Why Don’t We Talk About “Set and Setting” When It Comes to Cannabis?

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I spark up a joint after dinner. I’m sprawled out on the couch in my pajamas, cuddled up with my dogs and partner, and I exhale relief. Winding down, I’m absorbed by the TV. My high kicks in, and it’s impossible not to doze off. So, I go upstairs to bed. 

The next day, I smoke the rest of that joint before walking into town to run errands. But this time, I’m on edge. I feel way higher and more vulnerable than I did the night before. I stumble over my words as I speak Spanish — my second language — to others in town. I’m frustrated. Why am I experiencing two totally different highs from the same exact weed?

Tons of cannabis brands today claim their products will make you happy, horny, relaxed, creative, sleepy, or some other type of mood. In reality, however, these products yield a different high almost every time I use them. I don’t necessarily become more creative, euphoric, or calm. I actually believe these feelings come from your set and setting — not different cannabis strains. 

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Set and Setting Is Everything

Set and setting is a concept in the psychedelic community that refers to a person’s mindset (the “set”) and environment (the “setting”) heading into a trans-dimensional journey. Responsible tripping, then, is making sure your mind is in the right place and your environment is safe and comfortable. Taking magic mushrooms in a busy, public place, for instance, will likely lead to a chaotic — possibly even paranoid — trip. Taking them at home after meditating while vibing with chill music and glistening fairy lights will likely lead to a much calmer, more introspective — perhaps even blissful or transformational — experience. 

So, why don’t we talk about set and setting when it comes to cannabis? Even if the plant’s effects are less dramatic than psychedelics like LSD or mushrooms, aren’t we always going to be affected by our environment and mood going into a cannabis high? Forget indica, sativa, and hybrid. My theory is that our environment, who we’re with, and how we’re feeling are all going to determine the way our cannabis highs feel every time. 

I took this idea to the cannabis community, and my fellow pot-lovers had a lot to say, both for and against my hypothesis. For one, most agreed that setting can definitely impact a cannabis experience. “I’m overly sensitive to the environment after using cannabis,” said one anonymous consumer. “This can be enjoyable or not, depending on where I am.”

People also expressed that getting high with strangers or blazing in big groups made for negative settings.

“I always find I’m more relaxed around a small number of fellow partakers,” said Devin O’Connor, a regular cannabis consumer and pharmaceutical marketer. “Mingling with people who are not high or in large groups of people is unsettling and can sometimes drive small little paranoia circles in my brain.”

I really identified with this because it’s a mistake I’ve made a ton of times in my weed-consuming career. I think getting high will relax me at a party or in another event setting, but it ends up making me anxious and socially awkward, especially if I’m around a group of people I’ve never met.

I live abroad, so I often smoke weed in groups of people who don’t speak English. I find that Spanish is harder to speak when I’m stoned. I sometimes get into a zone where I just sit there, quitely, wishing I was home. I become afraid of screwing up the language, and often don’t follow the conversation as well as I did before getting stoned. Add strangers into the mix, and my anxiety is sure to flare up.

But getting high with my close friends is completely different, even though I also speak Spanish with them. I naturally feel more relaxed, so if I mess up the pronunciation of a word, we can just laugh about it and move on.

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The Right Dosing for Coasting

Dosage is also just as important as set and setting. For many, a low dose of cannabis can enhance social experiences — even stressful ones. A 2017 study found that edibles with 7.5mg of THC actually lowered participants’ stress levels, while 12.5mg of THC increased them. 

“If a person is feeling stressed and is already prone to anxiety [and] panic attacks, a dose of 10mg [or more] of THC will make these effects much worse,” said Dr. Nikola Djordjevic, MD, a Medical Advisor to Loud Cloud Health. “At lower doses, under 7.5mg, it can help someone relax and take the edge off, allowing them to function in social situations where they would normally feel lots of anxiety.” 

This makes sense, but the problem is that less than 7.5mg of THC is basically a dose that’s below the threshold of feeling anything for many regular cannabis consumers — including me. Tolerance then also plays a critical role in how one experiences weed. Even as a daily consumer, the first joint of the day gets me way higher than my third — and that’s way more than a new cannabis user would ever consume. 

