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Musical marijuana: how the entourage affects the experience

The interplay between THC and its entourage changes the way we perceive music
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Cannabis and music go together like peanut butter and jelly, Mario and Luigi, Gaben and Steam sales, or maybe pineapple and pizza? Marijuana has been a staple of music culture for as long as I can remember. Many of our favorite musicians, like the Beatles, Bob Marley, Miley Cyrus, Snoop Dogg, Lady Gaga, Rihanna or Method Man have been openly and avidly consuming cannabis. So culturally, it is easy to make the association between the two. But how about from a science point of view? How does cannabis consumption affect how we experience music? How groovy is the brain on cannabis?—The answer to those questions is it depends on the Entourage Effect. The ratio of cannabinoids in cannabis can change the way you perceive and enjoy music.

Interesting Times

1970 was an eventful year. The music industry saw one of their largest ever rock festivals on the Isle of Wight. 600,000 people came together to watch Jimi Hendrix and the Who; 100,000 people protested the Vietnam war in DC; meanwhile the legendary Concorde made its first supersonic flight; the voting age was lowered to 18; the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty went into effect; the Boeing 747 completed its first commercial flight; Apollo 13’s crew survived a dramatic accident and the Beatles disbanded! On May 23 1970 a paper was published in the high impact scientific journal NATURE (Vol. 226). The paper was titledMarijuana Intoxication: Common Experiences'' by Charles T. Tart, professor of psychology at University of California, Davis. Due to the widespread use of marijuana among college students of the time, the research community identified an ethical, social and scientific need to systematically characterize the long-term effects of marijuana on the human body.

Charles Tart created one of the first useful psychological surveys on cannabis use in 1970.

However, it quickly became clear that studying the “pure” effects in which extraneous sources of variation are minimized would prove difficult, as it was impossible to create a neutral setting between researchers and study participants without a good appreciation of the possible range of people’s psychological experiences while under the influence of the drug. To improve the scientific understanding of subjective marijuana experiences Prof. Tart created a detailed psychological questionnaire to act as a framework for future research, the results of which were summarized at the top of the paper:

“As a guide to future experiments, the chief experiential effects of marjiuana have been elucidated with the help of a detailed questionnaire given to seasoned marijuana users whose experiences, it seems are almost entirely pleasant.”—Charles T. Tart, NATURE (Vol. 226).

Some of the questionnaire's responses delved into the realm of auditory effects:

  1. “I can hear more subtle changes in sounds….the notes of music are purer and more distinct…”
  2. “I can understand the words of the songs which are not clear when straight (sober)..”
  3. “When listening to stereo music or live music, the spatial separation between the various instruments sounds greater…”
  4. “If I try to have an auditory image…it is more vivid…”
  5. “With my eyes closed and just listening to sounds, the space around me becomes an auditory space, a space where things are arranged according to their sound characteristics instead of visual, geometric characteristics…”
  6. “The sound quality of my voice changes, so that I sound different to myself when I talk.”

Trippy stuff to be sure. All very personal, subjective experiences that in part point us towards understanding why marijuana might be so prevalent amongst musicians and festival attendees alike.

Back to the Future

Nearly half a century later the world has moved on, medical science has had many transformative advances of knowledge and technology, yet we are still fascinated by discovering how people enjoy music under the influence of cannabis. In 2018 a research article was published by Oxford University Press in the “International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology”, aiming to investigate the emotional, pleasure and reward response of the brain while listening to music under the influence of cannabis. The King’s College (London, UK) research group designed a randomized, double-blind study that compared participants using cannabis with or without CBD with a placebo control group (The exact ratios were 12% THC, <1%CBD for the Cann-CBD group and 6% THC, 7.5% CBD for the Cann+CBD group). The study harkens back to Tart’s 1970s survey and even references the 48 year old work, but in this modern more controlled investigation Freeman et al. used modern magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to quantify and visualize the brain's activity in addition to asking the participants about their subjective experiences. Science knows a lot more about the effects of music on the brain.

Cannabis stimulates the same regions of the brain as music

The authors explain : “Music recruits key regions in the reward network, including ventral striatum, media dorsal thalamus, anterior insula, orbitofrontal cortex, amygdala, and hippocampus. Many of these reward-related brain regions are characterized by high density of Cannabinoid Type-1 Receptors (CB1Rs).” - In other words, the authors went into the study knowing that cannabis stimulates the same regions of the brain as music. Thus, anticipating to confirm the notion that cannabis consumption would enhance the experience of music. However, the results of the study were surprising:

“These findings were contrary to our prediction that cannabis would increase the rewarding effects of music.”—Freeman et al.

