“What was that?! Is that the police outside? Hey! Dude, dude. Get up and check, I think it’s the police outside and they’ll break in any moment now. Dude. Dude, go check. Why are you laughing?”
Why isn’t he worried like I am? Why is he so calm? OMG... is HE the police? Is HE also on it? How well do I know him, really? Oh fuck, oh fuck... this is bad, fuck. He’s undercover. Fuck. Fuck. They’ll throw me in jail, they’ll throw me in jail. Fuck man, I was just trying to chill. They’ll throw me in jail.
That, in a nutshell, is what they call a bad trip.
A taste of the dreaded cannabis paranoia. When all you see around you are dangerous situations and people conspiring against your well-being. Your anxiety is off the scales, you constantly feel attacked, and you’re so very far from the Bob Marley vibe you were expecting.
Fortunately, this is a dragon you can slay.
I promise that by the time you’re done reading this article, you’ll be well equipped to deal with the worst of what cannabis paranoia can throw at you. We’ll demystify some urban legends and arm ourselves with science-baked, tested facts. Bonus? I’ll also throw in a few insights from my personal experience.
The mechanisms behind cannabis paranoia are the subject of quite a few studies. One of the most revealing was carried out in the UK and led by Dr. Daniel Freeman.
Sifting through 2000 applicants, researchers picked 121 volunteers, then divided them into three groups. One group was given a placebo while the other two were injected with a THC (tetrahydrocannabinol – the principal psychoactive ingredient of cannabis) quantity “equivalent to about one strong cannabis cigarette”.
As it’s boldly stated in the research paper’s findings – “THC significantly increased paranoia”, and “it was definitively demonstrated that the drug triggers paranoid thoughts in vulnerable individuals”.
The researchers found that “the increase in negative affect (anxiety, worry, depression, negative thoughts about the self) and in anomalous experiences fully accounted for the increase in paranoia...”.
More interesting, though, is how closely linked the negative affects were to the anomalous experiences. This is to say that the THC changed the way subjects felt and experienced the world which then triggered negative emotions like anxiety, worry, depression, which in turn transformed into full-blown paranoia.
Or as the researchers put it, “odd experiences encourage unusual thoughts ... a negative affective state makes a paranoid interpretation likely: anxiety leads to the threat content; negative self-beliefs highlight the person’s vulnerability to harm; and engagement in worry results in negative, implausible ideas. The fears reach a delusional level of conviction when reasoning biases, such as jumping to conclusions, are present.”
As we all know, after we smoke, our sense of perception changes. How that looks and feels like depends on the individual. Some might perceive a spike in sensory intensity like being able to smell better, taste things better (soooo much better, YUM), or the sense of touch might heighten. Others will go through thought echo, unusual feelings like the expansion of time, or distorted peripheral vision. Tons and tons of instances where things feel different than normal.
Things feel a bit off, a bit weird. And that’s when you come to a crossroads.
As soon as you feel different, your brain will demand, that’s right, DEMAND an explanation. Why is this happening differently than what I’m used to for the past 20-30-40 years?! In that frame of mind, frantically trying to make sense of a new, potentially menacing situation, you’re susceptible to momentarily losing control over your emotions and thoughts.
I had to deal with cannabis paranoia once, and it’s precisely as they describe it in the study.
I’m in Amsterdam with a good friend. We came to smoke and chill for three days straight. No other plans. We land, we take possession of our rental, and then we hit the coffee shops.
We order and since I’m not a smoker, we go for the all-green.
I take a puff, he takes a puff. I take a puff again, he takes a puff again. “Oh, wow, this is so strong, I’m already super baked.” – my friend says to me. But I don’t feel a thing yet, so I go ahead and take three extra puffs of pure, Amsterdam-strong cannabis.
Still feeling normal, I suggest we hit another shop because I think the weed here was too mild for me. As soon as I set foot outside my peripheral vision shatters into tiny fragments. It’s no subtle thing either, it’s full-on. That’s when my brain, registering an incredibly odd change in what it was used to, came at the crossroad and demanded an explanation. Unable to find one, it landed on the only reasonable conclusion – my friend, which I’ve known for four years now, was conspiring to sell me to the mafia so they can harvest my organs.
I – kid – you – not.
I was convinced that to be the case. This is how it went.
