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Your High Is Probably Going to Change As You Get Older

Over the eight years he spent smoking “nearly all day,” Greg Papania, a 35-year-old music producer in LA, would access “fascinating thoughts that were beyond this world.” Then, as his life became more stressful, weed began to make him paranoid and even gave him panic attacks.

Similarly, weed used to serve as a creativity enhancer and sleep aid for Allison Moon, a 36-year-old writer in Oregon. “Nowadays, weed is more likely to tip me into a high-anxiety mode,” she says. “I can feel my heartbeat in that ‘pre-anxiety attack’ way.”

On the flip side, Valeria Costa-Kostritsky, a 36-year-old journalist in London, used to get “super paranoid” when she smoked as a teenager. Now, she just gets “a bit silly or shy.”

Weed affects different people differently, but it also can affect the same people differently at different points in their lives. It’s not very common but also not unusual for your high to change over time, says James Giordano, professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center.

THC, the substance in cannabis that’s responsible for its anxiety-inducing effects as well as its euphoric ones, activates your CB1 cannabinoid receptors, Giordano explains. After repeated exposure to THC, your CB1 receptors can change their affinity for THC. If this happens, weed may make you more anxious over time. Some people experience the opposite, though, and their CB1 receptors may become desensitized, leading them to feel less anxious and more relaxed. Repeated exposure to THC can also change your chemical reactions downstream from the CB1 receptors in unpredictable ways that may make you either more nervous or more calm. In contrast to THC, cannabidiol (CBD) partially blocks CB1 receptors, which can produce a calming, anti-anxiety effect, Giordano adds.

“Tolerance, habituation to certain drug effects, and sensitization, amplification of certain drug effects, are principles at play across many different drugs,” says Matthew Johnson, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University. “There can be brain receptor up regulation or down regulation, there can be alterations in metabolic pathways, and there can be behavioral tolerance, where one becomes skilled at behaving under the influence of the drug.”

But if it seems like your reaction to weed has changed, it could also just be that you’re smoking a different strain (or “breed”) than you used to, Giordano adds. The ratio of THC to cannabidiol (CBD) has a particularly significant impact on your high.

“THC is what we usually associate with the ‘high’ feeling,” explains Sal Raichbach, an addiction psychiatrist at a Ambrosia Treatment Center location in Florida. “That includes euphoria, increased appetite, and introspection. On the other hand, cannabinol or CBD has almost the opposite effect, giving people a relaxed and calm feeling. Different strains of marijuana have different concentrations and ratios of these chemicals, so the effects vary widely.”

Strains that have a CBD:THC ratio of 1:1 or greater (like indicas and high-CBD hybrids) tend to produce more calming, anti-anxiety effects, Giordano says. But some sativas (like Jack Herer), while generally high in THC, can also be more calming.

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Your susceptibility to certain side effects of weed might also change as you get older. “Side effects like increased heart rate and even the minor cognitive impairments like memory loss can have a much bigger impact on older individuals,” Raichbach says. “We see the same thing with other drugs and medications as well. Side effects can develop after taking a medication for years, seemingly out of nowhere.”

Sometimes, though, your reaction to weed has nothing to do with the drug and everything to do with your own mindset. If you’re already wound up when you start smoking, for example, your high may feel more anxious. “One of the main reasons that we see such a variation in the way marijuana affects people over time is simply context, or the mental state of the individual before taking the substance,” Raichbach adds. “We tend to think of our brain as static when it comes to the effects of drugs and medications, but that simply isn’t true. The way we process emotions changes over the short-term as well as the long-term.”

For Grace Alexander, a 43-year-old copywriter in Uruguay, her feelings about the weed itself may have changed her reaction to it. “The one time I tried it [growing up] I felt like I was having a panic attack—everything felt ‘wooshy’ and my heart was racing,” she remembers. “It could have just been anxiety over not ‘being a good girl.’ Now, it just makes me sleepy.”

It could also be that you’re actually having the same reaction, but you feel differently about the reaction itself. “Some folks in their laters years don’t value the same effects they valued in earlier years,” Johnson explains.

That’s what happened to Sarah Taylor, a 45-year-old artist in Vancouver, Washington. “Smoking a bowl helps my brain and body relax a bit before bed, so I have an easier time getting to sleep,” she explains. “But I don’t enjoy that feeling anymore. I don’t like feeling stoned and stupid. It actually scares me a bit.”

If your reaction to weed has become more negative over time, Giordano suggests switching to a strain with a higher ratio of CBD to THC. If you smoke regularly and have noticed your anxiety increasing, Raichbach advises taking a break from weed and seeing if your anxiety gets better. If it does, that’s a sign that you can’t handle weed like you used to and should stop or switch to a different strain.

