Health & Wellness

The Dark Side of Dank: Can Weed Drive You Crazy?

Does weed have the potential to cause mental illness or not?
Does weed have the potential to cause mental illness or not? / Photo by Christian Diokno

One of the most knock-down, drag-out arguments against legal marijuana in America is the continued decline of mental health. 

Some of the cannabis movement's biggest haters have, at one time or another, argued that once more of the population turns into stoners, mental health issues ranging from depression to schizophrenia will be exacerbated. 

They believe this will subsequently turn the United States into the Land of the Crazy. Not that we need any help with that.

Some people have indeed gone off the deep end after consuming marijuana. The occasional reports from the New York Times to the Anywhere, USA Gazette appear, stories where enthusiastic cannabis lovers have accidentally entered the realm of the temporarily insane after consuming too much THC

And perhaps you’ve seen a few tales, as well, concerning those who went cuckoo on cannabis after years of heavy use. It would seem the proverbial cheese can, in fact, slide off the cracker of those pot-loving people who fly a little too close to the sun on their quest for the eternal buzz.

Even national cannabis advocates admit there's some truth to the claims.

 "Scientists have known for decades that THC is psychoactive and that peak blood levels of its primary active metabolite 11-OH-THC are occasionally associated with temporary feelings of dysphoria, paranoia, and even panic attacks," Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, wrote in a 2007 piece addressing a study from London's Kings College. 

"Fears that chronic cannabis use may be positively associated with various mental illnesses, particularly schizophrenia, are also long-standing."

Hampered research and family trees

Although a lot of these fears are from decades of stigma-driven misinformation and a testament to precise dosing versus macro dosing, the question remains.

The prospect of losing one's mind, for obvious reasons, has a lot of novices of the nug a little nervous that catching a case of the crazies could happen to them or someone they love. 

Most of us have enough problems from day to day without being carted off to the laughing factory to spend the rest of our days eating lousy cafeteria food on the third floor. 

Unfortunately, the research over the impact of marijuana on mental health isn't cut and dry. Some medical professionals believe cannabis can undoubtedly lead to mental health problems. Some say the threshold for a depreciating mind depends on the person, frequency of use, family history and more.

Ryan Vandrey, Ph.D., professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, subscribes to the latter. 

He told The Bluntness that developing mental health issues is a potential risk of cannabis use, yet he admits some nuances can't be discounted. Fortunately, most of the risk, he tells us, is temporary mainly, and the consumption method and THC concentration make a difference. 

"Both acute and chronic cannabis use can contribute to negative changes in mental health," he said. "Most of these relate to use of cannabis products that contain high doses of THC. These are typically time-limited changes and wear off within a few hours, depending on the dose that was taken, and the route of administration used (oral dosing tends to last longer than inhalation)," he explained.  

Someone who gets too high might experience various unpleasant side effects (anxiety, paranoia, panic, nausea/vomiting, and/or hallucinations) after consuming high doses of THC. These side effects might even make a person feel like they are losing their shit completely. 

One Toke Over the Line

Some of the cannabis advocates we talked to admit that they've been concerned on occasion that their mental health was teetering on a very fine line between a bit of anxiety and stark raving mad.

"Did my first dab at Hash Bash in 2014 and hallucinated," a Michigan cannabis consumer told The Bluntness. "Scary experience, learned that day that there is such a thing as ‘too high.’"

The threat of losing one's mind from weed on a more permanent basis is more closely linked to long-term use and those with a history of mental health disorders. 

"Chronic use of high THC-containing cannabis has been associated with an increased risk for schizophrenia, anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders," Vandrey declared. 

"The risk of this is greater among individuals with other risk factors for these conditions, and continued heavy use of high THC cannabis after diagnosis of these health conditions is typically associated with worse symptoms of each disorder over time, especially in instances where cannabis is used for coping oriented reasons."

Can weed cause mental illness?

So, let's get down to the nitty-gritty. Does weed actually make people crazy? 

We asked Vandrey if he's ever heard of anyone "going insane" from cannabis use, developing schizophrenia, or other severe, debilitating mental health conditions. 

Although Vandrey maintains a strong association between heavy cannabis use and early onset of schizophrenia, mainly use that starts early in adolescence, the jury is still out on whether there is a direct connection. 

As it stands, it doesn't appear that the padded cells of state hospitals across the country are being filled with new or long-time cannabis users who've caught a wicked case of mad marijuana disease.

"Right now, it is a bit unclear whether cannabis use directly ‘causes’ the onset of schizophrenia, but there is a clear relation between cannabis use and psychosis such that those with schizophrenia are much more likely to use cannabis than those who do not have the disorder, and individuals who use cannabis are more likely to develop schizophrenia than those who do not," Vandrey explained.

So, does this mean people who use marijuana daily for decades are potentially just a hit away from licking windows and beating their heads against the wall? Um, probably not. 

Most of the madness, Vandrey went on to say, is time-limited psychotic episodes and are relatively uncommon. Considering the millions of cannabis consumers around the globe, there are only a few people here and there gripping their sanity for dear life in an ultra-stoned state. Fortunately, the odds are in your favor.

Still, no one can ensure that a little recreational use won't take a nasty turn down the line.

"There is no way to guarantee the mental health impact of cannabis use for any one person, one way or another," Vandrey said. "The longer you wait in life to start using cannabis, the better. Initiation of cannabis use in adolescence, in particular, is associated with negative health outcomes."

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