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Can smoking weed once have a lasting effect?

“We’ve been told that weed can cause mental health problems but I’m guessing that this is only if you use the drug a lot. Can smoking weed once have any lasting effects?”

Cannabis, also known as marijuana, weed, pot, grass, ganga, buds or mull, continues to be popular across the world. It’s a drug that sets challenges for educators like myself because there are no simple answers to most questions that people have. This is one of those questions …

No matter what the drug, it will affect different people in different ways. In addition, each time the drug is used the person may have a very different experience. Some people have an unpleasant or frightening experience the first time they try cannabis and, as a result, they choose never to use it again.

Several years ago I met a young woman who had smoked cannabis once and was hospitalised as a result. Almost immediately after smoking the drug she became incredibly anxious and had her first ever panic attack. She was convinced she was going to die and threatened to hurt those around her if they didn’t take her to a hospital. She was eventually physically restrained and taken by ambulance to the emergency department. She had still not fully recovered when I met her and was seeing a psychiatrist who was trying to help her cope with the anxiety and panic attacks she continued to experience as a result of what happened that night.

Was this a typical experience? Absolutely not. As I said, some people don’t enjoy the feeling they get the first time they use cannabis but this young woman’s extreme response is highly unusual. It could have been due to a pre-existing condition that was ‘unlocked’ when she smoked the drug, or it could have been caused by her not feeling totally comfortable about using cannabis resulting in the experience becoming too overwhelming when she started to feel stoned.

We know that the risks of potential problems increase the more often you use cannabis, particularly when you’re young and your brain is not fully developed. Although it is not the norm, there are others who may only use the drug occasionally who develop major mental health problems. But there are others who’ll use cannabis for a period of time, get bored with it, decide to never use it again and never experience problems. Of course, you also need to remember that cannabis is an illegal drug is most parts of the world. If you get caught with it in your possession there are very real consequences, even if it is your first experience with the drug.

Everyone is different and that’s what makes answering this question so difficult. Is it likely that using cannabis once will cause a lasting effect? On the evidence we have, you’d most probably have to say you’d have to be unlucky for this to happen as it appears to be regular use that causes the greatest problems. That said, a one-time use can lead to a terrifying experience, usually around anxiety or a panic attack, and it may be something you never forget!

First published: July 2016
Reviewed and updated: July 2023

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