Cannabis can dampen the effects of music in the brain. Entourage Effect matters.

At first glance the results of the study appear inconsistent with the previous observational surveys suggesting that when cannabis is used in context of music it would enhance its effects. After Tart’s 1970 paper several other studies were released over the years that supported this idea (Green et al. 2003, Lim et al. 2008, Van Havere et al. 2011, Palamar et al., 2015). But are Freeman et al.’s findings actually inconsistent ? - Not exactly. Cannabis strains have changed a lot over the years. There has been a massive trend toward strains with progressively higher THC content. The low CBD strain of cannabis used in their study didn’t exist in the 70s. Neither did strains that contained an outrageously high 12% concentration of THC. So when Tart was surveying his marijuana users all of them were consuming cannabis with relatively high CBD to THC ratios. Freeman’s data is consistent with previous unrelated findings that THC dampens consummatory (liking) components of the brain’s monetary reward feedback while leaving the anticipatory (wanting) intact. A possible explanation is that THC disrupts the endocannabinoid signaling in the region of the brain that plays a role in the reward processing. Meanwhile taken together with CBD, as was the case with the cannabis of the 70s, those negative effects of THC on the reward system of the brain were mitigated while preserving or potentiating the desirable ones like enhanced sound perception. The idea that CBD offsets some of the adverse effects of THC is not new. Several studies have shown this to be the case in the context of chronic pain or epilepsy as well.

Freeman et al. 2018, International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology

In a nutshell

So what is the take-way then?—Well, for one, we need a lot more research. More funding needs to be made available for researchers investigating cannabis and the endocannabinoid system. We also need more access to more defined cannabis strains. It has been almost 50 years since Tart’s paper and yet we still have so many unanswered questions. But that is just the science part of the equation. What about your own personal music loving aspirations?

A THC strain makes you "want" to listen to music, while a balanced THC/CBD strain makes you "enjoy" the experience more.

My advice is to be mindful of the Entourage Effect. Cannabis contains not only many different cannabinoids and terpenes, but their ratio also has a profound impact on your experience with the plant. If you choose a high THC strain you may want to listen to music more, but you might like the experience less than with a balanced THC / CBD strain. Your mileage may vary and it is probably a good idea to try different strains until you find the one that gives you the experience that matches your expectations.

References

  1. Tart CT. Marijuana intoxication common experiences. Nature. 1970 May 23;226(5247):701-4. doi: 10.1038/226701a0. PMID: 5443246. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/5443246/
  2. Freeman TP, Pope RA, Wall MB, Bisby JA, Luijten M, Hindocha C, Mokrysz C, Lawn W, Moss A, Bloomfield MAP, Morgan CJA, Nutt DJ, Curran HV. Cannabis Dampens the Effects of Music in Brain Regions Sensitive to Reward and Emotion. Int J Neuropsychopharmacol. 2018 Jan 1;21(1):21-32. doi: 10.1093/ijnp/pyx082. PMID: 29025134; PMCID: PMC5795345. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29025134/
  3. Palamar JJ, Griffin-Tomas M, Ompad DC. Illicit drug use among rave attendees in a nationally representative sample of US high school seniors. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2015 Jul 1;152:24-31. doi: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2015.05.002. Epub 2015 May 13. PMID: 26005041; PMCID: PMC4458153. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26005041/
  4. Lim MS, Hellard ME, Hocking JS, Aitken CK. A cross-sectional survey of young people attending a music festival: associations between drug use and musical preference. Drug Alcohol Rev. 2008 Jul;27(4):439-41. doi: 10.1080/09595230802089719. PMID: 18584396. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18584396/
  5. Green B, Kavanagh D, Young R. Being stoned: a review of self-reported cannabis effects. Drug Alcohol Rev. 2003 Dec;22(4):453-60. doi: 10.1080/09595230310001613976. PMID: 14660135. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/14660135/
  6. Van Havere T, Vanderplasschen W, Lammertyn J, Broekaert E, Bellis M. Drug use and nightlife: more than just dance music. Subst Abuse Treat Prev Policy. 2011 Jul 27;6:18. doi: 10.1186/1747-597X-6-18. PMID: 21794101; PMCID: PMC3160361. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21794101