Let’s get it out there up front: I’m not a medical doctor or a medical researcher, so this is not going to be a discussion of the physiological effects of THC. Instead, I want to step back for a moment and engage in a cultural critique of the hype surrounding medical marijuana. Put simply, I’m not concerned here with what marijuana actually does; rather, I’m concern with the place that marijuana (particularly, when used for therapeutic purposes) holds in our culture.
Marijuana, in its current, largely unregulated form (“unregulated” because it is, in most cases, illegal), represents one of the few remaining vestiges of a history of mystic and shamanic practices that span millennia. This, in a world where science and bureaucratic organization have seemingly stamped out every last bit of mystery and uncertainty in our lives. Over the course of the last century, every aspect of our lives has been subject to increasing efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control (see: George Ritzer, The McDonaldization of Society). The result is that the activities comprising our daily lives have become increasingly mechanical. We feel as though forces external to us determine our every action. In the bleakest terms (those of Max Weber), we come to feel as though we are trapped in a great iron cage. And, when aspects of life are so limited and predictable, they become disenchanted (see: George Ritzer, Enchanting a Disenchanted World).
Because a century of legal restrictions have made marijuana extremely difficult to study and efficiently distribute, it has long represented an escape from the rationalization and disenchantment that characterizes modern medical practice, and, in particular, the pharmaceutical industry. The effects of various marijuana crops on the humans who consume them have varied widely and dosages have tended to be imprecise. Moreover, users tend to have a very personal connection to the particular dose they are consuming, because they have had to undergo some sort of trial to obtain it (e.g., an encounter with a dealer or the long, invested process of cultivation). Even the experience of going to a licensed medical marijuana dispensary is likely to be far more idiosyncratic than a trip to a conventional pharmacy. As a result, the experience of marijuana use has retained an unpredictable, “magical” quality.
While it is quite possible that this experience of enchantment may improve the well-being of individuals, it is, perhaps, more interesting (at least when we are wearing our sociologist caps) to consider whether marijuana – as a symbolic bulwark against rationalized medicine or, more broadly, the rationalization of all aspects of society – has therapeutic effects for our culture writ large. I contend that this therapeutic effect – this sense that something mysterious and unpredictable remains a very real part of our lives – accounts for our culture’s current obsession with marijuana. One might even say we are addicted to the mystique of marijuana.
No doubt, THC pills derived from the plant will one day be made as efficient, calculated, predictable, and controlled as ever other facet of our culture. Sadly, the great irony is that, as marijuana becomes legalized, it will inevitably become more rationalized, robbing it of what is, perhaps, its most important feature (i.e., its mystique).