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How Marijuana Can Alter Your Mental State

Steven Gans, MD is board-certified in psychiatry and is an active supervisor, teacher, and mentor at Massachusetts General Hospital.

  • Drug Use
    • Marijuana
    • Cocaine
    • Heroin
    • Meth
    • Ecstasy/MDMA
    • Hallucinogens
    • Opioids
    • Prescription Medications
  • Alcohol Use
  • Addictive Behaviors
  • Nicotine Use
  • Coping and Recovery

Many people who are curious about smoking pot, or who have family members or friends who use the drug, wonder, “What does it feel like to be high?” Although the experience is different for everyone (the marijuana high is one of the most unpredictable of all drug intoxication effects), there are certain effects that most users of marijuana feel when they smoke or eat pot.

When people are stoned on marijuana, the experience is strongly affected by factors that have little to do with the drug, and more to do with the sensitivity of the person taking the drug to their surroundings and their feelings about the people they are with. The frame of mind of the person using marijuana and the environment where they use marijuana that influences the effects are known as set and setting.

Altered Sensory Perceptions

Most people experience changes in their sensory perceptions when they are stoned.   While marijuana does not typically produce real hallucinations the way that hallucinogenic drugs like LSD do, people do tend to see the world in a different way when they are high on cannabis than they do normally.

Familiar faces and objects can seem unfamiliar or strange, often in a way that is amusing; colors can appear brighter; aesthetic appreciation can be enhanced: and the mood of the individual can be projected onto everything around them. When surroundings are perceived in a positive way, this can be enjoyable. But it can also happen in a negative way, causing the world to seem grim and harsh.

The sensory perceptions of hearing and taste are often most strongly affected by marijuana. People who have used marijuana will often report a greater appreciation of music and may spend the entire experience listening to music.

Enhancement of the sense of taste can result in a specific type of binge eating called “the munchies,” in which larger amounts of food may be consumed than normal. People who are stoned may also eat foods in odd combinations, such as chocolate with pickles.

Changes in Mood and Mental State

The effects of marijuana on mood vary greatly from one person to another, but generally, emotions are exaggerated in a similar way to the intoxication effects of alcohol.   Situations that normally seem emotionally neutral may appear amusing or ridiculous, or conversely, intimidating and upsetting.

Marijuana users will typically attempt to control the emotional stimulation they are exposed to while stoned, but this is not always possible. Situations involving real or imagined confrontation can be particularly upsetting and can result in intense paranoia in someone under the influence of marijuana.

The effects of marijuana on the ability to relax are rather contradictory. While many who become dependent on marijuana do so for the drug’s initial relaxation effects, the rebound effect typically results in a higher level of anxiety in marijuana users.   Some develop long-term anxiety disorders, which they attempt to self-medicate with marijuana, causing a vicious cycle.

People often feel confused or slowed down when they are high on marijuana, although this is often not upsetting and can even seem amusing to the person affected. Rarely does marijuana improve mental functioning.

Effects on Creativity

While some people claim that marijuana improves creativity, and there is some evidence that marijuana use is associated with the production of a greater number of novel ideas, it is unclear whether people who have novel ideas seek out marijuana, or whether the drug increases the novel ideas.

Also, some research has shown that higher doses result in less creativity than lower doses. One study did not find significant differences in the creativity of individuals using low dose THC and those not under the effects of marijuana at all.  

Typically, people under the influence of marijuana express ideas that may seem bizarre, muddled, unfeasible, or incomprehensible to others. Some would-be artists use marijuana in the hope of a shortcut to artistic success—however, marijuana may make it more difficult to use creative thoughts productively.

The marijuana high can be unpredictable. Although there are effects that users describe that are common to the experience, it's different for all.

Sensation of a Marijuana High: Smoking, Edibles, and Vaping

Smoking, ingesting, or vaping marijuana can make you high or “stoned.” If you’ve never tried marijuana, you might wonder what it feels like.

Marijuana can have drastically different effects from one person to the next. Some people report feeling happy or relaxed. Others report laughter, altered time and sensory perception, and increased appetite. But marijuana can also cause less-desirable effects.

Keep in mind that marijuana is still illegal in most states. In others, it’s only legal with a prescription. You should only use marijuana when it’s legal.