“The first joint of the day is the peak of how high you can get for that day,” said Djordjevic. The effect, he explains, is both physiological and psychological. It’s physiological because my body is getting its first THC dose of the day, so it’s going to be the longest and strongest high of the day. But it’s also a psychological phenomena known as the “law of diminishing returns,” which basically says that the first of anything craved will give people the most psychological satisfaction — whether that’s a joint, cigarette, or hamburger. And if you keep consuming, it just won’t be as fulfilling as that initial toke, drag, or bite. 

Even with a high tolerance, however, my set or mood pre-sesh plays a key role in what kind of high I’ll have — even if I’m in an ideal tranquil environment. It doesn’t matter if I’m smoking weed to relax. If I’ve had a really busy, social day (which is stressful for me), I can get stuck anxiously ruminating on conversations or email exchanges to the point of not being able to fall asleep.

“Cannabis is a magnifier for me,” said Kate, a regular cannabis consumer who requested anonymity, to MERRY JANE. “It can make me feel more down if I’m already depressed. It can exacerbate my anxiety and fears. It can make me more hyper if I’m already excited.” 

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Heightened Perspectives

Similar to the way entheogenic substances, like psilocybin-containing mushrooms, make folks extremely sensitive and amplifies their moods, cannabis can also trigger heightened states of feeling. It can also cause emotions to bubble up that we push down to avoid. Even though cannabis doesn’t have the same intensity as entheogens, it can still cause you to see things from a new perspective, which can be extremely difficult to stomach if you’ve been lying to yourself in some capacity.

But there are also people who say cannabis changes their set by helping them reflect on and resolve negative feelings. “If I was anxious or angry, worried or bothered, cannabis helps me reflect in a constructive manner in order to gain clarity on the reasons why I was feeling that way,” said Jamie Snow, a cannabis cultivator and consumer.

Toker and artist Maura McNamara agrees and takes it a step further: “If I’m in a challenging headspace, I actually often go to cannabis seeking relief, or with a willingness to experience temporary discomfort because I know cannabis will actually help me confront, understand, and release whatever is going on.” 

I know this shift in perspective well. It’s probably why I continue to consume cannabis even when I’m not in the best headspace. But it’s impossible to know whether getting high will help me step back from my worries or increase them. It’s often a coin toss. But if I don’t have time to sit with my feelings and process them, I can just end up feeling anxious.

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Set and Setting Versus Terpenes

A lot of veteran cannabis users probably want to shout at me and say that the difference in my experience comes down to strain and type of weed. Even practitioners of psychedelic cannabis ceremonies believe eliciting an inner-cannabis journey depends on both the set and setting, and the blend of cannabis strains. Daniel McQueen, Founder of Medicinal Mindfulness and author of Psychedelic Cannabis: Breaking the Gate, told MERRY JANE that set and setting, along with strains of cannabis, are “equal factors” when it comes to predicting how a high will feel, “along with skill sets associated with mindfulness such as breathing practices and focused intent.” 

But he’s not ready to overlook cannabis strains as willingly as I am. “The terpenes in strains have different physiological effects that do affect mind states,” said McQueen. “A strong sativa is a very different experience than a strong indica, regardless of setting. But setting can also amplify or balance out strains. For example, a sativa in an anxiety provoking environment is not a fun experience, and can cause panic attacks and extreme paranoia. Whereas a CBD strain or some indicas can calm a person down in a high-anxiety environment.” 

But after more than ten years of consuming cannabis, different strains don’t consistently give me distinct experiences, like the classic “upper” sativa and “downer” indica tropes. I still buy different strains, but not for these feelings necessarily. It’s more to try different flavors rather than experiences. It’s like buying new beers or wines: You do it to experiment with new flavor sensations and pairings — not because they yield different buzzes. 

That’s why the marketing around weed has to change. Buds shouldn’t be sold on the feelings they’ll produce, nor should we compare weed to alcohol as a social lubricant. Why? Because cannabis parallels psychedelics much more in terms of how our environments and attitudes impact the way we feel after puffing weed.

Imagine a world in which set and setting tips were provided on the backs of cannabis labels instead of phony advertising. Maybe our friends and family who don’t like weed would have a better time if they knew their mindset and environment determined how they experienced their highs.

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