The poor little lab rats had no idea what was coming. The researchers wanted to test the anxiolytic effects of the cannabis compound cannabidiol (CBD), and what better way to check anxiety levels than by tossing mice into a space with a wild snake. Mickey’s worst nightmare, however, did reveal helpful information about the plant’s effect on mood.
The researchers divided the snake bait into two groups: one injected with CBD and the other untreated as the control group. How did the mice react? The findings, published in the CNS & Neurological Disorders Drug Targets journal in 2014, said the control group freaked out while the mice medicated with CBD demonstrated “significant and robust” levels of calm. The findings of similar studies in 2009 and 2012 involving CBD, mice and snakes also came to the same conclusion.
At this point, it is important to note that CBD is not a psychoactive substance, so the medicated mice were not simply too stoned to care. Furthermore, the Journal of Psychiatric Research published an equally sadistic study in 2012 that highlighted other anxiety-related benefits.
The 2012 study “Cannabidiol blocks long-lasting behavioral consequences of predator threat stress” involved tossing mice into a space with a cat, spiking their anxiety and then treating them with CBD one hour later. The researchers concluded, “Repeated CBD administration prevents the long-lasting anxiogenic effects observed after predator exposure … [and] our results suggest that CBD has beneficial potential for PTSD treatment and that 5HT1A receptors could be a therapeutic target in this disorder.” Several studies (e.g., 2005’s “Agonistic properties of cannabidiol at 5-HT1a receptors” in Neurochemical Research) suggest CBD activates 5HT1A, a serotonin receptor associated with managing anxiety, depression and psychosis.
Animal and human studies confirm the anxiolytic potential for CBD, and a 2011 study in Neuropsychopharmacology even discovered that CBD helps people speak in public despite social anxiety disorders. All this begs the question: Why do so many people get paranoid and/or anxious when they smoke cannabis?
Two key points should be addressed before tackling this question. First, a distinction needs to be made between an acute anxiety episode during cannabis use and chronic anxiety disorders. Cannabis can play a role in triggering brief anxiety episodes, but it does not appear to cause anxiety disorders. In fact, studies like this one suggest the opposite, noting a therapeutically “positive association between anxiety disorders and cannabis use.” This leads into the second point. Cannabis might be a tool for treating anxiety disorders, but individuals should not self-medicate disorders with cannabis, benzodiazepine or other sedatives in lieu of treating the disorder directly with comprehensive professional care.
So, why do some cannabis experiences make people paranoid and anxious? Government-enforced limitations on clinical studies prevent, thus far, a more definitive conclusion on the matter, but many researchers suggest that overexposure to the plant’s psychoactive compound, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), can potentially over-excite neural pathways and trigger symptoms of anxiety and paranoia. Environment, tolerance levels and even the cannabinoid makeup of the particular strain can all play roles as well.
This type of overexposure to THC is more commonly associated with less-experienced cannabis consumers eating infused edibles. Among the more famous cases, a police officer stole cannabis from an arrest, made pot brownies, ate them with his wife and then called 911 on himself when time started to go by “really, really, really, really slow.”
Cannabis consumed via combustion is primarily absorbed in the lungs, and the effects are generally felt within 10 minutes. However, the digestive tract absorbs the cannabis in edibles, and it can take an hour or longer for the psychoactive effects to manifest. Moreover, edibles tend to produce full-body highs that last much longer, and individuals unfamiliar with dosage levels usually consume too much the first few times they try it. As a general rule of thumb, the average person should not consume an edible with more than 10 milligrams of THC.
What should people do if they consume too much THC and experience anxiety symptoms? Several options exist. The best bet is to have CBD available in an oil extract or edible (Kushy Punch makes a good CBD gummy) as it actually counteracts the effects of THC. Likewise, consider purchasing a CBD-heavy strain like Harlequin and smoke it whenever another cannabis product produces anxiety and paranoia. Some people might be genetically predisposed to experience cannabis-induced anxiety, in which case a strain like Harlequin or a CBD-heavy oil should be your go-to product of choice.
What if you don’t have CBD in the house? In 2011, top cannabis researcher Ethan Russo (GW Pharmaceuticals) published “Taming THC” in the British Journal of Pharmacology, and he suggested a few traditional cures that might help: black peppercorns, lemon, pine nuts and calamus root. You likely have black pepper in your kitchen cabinet so try chewing on a few peppercorns if feeling anxious. Any of these items are worth a try, but Russo noted, “Acute overdose incidents involving THC or THC-predominant cannabis usually consist of self-limited panic reactions or toxic psychoses, for which no pharmacological intervention is generally necessary, and supportive counseling (reassurance or ‘talking down’) is sufficient to allow resolution without sequelae.”
As Russo noted, a cannabis overdose does not require medical care as a person would literally need to smoke about a ton of weed in 15 minutes for it to be lethal. That said, responsible cannabis consumption is always important, especially for those new to the plant. This can include making use of CBD to reduce THC-induced paranoia or for treating anxiety symptoms in general. It certainly worked for the lab mice.
Image: Hunter McGinnis, CC-BY
David Jenison is a Los Angeles native and the editor-in-chief of PROHBTD. He has covered entertainment, restaurants and travel for more than 20 years.