By Maggie McCutcheon
It wasn’t until 1910, following the Mexican Revolution, that recreational marijuana use came to the US. Then associated with Mexican immigrants, domestic xenophobia helped cast a shadow and soon after that propaganda connecting the use of the drug and the heinous crimes blamed on the new diaspora started to appear. Resentment intensified during the Great Depression and looking for something or someone to blame; marijuana was criminalized in 29 states by 1931. And though, by 1943, American farmers had harvested a full 375,000 acres of hemp to support the war with parachutes, rope, and other products, the 1956 Narcotics Control Act made it so a first-offense marijuana possession charge came with a mandatory 2-10 year sentencing and a maximum fine of $20,000. It seems Mary Jane has had to battle for the last century to be given the credence she so deserves.
Though most people acknowledge potheads aren’t necessarily criminals, losers, and sex fiends, a single claim has lingered like smoke in a crowded room ever since: marijuana can make you crazy. Studies on studies have been published linking cannabis use with Schizophrenia Spectrum Disorders and other forms of psychosis. But few studies manage to rule out phenomena like self-medication or to discriminate between causation and correlation.
So, what is psychosis exactly? To most people, it’s a terrifying word conjuring images of straight jackets and padded walls. In layman’s terms, to be psychotic is to be out of touch with the real world. First psychotic episodes and psychotic disorders — like Schizophrenia — are most likely to surface when an individual is in their late teens to their early twenties. A psychotic episode is characterized by symptoms like a change in thinking patterns, feelings, mood, perception, behavior, and unusual or false beliefs. They may not be able to follow a train of thought or conversation; they may develop paranoid delusions. Hallucinations are possible as are intense mood swings and inappropriate emotional responses. There could be a risk of self-harm or suicidal thought patterns.
In 2015, a study at Yale School of Medicine connected the consumption of THC to an increase of “neural noise.” Basically, the regular way of functioning and processing information is disrupted; thought patterns get lost in the confusion of other random thoughts circling the brain. If the effects of marijuana sound kind of similar to some of the less serious symptoms of psychosis, it’s because it can create psychomimetic experiences or experiences that mimic those of psychosis. According to this study, the more neural noise a consumer is experiencing, the more information is being distorted in the individual’s brain and the more psychomimetic symptoms they can experience. It’s not psychosis people are experiencing but psychotic-like states of being. Just because cannabis use doesn’t cause psychosis, it doesn’t mean everyone is going to interact well with it or even enjoy its consumption.
The concern, of course, is for groups of individuals who have a family history of Schizophrenia. A 2008 study published in World Psychiatry made a connection between smoking weed and an increased risk of “schizophreniform psychoses.” Though the authors repeat that “the relationships did not seem to be explained by cannabis being used to self-medicate symptoms of psychosis,” they do acknowledge it could be a viable explanation.
People with oncoming psychotic issues are more likely to turn to marijuana to assuage their feelings — emotional and psychosomatic. Marijuana is a known analgesic: it’s soothing to somatic symptoms like headaches or muscle pain. It helps with depression: certain strains can have an uplifting, euphoric effect on their consumers. People commonly use it to self-medicate. And if marijuana use—recreational or to self-medicate—increases neural noise, it could follow then that individuals vulnerable to psychosis might experience higher levels of noise and this way more psychomimetic symptoms.
So, should you be using cannabis to self-treat the little bumps and scrapes that are starting to occur with more and more frequency as you’re hurtling towards a significant psychotic episode, it would be possible for a concerned parent or confused teen to quickly make a correlation between the two and mistake it for causation.
The British Medical Journal published a study in 2011 linking a high childhood IQ to future illicit drug use, particularly among women. And there are established links between a high IQ and the onset of Bipolar Disorder and with elevated IQs and family histories of psychiatric issues. So it would seem it’s a more complicated equation than people have assumed in the past.
To make any kind of landmark discovery, longitudinal studies are required. A longitudinal study is when the same group of individuals is tested again and again over extended spans of time. In April of 2016, one such study surfaced from JAMA Psychiatry. It found, by analyzing roughly 35,000 respondents over the age of 18 every three years, there was no causation between marijuana use and mood or anxiety disorders. It did, however, conclude there was a correlation between marijuana use and other substance abuse.
Often known (and mocked) as the “gateway drug,” these findings fall right in line with wagging fingers everywhere. But are we not exactly where we started? This class of smart self-medicators are more likely to experience less comfortable psychiatric conditions and are also more likely to dabble in the pharmacopeia. Alcohol particularly is almost universally accepted as therapeutic. What’s that bit about drowning your sorrows?
There is something on the market to be concerned about, however. Synthetic cannabinoids can be fatally toxic. The list of symptoms sounds like a roll call from old pot propaganda: agitation, chest pain, tremor, paranoia, vomiting, irregular heart beats, hallucination, seizures, acute psychosis, brain damage, and even death. Chemically it may look like its natural counterpart, but synthetic cannabinoids are a far cry from actual marijuana.
The substance binds and acts on the brain more efficiently. A known toxicologist, Jeff Lapoint MD, explained how this works in a Forbes article: “I drink a cup of water, and I’m fine. I drink gallons of it in some college contest, and I could have a seizure and die. Synthetic cannabinoids are tailor-made to hit cannabinoid receptors—and hit it hard.” This is additionally worsened by the fact that cannabinoid receptors are everywhere in the brain. Further, as our bodies metabolize drugs in the system, they deactivate. But this doesn’t really happen with synthetics.
Every once in a while someone will ‘green out’ and experience adverse effects from consuming natural cannabis, but it’s an entirely different story. An overdose of synthetic cannabinoids looks more like amphetamine use: people become agitated, angry, sweaty. Because there is no quality or dosage control on the off-market products, it’s like the fentanyl of cannabinoids—and all the more reason to legalize cannabis.