Three Easy Steps to Avoid Cannabis Paranoia

Photo by Frank Flores

Here's the real talk: I use cannabis daily. And that means it’s been a while since I felt anything close to paranoia or anxiety after smoking. But I realize I’m not everybody, that paranoia is a really common experience, and that I hear about it a lot.

"I got WAY TOO HIGH in college, got really paranoid and sunk into the couch. I haven’t smoked in years because I know I’ll get paranoid again."

"I thought my brain stopped working and I was dying. My thoughts disappeared and all I could think about was that I’m high and it's terrible and never going to go away."

"I accidentally got high because someone gave me a weed cookie which I thought was just a normal cookie that tasted gross. A while later, it hit me. I started to feel like time was going so slowly and I got SO paranoid. I felt like everyone at the party was avoiding me and I was yelling everything I was saying while everyone else's voices were muffled. And I was really upset because I hadn't chosen to get high. I called my whole family to let them know I was high, in case I died. I don't know what I thought they would do from like, Florida."

Sound familiar?

Ok, so that last one is terrible. Dosing without consent is just NOT COOL. And thankfully, in today’s regulated market, potency is both tested and packaged correctly, so I hear about those stories less and less. That being said, there is a red thread that runs through all of these—dosage and education.

So, what causes paranoia? Move over Bill Nye, I’m about to get a little science-y.

It's important to understand first, that your body has an entire receptor system that loves cannabis called the endocannabinoid system. But it's also important to know that there are 113 combinations of chemical compounds called cannabinoids in the plant. THC or tetrahydrocannabinol and CBD or cannabidiol are the two most common ones.

And while CBD is the mellow friend that calms you down and gets you into the chill zone, THC is the life of the party. It’s what makes you feel high, euphoric, relaxed, hungry, social, a bit out of sorts about the passing of time, and otherwise hyper attuned to your senses.

Think of it this way, when THC moonwalks into your party, everyone cheers and breaks out the chips and lets the good times roll. But fill your house with too many party animals, and you end up with James Franco passed out in your master bath. Excessive amounts of THC might start out fun, but very quickly can turn into panic attacks, hallucinations, vomiting, and paranoia. No bueno.

It’s especially important that when you’re new to cannabis and still figuring out your limits, you take it slowly.

Your Cannabis Experience, Paranoia-Free

Let’s start here: I don’t think cannabis is for everyone.

Just like alcohol, sugar and caffeine, different people have different sensitivities to stimulants. There are some whose minds resist an opening up of thoughts. The receptor that binds to cannabis is like a front door to your amygdala, which is responsible for emotions like fear. This is something that’s important to understand before you dabble—because it’s all about meeting your emotions without a mask. And that’s just not something that everyone is up for.

But if you’re someone who’s open to trying cannabis—whether you’ve had a paranoid experience in the past or it’s your first-time—and you’re ready to explore the many creative, playful, and healing properties of the plant, I’ve got a plan for you.

1 - Check and Set Your Vibe

There’s a reason why this is number one. The people you are with and the ambience are paramount in setting the foundation for your experience.

Since you are opening yourself up emotionally (remember the amygdala) when you consume THC, you become more empathetic towards other people's moods and energies too. It’s so important to be with people you are comfortable being silly and vulnerable with. (But isn’t that just a general good practice in life?)

Although some people are more intuitive than others, we’ve all experienced a time when you walk into a place and you sense something isn’t quite right. That little twitch in your gut which gives your intuition pause. There are many ways to strengthen this, cannabis being one of them. But for those who are newer to the game, I’m sharing a little a trick to help you measure the vibe of the room. Ask yourself this: If I were to burp in front of these people, what would happen? If your answer sounds palatable, toke away my friend. But if not, then keep passing to the left, and try again another time when you’re around your safe peeps.

Lastly, when setting the vibe, I recommend stimulating at least three of your five senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell). Bonus points if you can touch on all five. I’m talking candles, something soft or warm to snuggle, music, an activity like gardening or watching a movie. Supporting your senses will not only help you to feel safe and secure, but external stimulants can calm and even distract from any anxiety building in your mind. What this also does is start to create a ritual around this experience. By replacing the paranoid memory with a peaceful one, you will move on from your traumatic cannabis past more easily.

2 - Crawl, Walk, Run

Paranoia kicks in when you overstimulate your receptors with more THC than you’re ready for. So the next time you consume, be sure to go nice and slow. Below is a bit of a guide when testing something new.
  • Smoking/vaping: take one hit, wait 5-10 minutes before your next hit
  • Edibles: start with a quarter to a half of the serving size of an edible with no more than 5-10mg of THC in total, wait 25-35 minutes before taking a second bite
  • Tincture: take one drop, wait 25 minutes before your next, make sure there’s at least some presence of CBD in the tincture
  • Concentrates, dabbing, bongs: avoid these highly potent ways for now

This same approach can be applied when choosing what you consume. If you live in a state that has legalized recreational cannabis, visit a dispensary and talk to the budtenders! They are incredibly knowledgeable, friendly, and there to help you. They can point you to a low THC, high CBD product to get you familiar with being high again.

3 - Have Your Toolbox Ready

Especially when smoking, it’s helpful to have a few things handy to use if something comes up that makes you suddenly anxious. I recommend always having something to drink and something to squeeze. Throat discomfort, coughing, and dry-mouth are very common side effects of smoking, so having a drink close by from the start will help you avoid any future discomfort. Staying hydrated before and after you consume will also help you from from getting too high.

As for something to squeeze, well, I don’t have any science to back this up. But in my experience, especially when I first started smoking, if I took a larger inhale than I was expecting, having something like a pillow to squeeze to get me through the uncomfortable moment just really helped. And it felt really good to smush my red and coughy face into it. It was a place to direct any discomfort I felt, while also self-soothing.

And get your music dialed. Music is a critical part part of my toolbox, so I like to have my playlist queued up before everything else.

Next week, I'll dive into some easy things you can do in the unfortunate event that you get paranoid after all. Stay tuned. And until then, check out the ultimate Rookie's Guide to Cannabis.

Meryl is a Portland- and New York-based cannabis advocate and founder of Barbari, a cannabis brand committed to bringing back the herbal spliff.