaries opened in many American and Canadian cities, including Vancouver.
Governments also recognized that some psychedelic plants had spiritual significance. In the early 2000s, ayahuasca, an Amazonian psychedelic brew, spread from its shamanic roots in South America to Europe and North America. Many of my friends attended ceremonies led by Indigenous shamans from Peru and Brazil. In the latter nation, an organized religion operating for over fifty years ingests ayahuasca as a sacrament. By 2010, decisions by courts and other authorities had mostly legalized such rituals in both the United States and Canada. The formalized, overtly religious context of this type of psychedelic practice is allowed, often because of constitutional “freedom of religion” provisions.
Again, I wondered whether the authorities were ready to take the next step and allow individuals like me to take psychedelics, not in overtly formal religious rites, but rather in well-ordered settings for self-development. I gathered a small team to work on a test case. Eventually, the enormous cost of the lawsuit dissuaded us.
I continued to use psychedelics occasionally. They were too intense to do frequently. Like a trip to the wilderness, I'd take them with close friends a few times a year. Between my psychedelic experiences, I sometimes smoked bud and occasionally munched edibles, mostly to socialize or enjoy media—in the Usual Way. Like so many of my peers, I regarded psychedelics as the sophisticated superior of lowly pot.
Sex and Cannabis
Then a chain of events inspired my radical revaluation of cannabis. This adventure involved another psychoactive behavior: sex. My interest in erotic activity, personal and professional, was the crucible for my new cannabis system. As my sexual story plays an important part in this narrative, I’ll tell it now, briefly.
Raised in a North American culture that, despite a purported sexual revolution, shows deep ambivalence about our erotic nature, as a young man I questioned why so few civilizations openly celebrated this wonderful dimension of being human. In my twenties, traveling in India, I learned that sex-positive communities occasionally appeared in history. I saw an ancient example etched in stone when I visited the sumptuous, erotic temples of Khajuraho. These beauties were over a thousand years old and lavishly adorned with some of the finest erotic sculptures ever crafted. The sex-positive Tantric tradition of a few Buddhist sects also intrigued me. I began studying the works of writers interested in attitudes toward sexuality, such as Wilhelm Reich and Alan Watts, and sex-positive feminists, including Shere Hite, Betty Dodson, and Carol Vance. But I found no detailed explanation for the widespread anxiety about sex.
Then I discovered this shame in myself. Like so many of my baby boomer peers, I thought that only our parents’ generation suffered sexual anxiety. But several of my own behaviors seemed to reveal it within me, including my discomfort in disclosing that I loved to pleasure myself. I had shame about one of the most gratifying activities in life. I decided to confront my own sexual hang-ups by pushing the edge of my sex-negative comfort zone. I attended avant-garde sex workshops, visited swinger’s clubs, entered polyamorous relationships and patronized a new sex-positive breed of sex workers offering tantric massage. This was a radical path for a son of the suburbs with a downtown law office.
Eventually I left that profession to become a writer and entrepreneur. In 2005, I published The Politics of Lust, (Prometheus Books), to the praise of leading sexual scientists. The Politics of Lust examines how sexual fear spreads like a virus throughout every civilized society. The book also exposes forces seemingly unrelated to sexuality that fuel this psychological pandemic: social hierarchy and inequality, which are common even in modern democratic cultures. I won’t connect the dots of that argument here; if you are interested, the book does that.
Over time, I understood that I didn’t want to only write about and personally experiment with sexuality, but also build an enduring sex-positive organization. One that could fund my frugal lifestyle. This realization led to the 2002 opening of an educationally oriented, women-friendly sex shop in Vancouver called The Art of Loving. My then life-partner, Vera Zyla, and I have operated the business ever since. We sell sex toys and erotic art and host seminars on all manner of sexual subjects.
These personal details set the stage for my discovery of a new model for cannabis.
