Illustration by Carly Jean Andrews

Why Some People Can’t Smoke Weed

The agony of the would-be recreational drug user

In his 1984 top 10 pop hit “I Want a New Drug,” Huey Lewis lays out his criteria for the perfect drug: That rare, no side-effects high that won’t make him do a series of things — make him sick, crash his car, feel three-feet thick, hurt his head, make his mouth too dry, or his eyes too red. It won’t make him nervous; it won’t spill; it doesn’t cost too much; it doesn’t come in a pill. It won’t keep him up all night, or make him sleep all day. It does what it should, he imagines. It won’t make him feel too bad — or too good, either.

The song is more of a metaphor for love (“One that makes me feel/ Like I feel when I’m with you,” Lewis croons), but that drug, for many people, is marijuana. It’s widely available, incredibly safe, affordable; it offers few side-effects, is rarely addictive, and for most users, produces a chill, easy high you can wake up from effortlessly the next morning.

It’s also now totally legal in many states (one in five Americans currently resides in a state where they can toke without a doc), and it’s far less addictive and far less bad for you than either booze or prescription drugs.

What’s not to love? Well, in a cruel twist, it gives some people terrible anxiety and panic attacks — also known as “the weed demons” — not to mention a crushing paranoia that defeats the entire purpose of getting high in the first place.

I first tried pot as a teenager, and soon found that everyone else’s favorite pastime in redneck rural Tennessee (other than drinking wine coolers, Mad Dog 20/20 and Jack Daniel’s) was, for me, a recipe for instant barfing. One hit, and I became violently ill. Mix it with booze, and I was committed to a night of puking until I passed out. I was the only person I knew like this, and it was a real drag in a town where there’s little else to do. As an indoor kid, this was my peer group’s version of team sports, and being able to hold your own — that is, do even a reasonable amount of drugs on a Saturday night and remain standing — was a prerequisite. I would recently learn this reaction to weed — going pale and unsteady, then passing out — was called “pulling a whitey.”

Like any good student of recreational drug use, I vowed to work hard at being good at getting high. Unlike public school in a state that, until recently, ranked near dead last in education, this was something I actually had to work hard at in life. Eventually, I got really good at it. Maybe it’s because all we could get our hands on in college was shake, but for a brief period my friends and I ripped bong hits every day on shitty weed, got blissfully high, watched Melrose Place and 90210, and coasted through life.

Then weed turned on me again. And to this day, so much as one hit creates an unbearable weirdness in me. The second it hits my lungs, my brain turns into a flipbook of anxiety, and suddenly every decision I’ve ever made flashes rapidly before my eyes like a carousel of bad choices, even the indisputably good ones.

Since moving to California and peddling my pity party to stoner friends, they’ve reassured me that there are plenty of strains of weed that address precisely this issue — that I’ve come to the right place for a good buzz. “Indica,” they say, coolly exhaling off a blunt. “That shit’s a body high, man, not a head high. Trust me.”

For my last birthday, a friend in Santa Barbara said I should give weed another chance, assuring me this was the stuff that would allow me to partake in the best legal high around. I took one hit, and felt nothing. I started to inhale a second one, thinking I was home free, when he interjected — “Shoulda told you that’s really strong.”

That’s when I felt it. My body turned to cement and I began sinking into the ground. Within about three minutes, my brain started cranking: My job, my life, and every shade of everything I’d ever thought, felt, or even dared imagine swirled around in mock horror, a funhouse of mirrors. All I could mutter was that I had to lie down immediately. He thought I was kidding. I lay in the spare bedroom willing myself to jump out of my body for hours, trying to blot out the thoughts, mentally slaying one surprise terrible image after the next. Four hours later, I got to sleep.

Science doesn’t know exactly why a drug used to treat anxiety can also create it. Weed sites pitch strains for anxiety and depression as if it’s as simple as just landing on the right mix. They write guides for how to dodge the weed demons, usually with tips like smoking less, trying different strains, getting high in a calm, chill environment, or trying edibles. (I’ve yet to do this, because committing to eating something that has to entirely pass through my body is terrifying.)

“Marijuana-induced anxiety is weed culture’s Bigfoot — an urban legend that’s perpetuated by hearsay, rather than fact,” Sarah Emerson writes of this phenomenon in a recent piece at Vice’s Broadly. “Everyone knows someone whose friend’s cousin had a bad trip. (‘But like, weed is really good for anxiety, right?’). As a result, the truth of the matter is muddled, and discussing reefer madness can actually make you feel insane.”

Emerson recounts anecdotes of the inhale-and-insta-puke I always used to experience—getting dizzy, spending the night on the bathroom floor, or feeling as if I had died. She looks into the existing research:

But it’s not clear whether weed jumpstarts anxiety disorders, and the association is tenuous. When existing studies on this topic were reevaluated, and other anxiety stressors were controlled for, an almost insignificant amount of people showed a link between marijuana use and anxiety development. Research based on longitudinal data from a National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions, which included interviews with 34,653 participants, also found negligible evidence that weed can catalyze anxiety.

It’s a bummer, because proving weed is okay has been the bulk of the challenge in legalizing it — this is, after all, “wacky tobacky,” a relatively harmless drug long demonized (often by religious conservatives) as something that makes people go insane. Because of stringent and longstanding laws against marijuana use, Emerson notes, it’s been hard to do the kind of research that could help people like me by determining different strains and their effects on different people. We’re too busy just trying to prove it’s not worse than booze.

Emerson cites a few theories: It’s possible that people with preexisting anxiety disorders (though I don’t have one) are more prone to this reaction. It’s possible cannabinoids that occur naturally in the brain are being overstimulated because of stress, and mixing badly with the surplus cannabinoids in weed. It could be that some people who smoke weed with higher levels of THC are more likely to become overanxious. It could be that you need the “gentler high” of the indica strain (ha!).

More research needs to be done. Meanwhile, I don’t want to ruin the good thing weed is for the lucky ones. I’m just jealous I’m still patching together my recreational drug use with things that cause hangovers when I could be getting baked and cleaning out my car or reorganizing my bookshelf like everyone else. I long for the occasional high that’s easy and fun, sunlight bent through a kaleidoscope, what I imagine to be, basically, the drug version of a good Instagram filter. I’m probably overestimating the buzz, but a girl can dream.

Emerson suggests to keep experimenting with different strains, but in the meantime, I’ll probably just keep on drinking light beers and scoring the occasional painkiller to dull the edges of life’s harsh existence. Anything that won’t make me nervous, my mouth too dry, my eyes too red. Anything that won’t keep me up all night, or make me sleep all day. More importantly, anything that won’t make me sick. Literally.