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High Culture:

  Marijuana in the Lives of Americans

    by William Novak

      3. Marijuana Activities I: Food and Music

I'd like to spend the last hour of my life stoned with my friends in a Chinese restaurant.

—a smoker in Denver

The Munchies

While committed marijuana smokers will do anything stoned that they do otherwise, there are three especially popular marijuana-related activities: eating, listening to music, and sex. The first two are discussed here; sex will be dealt with in chapter 5.
    Of the three, the desire to eat is the only activity that is a direct result of smoking marijuana, and an increased appetite may be the closest thing to a universal response to cannabis, although in a few countries, like Jamaica, marijuana is sometimes used to dull the desire for food.
    "I always enjoy eating," observes an Arizona smoker, "but it is especially great when I'm high. I find myself tasting each ingredient separately: the garlic, the salt, the sugar, and all the rest. I can actually feel my taste buds working." Some smokers find that marijuana has led to the development of a more sophisticated palate, with increased sensitivity to various spices, and less emphasis on sweets; most report an increased craving for sweet foods.
    The scientific connection between marijuana and eating was established only recently, in a series of experiments in Palo Alto and in Berkeley. Both of these studies confirmed what smokers have long known anyway: subjects given marijuana were far more interested in eating.
    The real question is not whether this is true but why. For many years it was thought that marijuana led to hypoglycemia, a lowering of the blood sugar. While that sounded like a reasonable enough explanation, there was no evidence to prove it. The Boston University experiments of Weil and Zinberg laid that myth to rest, presumably to the embarrassment of the American Medical Association, which had declared it to be true only a year earlier.
    Looking back on the experiments, Andrew Weil recalls his own skepticism about the alleged connection between marijuana and blood sugar levels. "If blood sugar drops seriously enough to cause a hunger for sweets," he recalls thinking, "there are probably going to be a lot of other symptoms as well. So I tried to trace back the laboratory findings supporting the link, and much to my amazement, I discovered that there weren't any. That turned out to be quite typical of those days; there were many statements in the literature, and you'd go to check them out, only to discover that nobody had done the experiments. One textbook would copy it from another textbook, entirely without evidence."
    Marijuana smokers often claim they will eat anything when they are high, and there are tales of famished smokers devouring whole loaves of bread (to say nothing of cakes and pies) when nothing else is around. One woman says she sometimes eats fistfuls of brown sugar, while another tells of pouring chocolate syrup over a bowl of natural cereal, but only, she assured me, "in an emergency." People who are high on marijuana tend to show a marked preference for sweet foods and beverages, particularly such items as ice cream and candy. Indeed, many smokers who are otherwise sensitive to matters of health and nutrition will indulge in junk food after smoking marijuana. This phenomenon is commonly known as "getting the munchies." A high school girl in the Midwest writes that "at this stage a person eats everything in sight and experiences no gain in weight." The truth, alas, is less benign, and one of the most often-cited reasons for giving up marijuana is that it has led the smoker to gain too much weight. (At the same time, the fact that marijuana is in itself free of calories has been a factor in leading some relatively older users to switch to it from the more fattening drug, alcohol.)
    There is no known pharmacological explanation to account for the connection between marijuana and the desire to eat, and there is even some debate as to whether smokers actually feel hungry, or whether they merely find eating to be unusually pleasurable, with food tasting better than it normally does. Whatever the answer— and there appears to be merit to both claims—there are several theories to explain the link between marijuana and eating.
    According to one view, marijuana allows the user to recall more vividly the taste of certain foods and bring to the surface a subconscious human desire for sweets. Others believe that marijuana simply lowers inhibitions, especially around oral activities. Lenny, the businessman from New England, offers a third opinion:
We get the munchies because dope is a stimulant. Hyperphagia sets in—the desire to eat more. We become more sensitive to any sensual stimulation: a peach will taste peachier, bread will taste breadier. The sensual stimulation gets amplified. People who think that dope makes them hungrier are being fooled by their desire to eat.

