California is ablaze, and as wildfires scorch an arid landscape, some of those flames are burning the state’s most sacred crop.
Yes, large marijuana fields have gone up in smoke in recent months, and more such fires are likely. This raises an inevitable question: Could you get baked if you got caught downwind?
It’s not an idle ponderance. Plenty of people can attest to the reality of the contact high, and these fires produce an awful lot of smoke. But the answer, it turns out, is fairly simple: No, that fire destroying your neighbor’s cannabis isn’t going to get you high.
But why is that?
The question has risen in the wake of wildfires sweeping drought-plagued California. Some of the fires have consumed large marijuana farms, sending the plants up in thick plumes of smoke. Journalists wanted to know whether those plumes could pack a measurable contact high.
“Unfortunately, no – or fortunately, no, depending on your perspective,” says Ryan Vandrey, an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
The contact high is, of course, a very real thing. Just ask any non-toker who’s been to a Grateful Dead concert. But the key, according to Vandrey, is proximity – and ventilation.
Hang around while your buddy turns his two-seater into a hot box, and yes, odds are pretty good you’ll get a contact high. That’s because the smoke is concentrated in an enclosed space with little to no opportunity for escape.
Getting passively high is impossible in open air
Wildfires, naturally, burn out in the open. That means plenty of wind to disperse the smoke before it reaches anybody’s lungs. It really doesn’t matter how intense the fire – as long as there’s a breeze, the smoke blows away too fast to leave much of a buzz.
Marijuana smoke carries high concentrations of THC, the chemical that gets users high. But the THC in secondhand smoke is weak at best. This is why you can watch a friend smoke marijuana near an open window for hours and never get a buzz.
To get high off wildfire smoke, Vandrey says, you’d have to stand directly next to the fire and gulp as much air as possible. Even then, it probably wouldn’t work. He conducted a study in which six cannabis users smoked together in a small room with six non-smokers. None of the non-users got high.
“We evaluated the conditions under which you’d need to be to get intoxicated from secondhand smoke exposure, and it needs to be very extreme,” he says.
So extreme, in other words, that it’s unlikely any wildfire will ever do the trick. Among the other problems, there’s this: It’s a very bad idea to stand close to a wildfire, let alone to willfully inhale the smoke. Fire burns everything in its path, so you can’t be sure exactly what you’re inhaling – or whether the flames will turn on you, too.