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With recreational marijuana becoming legal in Canada on Oct. 17, a number of so-called lifestyle brands are touting the benefits of cannabis for a range of wellness areas, including sex. (Photo Illustration)

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Part of Cannabis and your health

For years, Kinleigh Stewart thought she was asexual. On the rare occasion the 27-year-old from Sarnia, Ont., had sex, she mostly felt anxious – a fact she attributes to early traumatic experiences related to sex – and preoccupied. “I’d think about what groceries I had to buy, if I needed to vacuum. I hated it … It put me in a crippling position,” she said. In the past year, however, Stewart has discovered that she can enjoy sex. It’s just that, in order to do so, she has to be high.

A pot smoker since adolescence, Stewart and a former boyfriend decided to try smoking up before sex. Suddenly, she could climax, something she’d previously been unable to achieve with another person. Being high seemed to heighten her senses, which made her more aroused. Further, connecting with her sexuality and what turns her on made Stewart realize she may not be straight. “Now that I can get into [sex], and like it, I think I like women,” she said.

In 1971, American psychologist Charles Tart published On Being Stoned: A Psychological Study of Marijuana Intoxication. It relates findings from his survey of 150 marijuana users on how being high affected their perceptions of various sensory experiences, sex included. The respondents commonly reported that pot increased their sex drive, intensified feelings of closeness with their partners and yielded better orgasms. Almost 50 years later, save a handful of surveys, little scientific research has been published on the link between cannabis and sex. For the most part, legal constraints in Canada and the United States have posed a barrier to researchers’ abilities to study the substance.

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But with recreational marijuana becoming legal in Canada on Oct. 17, a number of so-called cannabis lifestyle brands have cropped up on both sides of the border, touting the benefits of cannabis for a range of wellness areas, sex among them. Alongside strains of dried cannabis for smoking or vaping and cannabis-infused oils, some are selling the notion that cannabis makes for better sex – for women, especially.

Tokyo Smoke runs a string of what it calls coffee shops (for the record, they do sell coffee, in addition to cannabis paraphernalia) in Toronto, one in Calgary and several dispensing stores, where actual cannabis can be bought, scheduled to open in Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia pending official legislation. The company recently acquired Van der Pop, a Seattle-based brand that bills itself as “female-focused,” a resource for women to explore “how marijuana relates to better self-care, sex and socializing.” Its workshop offerings include one on sexual health and cannabis held last month in Toronto. Participants of “Women and Weed: Cannabis and Sex” were given a document that claims THC and CBD (two major compounds found in marijuana) calm the mind, and that THC stimulates mood and arousal, creates heightened genital sensitivity and intensifies orgasms. “There’s a system in our body engineered to work with cannabis …and it has mind-blowing results for sex,” said April Pride, Van der Pop’s founder and both companies’ chief creative officer. “I want women who struggle [with sexual dysfunction] to walk away feeling like they have another tool in their arsenal.”

But beyond the anecdotal, is there evidence to show marijuana enhances sex for women? Rany Shamloul, a clinical researcher at The Ottawa Hospital with expertise in sexual health, says that while it’s possible cannabis impacts women’s and men’s sexual experiences differently due to brain variances, nothing has been proven conclusively. “We’re in the preliminary stage of observing the phenomenon. We need to move on to explain why or how this is happening.”

Researchers are beginning to isolate which compounds in cannabis act on cannabinoid receptors in different regions of the body and brain to induce the compounds’ diverse effects, said James Pfaus, a Psychology professor at Concordia University who studies the neurochemistry of sexual behaviour. It’s generally understood that THC lowers a person’s inhibitions, he said, referencing a 2014 literature review by researchers at the University of Basel, Switzerland, on the effects of cannabis on impulsivity.

For someone who is sexually inhibited at the outset, pot may reduce anxiety, Pfaus said. “A person never in the moment … they’re in the middle of sex going, ’Who’s going to fix the chips in the paint?’ … THC will get on those receptors, especially in the [brain’s] frontal cortex, and knock out that executive function, so they can actually be in the moment.” For a non-anxious person, “the drug will come in and shut down their … ability to perceive anything outside its sedating properties.”

Ashley Manta, a San Diego sex educator and coach, runs workshops on integrating sex and cannabis through her brand CannaSexual. For a lot of female-identifying folks, she said, cannabis “makes sex feel exciting again, yummy, not routine … especially for those in long-term relationships.” As a survivor of sexual assault, she’s personally found, and has heard from clients, that cannabis can ease pain, discomfort and anxiety during sex, and “quiet the voices in your head that say you’re not good enough.” And one needn’t get high to reap the benefits, she said. There are cannabis-infused topical products or strains of marijuana that relax the body without producing the psychoactive effect associated with being stoned.

Still, a potential downside of using marijuana to enhance sex, Pfaus warned, is being unable to enjoy sex without it. In this case, “you’re never psychologically getting rid of the anxiety,” and, in order to tackle underlying issues, might instead consider using cannabis as an adjunct to psychotherapy.

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Manta, who stressed her advice shouldn’t be taken as medical, dismissed the argument that coupling sex and weed is treacherously habit-forming. “It’s similar to people who say if you use a vibrator, you’ll not be able to have sex without one … If your use becomes problematic as identified by you, then I’d lay off. Most people won’t get to that point.”

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