    There are other explanations as well. Laurence McKinney believes that marijuana causes the smoker to notice small hunger tremors that are always present but usually ignored, an explanation similar to Howard Becker's account of marijuana's physical effects. Finally, there is the view that the munchies are by now so much a part of the typical marijuana experience that they represent part of the cultural expectation of smokers and occur simply for that reason.
    Whatever the reasons, the link between marijuana and the desire to eat is so compelling that investigations have recently been undertaken to explore the potential uses of marijuana in the treatment of anorexia nervosa, a neurological disorder affecting young women, who find food so distasteful that they literally starve themselves. A California woman tells of her teenage sister, who suffers from this disease, coming home one evening after smoking her first joint. She not only ate dinner for the first time in years but finished the food on everybody else's plate as well. The family was thrilled. "My mother didn't question anything," recalls the sister. "She just assumed that she had finally succeeded with her cooking."
    Dr. Norman Zinberg has been conducting research through the National Institute of Health to determine whether and how marijuana might be used in the treatment of anorectic patients. What happens, he reports, is that the patients do get hungry after smoking marijuana, but then they quit the study. "The fact that it's working makes it not work," says Zinberg. "They leave the hospital. They think marijuana makes them aggressive and unpleasant, and they ascribe to it very different properties than other people do. But it does make them hungry."
    The munchies are such a routine part of being stoned that many people make sure to have certain foods on hand before they smoke. One user, calling himself "the perfect stoned host," prides himself on his "munchies drawer"; it consists of partitioned cubicles, each filled with a different kind of miniature candy bar. "My friends go wild when I open it," he says.
    A college student in Indiana recalls being caught in the dormitory one night with a bad case of the munchies. Nothing in the neighborhood was open, his friends had fallen asleep, and he found himself wandering around the basement with a twenty dollar bill in his hand, staring dumbly at the vending machines. "Really," he recalls, "it was enough to make a grown head cry." He vowed never again to be caught unprepared:
My friends and I got really organized about the whole thing. If we knew we were going to smoke, one of us would be chosen to make a food run. We'd all chip in and make suggestions, and the person who went to the store would have the final say in what was chosen. We got into the fine points of the munchies. For example, would we prefer sugar or salt? I mean, it's a real drag to be stuck with Twinkies and Milky Ways when what you really crave are Doritos and pistachio nuts. I used to fantasize about hollowed-out watermelons filled with fruit—in the middle of January. But my favorite foods were bagels dripping with cream cheese and butter, and Drake's Coffee Cakes.

    As with every sensual experience, smokers become involved in the details of physical pleasure. After describing how she and a friend had recently consumed an entire bowl of frosting without bothering to wait for the cake to finish baking, Claire explained what interests her about eating while stoned:
Have you ever seen a magnified view of the human tongue? It looks like a bunch of toadstools in a field. And I get this incredible vision of the frosting dripping over the taste buds. It's so intense that it's almost sickening, especially if you eat too much.

    Evidently, it is possible to overcome the munchies, and several smokers with weight problems have reported losing weight with the aid of marijuana. One woman tells of shedding fifty-eight pounds in one year without cutting back on smoking. "I just keep fruits and vegetables around," she explains, "and prepare dietetic munchies right after I get home from work. By 6:30 or so, I can get stoned for the night, and I often do. Booze was killing me, but smoke has made me a slim and happy lady."
    Another woman reports losing thirty pounds in a similar effort:
I simply convinced myself never to have the munchies. Instead I did a lot of thinking, and a lot of listening to music and dancing I lost weight by controlling my impulses and substituting other stoned activities for eating.

    More commonly, smokers who are conscious of their weight will make a special effort to overcome their predisposition toward sweets or else will be careful to smoke before meals rather than afterward As an antidote to gaining weight on marijuana, A Child's Garden of Grass recommends pistachio nuts, because although they are fattening, they taste good and take a long time to eat.[1]
    Sandy, a writer of short stories, reports that when she worked as a waitress, the one thing she really hated was serving stoned people. She found them to be crass, prone to fits of giggling, and inconsiderate. "They just about wore me out, making me run back and forth with everything on the menu. What pigs!" Sandy tells of the following incident, which occurred in Rochester, New York:
A local restaurant had a Wednesday special, a dozen steamed clams for ninety-nine cents. In these parts, that's quite a bargain. Some friends of mine who had voracious appetites normally used to go in there stoned and really eat. No kidding, each one of those guys could eat at least twelve dozen clams! Anyway, I went there myself on Wednesday afternoon, thinking I'd have a nice lunch. I was informed that the special had been discontinued. The waitress told me that a group of guys (whom I easily recognized from her description) had nearly run the owner out of business by eating so much. The moral of the story: inconsiderate heads can ruin it for the rest of us.

