Working with Marijuana Smokers

by Alakananda Devi (Alakananda Ma), M.B., B.S. (Lond.)

In the last edition of Banyan Vine, we talked about working as an Ayurvedic practitioner with individuals who smoke tobacco. In this edition, we will look at issues involved in working with Marijuana smokers.

Despite its illegal status, Marijuana smoking is extremely prevalent in an increasingly wide age group, from the Baby Boomer generation down. Vietnam veterans, old hippies, would-be Rastas, college students and high school students are likely candidates for this habit. Vata smokes Marijuana calm down, pitta to, “Mellow out” and feel less angry and driven, kapha to suppress deep-seated grief. Of the three types, however, pitta, endlessly over-achieving, is the most susceptible to the lure of Marijuana. It is pitta too, who receives the most negative impact from Marijuana, a pitta toxin.

Two common misconceptions support pot smokers in their habit. First is the belief that Marijuana is harmless or even beneficial for health. The second is that ganja or marijuana is sacred and hence its use is not merely condoned, it is even enjoined. In India, where ganja is a native plant, there is a very ancient history of its use under specified conditions. Based on this long experience, Ayurveda is aware of significant physical, emotional and spiritual consequences of Marijuana use.

Known in Sanskrit as Vijaya, Marijuana is a muscle relaxant, euphoriant and analgesic. Unfortunately, it is also a liver toxin. An important physical impact of Marijuana is sub-clinical hepatitis, a condition in which the liver is chronically congested, resulting in irritability, low-grade depression, slow wound healing, burning sensations, rashes, allergies and yellowish eyes. Marijuana is also, by prabhav, damaging to all seven dhatus. Although Marijuana is not technically a physically addicting substance, it is powerfully habit-forming, as a result of its short-term euphoriant and long-term depressant effect. The smoker wakes next morning irritable and depressed and hence very inclined to take another hit in order to get another burst of euphoria. The method of smoking is also significant since long-term inhalation of dry smoke into the lungs provokes vata in the lungs and sinuses. A fifty-six year old woman who had smoked Marijuana for thirty years eventually succumbed to lung cancer. She had never smoked tobacco. Although an anecdotal story can never be regarded as evidence, it certainly gives pause for thought.

On the emotional level, Marijuana smoking can lead to lack of motivation and emotional withdrawal. Users are often perceived by a non-using spouse or child as being distant and emotionally unavailable, leading to marital problems, divorce or a child’s demand to be in the custody of the non-using parent. One heavy user actually lost his child in a custody battle with his ex-girlfriend, who was not the child’s biological mother. Employers may perceive Marijuana smokers as inaccurate, error-prone or lacking in enthusiasm. One patient who used ganja as self-medication for his grief over his mother’s death finally decided to quit smoking when he lost his ideal job as a result of multiple errors. It is perhaps for reasons such as these that ancient Indian tradition mandated ganja smoking only for renunciants, strictly forbidding its use for the householders, immersed as they are in relationships and work in the world.

On the spiritual level, ganja has a specific action on the three gunas. In the initial euphoria phase, the sattva guna is activated. Later, as giggles and “munchies” set in, rajas predominates. Finally, the long-term effect is that of tamas, leading to a dull and foggy state of mind. Within this fog, the insights supposedly received under the mildly psychedelic impact of ganja cannot be integrated in any valuable way. “Munchies” in themselves can have a significant health impact. A twenty-one year old weekend Marijuana smoker eats a good Ayurvedic diet all week long, only to binge on sweets each weekend when intoxicated with pot. As a result, he continues to suffer from chronic yeast overgrowth and visham agni despite his efforts during the week at leading a healthy lifestyle.

Marijuana smokers may present with complaints that may include depression, irritability, PMS, eczema or psoriasis, acne, burning sensations, sinusitis, allergies, cough, aches and pains, abscesses or boils that heal slowly. On examination, the tongue may have a thick yellow coating with many red dots and may be extremely red around the edges, suggestive of pitta in the rasa dhatu. There may be a prominent spike in the ranjak pitta pulse, indicative of the stress the liver is under. The liver pulse is typically weak with a very blunt kapha spike. While the symptoms of depression are in part an effect of the Marijuana smoking itself, there may also be a much deeper cause. Many individuals self-medicate for depression or PTSD with Marijuana. Other symptoms, such as eczema or allergies, are a result of sub-clinical hepatitis or poor liver function arising from or exacerbated by ganja smoking. In addition, Marijuana smokers may also abuse alcohol in the context of a party lifestyle, further exacerbating the impact upon their liver.