We’re walking down the street and he nods to a complete stranger. The stranger nods back. That scares me. He then does it again as we’re about to turn on a very sketchy street. The second stranger nods back, and now I’m sweating.
We reach the coffee shop, and he turns to me to say “We have to go down to the basement now, follow me”. How freaked am I? Clap and I’ll burst down in tears, that’s how scared I was when I heard the words “basement” and “follow me” put together.
I am unable to say or do anything, I just follow him. Petrified.
The basement has a door. He knocks.
The door opens and in the middle of it, there’s a guy dressed in a suit, a scar running from above his eye down to his chin. It’s a miracle I haven’t fainted.
“Wtf is going on, man? What is this? I want out. I need out. Wtf, man?!” Came out of my mouth.
He looks at me and intuitively knows.
“Oh, dude, you’re having a bad trip, let’s go outside.”
I had the good fortune of him being a very experienced cannabis smoker, so he was able to get me out of my paranoid state. How and why it worked I’ll explain later. Now let me tell you what really happened during that walk.
My friend was indeed baked and he, unlike myself, was having a wonderful trip. He felt love oozing out of his pores and wanted to hug everyone. But he did the next best thing, he started greeting strangers we came across, with a huge smile on his face. Naturally, they responded. This accounts for him nodding his head and them nodding back.
The coffee shop we visited is the famous Grasshopper, and anyone who’s been there knows they keep their cannabis in a shop in the basement of the building. The menacing guy at the door was real, I saw him the next day – a well-dressed bodyguard with a scar on his face.
If I wouldn’t have freaked out when my peripheral vision gave way, I probably would have had one of the best trips any human went on. Instead, I had one of the worst, actively fearing for my life.
Let’s move ahead and see how the likelihood of cannabis paranoia is influenced by:
As it was the case in my experience, the more THC you consume, the likelier it is you’ll get paranoid.
A recent study analyzed the effects different doses of THC have on our emotional responses to acute psychological stress. As it turns out, a small dose of 7.5 mg of THC helped allay negative feelings while performing a stressful task, while a higher dose of 12.5 mg managed quite the opposite, increasing those same negative emotions.
A 2014 study conducted on mice (very similar DNA to humans, cross-species studies on mice are good indicators to what might also happen with humans) found out that higher estrogen levels increase your cannabis sensitivity by up to 30%.
That means women are more likely to experience cannabis paranoia. They are also more likely to benefit extra from the plant’s pain-relief properties. There’re two sides to every coin.
Published just one year ago, a Canadian research paper determined that genetics might play an important role in why people go through different experiences while smoking weed. It seems that THC can affect either the frontal or the back part of the brain. If you’re genetically more inclined towards the former, you’re in luck, as you’ll feel joy, relaxation, and all the good vibes we expect from a great puff. Oppositely, if the back part of your brain receives more THC, then you’re more likely to feel anxious and paranoid.
The finding of the study is, surprisingly, good news. Although you can’t really change anything about the way your brain functions, we can change a lot about the way cannabis does. Through selective cultivation, we can develop strains that bind only to the frontal part of the brain, regardless of your genetic makeup.
This could make cannabis paranoia a rare occasion in just a few years.
It’s long been said among cannabis lovers that weed enhances your mood and brings up your “true” self to the surface, whichever that might be at the time you get high. So, it’s no surprise that Gregory Gerdeman, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology at Eckerd College backs the claim.
If I may chime in, in retrospect, during my Amsterdam cannabis paranoia episode, I think it was my choice to fight against what I was feeling that brought the fear, anxiety, and ultimately paranoia in. I remember I didn’t want to release control, I was extremely scared when my peripheral vision got altered, and so I went head to head with the plant in a match I could never win.
I often think of cannabis as emotional steroids, enhancing what you ask of it to. Feed it positive thoughts and relaxation, it will multiply them. Feed it fear, anxiety, and panic, and it will do the same
We know it can happen, we even have a good
idea why, but really what all of us could use
are tips and tricks on how to deal with it.
Fair enough. So here it is, what to do if you
cross paths with cannabis paranoia.
There has never been a documented case of
death as a result of a cannabis overdose.
You’re likely not going to be the first case in
recorded history. So chill.
Official records back this claim. The CDC
doesn’t list overdosing as a potential negative
effect of smoking cannabis, and no cases of
overdose from cannabis were found by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre and National Task Force on Cannabis in Australia in an official study on weed back in 1994.
