About to smoke, eat, vape, drink, or absorb cannabis for the first time and not sure what to expect?
I’m a frequent cannabis user and journalist covering the topic, so I’m often the recipient of anecdotes from all kinds of people about the ways different buds and products affect them individually.
This is a pretty common way to learn about cannabis. Without clear guidelines or regulations (due to federal prohibition), word-of-mouth is how most people figure out what’s what when it comes to intoxicating substances.
Here’s a roundup of tips, tricks, and things to consider for your first time.
A note about legality
Cannabis isn’t legal everywhere, though many U.S. states have legalized it for medical use, recreational purposes, or both. It’s best to not take a chance and know the laws in your state.
If you live outside the United States, you may be subject to different laws.
That informal informational network I mentioned earlier changes a bit every time a new state or other municipality legalizes cannabis, which, at this stage in time, is on a near-weekly basis.
One thing legalization has not meaningfully changed, though, is the way society tends to talk about being intoxicated or high.
“I think in the beginning there is this shedding required to move through what is effectively brainwashing that came as the result of prohibition and anti-weed propaganda,” says Emma Chasen of Eminent Consulting.
When it comes to cannabis, discussions of being high are steeped in binaries. Products are described as being simply intoxicating or not. This comes up a lot when talking about CBD versus THC.
Same goes for whether something is psychoactive. (Note: This distinction is usually incorrectly applied; all cannabinoids technically have psychoactive effects.)
In reality, cannabis’s effects fall along a spectrum. How you’ll feel those effects depends on a lot of things, including the product you’re using, your surroundings, and your emotional state that day.
This can be a little nerve-wracking if you’re new to cannabis, but there’s room to lean into this subjectivity. Often, binaries exist because they’re comfortable: They offer clear guidelines and remove any confusion.
In reality, though, nothing is that simple, and talking in binaries creates a false security. It’s no different when it comes to cannabis.
Before your first cannabis experience, mentally prepare yourself to explore these gray areas. Let go of any expectations. Be open to a range of possible outcomes (we’ll get into how to handle a not-so-great outcome later).
To understand how a cannabis high manifests in individual bodies, it will only benefit users and would-be users to get comfortable exploring the gray areas.
Speaking of binaries, there’s the issue of cannabis strains (or cultivars). These are often described as being an indica or sativa. This is basically shorthand for the former causing a euphoric body high and the latter producing a more energetic and cerebral high, among other effects.
These descriptions aren’t necessarily false, but they’re completely subjective.
Additionally, categorizing cannabis by just these two terms completely misses a wide spectrum of other effects caused by different factors, including flavonoids and terpenes.
Rather than just going for an indica or a sativa, think about how you want to feel: Energetic and creative? Relaxed and introspective? Are there therapeutic effects you’re looking for, like pain relief or appetite stimulation?
Based off this information, cannabis specialists or dispensary staff can help you choose the best product.
If you’d rather be more hands-on in choosing a product, cannabis journalist and author Ellen Holland suggests looking to your nose.
“We are lucky in that the aromatic and flavorful elements of cannabis, the terpenes, play a large role in the effects. In that way, our sense of smell can guide us towards the type of high we’re seeking,” she says.
“Fruit, floral, fuel, and earth are common flavor profiles in cannabis flowers, and following these groupings can help people find what’s right for them,” she explains.
Holland says that “fruity cultivars” are uplifting, while floral ones are introspective. Fuel-backed cultivars (like Sour Diesel) are powerful, while those with earthy smells and flavors tend to cause relaxing effects.
“The diversity of this botanical is vast, and strain names can often be misleading,” she adds.
“It’s great to gravitate towards the scents you already find appealing. The lemony whiffs from a Gelonade tell you it’s going to be bright and energizing. The dank, gassy scents of a classic OG Kush tell you that it’s going to be strong and soothing,” she says.
These specific strains Holland describes should be fairly easy to find in many legal dispensaries.
Edibles may be a good place to start for those who don’t want to get into the nuances of the plant or deal with the health effects of smoking.
You’ll want to be mindful of the type and dose, though.
Generally, edibles made with live resin tend to produce stronger effects. Edibles metabolize in the liver rather in the bloodstream, so they produce a longer lasting high that could result in psychedelic effects at higher doses.
