Why Marijuana’s Effects Can Seem Paradoxical, and What That Means for Recreational and Medical Users
Why Marijuana’s Effects can seem Paradoxical
Enjoy a modest amount of your favourite strain of cannabis and you might start to feel relaxed or gently invigorated. Consume far too much of the same weed and depression or even paranoia can overwhelm you, instead.
Even a simple change of setting can turn a previously pleasant high into an anxious, stressful experience. Marijuana’s psychological effects vary dramatically from person to person, as well. A shared joint might make one friend feel creative and extroverted, while the other becomes withdrawn and contemplative.
While it is not unique, the ability of cannabis to produce such wide-ranging and sometimes-unexpected effects is extraordinary. Popular recreational drugs like alcohol and caffeine have much more predictable effects.
Marijuana, in fact, can seem downright paradoxical with how it produces a mix of positive and negative effects. There are a few reasons why this can happen, some of them concerning subjective factors and others stemming from molecular-level issues. With cannabis becoming such a common medication, interest in this paradoxical compound among medical professionals is rising.
Many Ways to Feel After Using Cannabis
First-time marijuana users rarely know what to expect, and they are often surprised by what they experience. One of the reasons for this is that cannabis affects the mind and body in distinctive ways that are not especially analogous to the effects of other drugs.
Another significant factor, though, is simply that the subjective effects of marijuana vary so widely among people and even from use to use for particular individuals. In many cases, a long-time user will even have experienced roughly opposite feelings like:
- Euphoric vs. melancholic. Some strains of cannabis are known for producing energetic, optimistic feelings that can verge on elation, at least in certain people. Others who smoke marijuana when initially happy can end up feeling sad or outright depressed.
- Calm vs. anxious. Habitually nervous people sometimes find that using weed helps them calm down and relax. The same person can later discover that anxiety returns in an even more aggressive form after smoking more marijuana or switching to a different strain.
- Engaged vs. withdrawn. Using marijuana can make a song or painting seem almost irresistable. Some people, though, habitually become withdrawn from the world around them after smoking weed.
- Focused vs. scatter brained. Many people report that using modest amounts of cannabis helps them focus intently on activities that would otherwise be difficult to concentrate on. Increase the dosage much, and the same person could start feeling fuzzy headed.
- Motivated vs. lazy. Get a bit high, and a formerly unappealing chore or project might start to seem interesting and approachable. On the other hand, many people know someone who never wants to do anything but lounge around after smoking pot.
- Creative vs. unimaginative. Some people enjoy nothing more than making music or painting after using cannabis. Others find that their creative juices dry up as soon as they start to feel high.
The Psychological Effects of Cannabis Can be Irregular but Are Not Entirely Unpredictable
With the exception of more disruptive psychedelic drugs like LSD and DMT, not many substances can affect people in as many varied and even opposed ways as cannabis does. It can seem almost mysterious how a drug’s effects can vary so much from one session to another or from person to person.
In practice, though, there are almost always some fairly clear reasons why using weed produces particular feelings instead of very different ones. Some of the factors that most often make a difference are:
- In his book Artificial Paradises, the French poet Baudelaire famously described hashish as “the mirror that magnifies.” Using cannabis can emphasize prominent features of someone’s personality, and often does.
- A person’s mental state at the time of using weed will also influence the nature of the experience. Even when someone decides to smoke pot to calm down and relax, just how much agitation or anxiousness was present will impact the nature of the high that follows.
- Having a cold or recovering from surgery can make a normally uplifting session feel draining and enervating instead. As with personality and mood, a user’s health–or lack thereof– can give rise to a pleasant experience with marijuana or the opposite.
- A change in surroundings can alter the nature of a high dramatically and immediately. Someone who feels comfortable and relaxed in calm, familiar surroundings after smoking can become intensely anxious when confronted with a more stressful environment.
