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Cannabis can have a lingering effect on people – even long after consumption. For daily consumers of cannabis, getting a “second high” is very common, especially for individuals who exercise or have above average BMI levels. The effects are not as strong; yet stimulation is still very noticeable.

If you’ve ever experienced something similar to the above, you’re not alone. Personally, I feel the onslaught of a “phantom high” during the first 15 minutes of my afternoon run, even though I don’t consume cannabis before exercising or during the day. It usually goes away about 30 minutes in, after getting drenched in sweat.

Storing THC in Fat

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To understand what’s going on when a “second high” occurs, it is important to focus on how cannabis is stored in the body. THC, the main psychoactive compound in the plant that is largely responsible for this effect, is fat soluble. This means that the cannabinoid is stored in fatty tissues, where it accumulates. According to a 2014 study published by the British Pharmacological Society, when THC leaves one’s body, it is diffused from fat cells to the blood in a passive manner.

However, increased fat burning, which can be triggered by exercise or excessive sweating, can cause the release of THC to occur at a rapid rate or at higher concentrations. Interestingly, the intensity of “phantom highs” is dependent on the amount and frequency of consumption. So the more cannabis you put in your body, the higher the chances of randomly reigniting a previous experience with the herb.

Exercise and Metabolism

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As mentioned earlier, the effects of traces of THC making its way back into the bloodstream is very light and should not interfere with daily living. It only becomes an issue for people who are regularly tested for cannabis, such as professionals and athletes. Focusing on the latter, elite athletes who are subject to testing by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) aren’t prohibited from consuming cannabis. Instead, they must adhere to a specific THC limit of 150 nanograms per milliliter of blood. Furthermore, athletes are banned from competing under the influence of cannabis.

The WADA threshold for THC is controversial because exercise, an activity that increases one’s metabolism and fat-burning capabilities, can spike the body’s THC levels (in cannabis consumers). A study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence establishes that THC content increases by an average of 15 percent in individuals after intense exercise. This surge could be enough to cause an athlete to test positive on a test – even if he or she did not consume cannabis recently.

For example, an athlete who consumed above average amounts of cannabis during off-season could test positive during a test at the start of the season. This is a plausible scenario if he or she wasn’t exercising or sweating a lot during the break. When training commences, exercise could cause fat cells to metabolize rapidly, pushing THC back into the blood.

“Unlike alcohol, there is no easy or relatively reliable way to predict how quickly THC will be metabolized or no longer be detectable in blood or urine,” explained Alan Shackelford, a former clinical and research fellow at Harvard Medical School.

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