Placebo Effects: Marijuana and the "Contact High"

Many users, and friends of users of marijuana report experiencing a "contact high." That is, they purport to experience some of the effects of marijuana simply by being in contact with or around those using marijuana. Virtually all users wrongly attribute this experience to the inhalation of second hand smoke. This is unlikely for a number of reasons. Since exhaled smoke is virtually devoid of psychoactive substances and is widely dispersed in the surrounding air, it is not possible for one to inhale even a small fraction of a working dose. Additionally, many, including noted pharmacologist and psychedelic researcher Alexander Shulgin, report similar experiences involving drugs that are not inhaled, indicating that these effects are due to different biological processes.

So, why do we experience a "contact high?" And, if placebos work even if you don't believe in them, do those who have never used marijuana or don't believe in a "contact high" still experience a "contact high"? The answer is surely a complicated mix of evolutionary and epigenetic factors that we don't fully understand, but it is probably very closely related to the biological mechanisms that underlie placebo effects. Experienced users are probably experiencing effects related to conditioning and coupling. The similar environment, people, and smells will subconsciously evoke similar but relatively muted responses. Even those who have never used marijuana, may "feel" somewhat similar to those around them. If everyone is laughing, smiling, and feeling happy, then you will too. Ever hang around a depressed person? Yeah, it's depressing. It is also possible that mirror neurons play a role in the subconscious mimicking of the behavior of those around us. So if you are worried about that upcoming drug test and your "contact high," don't be, it's all in your head.

  • AlysonAmber

    Actually your article here is very interesting as I know for sure that you can hypnotize people and “suggest” them taking drugs. You might see a weird change in teh behavior as they actually behave like taking a specific drug. The placebo effects is still uncharted teritory and it needs further research: psychological or medical.

  • DoctorJekyl

    I agree with you that there is a placebo effect, but let's not forget the medical facts here:' marijuana is a psychodelic substance this specific feature is because of the THC that marijuana has in its composition. If marijuana wouldn't have THC, we wouldn't have this conversation now.

  • Elliander

    Personally, I wish it was just a Myth. I never smoked anything or did any drugs but my first time around someone who was high was physically painful. I don't know how to describe it. It was like all my nerves were on fire or something. Heavy breathing. Swelling. That kind of thing. At a different time I was exposed to second-hand smoke and it was much MUCH worse. Only then I learned that I have some kind of physical allergy to Pot. I am incapable of getting high of Pot but just have really bad painful reactions to it.

    For me the question is more along these lines: Why would an individual who believes that Pot would make someone high and would see someone high only experience physical pain from the contact and then at a later time when being exposed to the physical drug have it confirmed that I have an allergy? How can it be “Mirror Neurons” if nothing is being Mirrored and instead gives a preview of a very physical allergic reaction?

    To me this makes the whole “contact high” concept allot stranger. It clearly can't be a social queue or a hypochondria since I have never even heard of someone with an allergy like this before. Yet, somehow, the “contact” of another person on a drug that I am allergic to caused an allergic reaction before ever having any reason to even suspect I would have such a reaction. And, to date, I have never been high. Yet the “contact high” seems to work even when it won't make me high.

    Would it then stand to reason that someone around someone consuming peanuts might have a toned down version of a peanut allergy if they are allergic?

  • Jenny Graham

    Interesting post!Thanks for sharing with us.Really found it informative.


  • remove Internet Defender

    Enjoy reading your post! Keep going!

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  • Emmi Bances

    I think the newbeis around might be having the effect when they only saw marijuana.
    Effects of obesity

  • ShellieR

    I’ve always wondered if, when smoking a joint or blunt, the smoking coming off the j/b can get someone high when inhaling it over a period of time. It’s not second hand smoke, and it would explain why “clam bakes” work so well. :)

  • Rachel Pickhardt

    I invited a friend to smoke with me and my siblings one time. She’d never smoked before and I thought it would be nice to let her join in since she was interested. I soon realized that she must not have been inhaling right because the effects were definitely placebo-y. She crawled up to my bunk bed, flailing her arms around shouting “I feel like I’m swimming!” and then looked into her shoe and started shouting that she could “See the universe in her shoe” She’d also talk about how high she was in a very played-out tone.

    I’m sorry but this is not stoner behavior. Maybe she legitimately believed she was high and had a placebo effect; Maybe she didn’t want to disappoint us and say she wasn’t high. Dunno. 

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