Before Getting High, You Must First Learn How to Get High

04 May 1996, New York City, New York State, USA --- A woman passes a joint at Hemp Fest '96/Cures Not Wars, a rally to legalize pot.
Photo: Mark Peterson/Corbis

Red eyes, dry mouth, paranoia: Lots of people like smoking marijuana, but some of the effects are not actually all that pleasant, if you really think about them! The key, argues sociologist Nathan Palmer in a fascinating post published today on Sociological Images, is this: To enjoy getting high, first, you must learn how to get high. 

Palmer references a 1950s study on the socialization of marijuana users to support his argument that the effects of drugs are about more than the physical sensations; it’s also about the way we’ve been conditioned to think about those effects. Palmer writes:

When you ingest any drug you have to be taught to recognize the effects. So for marijuana maybe that would include heightened senses, food cravings, and possibly a sense of anxiety or paranoia. When you haven’t been socialized it’s easy to go into a panic or ignore the effects altogether.

Remember the panicked police officer who called 911 reporting an “overdose” of marijuana? “I think we’re dying,” the cop says on the call. “We made brownies, and I think we’re dead. I really do.” That’s a great example of this phenomenon: The poor guy didn’t realize what to expect, and so he freaked out.

Because, Palmer writes, there’s really no guarantee that any drug will make you feel a certain way — mellow, euphoric, whatever. People have to learn to connect the mind-altering effects of drugs with those positive feelings. It’s the same with alcohol, he explained in an email to Science of Us:

It makes you dizzy, nauseous, slurs your speech, and lowers your inhibitions.  There’s no reason that we should think that is a desirable feeling.  If I could push a button and make you feel that way right now, you would probably freak out and call 911.  But because we socially construct those sensations with positive feelings, people who consume alcohol don’t freak out, but instead enjoy themselves. 

After understanding what a drug is “supposed” to do, the final piece of the learning process involves reframing “potentially negative experiences as positive.” For example, in that 1950s paper, researchers reported that stoners often told each other, “coughing makes you get higher.” That’s not exactly true, Palmer writes:

Actually, coughing after smoking is your body’s way of telling you that you inhaled something it didn’t like. It’s your body literally gasping for air. It seems just as likely that marijuana users could think of coughing as a bad thing or as a sign they inhaled too much. Instead smokers socially construct coughing as a positive and desirable thing.

Palmer, for the record, wanted me to mention that he is in no way an expert in matters of marijuana. “I am a boring sociology nerd and not a stoner,” he said in the email. “I went to bed last night at 9:30pm.  Hunter S. Thompson I am not.” Duly noted! 

Should You Learn How to Get High?