An Exploration from the Perspectives of Traditional Systems of Healing

With the legalization of cannabis in Canada, we are seeing a growing public acceptance of this herb, an enormously expanding “cannabis industry”, and a variety of claims being made about its medical efficacy and utility. There are many well-documented traditional medical uses of cannabis, going back many hundreds of years, along with a growing body of contemporary scientific evidence supporting its various medicinal virtues. Yet many of the contemporary claims made about cannabis – branded as a miracle drug – are driven by the desire to sell products or simply as means of justifying one’s indulgences and addictions. In what follows, we will explore cannabis from the perspective of traditional systems of healing and consider some of the less acknowledged and discussed adverse reactions and disturbances that result particularly from its chronic use.

cannabis plant

Sola dosis facit venenum; “All things are poison, and nothing is without poison; the dosage alone makes it so a thing is not a poison.” All medical practitioners, irrespective of their methodology or tradition, should carefully consider this phrase, attributed to the alchemist Paracelsus (1493 – 1541). In our era of one-size fits all medicine, Paracelsus’ insight into the difference between a medicinal and poisonous action of a substance being in the dose is not so widely understood. It is however quite germane to our discussion of cannabis, and rife with implications for understanding the nature of the substance. Paracelsus’ dictum leads us to the primary realization that the benefits or dangers of any substance – be it a food, herbal supplement, pharmaceutical drug, etc. – are entirely dependent upon the level and degree of an individual’s susceptibility to that substance. This phrase also asks us to question the range of effects that a particular substance can have, leading us to explore the nature and definition of a poison effect. Poisoning is not equivalent to a lethal dose, though it can lead there. Poisoning, we can say, is when an individual’s capacity for feeling and function has been disturbed.

Every Day Use

It is with chronic, daily cannabis use that we can often observe a very clear disturbance of an individual’s capacity for feeling and function, though the user may not always be able to perceive such an alteration. Many cannabis users have become convinced that their daily habit is what allows them to function, to be more creative, more emotionally balanced, more spiritual, less anxious, better able to relax and to sleep, etc. More often than not, those who make these emphatic claims have fallen under the spell of cannabis, and are no longer able to see beyond its alluring veil.1 As homeopath Colin Griffith explains: “what these users fail to see is that whatever effects their bodies manifest do not belong to them but to the drug. They are instruments on which the chemical drug is playing tunes. The effects are no more theirs than they would be if they took antibiotics for a tooth abscess.”2

In response to a patient’s inability to live her life without the use of cannabis, the natural medicine practitioner should ask: why is it that you are not able to function optimally in the first place? What are the underlying maintaining causes of your emotional imbalances and disturbances? Why do you have such difficulty relaxing and falling asleep? In such cases cannabis use may only be serving to suppress or cover over an underlying constitutional issue that needs to be properly addressed. And when we suppress a problem, rather than working to resolve or cure it, this may result in its temporary disappearance, but it certainly has not gone away. Suppression takes a surface manifestation of a disease and drives it to a deeper, more vital region of the organism, where it can create more chronic, intractable and debilitating illness.

An Ancient Medicine

Cannabis has a long history of use as a medicine. The Persian physician Avicenna (980 – 1037), who no doubt was familiar with cannabis strains much different than those that are available today, wrote of the use of cannabis for the alleviation of severe headache as well as treatment for degenerative bone and joint diseases, inflammation of the eyes, general edema, infectious wounds, gout, and uterine pain. However, he also pointed out that cannabis produces dryness that is “desiccating” (disrupting and deranging the vital fluids/fluid metabolism of the body). There are many clear signs that cannabis is warming, including increased appetite, red eyes, dry mouth and tongue, rapid heart rate and elevated blood pressure. As cannabis is excessively warming, it can result in a disturbance of the warmth activity of the organism, especially with regards to the metabolism. Chilly, sluggish and deficient digestive processes can often be observed in chronic cannabis users. The above mentioned symptoms are especially pronounced when it comes to the intensely psychoactive strains of cannabis that are grown today.

From the perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine, it can be said that chronic use of cannabis can result in injuries to the Yin, damage to the Jing, and disturbance of the Shen. The primary constituent that causes such disturbances is THC. This is because, as herbalist Paul Bergner has remarked, “THC binds to the encocannabinoid receptors (CBD does not), and because it is many times more powerful than the endocannibinoids, the receptors drop in number and also become less responsive to maintain homeostasis.”3 Daily cannabis consumption often leads to gradually increasing dosage and frequency of use, clearly suggesting that tolerance and adaptation can develop quickly and easily.

Herbalist Todd Caldecott provides us with a useful explanation of cannabis from the perspective of the Ayurvedic tradition:

Cannabis displays some of the properties of a poison, in that it spreads very quickly (vyavahi) and loosens (vikashi) the tissues. Through its subtle (sukhma) and penetrating (tikshna) qualities, it actually expands the space between all the cells of the body, opening up the channels (srotamasi). This is the reason for feeling high, and why it is consumed by sadhus and babas [who, unlike the average person, have been trained to focus their mind through contemplative practices]. It creates a subtle feeling experience that connects our experience to akasha (ether), the element of pervasiveness. So it opens and elevates consciousness, but not in an evolutionary way – just as a transient and limited experience of infinite space.”4

It is because cannabis serves to create space and allows for movement in the body that it can exhibit pain-relieving properties. It is for the same reason that cannabis can be utilized in some cancer treatment protocols (cancer is an uncontrolled proliferation of cells, when the tissue of our body can no longer maintain or identify its own boundaries. Hence, cancer is a disease that is very much related to ‘space’).