A more recent report, from 2014, published by the Institute of Public Medicine in Frankfurt and Dusseldorf, Germany, claims it has found the first two cases of lethal cannabis overdose. It involves the death of two young men, but its findings are questionable to say the least.
First, it’s worth noting the researchers were not able to find any prior recorded cannabis overdoses to the ones they reported. The study then comes to its surprising conclusion – cannabis as the cause of death – not by proving cannabis was the reason behind the death of the two young men, but by eliminating other causes and then “assuming” (the exact word used in their conclusion) cannabis is to blame since they couldn’t pin it on anything else.
Furthermore, there are two huge studies on cannabis Vs. an early death. One was carried out in Europe on 45,450 Swedish men, and the other in the US on 65,171 Californians.
The goal of both was to track cannabis smokers and determine whether or not they have a shorter lifespan than non-smokers. The Europeans were monitored for 15 years while the Americans for 10, and the studies “reported no increase in mortality associated with use of cannabis”, which is to say that not only cannabis overdosing is probably impossible, but smoking weed won’t contribute to an early death, like smoking tobacco or drinking regularly do.
It helps a lot to get to a point where you are fully confident that no matter what and how you feel, you’re not going to die.
Like anything in life, preparation is half the battle.
The most important aspect of ensuring a good trip is to take it easy with the puffs. Remember that higher THC dosages increase the likelihood of paranoia set in. Take one puff at a time and wait for least two minutes until you go for another.
Smoking cannabis is a unique experience. You don’t chug splifs in like college frat boys do with cans of beer. Weed is mellow, consuming it should match its vibe. Take it easy, flow with the plant, respect its vibe and you’ll likely be rewarded.
Note that edibles kick in far later and are far stronger when they do. Never go for edibles if you’re not at least an amateur smoker.
Vaping also delivers higher concentrations of THC than smoking, so be extra careful.
To take things even further, try ordering cannabis strains with high CBD (...) and low THC levels. CBD doesn’t induce paranoia, on the contrary, it might actually help curb it. Modern products can have ratios as high as 25 to 1 in favor of CBD, making the likelihood of a positive ride extremely high.
If you really want to give yourself the best chances at a great ride, though, you should employ a few tools to keep your mind entertained. By focusing your attention on pleasurable experiences, not only will you stay safe from paranoia but you’ll experience some amazing trips. Two things I love doing are listening to music on high-quality headphones and finding ways to enhance the fascination-effect of cannabis.
That was the reason why I started to design my trippy 3D art, which eventually grew into a book. (check it out here) I love smoking and then letting my mind get lost in the intricate patterns that seem to organically transform before my eyes.
We smoke because we want to alter our state of consciousness. And before you jump and say "well, duh”, think about it for a second.
Smoking cannabis will alter your perception in many ways. As we’ve discussed, it can heighten your senses or dim them. It will turn your expectations upside down. And that’s a good thing. That’s normal.
Back in Amsterdam, it was my shock at how my peripheral vision changed that triggered the anxiety, which in turn brought the nasty paranoia.
It might take you a few minutes to reach the couch that’s only a few feet away from where you’re standing. That’s fine. You’re operating by another set of rules, so you shouldn’t keep your current expectations.
You feel like saying something but you can’t? That’s fine. Give it time, don’t force your speech and don’t freak out.
You’re on a ride. One that you’re not fully in control of. And that – is – fine.
Feel your heart beating faster? It’s likely that it beats at a normal pace, but smoking cannabis made you aware of it. You ignore your heartbeat 99.99% of the time, this time you get to feel it. Greet it with curiosity, empathy, and relaxation.
That’s why you’re here, to experience things differently. Don’t freak out when it happens. Enjoy.
As much as I feared my friend’s intentions during my cannabis paranoia episode, the man proved to be a savior, not a villain.
He saw what I was going through and paid close attention to my needs which significantly helped ease my anxiety.
He was calm and accommodating. He never made fun of me, never told me I was exaggerating, and he didn’t bail out to enjoy his wonderful ride.
He stopped and helped me through it.
I guess it’s true that not all heroes wear capes, and I recommend you find yourself one.
