from The Psychedelic Library:
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 MunchiesWhile 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.
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. 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."
Notes1. 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)