Lisa and Paula
In 2019, The Art of Loving had been in business for seventeen years and thousands of individuals had attended our educational seminars. Sexuality educators frequently contact our business, interested in leading workshops at our location. Two such women invited me for a glass of wine at a heritage hotel on the Vancouver waterfront to discuss their proposed seminar. There I met Lisa and Paula, two sexy, vibrant, middle-aged mothers with MBAs. Their main business was real estate development, but their passion involved leading informal seminars on how cannabis could transform women’s sexuality and marriages.
Their project became possible only because Canada had legalized the adult use of cannabis, following the lead of several progressive American states. This change created a new industry to grow, test, and distribute pot. It also allowed public events like the ones Paula and Lisa host, where people consume the plant within a self-development process. Before legalization, nobody could lawfully consume non-medical cannabis. Few middle-aged moms would have attended such illegal events, and no established business would host them. The end of prohibition opened a new world of possibilities.
At their free gatherings, Paula and Lisa hand out chocolates they custom-make, infused with carefully measured portions of cannabis that thorough testing has revealed are the optimal quantity for the intended purpose. As their all-female audience begins to get high, Paula and Lisa tell them about their own sex lives, which usually inspires the others to open up too. Under the influence of pot, most women overcome their inhibitions and divulge their stories, and the common theme voiced by the middle-aged moms is that sex is mostly a dutiful and passionless act. They do it to satisfy their husbands, not themselves.
Paula and Lisa’s own marital experience was similar. Before they started making their chocolates, their sex lives were dull. Cannabis pushed their sexual reset button. A pot high took them out of their heads and into their bodies, so that while making love, they no longer planned the upcoming family meal or real estate purchase, but instead focused on delicious new erotic sensations. As sparks flew in bed, their marital relationships improved. They told their audience, “This Saturday night, after the kids have gone to bed, eat a chocolate and seduce your husband. See what happens.” The response that often came back? “You saved my marriage!”
Helping other women rejuvenate their sexuality gratified Lisa and Paula more than their careers in real estate, and they sought to introduce a larger audience, such as the female customers of The Art of Loving, to the erotic magic of cannabis.
I perceived immediately that Paula and Lisa’s approach to the plant departed from the Usual Way in several respects. First, their methodical planning. Paula and Lisa determine the best dose of the substance for the outcome they seek, (namely, a group talking frankly about a taboo subject and then going home and getting aroused in bed). Such measurement rigor is atypical of commonplace cannabis use. Whenever I toked a joint or nibbled on a hash brownie, I had no idea how much I was consuming, which is why I usually took so little. The women’s seminar planning also includes timing key moments in the event such as when the participants eat the chocolate, when the group transits from easygoing icebreaker chat to more challenging conversations about sex, when they introspect to fully sense the effects of the chocolate, and when the event will end.
Second, Lisa and Paula deploy cannabis for more than instant gratification. I’d always used the plant for its euphoric and hedonistic lifts. Given my background, the potential of cannabis seminars to develop more sex-positive attitudes obviously appealed to me. But it also occurred to me that sexuality is just one area of life that skillful pot events might enhance.
If such an event could get a group of strangers to speak authentically about a difficult subject, surely it could foster open dialogue and deeper interpersonal connections generally. Maybe in the right setting cannabis could help families, support groups, and even the executive team of a business to develop mutual understanding and emotional bonds. I also sensed that weed could be a creativity tool. It had improved my writing at times, and my entries in my personal journal when high are often more interesting than my usual notes. Perhaps pot could be deployed to help maximize our creative potential. I also knew that the plant had been used for millennia in religious rites all over the planet. Maybe I could explore that spiritual side of cannabis as well.
I met with Lisa and Paula once more and got more details about their proposed seminars at The Art of Loving. We delayed further meetings until after the summer holidays during which time I could discuss their proposal with my business partner Vera. I also wanted time to experiment with cannabis and become more intimate with the substance than ever before.
Chapter 2 The Experiment Begins