How Marijuana Can Alter Your Mental State

Young people experiencing a marijuana high
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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, there are certain effects that most users of marijuana have when they smoke or eat pot.

The marijuana high is one of the most unpredictable of all drug intoxication effects, despite the fact that it is often considered to be a "soft" drug. When people are stoned on marijuana, the experience is strongly affected by factors that have little to do with the drug, and are actually due to 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 various aspects of the place 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. For example, familiar faces and objects can seem unfamiliar or strange, often in a way that amuses the person who is high; 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 — the world seems more beautiful — 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 the sensory experiences 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 and doing little else. 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, and often in odd combinations, such as chocolate with pickles.

Effects on 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. This vicious cycle may continue until the individual ceases to use marijuana.

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.

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, the quality of the creative ideas has been questioned, and some research has shown that higher doses result in less creativity than lower doses, which do not differ significantly from the creativity of individuals not under the effects of marijuana.

Typically, people under the influence of marijuana express ideas that are bizarre, muddled, unfeasible, or incomprehensible to others. This is unfortunate for would-be artists who use marijuana in the hope of a shortcut to artistic success — it is unlikely to help and may hinder progress.

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Article Sources

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Additional Reading

  • Denning, P., Little, J., and Glickman, A. Over the Influence: The Harm Reduction Guide for Managing Drugs and Alcohol. New York: Guilford. 2004.
  • Jacquette, D. (Editor) Cannabis: Philosphy for Everyone, Wiley-Blackwell. 2010.
  • Jones, K., Blagrove, M. & Parrott, A. "Cannabis and Ecstasy/ MDMA: Empirical Measures of Creativity in Recreational Users." Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 41:323-329. 2009.
  • Weckowicz, T., Fedora, O., Mason, J., Radstaak, D., Bay, F. & Yonge, K. "Effect of Marijuana on Divergent and Convergent Production Cognitive Tests." Journal of Abnormal Psychology 84:386-98. 1975.
  • Zinberg, N. Drug, Set, and Setting. Yale University Press. 1984.