Subjective and variable factors like these can influence particular experiences with cannabis so much that they encompass diametrically opposed feelings. The paradoxical-seeming effects of cannabis can often be explained even more directly by issues like:
- Cannabis sativa is thought by many to promote a light-feeling “head high” that elevates energy levels and promotes mental activity. The effects of Cannabis indica tend to be felt throughout the body, with the relaxation that results sometimes even helping a person overcome insomnia. Hybrids between these semi-distinct species can bring their own unique selections of effects to the table.
- Experts who breed particular strains of marijuana almost always do so with particular goals in mind. These will normally include objective targets like yield levels and maturation time, but the nature of the high a strain will encourage is generally a subject of concern, as well. Cannabis breeders often start, in fact, with strains thought to produce mostly desirable slates of effects that they hope to improve upon. Even when other factors greatly impact the experience of using a strain of marijuana, its unique character will normally be expressed, too.
- Taking a small hit from a joint filled with a certain kind of marijuana might relax someone who was feeling a bit stressed out. Smoke much more, and all that anxiousness and unease can return tenfold. Dosage-related variations in the effects of cannabis can be experienced even with strains that are mostly thought to be quite predictable.
- Means of consumption. There are many ways to use cannabis and derived products, and each of them tends to encourage certain types of feelings. Even people who prefer to stick to an especially traditional option like smoking can choose from rolling papers, pipes, bongs, hookahs, novelty devices, and other options. Taking deep hits from a bong can give rise to different feelings than would consuming the same strain and dosage using a
Any one of the factors above can impact the subjective experience of using marijuana. Combine the effects of several or more such influences, and the pendulum can start swinging even more dramatically.
Most experienced marijuana users find that their sessions tend to be fairly predictable and even routine. Even veterans sometimes get surprised, though, by how an unexpectedly high dose, a new strain, or an unusual environment makes them feel after using cannabis. In some cases, the swings that result can even make weed’s effects seem paradoxical.
Weed’s Effects Can be Just as Surprising to Doctors
The apparently paradoxical effects of marijuana are not confined to the subjective, psychological experiences of users, either. As cannabis has increasingly come to be used to treat diagnosed physical and mental illnesses, researchers and physicians have discovered that its clinically significant effects can seem contradictory at times.
Smoking modest amounts of marijuana, for example, is a well-established way to increase the flow of blood to the brain. Long-term use, though, can actually cause flow-inhibiting but reversible constriction of the arteries.
An even more confounding problem dubbed “cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome” has been troubling emergency room doctors for years. Although cannabis is now frequently prescribed to treat the debilitating nausea often experienced by chemotherapy patients, some long-term users develop a condition that makes them vomit repeatedly.
Fortunately, this syndrome can be cured by simply ceasing the use of marijuana, and is still quite rare to begin with. As more people start regularly using cannabis for medical and recreational reasons, though, doctors will need to account for paradoxical effects like these increasingly often.
That is also true of the various colloquially well-established ways weed can give rise to contradictory psychological effects. Issues like experiencing anxiety at high doses that were once mostly of concern to recreational users are more and more often seen as clinically significant by doctors, as well.
Marijuana’s Paradoxes Could Someday be Resolved
Most experiences with cannabis are positive and unimposing, which is why the plant has so many fans all over the world. Unlike most other popular recreational drugs, though, weed can sometimes present complex or paradoxical effects.
In most cases, these variations in experience can be traced pretty clearly to factors like strain, dosage, setting, and a user’s own personality.
The fact that marijuana is a bit different than other drugs in this respect and others has long been part of its attraction to many recreational users. Advances in breeding and the understanding of how cannabis affects the body might someday make it possible to manage its paradoxical effects however might be desired.
Pharmaceutical derivatives of and substitutes for cannabis like Marinol and Sativex, for example, are meant to encourage certain well-known effects while ruling out undesirable and potentially contradictory ones. Cannabis breeders often develop new strains with the goal of sparing users from unwanted feelings like anxiety. Marijuana is a complicated-enough drug that its effects can seem paradoxical, but that is not necessarily the final word on the matter.
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