As the drive to legalize marijuana becomes more successful worldwide, both for medical and recreational use, it’s important to remember that it is not a risk-free drug. Psychotic episodes are associated with usage, and now that there is a highly potent version of the drug available, the dangers have risen, particularly for youth.
One student’s descent into psychosis
One Canadian university student called Jean had his life altered by his encounter with marijuana. After using it daily, he began to hear positive voices in his ear that turned abusive. One year later, he actually thought that he was being possessed by the devil. He hadn’t made a connection between the drug and the voices. But when a friend took him to a mental health emergency center, he discovered that he had been suffering from drug-induced psychosis. Jean told the Star that he was shocked by this because the popular culture only paints marijuana use in a cool light, never mentioning its dark side.
Jean successfully overcame his issues with anti-psychotic medication, meditation and positive thinking strategies. However, he still feels the need to smoke.
“Skunk” appears to trigger psychosis
While it’s not clear exactly who is prone to drug-related psychosis, the new form of cannabis called “skunk” is a particular danger to its users, both young people and adults. In 2008, skunk confiscated from street users in Great Britain had three times more THC, the high-inducing chemical, than that of confiscated hash resin. The Daily Mail says the current version of skunk is four times more potent than older versions of cannabis. A 2015 official report blamed skunk for as much as 25% of recent cases of psychosis in Britain and stated that cannabis/skunk users are three times more likely to suffer psychosis than non-users.
Because hash contains a high amount of cannabidiol and skunk has almost none, this makes the latter even more dangerous – cannabidiol is thought to be anti-psychotic, and so it can counteract THC to a degree. This explains why the official report showed that daily users of hash were not more vulnerable to psychosis than people who were drug free.
According to the Star, teens are at a greater risk because those who start using the drug before 16 have a higher chance of experiencing psychotic episodes. This may be linked to brain development and growth, which doesn’t stop until age 25.
Cannabis abuse widespread among British teens
The Guardian notes that most users don’t need to be concerned about psychosis, but a reduction in heavy use of the drug could result in a drop of between 8% and 24% in psychotic patients at treatment centers. At the same time, cannabis is the most popular illegal drug in Britain, where over 13,000 teens were being treated in 2015 for abusing it. And since skunk (actually many dozen forms of cannabis with high-percentage THC) started to dominate between 1999 and 2008, teens now are very likely to be using it.
While occasional users aren’t at risk, daily users like Jean are the ones who could experience psychotic symptoms. Since there is still not a definite, established cause between the drug and psychosis, the level of public education and concern is not high yet. But Professor Sir Robin Murray of King’s College thinks there is enough evidence about the dangers of high-potency cannabis, and the general public needs to be informed and warned.
Unknown dangers and mental health risks
Another important issue is raised in the Guardian article by university lecturer Ian Hamilton. The research studies that determined public policy on cannabis were based on the pre-skunk version of the drug, so these conclusions are no longer applicable. He believes that a group experiment is essentially being conducted on people to see how they respond to skunk, without knowledge of short-term or long-term dangers.
The Star reveals that a German-published review of 116 studies on marijuana use stated that the drug is also connected to panic attacks, anxiety and a reduction in cognitive ability, so there is more at issue here than just psychosis. Also, those who suffer drug-related psychosis may develop schizophrenia, as the Guardian writes. Heavy cannabis users have a greater likelihood of getting this disorder.
Public awareness must rise
So where does all this information leave us? Since people cannot know their genetic predisposition towards addiction or mental disorders, usage of skunk carries a significant but unmeasurable risk for anyone. Those who want to dabble in this drug are much better off with hashish and less potent forms. The key, as always, is moderation and sensible behavior. You can’t expect most people, especially teens, to avoid drugs in this century. But you can expect them to make enlightened decisions on their own behalf when they have ample evidence. More public and youth education is surely needed to counteract the view of cannabis as a fun, harmless and cool substance – because skunk is virtually another drug altogether, nothing like its predecessors or cousins, and it needs a radically different approach.