Recreational Use

While the chronic use of cannabis presents more pronounced dangers than occasional use does, infrequent or recreational consumption can still cause deep-seated disturbances on the level of body, mind and spirit – again, if that degree of individual susceptibility is there in a person. The use of cannabis “to relax”, for example, can easily become an addiction in the same way that others become addicted to drugs like diazepam to go to sleep at night or to “manage” (suppress) their anxiety symptoms. Such addiction is an often unconsciously motivated attempt to circumvent having to develop strategies and lifestyle changes that can lead to true understanding of the root causes of one’s issues. Without such an understanding, true resolution or cure is not possible.

The Physical Effects

Cannabis regularly results in a disturbance of the bladder, prostate, and sexual functioning in men. Cannabis can act as a potent aphrodisiac in the short term, but will usually lead to a lessening of erotic desire and even to impotence in some. Habitual use of cannabis results in a lowered white blood cell count, suggesting its negative affects on immune function. The homeopathic materia medica and provings of cannabis reveal that the adverse immune response that cannabis precipitates increases an individual’s susceptibility to bacterial respiratory infections as well as non-specific urethral infections, gonorrhoea, and chlamydia (homeopathic cannabis is an especially well known remedy in the treatment of gonorrhoea, and is indicated for genital discharges with burning pains and discomfort more generally).

The homeopathic materia medica of cannabis also reveals a strong affinity for disturbances of the thinking processes, with pronounced disorientation and a sense of disconnection accompanied by a free floating anxiety. The patient requiring homeopathic cannabis may often make mistakes in reading and writing and may generally have poor comprehension, tend to be forgetful and can become easily confused. While there can be difficulty concentrating, there can also be rapid thoughts and a pronounced tendency to theorize and draw far-fetched connections. Patients requiring homoeopathically potentized cannabis may report a sensation of the head being separated from the rest of the body (a symptom that says much about the state of being too much in one’s head, which cannabis in its crude form easily leads to. When this state progresses to severe pathology we can see, for example, paranoia and depersonalization. While cannabis users may give the appearance of being mellow and laid back, this appearance is often a symptom, as Colin Griffith notes, “of the distance that the cannabis has fostered between the smoker and reality”5). Other notable cannabis symptoms from the homeopathic literature include: sensations of being ungrounded, spaced out, unable to physically support oneself, of the limbs or the whole body feeling so light that it could float away; panic attacks, many fears including the fear of being alone in the dark, of entities, and of insanity. Rajan Sankaran notes that cannabis patients tend to exhibit oversensitivity and the need to “cover up for a feeling of inadequacy…The perceived weakness is actually an inadequacy in facing the threats, dangers and risks of the outside world. The Cannabis person feels unequipped to face them directly and hence observes the world from within the safe confines of a “glass cage.””6

Many of the above mentioned symptoms of chronic cannabis use are further understood when we consider the effects that cannabis has on our neurology. With prolonged use, cannabis disrupts the balance between the thalamus and hypothalamus and the pineal and pituitary glands. The anterior pituitary gland is responsible for the secretion of thyroid stimulating hormone, adrenocorticotrophic hormone, growth hormone, follicle stimulating hormone, luteinising hormone, and prolactin. We have a growing body of evidence suggesting that cannabis use results in significantly lowered levels of thyroid stimulating hormone. The hormones released by the thalamus and hypothalamus serve to regulate our flight and fight response, our appetite, thirst, and eliminatory processes. Negative modifications to these bodily functions are typically present after long-term use – at which point cannabis addiction tends to have already set in.

Ongoing pharmacological research on THC strongly suggests that it has marked affects on neuronal signaling and development, and researchers are beginning to explore how THC exposures during pregnancy could lead to adverse long-term changes in the neuronal development of babies and infants.7 Other research has drawn links between mother’s who smoke cannabis during pregnancy and an increase in the risk of their children developing leukemia and a variety of other serious birth defects. There have been further studies suggesting an increased risk of cancer of the esophagus and stomach with chronic cannabis use.

In Conclusion…

Cannabis is a complex herb, and one that should be carefully understood by those who use it. While public perception presents us with a marketable (and hugely profitable) image of cannabis, the reality of cannabis is more nuanced, multifaceted and complex than we are led to believe.

cannabis plant


1 From the perspective of the doctrine of signatures, the usually 5-leaved cannabis plant closely resembles a hand. This hand, it can be said, reaches for and makes an effort to grab hold of the cannabis user, who is rendered incapable of extricating herself from cannabis’ intoxicating embrace.

2 Colin Griffith, ‘The Companion to Homeopathy’ pg. 169.

3 Paul Bergner, unpublished writing.

4 Todd Caldecott, unpublished writing.

5 Griffith, ibid, pg. 168.

6 Rajan Sankaran, ‘The Soul of Remedies’, pg. 39.

7 See, for example, Kimberly S. Grant et al. ‘Cannabis Use during Pregnancy: Pharmacokinetics and Effects on Child Development.’

Photos provided by Serena Mor