With coronavirus making most of us give up Holi this year for the paranoia of having multiple people’s hands touch our faces while smearing gulal (coloured powder) and a general water crisis making us leave the water balloons and pistols behind, probably the only good thing about Holi this year is the best thing it comes with—a socially accepted and legal cannabis intoxication in the form of bhang. A potent mix of cannabis sativa leaves and flowers along with a few local herbs, bhang has been India’s hero through centuries, even bucking the legalities that make cannabis consumption illegal (the buds are illegal, the leaves are not and hence bhang gets away with it). The cannabis mixture is most commonly consumed on this holi-day as a milkshake called thandai or lassi with nuts, spices and herbs mixed together for max intoxication. The plant grows all around the country in copious amounts, and as bhang, it's often sold in government-run shops. In terms of belief, many also consider it a gift from Shiva.
The average stoner can tell you pretty much everything about the high the bhang comes with, with stories involving people doing one action repeatedly for hours—be it sitting on the street and laughing or forgetting how to pee or ‘tasting’ colour. But keeping these legendary tales aside, there's still very little we know about the science of what exactly happens inside our bodies after consuming bhang.
You're probably wondering what's so special about bhang that's different from smoking and consuming edibles. It’s mainly this: Both smoking and cooking involve heating cannabis, which is what activates and releases the THC and other cannabinoids, which in turn connect with our endocannabinoid system and results in effects like a high. Bhang, on the other hand, has no heating or cooking involved. And yet, it manages to kickstart a pretty potent reaction of chemicals inside our bodies, resulting in the effects we've heard so much about.
The fundamentals of the entire reaction involve THC and CBD which are released from the substances we consume, going and attaching themselves to our endocannabinoid system—which is a naturally occurring biological system present in our bodies, literally designed only for cannabis, and has cannabinoid receptors all around our body, in pretty much every vital organ. "The endocannabinoid system affects our body's thermal regulation because it acts on the hypothalamus, which is responsible for hunger and body temperature,” says Prashant Punia, a neurosurgeon from Mumbai. “That explains the munchies and reduced body temperature. The amygdala—which is known as the 'fear centre' of the brain and is responsible for paranoia—is also affected by the endocannabinoid system, along with its neighbour, the hypocampus, which is responsible for memory. The cerebellum, which is responsible for balance, is also affected.” That explains the variety of sensations people feel on bhang, from loss of balance to floating to continuous laughter or paranoia.
It's pretty common in Indian villages for people facing digestive issues to be prescribed a couple of bhang golis/balls, which are fairly easily available in cities as well. The important thing to be noted here is that because bhang is primarily made from leaves of the plant and not the bud, it needs much higher quantities to really have a psychoactive trip. So, a couple of golis/balls will mostly act as medicine, acting on different parts of your body to fix indigestion, headaches, nausea and appetite issues. Research about the benefits of bhang and cannabis are ongoing but it’s been said to help manage pain, muscle spasms and even seizures.
"Having a little bhang, or even eating a bud or a bit of hash is not something to worry about, because our stomachs are highly acidic,” says Punia. “It's when you consume it in copious amounts that you could face some digestive trouble.” The trick with bhang, like any other edible, is dosage but because it's made from local bush weed and primarily from the leaves, it's not as easy to gauge when it's going to be one glass too many unlike edibles which are a lot easier to gauge. This miscalculation or excess consumption of bhang can result in people sleeping for 12 and 14 hours, and it's possible that some may wake up still feeling the effects, simply because our digestive system absorbs it so well and retains it for that long.
It's important to keep in mind that smoking cannabis will result in immediate effects and wear off within a couple of hours, whereas ingesting it will take an hour or two just to kick in, and linger on for what can seem like eons. This is primarily because of the processing speed and the reach of our respiratory and digestive systems; our lungs accept and respond to smoke much quicker than our digestive tracts, but then digestion spreads the cannabinoids much further and much more efficiently in our bloodstream than smoking or vaping.
What about sex, we ask Punia. "It can definitely enhance your sex drive if that's the undercurrent of your thought process, or what’s on your mind more than anything else,” he affirms. “Cannabis taken in any form will only enhance the feelings you already harbour, and so is a very subjective experience. It may enhance my sex drive immensely, but not do the same for someone else because they have multiple trains of thought running side by side, and will get distracted easily. It's the same with paranoia and creativity."
That explains so much—from the one paranoid person at every bhang gathering to the one who can't stop laughing to the one who either eats or sleeps constantly. Bhang enters our systems and begins to work a lot more subtly than smoking or edibles, slowly spreading to different parts of our endocannabinoid system. Our physical and mental personalities determine which receptors in what parts of our body get activated, and set the tone for the rest of the trip.
Here's a friendly reminder, though: Dosage is everything. Bhang is subtle if you've had only a glass or two, but if you want to really experience a heavy trip, be careful with how much you consume. There's every chance you'll wake up the next day, still tripping.