You’re at a socially distanced outdoor hangout, soaking up the good vibes — until someone starts passing out pre-rolls. You light up and take a half-hearted drag, knowing what’ll come next. Sure enough, minutes later, while your friends are laughing and basking in their cannabis-induced chill, you’re a tired, anxious wreck. Weed FOMO has struck again: Everyone’s having fun, except you.
Modern-day stoner culture’s aura of effortless cool — with strains named for hip-hop artists and devotees like Rihanna oozing devil-may-care badassery — doesn’t help, either, making it hard not to feel excluded from some VIP club. What can you do if you want to enjoy weed, but just can’t?
I consulted with my go-to cannabis expert, Lewis Nelson, professor and chair of the department of emergency medicine and chief of the division of medical toxicology at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. Based on his insight, and my own personal experience, there’s hope. You may be able to learn to enjoy weed by starting slow; experimenting with different types of cannabis; and entering a positive mental and physical space.
Why cannabis makes some people feel terrible
Everyone experiences weed a little differently, thanks to a combination of genetic and environmental factors, Nelson says. “There are some people who are just more anxious or stressed under normal conditions, and their response to cannabis might be different from someone who’s more mellow and go-with-the-flow.”
The concentration and distribution of your endocannabinoid receptors, found throughout your body and involved in an array of biological functions, also play a role, since the cannabinoids in weed, like tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the compound in weed that gets you high) and cannabidiol (CBD, the non-inebriating compound that supposedly calms you down), exert their effects by activating them. Family history matters, too. If your parents or siblings have had bad experiences with weed, you’re more likely to, as well.
The concentration of THC and CBD in the weed you consume can also influence your response to it. Although some question whether the use of strains to classify weed is really rooted in science, broadly speaking, “there’s the cannabis that’s rich in THC, and then there’s the cannabis that’s rich in CBD,” Lewis says. The former tends to have a more stimulating effect, the latter a more reflective, sedating one. The amount of THC, and the ratio of THC to CBD, are both important.
Lastly, set and setting — your mindset and your physical environment — can help determine whether you relax or freak out. If cannabis were a sedating drug, like alcohol, “set and setting wouldn’t matter much,” Nelson says, “but because cannabis does have the capacity to be anxiety-provoking if you’re not in the right mood, with the right people, and in the right place, you’re definitely more likely to have an adverse reaction.”
Also in contrast to alcohol, cannabis allows you to preserve your level of consciousness, but it can make you misinterpret sensory input with a sense of either calm or dread, depending on your mindset at the time. This means that if you enter a situation thinking weed will make you feel shitty, it most likely will.
While you can’t do a ton to change things like your endocannabinoid receptor makeup, you can play around with the dose and type of cannabis you consume, as well as your set and setting, to make weed FOMO less likely.
Find your ideal THC dose and THC-to-CBD ratio
One factor to consider is the THC dose. “Definitely start slow,” Nelson says. As anyone who’s overindulged in an edible can attest, taking too much THC can trigger intense anxiety. To get a sense of how much to start with, “a normal dose of THC is 10 milligrams at the low end.” But that might differ for you — in fact, 10 milligrams is too much for me. The only way to know is to try it and adjust accordingly the next time.
Before I had any clue what counted as a normal dose, I ate a gummy that contained 25 milligrams of THC, a truly horrifying experience. The next time I tried an edible, I brought the dose way down, to five milligrams, which I discovered is my sweet spot, just enough to give me the giggles. Sometimes, I’ll take half that amount — generally considered a microdose — for a more subtle halo of giddiness.
Initially, I thought my five milligram THC limit made me a lightweight who needed to work my way up, until Nelson explained to me for a previous Mic story that unlike alcohol, weed doesn’t really seem to cause physiological tolerance. In other words, you don't increase your weed “tolerance” by taking increasingly higher doses of THC. And you can’t compare yourself to your tall friend. As with alcohol, size matters. Someone who’s 6’2” and 250 pounds will need way more weed to get high than someone who’s 5’2” and 90 pounds, Nelson explains.
Which is a more accurate way of finding the right dose for you — eating cannabis, or smoking it? “It’s a hard question to answer because there are a lot of variables,” Nelson says. When you smoke, you feel the effects in one or two minutes, so it gives you a more immediate sense of whether you can handle more or should stop. The problem is, even if the label lists the THC concentration, you don’t know how many milligrams of THC you’re inhaling with each drag.
An edible, on the other hand, can take an hour to hit, making it hard to predict how high you’ll get. You might make the same mistake I did when I took an edible for the first time: starting with a nibble and, bummed after not feeling anything for 45 minutes, devouring the entire thing — all 25 milligrams of THC. On the plus side, it’s easier to know how much THC you’re consuming with an edible, assuming it’s uniformly distributed. Now that I know that five milligrams of THC makes me happiest, I stick to edibles to ensure I get the same dose every time.
Nelson notes that finding a suitable blend of THC and CBD is also key. I figured mine out by trying cannabis-infused chocolate bars containing different ratios of THC to CBD, listed on the label. For me, a one-to-one THC-to-CBD ratio produces the perfect sensation of chilled-out bliss.
Set yourself up for success
To further maximize your chances of having a good weed experience, optimize your set and setting. Try to enter a positive headspace, Nelson suggests. That might mean watching a feel-good video, talking to someone who’ll plant happy thoughts, or consuming cannabis with a friend who can talk you down if you feel anxiety creeping in (which is essentially what Nelson and colleagues do when someone ends up in the ER with a panic attack after taking too much cannabis). A change of scenery could help, too. Instead of imbibing in a dark bedroom, like you usually do, maybe migrate to open field.
At the end of the day, you might also realize that despite your best efforts, you just can’t bring yourself to like cannabis. Don't force it, and don’t buy into the one-drug-fits all hype. I promise there’s nothing wrong with you — weed just might not be the drug for you, and that’s totally fine.