Cannabis is the most used drug in the world, famous for its medicinal and recreational properties. But in recent years, psychedelic drugs like “magic” mushrooms and LSD have been gaining increasing attention among researchers, clinicians, and casual users alike. But while cannabis is often considered to be in a class of its own, is weed actually a psychedelic?
Sure, it can affect the way we feel, think, and experience the world around us, but is this enough to give weed the psychedelic treatment? After all, what exactly distinguishes a psychedelic drug from other substances? We’re looking at official guidance and evidence as well as consumer opinions to find out. So, let’s kick off with the basics… What defines a psychedelic drug?
What is a psychedelic?
According to the Alcohol and Drug Foundation (ADF), “psychedelics (also known as hallucinogens) are a class of psychoactive substances that produce changes in perception, mood and cognitive processes.” The ADF’s summary also states that psychedelics affect all the senses, “altering a person’s thinking, sense of time and emotions.” Furthermore, they can also induce hallucinations – defined as seeing or hearing things that are not there or that are distorted.
The effects of psychedelic drugs led to their rise to popularity among the counter-culture of the 1960s and 70s and have seen them remain favoured by recreational drug users to this day. However, psychedelic drugs have also been assessed for their potential therapeutic uses for just as long – and in many cases, even longer. The current wave of psychedelic research we are seeing – dubbed “the psychedelic renaissance” by many – is, on many fronts, building on findings that were first made decades ago.
The psychedelic properties of cannabis
Cannabis has had a similar history over the last century or so, with clinical research curtailed by issues with legality. It also appears to tick most, if not all, of the boxes when it comes to the psychedelic properties laid out above – at least sometimes.
THC (the main psychoactive constituent of cannabis) has the potential to change the way we experience the world around us: colours might seem more vivid, music might sound better, food tastes more delicious, and even your serious friend might seem funnier. A recent review of the scientific literature likewise found that cannabis may have psychedelic effects. But is this enough to place it in the same category as LSD, psilocybin, and ketamine?
While we can acknowledge the similarities between these substances, it is also important to take note of their differences. After all, most people who are able to compare cannabis and a true psychedelic drug from firsthand experiences will insist that the effects of weed are far milder than those experienced under the influence of, say, magic mushrooms or acid. For example, while the world might feel a little fuzzier than usual after a joint, this is far removed from the complete departure from reality that can occur under the influence of LSD.
Furthermore, while it is possible to experience hallucinations when using cannabis, this is a much rarer occurrence and may even be a symptom of psychosis, rather than a “trip”. So, while many of the effects and experiences associated with cannabis can feel a little psychedelic, it is unlikely that it can be considered a true psychedelic drug.
Cannabis is widely referred to as a psychoactive drug. This essentially refers to substances that can have a “profound or significant” effect on mental processes. Which brings us to our next point: Cannabis and psychedelics affect the brain in different ways.
Utilising psychedelic properties in a clinical setting
Psychedelic research has now revealed that psychedelics could be useful in a number of clinical settings. Here in the UK, the Imperial College London has even launched the Centre for Psychedelic Research – the first of its kind in the world. The centre has so far focused on the use of psychedelics in mental health care, and “as tools to probe the brain’s basis for consciousness.” Current evidence suggests that psychotherapy with psychedelic drugs such as psilocybin, ketamine, and LSD could be beneficial in the treatment of several mental health conditions, including depression, PTSD, and addiction.
Interestingly, cannabis has also been implicated as a possible source of therapy in many of the same indications. Notably, observational studies indicate that cannabis use may be associated with lower levels of self-reported depression and there is some clinical evidence to support the potential of cannabis-based therapy as a PTSD treatment. Furthermore, cannabis products, including CBD, are becoming increasingly popular among consumers looking for anxiety and stress relief.
However, the effects of THC, CBD, and psychedelic substances are thought to take hold through different routes. For example, psychedelic substances primarily stimulate a particular serotonin receptor subtype – the serotonin 2A receptor. This interaction appears to be central to the hallucinogenic effects of these substances. In contrast, while cannabinoids (the main active compounds found in cannabis) have been found to interact with various receptors, including serotonin receptors, many of their effects are believed to be linked to their interactions with cannabinoid receptors, CB1 and CB2.
Consumer perceptions of cannabis and psychedelics
There is also a profound difference in the way that people view and use cannabis and psychedelics. This was demonstrated by the findings of a 2020 survey on the subject, completed by 319 cannabis and psychedelic consumers. It was found that the majority of participants drew a clear distinction between cannabis and psychedelics with three-quarters reporting that their cannabis experiences did not resemble those with psychedelics.
Perhaps most striking, though, was the difference in how consumers used these two categories of drugs. On average, consumers reported that they only used psychedelics 1-10 times per year, compared with 51-100 times for cannabis. Furthermore, while 69% of respondents stated that they had a spiritual motivation for using psychedelics, this was a motivator for only a quarter of cannabis users.
While there are clearly some similarities between cannabis and some psychedelic substances, most people seem to be of the same opinion: cannabis is not a true psychedelic – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t just as valuable, in both recreational and clinical settings.