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Marijuana and Paranoia

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Popular culture never ceases to remind us of the lighter side of smoking marijuana – the munchies, the relaxed moods, the bizarre thought processes, and anything else you can see in a movie that makes the drug seem comical. However, there are slightly more insidious effects of lighting up, some of them too serious to include in a lighthearted cinematic romp. One such effect is paranoia. There is well-established connection between marijuana and paranoia, but not enough education about how lighting up can lead you to be paralyzed with fear that people are coming to get you.

What Do You Mean by ‘Paranoia’?

Before getting into the relationship between smoking marijuana and paranoia, it’s important to understand what we’re talking about when we use the term “paranoia.” WebMD describes the condition as an unfounded fear that you are the target of harm, by a person or a group of people. Paranoia is a very common condition; for example, we’ve all wondered if we were the subject of ridicule in a particular social environment (if people judged us for not dressing appropriately to a black tie event or if we were the only person not privy to an inside joke).

But there is a spectrum of paranoia. While the above form of the condition exists on the more benign end of that spectrum, the opposite end tells a very different story. There, sufferer’s daily lives are ruined by the constant fear that people – friends, family, complete strangers – are out to get them or to do them some kind of wrong. Someone experiencing this severe form of paranoia interprets events that most of us would consider as coincidental or unintentional as deliberate and intentional.

What Does Paranoia Have to Do with Marijuana?

There appears to be a very strong connection between smoking marijuana and heightened feelings of paranoia. Writing in The Guardian, Professor Daniel Freeman, PhD, at the University of Oxford, quoted a study he co-conducted of 121 participants (the findings of which were published in Schizophrenia Bulletin) that discovered associations between paranoia (especially the more problematic manifestations of the condition) were higher in cannabis users than in people who did not use the drug:

  • Three times as many marijuana smokers as non-users felt someone was out to harm them.
  • Five times as many marijuana smokers as non-users felt someone was trying to cause them significant injury.

The Seattle-Post Intelligencer – based in a state where almost 7,000 people applied to become legal marijuana growers, processors, or sellers when the drug was decriminalized – called this a “causal relationship” between marijuana and a “psychological outcome.”

What Is It About Marijuana that Can Cause Paranoia?

To answer this question, we have to look at what exactly is in marijuana.

One of the active ingredients in marijuana is a chemical compound called delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC for short. It is THC that is primarily responsible for the psychedelic and hallucinogenic effects of marijuana. When marijuana is smoked, THC is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream, and the user begins to feel its effects (and those of other chemical compounds in marijuana) within minutes.

In Dr. Freeman’s study, 66 percent of his participants were injected with THC, and around half of them reported “changes in perception that induced paranoia.” The feelings diminished as the THC left the participants’ bodies. As Dr. Freeman wrote in The Guardian, the link between paranoia and THC (and, by extension, marijuana) is not tenuous, but is instead a “direct result.”

Another study, this one conducted by the University of Western Ontario and published in The Journal of Neuroscience, looked at how drugs that trigger relevant receptors in the brain, like THC, “distort the emotional relevance of incoming sensory information” – or, as put by TIME magazine in an article entitled “Why Pot Smokers Are Paranoid,” make users scared of things that normally would not, or should not, cause fear (by drawing inappropriate levels of attention to otherwise insignificant stimuli). Marijuana enhances this particular form of fear, where the brain is now wired to leap to irrational and unfounded conclusions, thus attributing a disproportionate amount of negative perception to particular people or places. The study in The Journal of Neuroscience concludes that paranoia can be associated with heavy marijuana use.

Similar findings were uncovered in a 2012 study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry. The study ascertained that different strains of marijuana have different effects on regions of the brain that deal with processing important information. Writing about the study, explained that THC made the user’s brain respond to normally inconsequential stimuli in the same way that people experiencing serious levels of paranoia typically overreact to an unremarkable incident or occurrence.

Why Doesn’t Everyone Who Smokes Marijuana Get Paranoid?

As stated above, THC is one of the main ingredients in marijuana, but some of the other substances in the drug can also play a role in the development of paranoid feelings in users. For example, while THC is one of the chemical compounds in the cannabis group of plants, cannabidiol (or CBD) is another.

Commenting on the Archives of General Psychiatry study, Slate suggested that this could be the reason some people undergo certain side effects like problematic paranoia, and others do not. THC and CBD are always found in cannabis, but the user’s brain will be more susceptible to the effects of one compound over the other. This is similar to alcohol intoxication, where a number of other factors – genetics, experience, personality traits, etc. – play a factor in how the user responds to the presence of the substance in their bloodstream. Some people become chatty and friendly when buzzed; others become moody and confrontational after consuming the same type of alcohol. Some people become relaxed and funny after smoking marijuana; others become paranoid and delusional. Sometimes there is a crossover, and sometimes these effects are exclusive.

Some of those “other factors” could be psychological in nature. In reporting on Dr. Freeman’s study, CBS News mentioned that anxiety and low self-esteem contributed to feelings of paranoia. THC may exacerbate such negative feelings. A user, high on marijuana but trying to make sense of their worriment and tension, might leap to the conclusion – because that’s the effect that THC has on the brain – that other people are to blame for their misery.

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On the other hand, users who don’t consider their self-esteem to be a problem may not have this issue. Speaking to WebMD, Dr. Freeman noted that people with high levels of personal confidence who do not spend a lot of time being suspicious of real or imagined threats will not be as susceptible to the paranoid-related effects of THC.

Understanding the relationship between marijuana and paranoia is nothing new. As far back as 1934, the American Journal of Psychiatry published a study that found cannabis intoxication caused changes in “subjective evaluation of perception” due to “disintegration of sensation to a primitive level of perception.” Using marijuana for an extended period of time degraded a user’s comprehension of their senses to the point where they struggled to objectively interpret the world around them.


What Does This Mean for Marijuana Smokers?

Users of marijuana who are prone to episodes of low self-esteem, anxiety, negative thoughts, and paranoia might do well to avoid lighting up, given that THC has been shown (“most convincingly,” in the words of Dr. Freeman) to cause paranoia in at-risk users. Instead of boosting their moods and calming them down, the THC in marijuana simply increases these unwanted feelings that are already present in the user. This might lead the user to seek solace from harder, more dangerous drugs, or it might trigger these pre-existing conditions into a complete mental health disorder.

As with most substances, the effects differ from person to person, but you should be aware that, notwithstanding the legality of marijuana and positive comparisons to other types of drugs, even moderate consumption can pose a significant risk to some users. Put simply, smoking marijuana might not improve a bad mood; it could make it worse. The inherent addictiveness of marijuana means that even recreational users stand a chance of developing a chronic habit that could develop lasting feelings of intense paranoia.

How Do I Get Treatment for Paranoia?

The good news in all this is that there is treatment that can address your mental health conditions as well as your dependence on marijuana. At Skywood Recovery, we are here to listen. We offer a safe, controlled environment where you can finally break free from your dependence on marijuana. When you call us at 269.280.4673 our staff will work closely with you to customize a recovery plan that treats your marijuana use and paranoia at the same time. Our admissions coordinators are standing by to answer your questions and talk with you about how you can begin healing right now.