During the past decade, but especially the past few years, marijuana use has been increasing all over the world, including the US. This is a result of increased legalization of both medical and recreational marijuana in a lot of states, but even more so a consequence of people being isolated at home because of the pandemic (and consuming more cannabis than usual).
And whereas it’s well-known that the cannabinoids present in weed, especially tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), give users the sought-after psychoactive, sedative, and relaxing effects, a lot of people wonder if consuming higher doses of weed produces unwanted side effects, such as psychotic symptoms and psychosis. Read on to find out more about the effects of cannabis consumption, and most importantly, whether weed can cause hallucinations.
The Effects of Cannabinoids on the Body and Mind
As a result of binding to the cannabinoid receptors in the brain and body that are a part of the endocannabinoid system, the cannabinoids in weed produce different effects in users – THC is the culprit for the psychoactive effects, while CBD causes more sedative feelings.
Besides the mental effects, like euphoria, bliss, anxiety, paranoia, and so on, after consumption users can also experience some physical effects like dry eyes, cottonmouth, nausea, increased heart rate or blood pressure, etc. But even though cannabis impacts the brain, does it affect it the same as hallucinogens? Before answering this, we first need to define what hallucinations are and what they’re caused by.
Hallucinations and Their Causes
The sensory experience when a person senses (sees, hears, feels, smells, tastes) things that are unreal but rather created in their mind are called hallucinations, and they can affect each one of the senses. If they happen on a regular basis, it can start to become difficult for a person to differentiate between reality and hallucination.
Hallucinations can be caused by an illness which interferes with how the brain processes information, such as schizophrenia or psychosis, or by consuming drugs which have hallucinogenic properties.
People who hallucinate as a result of a medical condition experience hallucinations because of hindered brain activity, however, people who consume hallucinogenic drugs, such as LSD, psilocybin, dimethyltryptamine, ketamine, and others, often experience these hallucinations as side effects of being under the influence of the drug.
What Is the Difference Between Cannabinoids and Hallucinogens?
Cannabinoids and hallucinogens are very different from one another. Psychedelic substances, which are a known cause of hallucinations, are serotonergic, meaning they affect the levels of serotonin and dopamine in the body, often resulting in hallucinations. In direct contrast, cannabinoids bind to the cannabinoid receptors in the brain and body and affect how the information is transmitted between neurons – and in this way alter perception and affect metabolism, appetite, sleep, and other processes, but don’t directly affect the serotonin levels.
Can Cannabis Cause Hallucinations?
It isn’t common for cannabis users to experience a hallucination after cannabis consumption. In fact, healthy individuals with no family history of a psychiatric illness, or a pre-existing psychiatric illness, aren’t likely to hallucinate after consuming weed.
A 2018 clinical trial compared the hallucinogenic experiences of participants who consumed hallucinogenic drugs like dextromethorphan (DXM), psilocybin, and extract of Salvia Divinorum to smoking or consuming high doses of cannabis orally. Even though some of the subjects experienced psychoactive effects, the researchers believed that the “hallucinations” experienced after cannabis consumption weren’t the same as the ones experienced from the other hallucinogenic drugs. According to the study, the cannabinoids and terpenes in the cannabis plant didn’t activate the same receptors as other hallucinogenic drugs.
But can the same be said for people with a pre-existing mental health condition or a family history of mental illness?
Do People With a Predisposition for Schizophrenia or Psychosis Experience Hallucinations After Cannabis Use?
As more research is done into the effects of marijuana on people suffering from psychosis or schizophrenia, more and more conflicting research emerges. In the past, cannabis consumption was considered a risk factor for people with a family history of schizophrenia as it was believed that it could lead to a psychotic episode with auditory and visual hallucinations, though this notion is starting to change.
A number of studies have refuted the hypothesis that cannabis consumption can affect the onset of latent psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia and psychosis, and even stated that marijuana could help treat schizophrenia.
A 2010 study in the British Journal of Psychiatry even suggested that people with schizophrenia who consumed cannabis had more hallucinations but fewer negative symptoms compared to people in the control group.
Keep in mind that people with known psychotic disorders are generally advised against using cannabis, especially if they haven’t consulted with their healthcare provider prior to heading to the dispensary to purchase weed.
What About Synthetic THC?
According to a 2005 study that researched cannabis acute psychosis after consuming medical cannabis or the synthetically made drug Dronabinol, a few patients experienced severe psychotic episodes after consuming Dronabinol. However, the study had a relatively small sample size, therefore more research needs to be done in order to get a definitive answer. For that, researchers would need more randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials that look into the effects of synthetic cannabis on users.
Another review on the subject done by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) that compared acute cannabis dosing to consuming other hallucinogenic drugs, reported that people experienced hallucinations after cannabis use, however, the hallucinatory experience was different compared to the one that people experienced after consuming classic hallucinogenic drugs.
So, Do People Hallucinate on THC?
In the end, cannabis consumption isn’t likely to induce hallucinations in healthy individuals. But even if using weed results in experiencing a hallucination, the experience isn’t the same as the one users would have after consuming hallucinogenic drugs such as DMT, ketamine, LSD, DXM, or Salvia Divinorum.
Cannabis users who are consuming synthetic THC, or high doses of pure THC, should take caution as weed may elicit acute psychotic states. Similar to the previous group, people who are suffering from a diagnosed mental disorder, or have a family history of psychotic disorders, should also refrain from using cannabis as it may worsen their condition.
If you’re worried about cannabis potentially causing hallucinations, but you also require a medical marijuana prescription, it’s a good idea to discuss your medical history with your healthcare provider so they are able to determine whether medical marijuana should be your course of treatment.