People really like marijuana. It’s one of the most popular recreational drugs in the world and has an estimated 55 million monthly users in the U.S. alone—a number that far outpaces the number of cigarette smokers (about 34 million) and is second only to alcohol consumption (a whopping 139 million). Even those who don’t partake themselves think of the drug favorably. Over 60% of Americans are staunchly in favor of marijuana’s legalization for recreational or medical use, a sentiment that has more than doubled from previous years and bypasses age, race, and even political divisions.
Weed: It’s Not As Harmless As You Might Think
One of the biggest factors contributing to this surprisingly positive view of what’s technically an illegal drug is marijuana’s reputation of being harmless. In the latest data from SAMHSA’s annual survey, marijuana consistently holds the lowest perceived risk of other popular drugs. This is a trend that has persisted over the past five years and amongst all age groups.
As weed has gone more mainstream (think: media and pop culture, edibles, and cannabis cookbooks) so has awareness of marijuana’s potential medical benefits. Its legitimate uses has led to many people incorrectly assuming that marijuana can’t be dangerous. Take, for instance, fentanyl, the notorious opioid that can be up to 50 times more powerful than heroin. It was initially created for very legitimate medical purposes. Now? It’s one of the driving factors of the country’s spiking overdose death rate. As is the case with any drug, legal or otherwise, even marijuana can have adverse effects.
Cannabis’ Effects On Mental Health
One of the seldom talked about complications of smoking marijuana is how it can have negative effects on the brain. Rather than the relaxing, euphoric, or heightened sensory experience that marijuana is associated with, it’s actually quite common for weed smokers to feel schizophrenic while high. Characterized by anxiety, paranoia, and a racing heartbeat, this is what’s colloquially known as a “bad high”.
Research has found that 15% of marijuana users experience these psychotic-like symptoms, which can also include depersonalization, hallucinations, delusions, panic attacks, insomnia, or a sudden and deep fear of dying. Sometimes, these effects can be long-lasting and persist well after the weed is out of your system. The result is long-term dysfunction in how our brain communicates with our bodies and itself: mental illness.
How Can Cannabis Induce Mental Illness?
Such instances where THC consumption results in long-term psychotic symptoms are known as cannabinoid-induced psychosis. This is a rare but serious form of mental illness that is similar but distinct to that of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
∆9-THC (∆9-tetrahydrocannabinol) is the psychoactive agent and what gives marijuana its mind-altering capabilities. Unlike other drugs that pass through the body relatively quickly, THC has a long half-life and can take up to 30 days to fully be eliminated from the body. Further, this compound can be absorbed in fatty tissues for several days before reaching peak concentrations. When this occurs, the THC is released back into the body and brain and results in cognitive, sensory, and motor-function impairment.
Additionally, studies have shown that long-term marijuana users have lower dopamine activity, a neurotransmitter that is tied to several mental illnesses including schizophrenia.
Who’s At Risk?
It is not yet known whether weed itself can cause mental illness (although studies have shown that it can induce these side effects in a healthy and high-functioning person who otherwise would not have experienced those symptoms), but it has been found to be a trigger for psychotic symptoms in individuals who either:
- Already have a mental illness
- Have a predisposition for a psychotic disease such as a family history of mental illness.
However, it’s not always that simple. There are several known cases where individuals with no prior mental illness or family history of mental illness, suddenly presented with psychotic symptoms. While prolonged and chronic marijuana use certainly increases the risks, there is no set amount of how much marijuana will cause a psychotic breakdown.
Studies have shown that as the frequency of use increases, so does the risk of developing a psychotic disorder. The simple solution to preventing cannabinoid-induced psychosis is to abstain from marijuana. Since this symptom is most commonly prevalent in individuals who already are likely to experience some degree of mental disorder, if you experience any psychotic symptoms of a “bad high” after smoking weed, you would likely benefit from dual diagnosis treatment.