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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.

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.