No, Herbal Medicine Is Not All About Marijuana

When I was first attending herbalism school, a common response I would get, if I told people I was studying herbalism, was, “Oh, as in weed?” (I live in California, which was a medical marijuana state by that time and has since legalized it for recreational use as well. Even before legalization, “herbal medicine” was one euphemism for it.)

No, not as in weed. At least, not that weed.

The push to legalize marijuana has brought awareness of one particular herb’s medicinal uses into public consciousness. For some people, it’s the only herbal medicine they’re aware of. But no, marijuana is not what herbal medicine is. Herbal medicine encompasses all medicinal plants. Marijuana is just one of many, and usually not the one to use, even where it is legal and available.

Most medicinal herbs do not get anyone high (although meditating with them, as described in the previous post, can be an otherworldly, and some would say trippy, experience). Neither is there any significant controversy around them. No laws have ever been passed against growing, buying, or selling chamomile, tulsi, nettles, yarrow, or mints. They do not have any potential for addiction.

Herbal healing almost always requires gentle tools. Most medicinal herbs work subtly, gradually shifting physical or emotional illness into a healthier state. It may take longer to treat something with herbs than it would with pharmaceuticals, but the herbs do a more thorough job in the end, with much less in the way of side effects, usually no negative side effects at all. (I should add here that technically, herbalists are not qualified to treat disease, except in places like the U.K. where they are licensed, and that there are some conditions we do not have a reliable herbal treatment for. Cancer, for example, can have its treatment supported with herbs, but none are known to reliably cure it.) Pharmaceuticals, in contrast, work more like a sledgehammer to the system.

Marijuana is a sledgehammer herb. It is not subtle at all. It does have side effects. It can also get people addicted to it. How addictive it really is, is a matter of debate, but marijuana addiction undeniably exists. While proponents of marijuana legalization have pointed out, correctly, that its side effects and addictiveness are no greater than that of certain prescription drugs, and sometimes less, the fact remains that it is not the herb to use if you need a lighter tool than a sledgehammer. The vast majority of the time, we need a much lighter tool.

On a spirit level, marijuana is also an exceptionally powerful herb. To inhale or ingest it is to take in its spirit effects. While all plants’ spirit medicines are affected, in part, by the energies around them as they were grown and harvested and made into their consumable form, marijuana is a super absorber of energetics. It takes on and amplifies the emotions of everyone involved in its production, even if their involvement is limited to just being present. Since it has been illegal for most of recent history, and still is illegal in much of the world, those emotions often include fear. Hence the not uncommon experience of paranoia during a bad high.

Even if it’s legally produced, marijuana still is an extra powerful absorber and distributor of energies. If it is not grown, harvested, processed, and consumed with the utmost respect and care--and typically, the utmost respect and care are missing during one or more of those steps--it has absorbed energies that are not helpful, to say the least. This is what marijuana users are accustomed to taking in. Even if you have a pleasant experience with marijuana use, and even if you find it helpful, the other, likely undesirable, energies are there, too. It is a double edged sword.

To be fair, similar issues with energetics can also occur in mass produced herbal products made of non-psychoactive plants. They are just intensified greatly in marijuana. As an herbalist, it’s easier to control the source for most other herbs: you can grow them and prepare them yourself with no risk of legal issues, or obtain them from people who you know to be paying attention to the energetic side of herbal medicine. 

Personally, I do not work with marijuana, for those reasons. Plus, although I live in a state where it’s legal, an herbalist’s apothecary is not a marijuana dispensary and not licensed as such. However, I probably would not work with marijuana, as an herbalist, even if it had no special licensing requirements. I feel it is too strong a medicine, most of the time, for what it’s being used for. The frequent mishandling and misuse of it exacerbates the problem.

That is not to say I don’t believe in medicinal marijuana at all. There are cases that genuinely do call for it. Chronic pain sufferers may find topical cannabis oil the most, or only, effective relief. For people undergoing chemotherapy, sometimes marijuana is all that allows them to keep food down. I am not opposed to recreational marijuana, either--if you enjoy it, it’s your body, your choice--but my personal experiences with it have mostly been unpleasant, so I choose to abstain.

But marijuana is emphatically not the sum total of herbal medicine. That some people perceive it to be reflects the lack of attention, culturally, to the subtle, gentle, non-flashy herbs. People are aware of what’s controversial, and of what’s popular but illegal or semi-legal. People are aware of the sledgehammers.

Herbal medicine is not a sledgehammer. It’s the whole toolbox. The sledgehammer is the outlier.