The first step of the treatment is for the client to understand the relationship between his/her symptoms and his lifestyle habit. Regular use of Marijuana falls into the category of prajnaparadh or crimes against wisdom. A good phrase is often “I were to smoke pot every day, I would probably suffer from…” here listing the client’s Marijuana-related symptoms. A twenty-four-year old receptionist in a doctor’s office responded in the negative when asked if she had any habits or addictions. However, the red and yellow appearance of her tongue, prominent ranjak pitta spike and weak liver pulse told a different story. She was astonished to learn that her almost daily reefer smoking had been discovered through Ayurvedic diagnosis and was equally surprised when she realized that her tendency to rashes and PMS could be related to this habit.

As ganja smokers are by nature rebels, attempts to get them to simply quit smoking are likely to be domed to failure. Since the practitioner’s task is to support health rather than to enforce the law, a beneficial approach is often to encourage the smoker to reduce their usage to once a month. Usage at this level is unlikely to have significant negative health impacts except in those with Hepatitis C, who should be strongly encouraged to eliminate all liver toxins from their lives. Additionally, ganja smokers should be encouraged to use a water pipe in order to minimize the amount of dry smoke that enters their lungs. The deeper cause of the smoking habit needs to be addressed through Ayurvedic approaches to depression and trauma, supported by psychotherapy. Female ganja smokers frequently suffer from codependency, blaming their husband or boyfriend for their habit. In this case, it is more important to address the codependency than the smoking, as the one arises from the other.

A good liver formula, such as Banyan’s Liver Formula is an essential part of the management of ganja-related symptoms. This needs to include herbs that are lekhan, such as Kutki, to scrape the fat-soluble cannabis toxins from the liver, as well as blood cleansers such as Manjistha and bitter tonics such as Guduchi. Triphala will also be valuable in gently cleansing the Marijuana toxins from the system. An herbal smoking mix, using herbs as Red Clover, Osha, and Mullein can be used in place of or together with ganja as part of a plan to reduce ganja use. Adding Brahmi or Jatamansi to this mix will limit the tamasic impact of ganja. For depression, use Brahmi tea three times daily, one teaspoon per cup, or, for high school students who are reluctant to make or drink tea, Mental Clarity formula, which strengthens focus and attention.

Since Cannabis toxins are fat soluble and remain in the deeper dhatus such as meda, majja and shukra, pancha karma will be an essential feature in cleansing the body of these potentially harmful toxins. Pancha karma, however, can only be done once the individual is sufficiently free of the addiction to be able to refrain from ganja for the duration of the pancha karma. Of course, the best impact will be obtained from pancha karma if the client will be smoking no more than once a month thereafter. Guduchi will be a good basti ingredient for this pancha karma, since marijuana is a pitta toxin. After pancha karma, Chyavanprash can be used as a general rejuvenative and to help heal the lungs from the effects of Marijuana smoking.

Although long revered in India as a sacred plant of Shiva, ganja has, as we have seen, significant physical, emotional and spiritual impacts. In its ancient cultural setting, it has for centuries been used by world renouncing sadhus in conjunction with fasts and severe austerities. In such a context, ganja could potentially be of value on the spiritual path, although this author has rarely met a ganja-smoking sadhu who had attained the ultimate goal. Taken out of its cultural context and introduced into a party lifestyle unheard-of in ancient tradition, ganja has become far more problematic. Working with ganja smokers provides a unique set of challenges and opportunities for the Ayurvedic practitioner.

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Alakananda Devi (Alakananda Ma) is director of Alandi Ayurvedic Clinic in Boulder, Colorado, and principal teacher of Alandi School of Ayurveda, a traditional ayurvedic school and apprenticeship program. She can be reached at 303-786-7437 or by email at: info@alandiashram.org.

More articles on Ayurveda available on the Alandi Ayurveda Gurukula Blog