Explore one of the most common debates among psychonauts: Is cannabis hallucinogenic?


When discussing psychedelic experiences, LSD, mushrooms, DMT, and mescaline are often the main talking points. Compared to these classic psychedelics, cannabis acts via an entirely different biochemical pathway, and tends to produce much milder effects. Despite the clear differences between chewing a few grams of mushrooms and hitting a big dab, scientific literature has historically categorised cannabis as a hallucinogenic drug.

Advances in our understanding of psychedelics have driven a firm wedge between the psychoactive effects of cannabis and “true” psychedelics. However, research also suggests that cannabis can indeed induce hallucinations under some circumstances. But are these truly psychedelic visions, or a telltale sign of underlying mental conditions? Continue reading as we break it all down.

Hallucinations: An Altered State Defined

The word “hallucination” derives from the Latin “alucinari”, meaning to “wander in mind”. From a clinical perspective, a hallucination encompasses any sensory phenomena that occur solely inside of the mind, lacking any external source. While often associated with visual disturbances—such as fractal and geometric patterns—hallucinations can occur via different sensory hubs in the brain. These experiences fall into the following categories:

  • Visual
  • Auditory
  • Olfactory (smell)
  • Tactile (touch)
  • Gustatory (taste)

Having visions, hearing colours, seeing sounds, and experiencing sensory distortion are all common events induced by hallucinogenic compounds. Users also report profound experiences such as entering other dimensions and communicating with conscious entities.

Some indigenous belief systems—as well as modern researchers and scholars—regard these events as “real” in their own way, suggesting these altered states allow us to perceive other aspects of our universe. In contrast, other modern psychonauts and scientists believe such phenomena stem from the mere alteration of brain chemistry alone.

Hallucinations: An Altered State Defined

Some individuals undergo hallucinations while entirely sober. These experiences can arise from multiple factors, such as:

  • Mental illness
  • Neurological conditions
  • Fever
  • Medication
  • Sleep conditions

Although these experiences are still regarded as hallucinations, they appear different from the quintessential psychedelic experience, and tend not to involve the ingestion of mind-altering chemicals.

Mechanism of Action of Classic Hallucinogens

The classic psychedelics include LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin. Numerous cultures around the world have utilised these substances for thousands of years to induce mystical experiences and communicate with the divine. Modern Western users tend to ingest these substances for recreation, although many still associate the experience with spirituality.

Although the classic hallucinogens produce varied experiences, they all share something in common: each binds to and antagonises the serotonin 2A receptor.

The serotonergic system plays a fundamental role in the nervous system and neuron signalling. Serotonin—the signalling molecule within this network—regulates mood, emotion, memory, reward, and cognition. The disruption of this system underpins the hallucinogenic experiences imparted by these substances.

How Cannabis Compares

Most recreational cannabis strains contain the psychotropic molecule THC. Upon inhalation, this cannabinoid enters the bloodstream and binds to CB1 receptors concentrated in the central nervous system. These receptors belong to the endocannabinoid system—a body-wide network that regulates various processes crucial to human physiology.

Interestingly, THC mimics the internally produced cannabinoid (or "endocannabinoid") anandamide (AEA). Also known as the “bliss molecule”, researchers believe anandamide underpins the runner’s high phenomenon, as the molecule helps to regulate motivation, pleasure, and reward.

Upon binding to CB1 receptors, THC causes a surge in dopamine. This signalling molecule gives rise to sensations of euphoria, laughter, and other quintessential aspects of the cannabis high. Conversely, the herb may also induce negative side effects, such as paranoia, confusion, and panic.

Although not presently categorised as a hallucinogen, humans have long associated the herb with mystical experiences. The Hindus of India and Buddhists of Nepal drink cannabis-infused Bhang to achieve transcendental states. The Rastafari smoke cannabis to become closer to Jah. Even casual cannabis users have insights and philosophical breakthroughs to share.

How Cannabis Compares

However, cannabis doesn’t induce intense trips into other realms or cause out-of-body experiences—at least, not to the same degree as true psychedelics. This makes sense when comparing the pharmacological action of cannabis versus psychedelics.

With that said, some users still claim to experience hallucinations when they consume cannabis. In some cases, these experiences stem from underlying mental conditions, such as psychosis, that THC may exacerbate. Yet, THC may also give rise to hallucinations in healthy people.

A paper published in the journal Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research discusses the occurrence of self-reported hallucinations[1] after an acute dose of cannabis. Following the vaporization of 25mg of THC, the subject reported a hallucinogenic experience that differed from those caused by classic psychedelics. Despite the small sample size, the researchers suggest cannabis may induce a hallucinogenic experience through a different mechanism than other psychedelic compounds.

Extracts and Edibles: The Final Frontier?

Hitting blunts and bowls will certainly elevate your mood, enhance the taste of food, and plunge you into philosophical and existential discussions. Yet, the chances of tripping after smoking weed remain small. As such, the pursuit of increasingly intense highs has led cannabis users to think outside the box.

Humans have eaten cannabis preparations for thousands of years. After swallowing cannabinoids, the molecules pass through the digestive tract and into the liver before entering circulation. The liver converts THC into 11-hydroxy-THC, a metabolite known to produce more intense psychotropic effects. Edibles may take longer to kick in, but they let you know when they do. Anecdotal reports describe varying psychotropic experiences, from mere relaxation to fully fledged hallucinogenic states. When comparing 1mg doses of THC to 11-hydroxy-THC[2], the latter produces much more intense outcomes.

Cannabis concentrates serve as an efficient way to saturate the endocannabinoid system with cannabinoids. Full-spectrum extracts provide large doses of a range of cannabis phytochemicals that work together in a synergistic dance known as the entourage effect. Terpenes and other cannabinoids accompany THC to produce an intense yet well-rounded effect. The presence of CBD and relaxing terpenes such as myrcene and linalool may actually make full-spectrum extracts less likely to induce a hallucinogenic experience.

In contrast, isolates offer potencies of around 99% THC. Dosing such high quantities of the cannabinoid may push the mind closer to a hallucinogenic state.

Is Cannabis Truly Hallucinogenic?

Well, it depends on who you ask. Some users report tripping from merely smoking weed. Others claim it takes over 100mg of THC to help them leave the launch pad. What we do know: THC doesn’t act like the classic psychedelic. However, early research does suggest it might catalyse its own type of hallucinations through different mechanisms. We also know that cannabis works differently in different people—only you will know how weed truly makes you feel. Enjoy the herb; experiment with it, and see where you end up!

External Resources:
  1. “Hallucinations” Following Acute Cannabis Dosing: A Case Report and Comparison to Other Hallucinogenic Drugs https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
  2. Comparative pharmacology of Delta9-tetrahydrocannabinol and its metabolite, 11-OH-Delta9-tetrahydrocannabinol - PubMed https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
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