An especially important thing worth mentioning is that during a paranoid episode it doesn’t help to make people aware of it. On the contrary. In the same British study by
Dr. Daniel Freeman, scientists reached a secondary conclusion. In their own words:
“By the inclusion of an awareness condition, the study also made the first experimental attempt to block the misinterpretation considered central to paranoia. Contrary to prediction, this psychological manipulation did not decrease paranoia but perhaps had a paradoxical effect of exacerbating it, though statistical significance was not reached. The awareness condition may have increased sensitivity to paranoid thoughts.”
“misinterpretations in paranoia do not shift readily simply with provision of an alternative verbal explanation and that unintended consequences could arise from this approach.”
In simple words, telling someone “you’re paranoid” is as effective as telling an angry person “just calm down” – it will likely only make things worse.
As soon as we got out of that basement, my friend took me to a grocery store and bought a can of Sprite He handed it to me and instructed me to hold it up to my face.
When the ice-cold aluminum hit my face, my paranoia vanished. Without a trace, as if through magic, in an instant.
"Ok, now be aware that once you take the soda can away from your face, you'll slip right back in. You'll continue that bad trip," he said, and I didn’t believe him.
I took the can away from my cheek and lo and behold, I’m paranoid again.
Placing the can back up to my cheek made the paranoia subside. As long as I kept it there.
There are several studies to help us choose which stimuli work best. A recent one seems to prove that pepper can tame the effects of THC. Go to your pantry, get some good old-fashioned pepper and if you feel things getting out of hand, just take a whiff of it.
The same study suggests lemon might also do the trick, so keep some freshly squeezed lemon juice around just in case.
I would add experimenting with cold as well. My can of Sprite worked wonders, and I can’t help but think of what wonderful effects a cold shower might have.
If I wouldn’t have been out and about in Amsterdam but safely at home on my couch or in my bed, the paranoia wouldn’t have been so severe.
The environment fed situations to me that I could interpret erroneously. My friend greeting strangers, us going down to a basement, the menacing bodyguard greeting us, all of these wouldn’t have been present in my house.
The environment counts a lot. A good friend of mine enjoyed smoking weed for years until he decided to get lit in the middle of a Roger Waters concert. The choreography with the crumbling wall, the roaring sounds of a mega-concert plus the 50,000 people in attendance pushed him on a very unpleasant trip.
In the studio, where he usually smoked, he was never paranoid. That day, he literally ran for his life, convinced the New Order is coming and we’ll all get microchips implanted in our heads at the concert. He’s never been a conspiracy theorist.
The environment dictates the ride, and it’s there to either help you float or sink.
Light up some candles, put some mellow music on, do what you feel is in the spirit of the plant. Increasing your chances of relaxation is never a bad idea.
This is the red button behind the glass, the ultimate solution you turn to when everything else fails.
We’re all grown-ups here, we’ve all had our share of self-indulgence. Masturbation is surprisingly effective not only to allay stress but to take your mind off it and cut its resources. You shift your focus, and once you’re done, you’re tired, with little energy left to invest in paranoid thoughts.
The average high lasts 90 minutes.
Whatever happens, that’s the maximum you’ll get to live with it.
You’re likely not going to be paranoid for more than an hour, but rest assured that an hour and a half is all you have to go through, and then it’s back to normal again.
Cannabis paranoia is very real, yet in most cases very manageable with the proper knowledge and in the proper setting.
It’s likely that THC is the active ingredient in cannabis that triggers paranoia.
That means the best way to ward it off is to take in THC as slowly as possible. Puff once and wait, order low-THC and high-CBD strains, and keep away from edibles or vaping at first.
There are numerous ways to inhibit the effects of THC, including external stimuli like cold showers, drinking fresh lemon juice, or whiffing pepper. You should also set a calming, peaceful environment for smoking and do it in the company of the right people.
Preparing your mind is also particularly important. Expect a shift in your perception of the world, so don’t get scared when things happen and feel differently.
Above all else, remember that you’re safe. There are no recorded cases of a cannabis overdose, and plenty of governments have searched long and hard to find at least one.
Smoking cannabis is a vibe. Treat it with respect, go about it gently, buy from reputable sources. Do so and chances of a good ride are overwhelmingly in your favor.
P.s. I hope you found the info in the article useful and I hope my research will help many of you control cannabis paranoia. Also, don’t forget to check my book out – it’s one trippy, fun ride if you browse through it while stoned.