Paranoia has always been the Achilles heel of nature’s most wondrous plant. As with all things in life, a dark side exists in the ying-yang of cannabis use. While a medicinal cure-all to many, some weed exists as a portal to one’s personal hell, complete with spells of anxiety, doubts of self-worth and the psychological implications that follow.
The web woven from the many intersections of marijuana and paranoia is built on a strange bed of scientific facts and first-hand accounts, peppered by the lies lingering from Reefer Madness-era propaganda and its accompanying pseudoscience.
There are scientific theories as to why weed causes paranoia, and then there are a plethora of cultural stigmas surrounding the plant itself. The public perception exists somewhere between the two.
In an attempt to dissipate the metaphorical smoke surrounding this topic’s many mirrors, here is a brief explainer of weed paranoia, addressing each of the scientific and cultural facets of this strange, hazy paradox.
The science behind weed paranoia
First, it might be helpful to distinguish anxiety from paranoia. Anxiety is a feeling of apprehension that something bad will happen; this mood state is a common response to stress. Paranoia, however, means an excessive or irrational fear that someone is trying to harm you.
Because of cannabis’ status as a Schedule I substance (and ensuing research barriers) few scientific studies have focused on understanding exactly why weed makes people either anxious or paranoid. Leading research points to a few different theories, and it stands to reason that THC is a major culprit in the unpleasant feelings associated with cannabis.
New or infrequent cannabis users may be surprised when they experience a racing heart after consuming a cannabis-based product. This effect is caused by THC, which activates the autonomic nervous system (the “fight, flight, or flee” responses). It is also possible that THC causes a racing heart by directly binding to heart tissue.
Because the brain interprets a rapid heart rate as a “fight or flight” response, feelings of anxiety can frequently accompany a high dose of THC, though it is common for this side effect to diminish over time as people develop tolerance to the effects of THC.
By starting at a low dose, and increasing slowly over time, individuals can overcome anxiety and reap the other benefits of THC. Also, CBD appears to improve the therapeutic and enjoyable effects of THC by minimizing the unwanted side effects such as restlessness and a racing heart. So cannabis with a balance of THC and CBD may be more enjoyable than high-THC products.
Unlike anxiety, cannabis and paranoia are far less straightforward. For many years, there has been a known link between cannabis use and schizophrenia (a major symptom of this disorder is paranoia). For example, people who use cannabis are more likely to report feeling like people around them are deliberately trying to harm them. However, it’s unclear whether cannabis use is the cause or the result of paranoia.
According to Medical News Today, one of the most comprehensive studies on weed and paranoia to date is a 2014 piece published in the journal Schizophrenia Bulletin, led by Prof. Daniel Freeman, Ph.D., of the University of Oxford, funded by the UK’s Medical Research Council.
To understand why marijuana consumption can cause paranoia, the study directors enlisted 20 participants ages 21-50, all of whom had used cannabis at least once previously and had no history of mental health conditions. Two-thirds of the participants were injected with delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (or THC) at a dose equivalent to a strong joint, while the remaining third were injected with a placebo.
Results of the study showed that among participants who were injected with THC, around 50% reported paranoid thoughts, compared to 30% of participants who received the placebo. It was noted that as the compound left the bloodstream, feelings of paranoia began to dissipate.
THC causes changes in perception. Participants reported noises being louder, clouds being brighter, as well as altered perceptions of time and increased anxiety or negative thoughts about oneself. Researchers found that the negative feelings about oneself were then compounded by changes in perception, leading us to feel something strange, or even frightening, is going on.
While the team said their findings not only “very convincingly” show that cannabis can cause short-term paranoia in some users, it also explains how our minds encourage paranoid feelings.
“I think what it highlights is that if you have greater confidence in yourself, you improve your self-esteem, and if you try not to worry or ruminate about potential threats in the world … then the effects of the THC should hopefully be less capable of inducing paranoia,” Freeman said.
Scientists are still trying to unpack the mechanisms behind these effects. A 2019 study published in Scientific Reports used rats to show that THC’s opposing forces of pleasure and paranoia are driven by complex interactions between THC and the body’s natural opioid systems (our endorphins). These interactions happen in a part of the brain’s reward pathway called the nucleus accumbens, which is heavily involved in helping us sort out and respond to pleasant and unpleasant experiences.
However, the question remains: at times, why does THC activate one part of the accumbens to promote euphoria, while at other times it activates a different subregion, resulting in paranoia?
