This article originally appeared on Tonic in the US.
For more than a century now, humans have been dreaming about our hypothetical future on a colonized Mars. In that time, we’ve envisioned everything from the minute practicalities of setting up livable habitats on the red planet—scientists have been gaming that out in detail for at least 40 years—to the possible political and social innovations we could enact. Yet for all the creative energy our species has poured into extra-planetary colonial dreams, we have yet to examine one aspect of our Martian future in any real depth: What would it be like to use cannabis on Mars?
This may seem like an absurd question given that, despite all the hype by folks like SpaceX founder Elon Musk, we almost certainly will not colonize Mars anytime soon—if ever. And even if we do eventually set up a Martian colony, that settlement will be small and fragile, says Mark Shelhamer, a professor of otolaryngology at Johns Hopkins University and an expert on the effects of space on the human body.
Shelhamer, who’s also a former chief scientist for human research at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, says that “colonists will have such critical mission tasks that I can’t see them imbibing anything that would deliberately alter their mental states and thus their ability to respond in an emergency.” (This is the same reason celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson told reporters a few months back that it would be an incredibly bad idea to smoke weed in space.)
But there is reason to probe this question: Some researchers predict it’s almost certain that, at some point, someone will try to bring some chronic to Mars, argues Mike Dixon, a University of Guelph professor who studies food production systems for space exploration.
The governmental or business forces behind colonization may try to introduce it as a medicine, as the broad therapeutic utility of cannabis becomes increasingly clear on earth. Shelhamer says they may be particularly interested in its potential to manage the anxiety of the prolonged isolation and confinement of long-distance space travel and life in a compact habitat on Mars, if cannabis continues to show promise in that field—although he thinks this is a long shot in the near future.
Settlers may also push to bring cannabis to Mars, or smuggle up seeds, in search of intoxication-as-recreation, Dixon says. He notes that he lobbied for, and got, barley onto one list of candidate crops for human space exploration explicitly so space settlers could brew alcohol. Extraterrestrial agricultural wonks such as Karin Kloosterman, who founded the Mars Farm Odyssey and works in the legal cannabis research sector, says growing weed would be much easier than brewing booze, especially early on in a colony’s existence.
Could we even grow weed in space?
Regardless of the motive for bringing weed to Mars, it seems safe to say that settlers would have to farm it there rather than import it from earth, as importing anything will be insanely expensive. Mars is an incredibly hostile environment for anything earthly, and reengineering the planet's atmosphere and landscape to be friendly to earth-based life is still an entirely sci-fi idea. So cannabis cultivation would have to take place in the enclosed, controlled habitats we would build for settlers to live in. All the experts I’ve spoken to agree that in those bubbles, weed cultivation would look a lot like it does in an earth-bound greenhouse or hydroponic setup—albeit with extensive water and waste recycling systems to account for limited access to potable water, viable soil, and vital plant nutrients. (While Mars has water and soil, we don’t yet know if they’re safe for agriculture, much less human contact or consumption.)
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But even in a controlled, earth-like space, there could be a few hitches to cannabis cultivation. We can’t really create reliable and constant artificial gravity, for instance—and Mars only has about a third of the gravity of earth. This probably won’t have an adverse effect on the physiology of cannabis or any other type of plant, Dixon says. Plants are shockingly adaptable to a wide variety of environmental conditions; in his experiments, many crops get by just fine in as little as a tenth of earth’s atmospheric pressure, for instance.
However, gravitational differences could complicate things like the gas exchange between a plant’s leaf and the surrounding air, he explains. We may also find that we have trouble blocking all of the radiation that hits Mars, a planet without the same magnetic field protections of Earth—and this could have unforeseen consequences for the genetic stability of any crop. Any other number of complications could jump out at early settlers as well, given how little we really understand about life on Mars to date.
Fortunately, Dixon points out, by the time we get around to cultivating cannabis on Mars, we will likely have worked out most of the gravitational, radiological, and other miscellaneous bugs, as we will have done a ton of work to lock down Martian habitat farming for food crops more vital than weed. Researchers are already puzzling out these issues; NASA successfully grew its first-ever space crop (lettuce) four years ago. And a number of companies have even started researching how cannabis specifically will react to non-earth environments. Startup Space Tango, which makes box-sized labs for space scientists, got a fair amount of press last year when it launched a new project to study the cultivation of hemp plants in zero gravity.
So, as long as researchers can figure out how to make agriculture work on Mars in general—a prospect folks like Dixon are fairly bullish about—then we can probably design systems to grow cannabis that comes out fairly similar, if not identical, to that grown on earth-bound farms.
How would smoking weed in space affect your body?
Using that Martian weed, though, might yield different results on Mars than on earth. Reduced gravity, while arguably inconsequential for plants, has a huge impact on the human body, messing with our muscle and bone density, blood pressure and cell count, immune system, sleep patterns, and much more—even when we make everything else in our environment fairly earth-like.
We don’t entirely know how these changes would interact with the known effects of cannabis, Shelhamer says. Nor do we know how Martian radiation levels, even with shielding from enclosed habitats, could affect our brains and the way they react to cannabinoids. Also, lower-than-earth gravity seems to lower blood pressure. Mitch Earleywine, a longtime cannabis researcher at the State University of New York, Albany, and a member of the advisory board of the cannabis law reform advocacy organization group NORML—argues that cannabis also tends to lower our blood pressure, so we can at least be sure that, “without pretty extensive interventions, the average one-hitter will likely make most everybody pass out, which would put a damper on the potential fun of being able to make vertical leaps eight feet high without a lot of effort.”
Pure physics aside, Earleywine also suspects that the psychology of life in a Martian habitat could harsh a good cannabis mellow. “Isolation is rarely a friend to the cannabis intoxication experience,” he explains. “Anyone with a tendency to ruminate will need the best of distractions to avoid getting stuck in a depressive spiral related to feeling alone and unloved” on remote Mars.
We might be able to address some concerns by creating new standards for the consumption of cannabis on Mars. Primarily or solely using edibles, for instance, could solve any gravitational problems around our lungs’ ability to effectively process pot smoke—and would probably be safer than smoking in a delicate and enclosed environment. (Although we haven’t studied edibles enough to know how that form of consumption might interact with the variables of life on Mars.)
But we won’t really be able to control for all the ways Mars could mess with us when we use cannabis until we learn more. Not about the red planet, but about weed.
Cannabis, Dixon points out, is a complicated substance with more than 500 compounds, including over 140 cannabinoids, “and we know a little about two or three of them.” Once we understand how each of these affects us in isolation, and in combination with other cannabis components, we might be able to tweak weed to gel with life on Mars—for instance, to reduce its effects on blood pressure.
The incredible environmental controls associated with Martian agriculture would likely make it fairly easy, or at least routine, to consistently control the qualities of a strain. Weed strains cultivated Martian-style could then wind up far more reliable and tailored to a given need than most modern earth strains are.
If we can achieve this level of knowledge and control over cannabis composition and cultivation, then we might be able to deliver the settlers of Mars an earth-like high. Or we could find that, to control for the complications of Mars, we wind up creating a new high unlike anything experienced on earth before. It's hard to say for sure what getting baked on Mars will be like at this embryonic stage of both Martian exploration and legitimate cannabis research. At the very least, we can say that if humans have a future on Mars, we probably have a viable future getting safely blitzed in a Martian habitat as well.