You’ve probably heard the term “secondhand high” before. Also known as a contact high, the concept has been a popular, albeit tired, plot point in films and TV. You may have even been to a smoky concert hall or two and walked away feeling a little lightheaded, even if you never took a single puff yourself. So, can you really get a secondhand high from being around people smoking? Is it a really a thing?
According to a 2015 Johns Hopkins University study, — yes and no.
Researchers started with a dozen people — six cannabis smokers and six non-smokers. In the first experiment, all 12 subjects spent an hour together in a small unventilated room, during which time each smoker went through 10 high-potency joints. Afterward, the non-smokers reported feeling “pleasant,” more tired, and less alert. And sure enough, their blood and urine tests came up positive for THC.
The second experiment repeated the scenario, but this time in a room with ventilation. The non-smokers in this experiment later said they felt “hungry,” but none of them tested positive for THC.
Researchers concluded that being exposed to marijuana smoke under “extreme conditions” can indeed give non-smokers a contact buzz. Outside of that very limited scope, though, any secondhand effects you might feel around cannabis smoke are likely to be the result of the power of suggestion, what scientists call a “placebo effect.” You can’t get high from catching a whiff of someone’s joint while walking down the street, but you will feel some effects if you are sitting in an unventilated room, also known as hotboxing.
In other words, if you spend a lot of time in a small room with the windows sealed shut while your friends are smoking, your blood and urine might test positive for THC and you might feel its effects. But it is more likely that your “contact high” is all in your head, so to speak.
Is THC active after cannabis smoke is exhaled?
If we pull a page from the 1999 British Journal of Anesthesia, we’d learn that the lungs absorb most of the THC when cannabis smoke is inhaled. Researchers have discovered that approximately fifty percent (50%) of THC and other cannabinoids present in cannabis cigarettes, or joints, make it into the smoke and are inhaled.
“Experienced smokers, who inhale deeply and hold the smoke in the lungs … virtually all of the cannabinoids present in the mainstream smoke enter the bloodstream,” leaving very little THC in the surrounding air to be inhaled and absorbed by a passive inhaler.
When considered together, this and the 2015 Johns Hopkins study show you would need to be in an unventilated room for a very long time to feel anything. More than likely, the cannabinoids will have disappeared into the air before even reaching you.
Are there any other studies on secondhand highs?
Studies performed during the mid- to late-1980s investigating the mystery of the secondhand high determined that the acute toxicity of cannabis was extremely low, therefore making it difficult to feel the effects without direct inhalation. While their conclusions may still apply, cannabis has changed over the years and the study may need reexamination.
The THC potency of cannabis has increased as cultivation techniques and technologies have advanced. In the early 1970s, the average joint contained roughly 10 mg of THC, whereas a modern joint may contain 60-150 mg of THC or more. The THC potency in today’s marijuana flowers is far greater than the nugs from the 1960s and 1970s, therefore much of the early research produced from studying secondhand high may be outdated.
So, the next time you’re walking down the street and you catch the scent of marijuana, don’t worry, you won’t experience a secondhand high. As the 2015 research study shows, in order to catch a secondhand high, you’d have to be under extreme conditions and lack proper ventilation. To enjoy a smooth smoking session without affecting your neighbors, cannabis users should spark up in well-ventilated areas to ensure passive inhalers will not feel the effects of the smoke.