Why Does Weed Make Some People Paranoid?

by Rachel Krantz
Harbachova Yuliya/Shutterstock

If I'm being honest, when I hear people say, "I always get paranoid when I smoke weed," I've often translated that in my mind to mean, "I'm uncomfortable with getting to know my own most uncomfortable feelings." It's not a nice thought to have; it's a prejudiced and smug sentiment, but one that I suspect many people who enjoy marijuana and its potential for aiding difficult self-examination share. Sure, we know the feeling you're talking about — we've just managed to sit with those feelings, and not freak out over them.

Like I said, I know it's not a kind reaction, which is why I decided to ask Bustle readers and writers what their experience with marijuana and paranoia is. I wanted to see if there were any patterns as to why some people get paranoid when they smoke weed and others don't — whether it had more to do with preexisting anxiety, age, the strain their smoking, or even genetics.

As it turns out, it's all of the above, a fact that Dr. Julie Holland, a psychiatrist and author of The Pot Book: A Complete Guide to Cannabis , echoes. "Just like some alcohol doesn’t agree with everybody, sometimes pot doesn’t agree with everybody. There are definitely some people that aren’t comfortable with losing control and there are some people that aren’t comfortable with looking at their own thoughts or looking at their own behavior as a sort of outsider," Dr. Holland tells Bustle.

"Not everyone is built for self-reflection, but the other issue is that some people have a history of psychosis or family history of psychosis. They’re not going to do well with pot. They’re going to get very agitated and that’s because of the way their own brain chemistry is ... [in addition], set and setting are also always an issue. If you need to hide something, you’re going to be paranoid about it and you’re going to be anxious about it. So, it is very possible where cannabis smoking is totally accepted and out in the open and no big deal that you will be less anxious and less paranoid."

In other words, there can be no "one reason" why people get paranoid, because your emotions are always the result of a mix of your environment, brain chemistry, personality, and many other moving factors. What I can say is that after speaking with Dr. Holland and hearing these 15 people's experiences, I've resolved to become less prejudiced against the "always paranoid." If my brain chemistry, upbringing, and environment had been any different, I could just have easily been one of them.

1. Jamie, 32


"I sometimes get paranoid, but it depends on the type of weed, how high I get, and what my state of mind is at the time. If someone always gets paranoid I take that to mean they are not very good at guiding their thoughts."

2. Leslie, 28

"I have never had the luxury of feeling relaxed with weed in my system. I think being 'the type of person who always gets paranoid' makes me seem like a downer to people who can enjoy weed. In previous limited experiences, I've noticed that my paranoia turns to anger once people around me identify and point out my paranoia — especially if it becomes a point of incessant laughter. I become annoyed that everyone is having such a great time when I feel the opposite.

As an individual who worries an inordinate amount and tends to block extreme emotions, daily anxieties run my life. I'm sure weed makes me feel as though I have no control on my outward emotional appearance and I become defensive while under the influence."

3. Anna, 30

Africa Studio/Shutterstock

"I only get paranoid when I smoke certain strains. I think that indica tends to cause paranoia more than sativa. And to be honest, I'm not sure that "paranoia" is the correct word. I mostly start to worry about things I already worry about, but much more vividly. Things I usually push to my subconscious come to the surface. I think that marijuana tends to open up facets of my mind and emotions that typically are repressed.

I must admit that I would feel judged as the person who 'can't handle their weed' if people realized what was going on inside my head. That said, when friends confess that they 'always' get paranoid, I do question their choice to partake. It all depends on your goal though, because isn't self-exploration part of the purpose of getting high in the first place?"

4. Seth, 30

"I did get paranoid, but only once — my very first time smoking. After that, I've never really gotten paranoid after smoking weed. I might get a little spooked if I see a cop nearby, but I attribute that to informed self-interest, not paranoia. If I had to guess why I don't get paranoid, I'd say it's because I'm generally a pretty low-stress person by default.

I smoke weed every day and it's a positive influence on my life, so when someone tells me that they get paranoid when they're high, I just feel bad for them. It's like when someone tells me they have a dairy allergy, or whatever. It's a part of life I find beneficial that they can't, for what essentially boils down to physical reasons, partake in."

5. Tina, 24

271 EAK MOTO/Shutterstock

"I've only smoked weed four times. The first and last time I got HELLA paranoid, so I'm probs never doing it again. My friends said I had done the 'wrong' weed those times. But I think I'm just a naturally highstrung/worst case scenario person. I'm unconsciously always ten steps ahead on things that could go wrong, and it all gets pushed to the surface as soon as my brain is on weed. What's extra silly is that I did all this insane research on weed before I did it, so I'd be super prepared and know what could happen, and even as I was experiencing the paranoia that I had read about, nothing could get it to go away.

I am always afraid that people will think I am super pathetic. I'm a really smiley person but when I'm paranoid my mouth can't smile and it looks like I'm going to cry even when I'm not, just because I can't make my mouth move in the normally expressive way it usually does. I'm also afraid of being that cliché of 'girl who needs to be taken care of' or 'girl who needs attention/is being dramatic,' so the times it has happened I aggressively pretended it wasn't. Nobody wants to be the buzzkill. The last thing I'd want to do is freak out and then have everybody else freak out and have it be all my fault."

6. Mich, 28

"I only got slightly paranoid one time. I think it's because I'm an anxious person and I use weed to allow myself to let go of anxiety rather than hold onto control. Of the two people I know who 'always or often do' get paranoid, one already suffers from sober paranoia and another doesn't like feeling vulnerable or not in control of herself."