    Sandy is not the only one who is annoyed by the behavior of smokers who have the munchies. "R., the dope connoisseur," who writes a monthly column for High Times, finds the whole idea of the munchies repugnant, calling it a throwback to the "reefer madness" images of marijuana smokers going out of control.[2] He doesn't doubt that marijuana increases one's desire to eat, but he insists that the current passion for junk food is without basis in fact or necessity, and he urges his fellow smokers to set aside their bad habits in favor of nutritional eating. Every other sensual experience, he points out, is enhanced by marijuana; why should eating be degraded?
    R. attributes the myth that junk food best satisfies the munchies to several sources, among them the fact that during the 1960s most marijuana smoking was done late at night, when the only places to satisfy one's hunger were fast-food chains and stores open all night. R. calls upon smokers to effect a revolution in their stoned eating habits. Colombian grass, he suggests, goes especially well with heavy meats, fruits, and vegetables, while Thai sticks he finds more appropriate to hot and spicy Eastern dishes: "Somehow the clarity of the Thai high permits each note of flavor in the symphony to peal out its piquant fullness and yet still chime in complex harmonies played upon the palate."



For the American smoker, listening to music is almost as basic to the marijuana experience as matches and ashtrays; one user speaks of a "hunger for music" whenever she smokes. The phenomenal growth in the recording and stereo components industries and the spectacular boom in FM radio over the past two decades are directly related to the rise in marijuana consumption.
    Smokers continually claim that music sounds "richer" when they are stoned. As was the case with eating, scientific investigation in this area has turned up very little, probably because researchers have been asking the wrong questions.
    While most of the studies involving auditory perception under the influence of marijuana have concentrated on the hearing abilities of smokers, in actual fact smokers do not claim to hear better, but rather that music sounds better, a crucial difference. Marijuana users do not report that the drug enables them to distinguish unusually high or low notes, or to hear very soft sounds; they claim rather, to hear sounds differently, more vividly and more intensely. Some researchers have concluded that the reports of smokers regarding music are too subjective to be taken seriously, but this is too narrow and self-defeating a view; the experience, after all, is subjective, and it may be impossible to measure in scientific ways.
    Clearly, there is a process by which marijuana affects the hearing of its users, but it seems more likely that changes are mental rather than purely auditory. As Andrew Weil explains it, cannabis affects the secondary perception of sensory data, not its primary reception. It would naturally be easier to study the functioning of the human ear than to explore how the brain interprets what the ear receives. But that, very likely, is where the answers lie.
    Weil suggests that incoming sensory information, such as the auditory signals that represent music, normally follow established and familiar pathways as they travel from their source to human consciousness.[3] Weil believes that marijuana may interfere with the normal routing of these sensations, forcing the sensory data to find "novel routes to consciousness and thus be perceived in novel ways." This explanation, he suggests, would help account for many smokers' claims that when they are high, they see things for the first time "as they really are," or why they pay special attention to aspects of auditory or visual sensations that they might otherwise fail to notice.
    I asked marijuana smokers to tell me exactly which music selections they found most enjoyable when they were stoned, but the responses covered the entire range of popular and classical music. These days, in contrast to the 1960S, smokers generally listen to the same music whether or not they are high. The "acid rock" phenomenon of a few years ago, in which certain rock music was designed to appeal deliberately to the stoned listener, seems to have faded, probably because it is no longer necessary.
    Many younger smokers assert that the real value of marijuana in listening to music is that it enables them to understand and more fully respond to the lyrics of the songs they listen to, especially those that otherwise appear difficult or obscure. But by far the most familiar claim made by smokers is that marijuana enhances the ability to hear the distinct lines of several instruments at once, helping the listener to better grasp how the various instruments interact to produce the music:
When I'm high, I can hear all the individual parts of the music playing together to create a harmonious whole. I never heard music this way before I started smoking grass. Sometimes it feels almost as if I become the music, not only hearing it but feeling it and seeing it, absorbing it until it becomes part of me. Each instrument and voice takes on an identity of its own while continuing to be true to the whole. In short, when I'm high, I realize why music is considered one of the arts.

    Similarly, several smokers mentioned that it was under the influence of marijuana that they first understood and appreciated the purpose and the effects of stereo.
    A Radcliffe student who had been having trouble in her music course and was unable to recognize individual selections found marijuana to be very helpful. She had formerly listened mostly to rock, and she gradually realized that it made fewer demands on the listener than the music she was now studying. One night she got stoned and listened to a Bach harpsichord concerto:
I don't have to tell you the beauty of it; I shouldn't have had to get stoned to hear that. But it all made sense; I heard the orchestra imitating the harpsichord, then turning what it was doing upside down into inversions. And I went into Leona's room and she gave me the score with this half-smile on her face. Even though I couldn't hear the music then, I could follow the lines, hearing and seeing three or four parts at a time. And during this time, I was almost crying, thinking: "This is real; I may be on a drug, but this is here all the time!"[4]

