Why Pot Smokers Are Paranoid

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Paul Edmondson / Stone via Getty Images

Paranoia is one of the most unpleasant “side effects” of marijuana. It’s also a key experience shared by marijuana smokers and people with schizophrenia. But exactly how does smoking a joint cause the feeling that dark forces are conspiring to do you wrong?

New research in rats may help explain the source of this distress. The study, led by Steven Laviolette at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, involved training rats to fear the scent of either almond or peppermint. The scents were delivered to rats in a cage either with black-and-white striped walls or with black polka dots on a gray background. (The rats were not pre-tested for their taste in interior design.) One scent was accompanied by an electric shock to the rodents’ feet, while the other scent was not.

At the same time, researchers experimented with the activity of the CB1 receptors in a certain region of the rats’ brains. These cannabinoid receptors are activated by the main psychoactive component of marijuana, THC. In some rats, the scientists blocked CB1-receptor activity; in others, they used a marijuana-like drug to enhance it.

When scientists blocked the CB1 receptors in a region called the basolateral amygdala — which is involved in the processing of fear and emotion — the rats that got strong electric shocks did not learn to fear the associated scent or the cage in which they received it. After getting shocked, they were just as happy as unaffected rats to explore the cage and smell the scent.

When rats were given a drug that enhanced cannabinoid-receptor activity, however, even receiving a minor shock was enough to cause them to freeze with fear when they were later exposed to the cage and its related scent. Without the marijuana-like drug, small shocks did not have the same effect.

The findings, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, suggest that activity in the basolateral amygdala is involved in marijuana-induced paranoia (the state of becoming afraid of things that wouldn’t normally trigger fear). That means marijuana is actually enhancing a type of learning about fear, leading the brain to jump to conclusions about mild experiences involving particular places or things, and to perceive them as scarier and more strongly connected than they are.

This increased fear-based learning helps explain why stoners tend to see patterns in events that aren’t real, such as conspiracies. (Of course, to be fair, the rats in this experiment were justifiably paranoid: they were being experimented on!)

Interestingly, the researchers also found that they could prevent the enhanced fear learning in rats given the marijuana-like drug by inactivating activity in a region called the prefrontal cortex before exposing them to the shocks. The prefrontal cortex is a higher-level brain area involved in executive functions like planning, decision-making and controlling responses and impulses. In humans, this could potentially explain why telling yourself or being told, “Chill out, you’re just high,” can help. (This may not work if the police actually are coming to arrest you.)

The researchers point out that both of the brain regions studied are implicated in the pathology of schizophrenia, and that understanding their interconnections could lead to better treatments for the disorder.

“We know there are abnormalities in both the amygdala and prefrontal cortex in patients who have schizophrenia, and we now know these same brain areas are critical to the effects of marijuana and other cannabinoid drugs on emotional processing,” said Laviolette in a statement.

11 comments
NathanielBorgen
NathanielBorgen

I have been a drinker and pot smoker since I was a teenager.  I have always enjoyed it. I am now sorry to say that recently I have developed a problem that "the news is talking about me", "people are out to get me", and "video games are trying to talk to me through wifi connection". This is very real and scary, so thanks to people that are just concerned for themselves like I was for being able to smoke my life away. I was an avid believer that marijuana is good for you. I may have to get on anti psychotics now.

dvzn
dvzn

I'm really surprised by the negative response to this article. I know plenty of people who have experienced exactly what is described, myself included. Marijuana induced psychosis is an issue that needs to be receiving a lot more attention in the form of education, research and treatment. If you've never experienced it then you're either lucky or a sociopath, because that paranoia is the reason most people I've encountered cite as to why they don't enjoy smoking. It's real, not propaganda or ignorance, and it can trigger schizophrenia in some cases. There is a known link between schizophrenia and PTSD, and anybody who's spent much time around smokers and paid any attention has noticed the untreated PTSD commonly "medicated" with heavy marijuana use (though "masked" is more honest in my opinion) so how can you deny a link between marijuana and symptoms of schizophrenia?

srin1990
srin1990

Does this article really belong on a major magazine such as Time? Cancel your subs people. Why the constant reference to rats? Is it because we can't really turn this into a normal discussion involving people? Agree with all posters below.


#NoAgenda

michael.kohaut
michael.kohaut

"smoking a joint cause the feeling that dark forces are conspiring to do you wrong" that is so stupid the author is just trying to make pot smokers sound schizophrenic and crazy. i can tell you with complete certainty that the only thing pot smokers are paranoid but not about the forces of evil. well unless you consider the police  to be evil.

DanSlaby
DanSlaby

I would ask the question why so many people in America are politically paranoid when the use of marijuana doesn't seem to correspond accordingly. 

VivaLaDemocracy
VivaLaDemocracy

This is one of the most ignorant articles I have ever read.  It says they used a "marijuana-like" drug... there is no drug like marijuana.  It has not been successfully synthesized in any laboratory.  Ironically, even though it has been legalized for medical use in many states and acclaimed to have medicinal properties (by modern and arcane medicine), it is still a Schedule I drug.  It doesn't take paranoia from using marijuana to see that the Government wants to profit from this "controlled substance".

Much agreed with "BobCarter" and "Kathleenchippi"... the real fear is Government overreach through the use of violence and lifestyle-oppression.

kathleenchippi
kathleenchippi

The only fear people have when smoking pot is the very REAL FEAR of being busted, losing their job, kids, insurance, driving privileges etc.  Rats can't help us with that, only Congress and oBOMBa can change that--and they seem to refuse even when 53% of the population want pot legal. 

LipoHippo
LipoHippo

@NathanielBorgen It's ironic, then, that the most powerful (by far) substance to CURE this paranoia you've developed, is ALSO found in the cannabis plant: CBD.


Nature's balance: THC-selective breeding (for the recreational pursuit of losing control of your mind, something I've personally never been interested in) has skewed the nature of this plant over the last hundred years while the governmental industrial complex simultaneously demonised it in order to suppress it from overtaking all their destructive profits in oil, logging, cotton, pharmaceuticals, and centralised-power economy - a truly lost scenario far away from what this natural plant originally offered in the wild.


Now it has been rediscovered and with it coming back to balance, the world will finally all see how AMAZING this plant is, for daily nutrition (raw greens (super high in iron, calcium, and other macro and micronutrients) in addition to its perfect protein and fatty acid profiles from the seed), powerful health and healing (a near-panacea it seems), fuel (ethanol as a petrol replacement and even hemp oil as a diesel replacement!), paper, and all textile needs that the entire planet ever needed.


This plant may cause problems (paranoia, anxiety, schizophrenic symptoms) but only when MISUSED. How many OTHER plants out there are poisonous (causing outright DEATH in mere small amounts!) yet not outlawed - as if they think they can control  people's access to PLANTS on this natural planet of ours!!!


It's ludicrous! And obvious (once you discover the empowering ability of the cannabis plant) that it's only because of the HUMUNGOUS threat the cannabis plant poses to the ENTIRE now-established system of centralised economy and power and profit stronghold of the corporate ruling elite!


Watch the video on youtube called 'True History of Marijuana Full Movie'.

portal2west
portal2west

@michael.kohaut here here the war on pot slowly simmers down and this article sublimes into the past imo the only paranoia i see fom pot is the people who are against those that use it and stll hold that 1930 propagandistic view that marijuana makes blacks rape white women.