7. Audrey, 27


"I often became paranoid during the early years of my relationship with marijuana because I was smoking in places where my chances of getting caught seemed high: dorm rooms, cars, parks, crowds, etc. Eight years later, I smoke in my own apartment in a city where weed is decriminalized, and I don't have to worry about an RA or a cop knocking on the door.

That isn't to say I never get paranoid when I'm smoking. If I smoke too much before immersing myself in a challenging social situation — like attending a party where I don't know anyone or where I'm in the presence of someone I don't jive with — I will sometimes worry so much about how my words and behavior are being perceived that I lose the will to socialize and head home. To avoid this, I make a concerted effort to moderate my intake or avoid smoking altogether before events that I know I'll need all my social skills to navigate. The only people who regularly give me shit for taking care of myself in this way are drunk dudes who are hoping I'll get inebriated enough to touch their dicks, but that's a whole other bag of ... dicks, I guess."

8. Alex, 26

"I didn't use to get paranoid! I smoked weed every day from when I was 19 to when I was 25 or so, pretty much without incident. Then, around 25, I started to get really paranoid. I think it's because I changed psychiatric medications and my anxiety level is sort of always at a low simmer these days.

I more or less quit smoking weed when I started getting paranoid. I'll smoke maybe once a month or so now with friends, one or two hits max, but that's it. I definitely realized when I quit just how big a piece of my identity it was, especially as a woman. There's an element of, 'well, I can't hang anymore.' But also, I'm 26 and I guess I care less about that now than I probably would have when I was 22."

9. Molly, 26


"I used to get paranoid in the first years that I experimented with smoking. When I get anxiety it's because something unexpected has happened — I need to talk to a work colleague unexpectedly, there's an emergency that requires me to to be sharp, etc. I've developed my own processing skills enough that now if something like that happens it doesn't push me into feeling paranoid. I guess I've just learned to focus on my breathing and try to solve the obstacle calmly, and not freaking myself out thinking it's impossible because I'm high.

I think when people say they 'always' get paranoid, I assume they just aren't comfortable with the feeling of being stoned. Being stoned is sort of forced relaxation, so if you're fighting the mellow then it's going to be stressful."

10. Marie, 24

"I get paranoid when I smoke Indicas, rather than Sativas. Every single time. Because I have such a strong reaction to one particular type of weed (the whole indica = "in da couch" thing truly being my case), I often assume people just react differently to different types.

I dislike the assumption that weed will always make anyone paranoid, though. Unless you've tried the 1,000+ strains of the world, you really have no way of knowing that. I think it's a drug that has the potential to make a lot of people feel better, and in a way alcohol just doesn't. So it's just a little sad when one anxious experience makes it so a person never wants to try again."

11. Mia, 27


"I used to smoke weed all the time when I was in high school and college. Now, I get paranoid (or maybe anxious is a better word than paranoid) almost every time I smoke, which means that I really don't smoke much any more. Maybe only 3 or 4 times a year.

I have a couple theories [about why things changed]: 1) weed is stronger now than it used to be. In California, almost everything is medical grade these days, and I think it's just too strong for me and overwhelms my system. 2) Something happened in my brain when I became a grown-ass adult such that the chemicals in mj affect my brain differently than they used to when I was younger. Maybe I've got more on my mind? As in, now I have adult problems that I fixate on when I smoke that I didn't used to.

I'm not a naturally anxious person, and I pretty much only experience paranoia when I smoke weed, so I'm left to believe that there is a chemical interaction happening in my brain that triggers something abnormal. I've learned that it's just better if I abstain."

12. Penny, 27

"I used to get paranoid back when I first started smoking in college, because I was afraid an RA would find out or something like that. But [now paranoia isn't] really a concern for me anymore, probably because I tend to smoke indicas, and because I don't have a living situation where I need to worry about getting 'caught.'

If someone is telling me that they always get paranoid when they smoke weed, I'm gonna respect that boundary and respect that they know what's best for them, and I probably won't offer to smoke them up. But I do usually ask what strain they're smoking, because in my opinion someone who has anxiety shouldn't really be smoking sativas, and switching to an indica could help."

13. Stella, 28


"Every once in awhile I feel like a batch of weed I get is more paranoid-influencing. I also notice that I get more paranoid when I'm stressed or have PMDD, which is a cruel joke, universe, because weed also helps my PMDD symptoms!"

14. Julie, 32

"I get anxious if I smoke weed and go in public, or when I'm around a large group. I could also get really anxious if I was in a warm or especially enclosed space, or if I was somewhere I couldn't leave and go home at a moment's notice if I needed to — thank God there are abundant taxis in NYC. I think this is in part because I am an anxious person by nature, in part because I am anticipating anxiety and that exacerbates it, and in part because I prefer to be in control of my mental faculties and sometimes when stoned I feel like I'm not in control — my thinking can feel really unfocused or cloudy or confused, and that's unsettling for me.

I definitely relate to people who don't like to get high. Getting high can be super fun, but I certainly understand how having a negative experience can make you reluctant to partake. I stopped entirely for a long time because of a couple bad experiences, and now I don't smoke weed very often."

15. Amanda, 35


"I used to get paranoid a lot when I was in high school and college, but these days not so much. I have found that when I do get paranoid it's usually because it's some cheaper shit that I normally wouldn't purchase on my own, as in it's some friend's stuff.

But as someone who does occasionally get paranoid, I don't think someone can 'always' get paranoid. My thinking is that if a headcase like myself can avoid being paranoid while smoking all the time, then anyone can."