    She has since learned to appreciate music without marijuana, an example of integrating stoned consciousness into her straight life. But she hasn't given up smoking, explaining that "it still helps to have my hearing sort of opened up every now and then, so I can hear many parts going on at once."
    The ability to distinguish various musical lines can make the stoned listener more sensitive than usual to the differences between individual instruments, as an Iowa man explains:
I greatly enjoy listening to loud rock music on the stereo when I'm stoned. The rhythm seems more solid and inspiring, and each cymbal, each drum, each guitar and every other instrument and voice seems more distinct, more clear. I really get into the music and feel immersed in the bass, with all the other instruments cutting through and the parts fitting so intricately together.
    I sometimes use headphones for a better stereo effect. The music seems even more realistic, and feels like it's not only around me, but inside my head. The instruments and parts move from the left channel to the right, and vice versa, and seem to be running around inside my head, which makes it more intense. Sometimes I close my eyes and fantasize that I'm back at the concert with all its excitement.

    Several smokers spoke of various mental and visual associations stimulated by listening to music when they were high. For example, hearing a saxophone will make Claire aware of the breath that goes through the instrument She says she can often see the instrument in her mind and can make out the discrete finger movements of the musicians. Other stoned listeners use the occasion to let their minds wander:
As you listen, your mind makes you think. You get a kind of fantasy out of an enlarged imagination, depending on what you're listening to. With Marshall Tucker, you think of ripping across the desert on a bullet-speed horse in search of wild women and hard times. Listen to Loggins and Messina and you will sail on a boat as you lie on your couch, feeling the wind in your hair, and sincerity in your heart. Some people really get into it with acid rock and feel as though they are in front of the crowd playing the music, tossing their hair back and forth and sweating as they rip the damn chords off the guitar. It's reality taken by fantasy, cooked in your mind and poured back out, with the mind putting it all together as it goes along at no set pace.

    In most cases this kind of mental wandering enhances the music, but for at least one listener, this is not the case:
I have listened stoned to some of the most emotionally committed singers in rock and blues—Robert Johnson, Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison—musicians who constantly surprise me and move me under normal circumstances. Instead of getting an enhanced sense of whatever terrors and delights they are singing about, I just get the giggles. I can't help imagining their faces wrenched into comically distorted grimaces as they sing.

    For the majority of smokers, though, music is made more enjoyable and more expansive by marijuana. A man who used to be a jazz critic pays special attention to the rhythm and the percussion of the music he listens to while stoned:
When I started smoking, I got into music, listening with rapt attention for a long time, especially to jazz. I started to hear music differently, and it's related to my experience of time. Rhythm, after all, is sound occurring in time; it's not just the pitch or the timbre which makes music, but the way the notes are spaced out. When music is really together in time, like a good jazz group playing, or African drummers, where precise perception of time is a fundamental aesthetic ingredient—I really appreciate that when I'm stoned.
    Time is flowing and music is constant movement. You can't ever stop and grasp it, it's always moving... but when time is perfect, when everybody is together, it just floats and then becomes solid. I can't describe it beyond that. It's just a solid thing happening, like a huge rock, or a wall; it's just there.

    His wife, a musician, reports a similar experience:
Since I've been smoking pretty regularly, I think I have become more aware of some subtleties I had been missing before. Things like cross-rhythms and unusual harmonic functions have started to jump out at me. Before, it would have taken several hearings or playings to find them. Now, they seem to find me.

    Younger smokers speak enthusiastically of going stoned to rock concerts or, more often, of getting stoned during the concert:
I went slightly buzzed to a Jethro Tull concert and planned on smoking a whole lot during the show. I ate a bag of peanuts and some pretzels before the music began, and then resumed smoking once they started playing. I lit joint after joint, bowl after bowl, waiting to get blown away, but not even giving myself a chance to feel what I had already smoked. The music was great. I remember watching a fabulous drum solo which was so perfect and exact that my mind just couldn't grasp it. The solo went on and on, hard and powerful; it ran strong and intricate, yet its end was never predictable. Just as I thought it would end, the drummer would roll out again and keep it going. Finally, when he did stop, I was exhausted.

