End 4/20 Shame: Will Cannabis Someday Play a Role in Art Therapy?

Art has the power to heal, challenge, inspire and offer hope. It can relieve stress, aid in communication, and bridge the divide between the head and the heart. At its core, art is about helping people, and its benefits aren’t dependent on a person’s skill.

Art isn’t about the end product; it’s about the process.

“The act of creating art is the act of giving form to our inner feelings through energy, color and light,” explains Michael Buchert, an art therapist, mental health counselor and graduate professor at Antioch University Seattle. “Art is the act of taking images out of our bodies, hearts and minds and being brave enough to give those images form in some way.”

The healing power of art is undeniable, and it brings to mind another process with similar results: consuming cannabis. Cannabis can have many of the same effects as art — it loosens inhibitions, and allows individuals to explore previously untapped depths.

Cannabis and Art

Getting high can be an existential experience. While high, it’s possible to solve all of the world’s problems — if only you could bring that insight back into the sober world. Still, there’s no doubt that there’s a connection between cannabis and free expression, just like art.

So it’s no surprise that people have begun to mix the two.

Just as there are thousands of Canvas and Cocktail classes around the U.S., in legal states, cannabis and canvas classes have also started to pop up. In fact, Buchert leads one in Seattle’s industrial district.

I asked Buchert what makes art under the influence of cannabis different from art under the influence of alcohol. “For internally-focused people, cannabis helps them lift their gaze to the outside. For externally-focused individuals, it does the opposite,” Buchert answered.

“As an anxious person, cannabis helps me bring my gaze away from the hyper-vigilant outside world back down to myself. I often struggle to express myself because I’m so busy expressing other people, but when I use cannabis, I can better call on those inner images and thoughts. Cannabis gives me a freedom of expression that I sometimes lack.”

Will Cannabis Someday Play a Role in Art Therapy?

For example, one of Buchert’s most unique pieces of art took shape when he was high. At the time, he was living in NYC and training to be an art therapist. He’d just gotten back from a very difficult client visit where he felt confused and out of control. He knew those feelings had to go somewhere, but felt lost on what to do. So, he sat down, smoked and joint, and it became clear.

“I had this old bookshelf that someone had given me, and suddenly, I knew what I had to do with it. I removed all the stuff, flipped it over to reveal the back, and immediately began to paint,” remembers Buchert. “Paint was not a medium I ever worked in. I preferred sharpie and colored pencils — they help me maintain control — but while I was high, I knew I needed something more fluid. In the end, I created one of my most chaotic pieces and accessed a side of myself that had been previously blocked off.”

It was a powerful, memorable experience for Buchert, and a clear representation of the connection between cannabis and art. If cannabis mixed with art can be so powerful, what about when combined with art therapy?

What Is Art Therapy?

“Art therapy is the act of bridging the inner world and the outer external world,” Buchert says. He went on to say that art therapy is a mental health profession that encourages free self-expression through painting, drawing or modeling.

Art therapy is more than just splashing paint on canvas. As a clinical practice, it requires both an artist and a therapist to aid in diagnosing psychological and emotional issues. And, when used correctly, it can help children and adults explore their emotions, manage addictions, relieve stress, improve symptoms of depression and cope with physical illness.

“When we experience trauma, the part of our brain that can express what happened can, sometimes, get out of whack,” Buchert describes. “Through art therapy, we can go behind the scenes and use art to explain what words can’t.”

At the outset, it seems like art therapy and cannabis have a natural intersection, but that’s not the case. While Buchert might want to fold cannabis into his practice, that’s not possible right now.

Will Cannabis Someday Play a Role in Art Therapy?

Cannabis and Art Therapy

Currently, art therapy is a healing profession that cannot prescribe or even discuss cannabis; this has created a strong stigma within therapy practices associated with the use of cannabis. Unwittingly, many therapists can potentially shame a client for using cannabis without asking valid questions such as, “Has it helped?” or “What are you experiencing?”

For Buchert, it’s a difficult hole in the industry. If therapists can’t bring up cannabis consumption, they can’t see the entire picture or offer advice from a holistic perspective. It’s not just about being unable to prescribe cannabis, but about a lack of mindfulness around how patients might be using cannabis for their own benefit.

“The point of therapy is to provide a safe space for a patient to be able to express the best version of themselves,” Buchert says. “The goal is to help our patients move through the world and play and laugh and tell their stories, but if we aren’t cannabis-informed therapists, we’re missing an important element. We need to be able to determine how patients who use cannabis are affected.”

For now, the two worlds are struggling to integrate, but both therapists and patients can work to bridge the gap. If you’re a cannabis consumer, talk about how you use cannabis with your therapist, doctor and family. If you’re a therapist, keep an open mind about how cannabis is helping your patient on their journey. Then, maybe one day, these two powerful tools can find a permanent home together.

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