Marijuana affects each person differently. Some people are very sensitive to marijuana’s effects, while others might not notice them as much.

How you react to marijuana depends on a number of factors, including:

  • the dose, strain, and potency
  • whether you smoke, vape, or ingest it
  • how often you use marijuana
  • your age, gender, and physiology
  • whether you drink alcohol or take other drugs at the same time

While high on marijuana, you might feel:

  • euphoric
  • relaxed
  • amused
  • giggly
  • creative
  • hungry
  • more sensitive to light, color, sound, touch, taste, and smell

However, marijuana use can also lead to unpleasant feelings or experiences. These include:

  • anxiety
  • confusion
  • delusions and hallucinations
  • high blood pressure
  • nausea and vomiting
  • panic
  • paranoia
  • psychosis
  • racing heartbeat

Negative reactions are more likely when you’re inexperienced or take too much. Strong cannabis can trigger a stronger reaction.

Stages of being high

The active ingredient in marijuana is THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol). When you smoke or vape marijuana, THC enters your bloodstream via your lungs. Its concentration in the blood peaks within minutes. Eventually, THC is broken down and excreted in urine and stool.

Since your blood concentration of THC changes over time, it’s possible to experience different stages of being high. For example, feelings of euphoria tend to peak sometime after blood concentration of THC has peaked.

More research needs to be done to understand whether the effects of marijuana change over time.

Do different strains cause different highs?

Strains are different breeds of the cannabis plant. There are three main strains of marijuana: indica, sativa, and hybrids.

Users associate indica strains with relaxation, while sativa strains are believed to produce a more active, physical high. Hybrid strains are thought to combine the effects of both indica and sativa strains.

However, these differences in high are not scientifically proven. In addition, some researchers believe they’re unfounded.

According to a 2016 interview with Dr. Ethan Russo, an expert on the human endocannabinoid system, “One cannot in any way currently guess the biochemical content of a given cannabis plant based on its height, branching, or leaf morphology.”

He also stated that: “The differences in observed effects of cannabis are then due to their terpenoid content.” Terpenoids are a substantial group of organic compounds found in plants. They can have a wide variety of effects in humans.

Are the munchies real?

The “munchies” are a scientifically supported effect of marijuana. There’s likely more than one mechanism behind them.

THC affects brain areas that control appetite. It may also increase ghrelin, a hormone associated with hunger. Finally, THC enhances smell and taste, which can cause you to start or continue eating.

Vaping marijuana is different from smoking marijuana. When you vape, you are inhaling vapor instead of smoke.

Vaping releases higher concentrations of marijuana’s active ingredients than other methods. As a result, vaping can produce a stronger high.

As with smoking, you should feel the effects of vaping right away. These effects can last up to four hours .

Results from a 2018 study indicated that vaporizing cannabis produced higher blood THC concentrations and stronger effects than smoking the same amount.

Ingesting marijuana, whether in tinctures, sprays, or food and drink, leads to a different high than smoking. Theoretically, the effects are less intense, as THC is released into the bloodstream over a longer period of time.

For example, in a 2017 study that compared the effects of smoking, vaporizing, and ingesting cannabis, users reported weaker drug effects when cannabis was ingested.

However, there are anecdotal reports of edibles producing a strong and sometimes debilitating high. This might be due to the dose.

Other sources suggest that when ingested, THC reaches the liver faster, where it’s broken down into another psychoactive compound. The high might change depending on the concentration and ratios of THC and its metabolites in the bloodstream. More research needs to be done to understand these differences.

It can take between 30 and 90 minutes before you start to feel the effects of marijuana edibles. Edible highs tend to last longer than a smoking or vaping high. The effects are typically gone within 24 hours .

The duration of a marijuana high depends on a variety of different factors, including the dose and potency. In addition, how you consume marijuana can drastically affect how long you feel high.

A 2017 review identified the following times for the onset, peak, and total duration of a marijuana high.

Method Onset Peak Total duration
Smoking and vaping Within minutes 20 to 30 minutes 2 to 3 hours
Edibles 30 to 90 minutes 3 hours Within 24 hours

Keep in mind that other differences, such as whether you smoke marijuana using a bong or a joint, can also affect how long the high lasts.

A marijuana high is associated with feelings of relaxation and contentment, though negative reactions are also possible. Learn about what the sensations feel like. ]]>