After four years of daily use, I quit smoking weed exactly 72 days ago—a little over two months. I made it through 4/20 without a relapse and, in fact, I hardly think about packing a bowl and lighting up anymore. I'm usually tempted when I'm watching a dumb TV show that would clearly be more entertaining if I was high, though I've held strong. Instead of smoking, I compulsively drink an absurd variety of teas (I currently have seven in rotation).
But I've been experiencing something super weird lately: I'll randomly feel like I'm stoned. When this happens, everything will feel a bit out of focus—like I'm located inside my head, somewhere far away. Sometimes, I'll even feel giggly and start laughing. Less pleasantly, I'll mildly hallucinate and the floor will seemingly start moving. It's not fun at all, and it's been interfering with my daily life. So I decided to try to find out what the hell could be going on.
On the sub-Reddit for people who are quitting weed, r/leaves, there's quite a few posts about phantom highs. "Feeling high all the time even after quitting?" one user posted. "Not full-blown, just a little, and I only notice it with certain stimuli. Like, show me one of those psychedelic frog GIFs and the visual affects are similar to when I'm high."
Others have taken to forums to report experiences of smoking weed and then having a "flashback" a few days later.
I ate a pot brownie on Sunday night at around 8:40. The high lasted into the next day until six in the afternoon. Ever since then, I have been having what I've come to call "flashbacks." At any instant I could revert back to being high if only for a few seconds, but it's a very physical high, like not being able to feel my mouth, or this really strange feeling I get when I slide my hands into my pockets while high. How can I end this? It's starting to make me feel kind of uncomfortable.
It felt good to know that I'm not alone, but I felt discomfited by the fact that the anecdotes I was finding sounded similar to the paranoid ramblings of someone who calls 9-1-1 after smoking a joint because they think they're dying. Is there any scientific evidence that could explain what's happening?
Studies have shown that it takes a long time for big time stoners to get all the THC out of their system, even after they have stopped smoking. In one study of abstinence in 86 men and women who were chronic cannabis users, it took at least 30 days for 32.7 percent of smokers to have weed-free urine. For a small percentage of participants, it took up to 77 days to go back to baseline. Another study demonstrated that THC can be detected in the body more than 100 days after smoking.
Research suggests that this is because cannabis is stored in our fat tissues and slowly releases into the blood over time. So, in theory, it's possible to feel the effects of weed long after you've actually smoked.
"Due to high lipid solubility, there is a concentration and prolonged retention of drug in fat. A slow release from fat tissues in humans could explain the origin of different phenomena like prolonged detection of THC-COOH [what THC converts into in the body] in urine of heavy users or cannabis-related ﬂashbacks," a 2006 animal study on cannabis metabolism notes.
There's also some evidence to suggest that dieting, stress, and exercise—factors that contribute to the rapid breakdown of fat—intensify the process of releasing stored THC into the bloodstream. After hearing the story of an athlete who said he hadn't smoked cannabis in months but tested positive for a drug test after he lost weight, a researcher at the University of Australia, Jonathon Arnold, conducted a study on the phenomenon to investigate.
Arnold found that when he exposed fat cells with THC taken from rats to the stress hormone ACTH, it increased the speed of release of THC from the cells. Then he injected rats with a high dose of THC every day for 10 days. Two days after the last injection of THC, he injected a third of the rats with the stress hormone, deprived another third of food for 24 hours, and left the rest alone. He found that blood tests showed that rats that were food deprived had double the blood level of a THC metabolite compared to the rats that were left alone. The rats exposed to the stress hormone also showed an increase in the THC metabolite.
Arnold is currently working on a study that replicates these findings in humans. For this study, "cannabis withdrawing patients will undergo 24 hours of dieting, and we will measure whether this increases THC blood levels that correlates with neuropsychological impairment."
"We have recently demonstrated in THC-treated rats that dieting or stress, by promoting fat breakdown, cause THC to be released back into the blood," an explanation of his research notes. "Accordingly, it is possible that individuals who have kicked their cannabis habit for some time, who decide to go on a diet, may experience a sufficient increase in THC blood levels causing them to be 'spontaneously' intoxicated."
This could explain a lot, in my case. I've recently recommitted to a high-fat, low-carb diet, and I've also been really stressed out because life is hell. Unfortunately, there doesn't really seem to be a quick way to make the ghost highs disappear other than what my therapist keeps telling me: just wait it out.