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This is why weed might affect you differently than it did five years ago.

People tell us how smoking weed affects their mental health

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The mental health effects of weed have been debated for many years.

Some express that the drug (which is illegal in the UK) improves or helps maintain both physical and psychological stress, while others – many medical professionals included – list the dangers of cannabis.

Just a few weeks ago, a new study revealed that people who smoke super-strong weed are at a higher risk of developing psychosis.

It is also said to affect some people’s memory, make them anxious and / or paranoid, as well as bring on panic attacks, according to the NHS.

However, it’s a double-edged sword as other research claims it can be beneficial; the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a report last year where 10,000 studies were reviewed.

It was found that cannabis and cannabinoids were effective in treating patients with chronic pain, as well as improve symptoms for people who suffer from multiple scleroris (MS), if used short-term.

In addition, the research revealed that cannabis ‘does not appear to increase the likelihood of developing depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder’.

Though not all findings were positive – heavy cannabis users were more likely to report suicidal thoughts, compared to those who didn’t smoke weed.

*Content warning: the following contains references to suicide that some readers may find triggering.*

Jess, 25, tells Metro.co.uk that she turned to weed when she was having problems with her mental health, but it caused negative effects.

‘For me, weed really affected my mental health – but not in the way that many people report e.g. paranoia and increased anxiety,’ said Jess, 25.

‘My problem was that I used it as a crutch to stop my thoughts when I was low, which led to me becoming dependent on a joint to feel better.

‘I can also get really lazy when I smoke, which meant I neglected a lot of other responsibilities that actually make me feel more in control normally (such as cleaning and cooking things from scratch).

‘I don’t think weed was the problem as such, but the fact that I smoked in such an unhealthy way and was getting high as an escape. I’ve now quit – except for the odd joint on occasion – and try to keep my my mind a bit clearer and deal with things rather than pushing them to the side.’

Meanwhile, Myles, 31, has experienced positive effects of marijuana throughout the years.

He suffers from depression and smokes ‘a little’ every night to help himself sleep, but tells us about the importance of not replacing legal mental health aids such as antidepressants with weed.

‘I don’t smoke as much as I did when I was in my 20s, but I do smoke a little bit each night,’ said Myles.

‘I wouldn’t say it directly fires depression – that’s what antidepressants are for – but I get super anxious before bed (usually if I have work the next morning) and suffer from night terrors and sleep paralysis.

‘If this occurs, I usually step outside for a little joint and it helps me collect my thoughts and reason.

‘Pot usually helps me wake up feeling good, too. In contrast, I find if I’m hungover due to alcohol, I’ll be like a big sad rock that can’t move from my bed.

‘But it’s clearly subjective to each person, of course.’

As for negative effects, Myles has experienced some short-term memory issues – but only when he was a heavy smoker.

It also causes him the munchies, which makes him spend more money on food.

Tom, 32, started smoking cannabis when he was in his early teens.

It quickly became a regular habit, and although it helped boost his creativity when making music, it also caused him paranoia and depression.

‘I started smoking weed at 14; giggled for hours, felt rebellious and shared great times with friends,’ he said.

‘That rebellious act was a necessary part of growing up, of shaking off the judgement of my parents, of teachers. My childhood had been fairly normal, though like anyone I had some emotional baggage.

‘Then in my late teens I started to buy regularly.

‘I found it useful as fuel for my creativity, and for introspection. On the one hand I was starting to write some great music, but I was also becoming increasingly paranoid and depressed.

‘Thankfully I had close friends to support me, though they also encouraged me to smoke more. When I started university I smoked less regularly but the paranoia, anxiety and depression continued until I became suicidal.

‘In the following years, I smoked regularly – again as a form of self-medication – the introspection deepened, and it felt productive at the time, but with it came ever-deeper paranoia.

‘Eventually I dropped out of university and moved back in with my parents at the age of 23, which forced me to stop. After that I became so sensitive to it that I just didn’t enjoy it anymore.

‘All in all, it set my life back by several years.’

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Just like other (illegal) drugs, marijuana is very individual in how it affects the person smoking it.

For some people, it can provide relief and relaxation, while for others, it increases mental health problems.

Whatever your personal choice, if you feel like you need help – get it.

Contact a healthcare professional, chat to your local GP or alternatively, reach out to FRANK – a confidential drugs advice service.

Three people share how smoking marijuana has affected them in both positive and negative ways. ]]>