    While younger smokers are attending rock concerts, relatively older users are becoming increasingly interested in other kinds of music, particularly jazz and classical, a trend that is almost certain to continue in the next few years. Jenny, a therapist, recalls a college experience that changed her musical tastes:
I was taking a course in music appreciation, and it was the first time I really listened to classical music. We studied Beethoven's Third Symphony, and took it apart piece by piece, instrument by instrument, and talked about it as a composite structural entity, a blending of many different parts into one complete unit.
    So there I was, one night in my apartment, with two friends who were also taking this course. We got very stoned and started listening to the symphony. I started conducting, and my friends took on the task of playing, imaginarily, various instruments. By this time I knew the piece cold. But I also felt what made those instruments work together, what made the music so great. I was on top, in command of the synthesis of these various component parts, and it was incredible. I was at one with the music. I heard the beauty of how it all blended together, and the genius of the outcome was phenomenal.

    "Every time you hear a piece of music," says Lenny, "you get another memory of it, and you build up a tape of how it sounds—in your mind. Each time you take it in, you're comparing it to a previous time, and it usually is pretty close. Eventually you get used to it; 'oh that,' you say, 'the Eroica.' But when you're stoned, it suddenly comes in differently, at double volume, as it were, and it just doesn't fit against the tape. So you end up hearing the music in a whole new way."


Playing Music

The first thing I noticed was that I began to hear the saxophone as though it was inside my head.... All the notes came easing out of my horn, like they's already been made up, greased and stuffed into the bell, so all I had to do was blow a little and send them on their way, one right after the other, never missing, never behind time, all without an ounce of effort.

—Mezz Mezzrow, Really the Blues [5]

    Jazz musicians have long known that marijuana leads to a greater enjoyment of the music. Some, like the venerable Mezzrow, have claimed it makes them play better as well. Others disagree. A jazz pianist who has observed marijuana use over several decades says:
Our experience in the band is that very often we thought we were terrific, ingenious, clever and swinging, and then we would discover that we had been playing the same thing over twenty-five times. When we heard a recording of what we had played, we knew it was ridiculous, changing keys all over the place where we weren't supposed to.
    The folk-belief among musicians is that marijuana made you think you played better, but that you actually played worse. And I think that's how it was. The confusion is due to a second folk-belief among the listeners: they thought that we thought that marijuana made us play better, but they were wrong. It did help us enjoy what we were doing, but we didn't think it improved our music at all.

    Still, some musicians do find marijuana useful, if not for performing, at least for practice sessions. "It takes away my inhibitions," says a guitarist, "and lets me learn from my mistakes, which is normally not so easy." A mandolin player in a bluegrass group reports:
I might smoke before practicing. I play in a group, and I'll sit down and do a couple of hits to put a little edge on while I'm playing. When I'm stoned, I can visualize musical relationships more easily. The other day, I was practicing scales on the mandolin, double lines of scales in intervals. Playing them high, I made more sense out of them, and finally understood when and how they might be useful in my playing.

    A flute and saxophone player finds that marijuana is detrimental when he practices, causing him to forget what key he is in, for example, or presenting difficulties in reading music. But when he plays something familiar, marijuana can sometimes help:
If I'm confident of what I'm playing, pot can magnify the experience: the feel of the horn, the breath, the subtle intonation changes, the vibrations from the lips. The notes slide out like aromatic coffee beans from a sack, until the whole experience is so sharply sensed it's almost unbearable.
    This can lead to trouble, too, because if you're not careful, you can get carried so far away by the sound of your own instrument that you stop hearing the others. Or, similarly, you can get so delighted with the patterns your fingers are making that you start watching yourself play instead of actually playing.

    Another musician says that he doesn't play when he's high because he loses control of his instrument, even though he finds that smoking can be helpful in encouraging the spontaneity that jazz requires: "The notes go straight from the head to the fingers with no rationalization in between." But a pianist in the same group has a different experience:
When I play stoned, I really think I play better. This is partly because I relax more (that good old tension-relieving aspect of the weed), and partly because I seem to be more aware of the flow of the whole thing. I don't just play chords and lines; I seem to feel the whole continuum of whatever it is I'm doing. I know where the music is going, and I'm conscious of the process of getting there.
    I also become more aware of muscular movements. It's good to do technical practice while you're stoned, because it really feels like exercise—like calisthenics for the hands. I had my most recent technical breakthrough when I was high. I finally got that little wrist movement that lets the really good keyboard players play so smoothly that you can't even tell when they change hand positions. I haven't gotten it yet with my left hand, though; I ran out of weed!



1. Pistachio nuts: A Child's Garden of Grass, p. 36. (back)

2. "R.": "The Myth of the Munchies and the Dope Smoker's Diet," High Times, December 1978, pp. 28-29. (back)

3. "Auditory perception": Weil, "Cannabis," p. 41. (back)

4. Bach harpsichord: Bennett, p. 19. (back)

5. Mezzrow: in The Drug Experience, p. 87. (back)

Chapter 4

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