Marijuana and Mental Health


There is a persistent attempt by public health and drug policy organizations to imply that cannabis use can cause a range of mental health issues, from depression and anxiety to more serious conditions such as schizophrenia and brain damage.

These claims are largely unsubstantiated, and the way the media tends to trumpet their dubious conclusions can be likened to a modern-day “Reefer Madness” propaganda campaign, aimed at instilling fear in parents and the general public.

Studies have repeatedly shown that there are correlations between marijuana use and mental illness, but no causal link has ever been established. Researchers have never been able to show conclusively whether smokers are more likely to have psychiatric disorders, or whether people already suffering from psychiatric disorders are more likely to smoke.

It’s like the age old question, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”

Many of these studies fail to take important considerations into account. For instance, the use of other drugs besides cannabis, which often goes unreported and undetected, might have aggravated symptoms and skewed results. Also, patients using marijuana medicinally often report higher instance of depression – but is that depression caused by cannabis, or by the patients struggle with a serious illness? Then there are the environmental variables of “set and setting” that are not monitored or controlled in voluntary surveys.

A thorough study by the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College in London indicates that there may be a genetic link between marijuana and schizophrenia. That is to say, that the same genes that put someone at risk for the disease might also predispose them toward the use of cannabis and other drugs. The same could be true for depression, anxiety, and other more common mental health conditions. The genetic and environmental factors that cause them might also increase the likelihood that a person might seek out marijuana. Not to mention the tendency of depressed and mentally ill individuals to self-medicate.

Research shows that while THC can trigger or aggravate psychotic episodes in predisposed people, the other active ingredient in marijuana, cannabidiol (CBD), actually has the opposite effect. CBD has been shown to have powerful anti-psychotic properties, and the two ingredients as they occur naturally in the plant may balance each other out.

Perhaps the most telling statistic of all is this: although marijuana use has increased dramatically through the years, the rate of schizophrenia remains the same.

But even as one group of doctors and researchers is trying to demonize marijuana for it’s effects on mental health, there are other doctors who are already using it to treat their patients.

Like Frank Lucido, a family doctor from Berkeley, CA. He published a report based on seven years of implementing medicinal marijuana in his general practice clinic. Although a vast majority of his patients were treated for chronic pain, he treated dozens of people for psychiatric conditions, including depression, anxiety, insomnia, PTSD, bi-polar, attention deficit and obsessive-compulsive disorder. His conclusion:

With appropriate use of medical cannabis, many of these patients have been able to reduce or eliminate the use of opiates and other pain pills, ritalin, tranquilizers, sleeping pills, anti-depressants and other psychiatric medicines…

Dr. Jeremy Spiegel is a psychiatrist in Portland, Maine, and an outspoken supporter of medicinal marijuana for psychiatric patients. His article in Psychology Today cites examples from his own practice and boldly states that “cutting edge research suggests that a joint a day might keep your psychiatrist away.”

The research he references is interesting indeed.

A 2005 study published in Addictive Behaviors concluded that casual marijuana smokers actually report less depressive symptoms than non-users, on average.

A study at University College London found that CBD is an effective aid to “extinction learning,” which is really “unlearning” our programmed anxiety and fear responses. This shows the plant’s tremendous potential to treat sufferers of anxiety and panic disorders.

Another study published in the Journal of Neuroscience shows that THC is effective at reducing the brain’s reactivity to social threat signals (particularly in the amygdala), without affecting activity in the primary visual and motor cortex.

This leads me to speculate on the possible implications of the much-cited Gilman study earlier this year, which found abnormalities in the amygdala of marijuana smokers… Perhaps this “abnormality” simply results in calmer, more rational behavior, and less emotional reaction to perceived threat?

Just a thought.

In addition to reports from doctors and researchers, there are volumes upon volumes of testimony from patients themselves. In writing this article, I spent hours reading what cannabis users have to say about their results. People have been helped and healed of countless conditions, mental, emotional, and physical.

It seems to me, that especially when discussing people’s state of mind, their mood and emotional well-being, it’s important to listen to what they have to say for themselves. But this immense body of anecdotal evidence is mostly ignored, or written off by those in favor of prohibition.

Granted, all these studies and testimonies still don’t prove that marijuana is safe and beneficial for everyone. Indeed there is enough evidence to indicate that it can be harmful to a small percentage of people who are predisposed to mental illness.

But is that any worse, or any different than the legal pharmaceuticals that are handed out to patients every day? All psychiatric drugs have serious risks and dangerous side effects – much worse than those associated with marijuana – and yet they are prescribed to millions.

Even assuming that a small percentage of the population is at risk, that calls for regulation, not prohibition. Classifying cannabis as an illegal narcotic only drives it underground, making it impossible to keep it out of the hands of minors and at-risk individuals. It also prevents adequate study, so that we can properly educate medical professionals and the general public, and it prevents millions of people from getting the relief they could have from this powerful medicine.

Taken altogether the evidence, at the very least, sheds doubt on the claims that cannabis has dangerous effects upon mental health. Quite the opposite, the latest science indicates a tremendous potential for psychiatric use, and a promising new frontier for medicinal marijuana.

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Written by Ben Neal

Ben Neal is a freelance writer from Kansas City, MO. You can read more of his wordplay by connecting with him on Facebook and following him on Twitter.

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