For your first time, aim for a dose of 5 milligrams or less (2.5 milligrams would be ideal). Edibles also take longer to onset than inhalation, so you’ll want to wait at least an hour or two before trying more.
Regardless of your consumption method, Dr. Jordan Tishler, president and CEO of inhaleMD, agrees that dose is necessary to nail down.
“The key is dose. If cannabis provokes discomfort or anxiety, the dose is simply too high,” he says, echoing common complaints of people who have tried cannabis and decided it’s not for them.
“It’s not about strains or CBD ratios. None of that has panned out in studies,” Tishler says, who is also the president of the Association of Cannabis Specialists and a professor at Harvard Medical School.
“Your cannabis specialist should be very specific about what to take and how much. Usually this is a slow ramp-up, not only to get you used to the feelings but also to let your body adjust,” he says.
Often, people benefit from doses that are much smaller than they expect, Tishler adds.
For those who have had a bad experience with cannabis or other intoxicating substances in the past, Chasen has a few guidelines that people can keep in mind.
“First of all, what kind of experience are you looking to have? We know what experience you don’t want, but do you have certain therapeutic goals? A mood you’d like to conjure with cannabis?” she tells people to ask themselves.
“Secondly, I’d want to examine other consumption methods,” Chasen says. If you previously smoked and didn’t like it, maybe a tincture or edible would work better.
She adds that, lately, she’s been “super into” tinctures because there are some that are solely cannabis and others that combine cannabis with “supportive botanicals” — things like adaptogenic mushrooms and herbs.
Chasen also stresses the importance of “set and setting,” which is a popular concept in psychedelic use.
“Make sure you are in a comfortable space with people you feel safe with,” she says. Sometimes, people’s adverse reactions to intoxicating substances can be triggered by happenings outside their own bodies.
Your first cannabis experience isn’t the time to hang out with someone new for the first time. Stick with people you know and trust. Aim to be somewhere that feels safe and comfortable, whether that’s your living room or favorite beach.
Part of experimenting with intoxicating substances is learning limits, however uncomfortable that might get at times.
If things get uncomfortable (mentally or physically), Tishler recommends an easy fix.
“The best advice if you do get too much is to relax with the support of your special people, watch some lighthearted TV, and go to sleep. You’ll be fine in the morning,” Tishler says.
There are plenty of anecdotal remedies that people swear by, from chewing peppercorns to drinking lemon tea, but there isn’t a ton of evidence behind them.
Be prepared for remedies to not work. Have a backup plan, whether that’s a friend to walk you home or a clear pathway to the couch.
Ultimately, Chasen notes there’s still a lot of mystery around the mechanics of being high and being comfortable with it, and this isn’t just specific to new users.
“I think people feel like they’re losing themselves,” she says, adding that it “directly threatens their security and functionality, which directly challenges the ways we were taught to feel secure and in control.”
And sometimes that loss of control doesn’t feel good.
“Yes, too much THC may make you feel incredibly anxious and paranoid. It may lead you to believe, ‘Hey, this isn’t for me,’” Chasen adds.
“But, also, if you were taught how to cope with that experience, if you were taught to be intentional about that consumption, you could find really valuable insights about yourself in that experience, and I just don’t think that we are at all prepared to look that in the face,” she says very matter-of-factly.
“I don’t think we’re prepared in the way that our culture raised us to look our egos in the face and watch them die,” Chasen says.
That’s not to say you need to go straight to ego death, but regardless of what happens, give yourself some space to reflect afterward.
If it was a good experience, why? Did it unlock unexpected feelings or sensations? Did you find a new perspective?
And if it wasn’t so good, what felt uncomfortable? Did you feel physically sick? Did uncomfortable emotions come up?
Any cannabis experience — good or bad — can be a learning opportunity.
There’s no right or wrong way to go about your first cannabis experience. Everyone’s different.
But if you relax, do a bit of research, and lean into the unknown, you’ll probably be just fine.
Jackie Bryant is a freelance writer who focuses on cannabis, food, travel, and other culture topics. Originally from New York, she now calls San Diego home. She is a regular contributor to Forbes, where she covers cannabis, and her work can also be found in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Sierra, WeedWeek, Afar, Playboy, and many others. She also writes a newsletter and hosts a podcast, both about cannabis culture. More of her work can be found here.