“There is not too much known about why there are such differences in response to THC,” said Steven R. Laviolette, Ph.D., one of the study’s researchers. “We know a lot about the long-term and short-term effects … But there is very little known about the specific areas in the brain that are responsible for independently controlling those effects … once we figure out what molecular pathways are causing those effects in different areas, then in the long term we can work on modulating THC formulations so they don’t activate those specific pathways.”
Weed paranoia propaganda
The cultural paranoia surrounding cannabis dates back to a stigma concocted during the mania of America’s post-Depression ’30s.
While domestic hemp production was encouraged from the 1600s through the turn of the century, Mexican immigrants flooding into the U.S. after the 1910 Mexican Revolution introduced American culture to the recreational applications of cannabis use. The drug then became associated with immigrants, with fear and prejudice about Spanish-speaking newcomers becoming synonymous with the plant itself.
During the Depression, widespread unemployment increased public resentment surrounding Mexican immigrants, which was manifested in the demonization of marijuana, then known as the “Marijuana Menace.”
By 1930, commissioner of the newly-minted Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry J. Anslinger, (known as the “Father of Reefer Madness”), was issuing public statements like, “you smoke a joint and you’re likely to kill your brother,” and pushing for cannabis to be outlawed primarily due to “its effect on the degenerate races.”
As absurd as these claims seem now, Anslinger’s racist propaganda was successful enough to overshadow the well-documented benefits of the plant. By 1931, 29 states had outlawed cannabis. Despite weed’s growing public and legal acceptance, the echoes of this rhetoric continue to stigmatize the industry to this day.
An edible predicament
Weed paranoia is a two-fold phenomenon: part science, part stigma. Caught in the middle of these disparate factions is the edibles industry. Occupying the most divisive and opaque corner of the cannabis market’s new legal frontier, no group has been affected by the concept of paranoia, nor the reality of causing paranoia in novice users, more than edible brands.
From Maureen Dowd’s infamous New York Times column documenting her experience freaking on edibles, to the child-proof packaging, dosage caps, and other strict regulations imposed on the California edibles industry during 2016’s foray into legality, edibles feel the brunt of negativity when it comes to issues surrounding weed-induced paranoia.
“People are scared of what they don’t understand,” said Kristi Strong, co-founder of leading edibles brand Kiva Confections. “So much of our job is de-mystifying cannabis in general, and edibles specifically.”
Much of the paranoia surrounding edibles comes from the fact that it can take up to 90 minutes for the effects to be felt. It’s common for new users to mistake the delayed activation time with a product malfunction, leading them to consume more to feel the effects quicker. By the time both doses kick in, consumers are overwhelmingly high, which can be pretty scary. Add this to the possibility of edibles effects lasting two to four times longer than the effects of smoking flower or vaping.
One way brands have worked around issues of edibles induced paranoia is through creating products centered around the concept of microdosing, or the act of taking low doses of edible cannabis similar to how you would take supplements or nootropics.
“Microdosed edibles empower consumers to feel safely in control of their edible experience,” says Strong. “They know it’s not going to be overwhelming, so they have nothing to fear. In small doses, you can avoid the paranoid feeling completely, and have the opposite experience — a feeling of relaxation, ease, and delight. When taken correctly, you actually want the edibles experience to last a long time.”
What to do if you feel paranoia
While there are ways to avoid paranoia in cannabis use, you’ll likely experience it in some capacity at some point. So, what to do if you find yourself freaking out?
“The most important thing is to stay calm,” says Strong. “Cannabis is not toxic and the effects will pass in time … Make sure to stay hydrated and relaxed in a safe environment. If available, consume a CBD-rich product. CBD has been found to counteract the effects of THC, so it can help with the side effects of over ingestion.”
Drink some water, eat a snack, bundle up in a blanket and watch Seinfeld, or whatever your happy place may be. Bottom line: just try to chill.
The future of weed paranoia
The trajectory of the cannabis industry will be (and always has been) centered around breaking stigma.
The key to overcoming weed paranoia, whether it be the scientific causes of weed-induced paranoia or the cultural stigma surrounding its use, exists in educating the public on how to responsibly use cannabis. With the rise of microdosing and precision when it comes to labeling, the days of high-dose freak-outs are becoming a thing of the past.
“Cannabis has so many beneficial properties to it,” says Strong. “It can do so much more for us than simply get us high. It can be used as a productivity tool, to boost health and wellness, to help ease pain and induce restful sleep. There is a range of benefits within a small dose that many people never discover because all they want is the high. A subtle dose is powerful in a different way. It can be integrated into our lives with immense benefits, and very little side effects.”
Regardless of what the propaganda of yesteryear will have you believe, weed isn’t just for stoners anymore. And just because you may have over-indulged once, doesn’t mean you should let fear get the best of you.
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