Weed has the overriding perception as the chill-out drug. In fact, almost a third of marijuana users in the U.S. say the main purpose of it is to reduce anxiety or stress, a recent Marist poll found. But that is not always the case; smoking can leave lots of people paranoid, anxious, and eager for the high to fade.
First, it is important to understand what paranoia means exactly. It is similar to anxiety, but a bit more specific.
What is paranoia?
The process of paranoid thinking involves believing that you are being threatened or are in danger of harm, even if there is no evidence to back up this assertion. If you are paranoid, you will think that the motives of others are suspicious without any particular reasoning behind it.
Here are some examples of paranoid thinking:
- A belief that others are talking about you.
- Thinking that there is someone following you.
- Believing that people are judging or laughing at you.
- Thinking that there is a plot to harm or kill you.
The history of weed paranoia
The cultural paranoia surrounding cannabis dates back to a stigma concocted during the mania of America’s post-Depression in the 1930s.
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, was 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.
Cannabis and brain chemistry
Because of cannabis’ status as a Schedule I substance few scientific studies have focused on understanding exactly why weed makes people anxious and 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. 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. 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 is unclear whether cannabis use is 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 cannabis 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 (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 percent reported paranoid thoughts, compared to 30 percent of participants who received the placebo. It was noted that as the compound left the bloodstream, feelings of paranoia began to dissipate.
THC caused changes in the perception of the participants. They 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.
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 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:
“Why does THC activate one part of the brain 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 do not activate those specific pathways.”
Why you might be more prone to it
Not everyone experiences paranoia after using cannabis. Plus, most people who do experience it do not notice it every single time they use cannabis. Science might not yet have all the answers, but there are a few leads in research that have exposed some crucial factors to consider.
- Genetics: According to the animal study from 2019, cannabis tends to produce positive effects, such as relaxation and decreased anxiety, when it provides more stimulation to the front region of the brain. Study authors suggest this has to do with the large number of reward-producing opioid receptors in the front of the brain. If the back portion of your brain has more THC sensitivity than the anterior, however, you could experience an adverse reaction, which often includes paranoia and anxiety.
- THC content: Using marijuana with higher THC content may also contribute to paranoia and other negative symptoms. A 2017 study looking at 42 healthy adults found evidence to suggest that consuming 7.5 milligrams (mg) of THC reduced negative feelings associated with a stressful task. A higher dose of 12.5 mg, on the other hand, had the opposite effect and increased those same negative feelings. While other factors like tolerance, genetics, and brain chemistry can come into play here, you are generally more likely to experience paranoia or anxiety when you consume a lot of cannabis at once or use high-THC strains.
- Sex: A 2014 animal study exploring THC tolerance found evidence suggesting higher estrogen levels can increase cannabis sensitivity by as much as 30 percent and lower tolerance for cannabis. Therefore, if you are female, you may be more sensitive to cannabis and its effects. This goes for positive effects, like pain relief, as well as negative effects, like paranoia.
How to avoid weed paranoia
If you are susceptible to or worried about cannabis-induced paranoia, luckily there are ways to prevent, even counter, that anxiety-inducing high. Here are just a few tips:
- Try a low-THC and/or high-CBD strain. CBD is a non-intoxicating compound that combats anxiety and counteracts THC’s psychoactive effects, resulting in a calmer and more clear-headed experience.
- Take small doses. Smoking and vaporizing offer better dose control than oils and edibles, so consider starting there if you are worried about getting too high. The more experienced you become the better understanding you will have of appropriate doses for yourself.
- Find a comfortable place. Where you are and who you are with is pivotal to the high experience, so get to a happy place with some trusted friends to reduce panic and paranoia.
- Partner up with the right strain. Every strain has something different to offer on a chemical level, so keep track of which ones work best for you. Sativa strains tend to deliver racier, high-energy effects while indicas tend to be more relaxing. Some people also report that strains with pine, citrus, or peppery notes can help boost relaxing effects and make paranoia less likely. However, this is not backed by any scientific evidence.