Is Legal Marijuana Damaging Our Mental Health?

For over 37 years, I’ve worked to help recovering individuals escape the shackles of their substance use. The main culprit in the 80s and 90s was alcohol. In recent decades, our focus has shifted to addressing the deadly opioid epidemic that continues to grip our nation.

Unfortunately, we are also seeing an increase in negative marijuana experiences as it becomes progressively decriminalized. Of particular concern are the many young adults who are using more and stronger marijuana products than ever.  

Marijuana is “Less Harmful”, But Not Safe

Marijuana is much less dangerous than both opioids and alcohol. Many people can enjoy pot recreationally with no negative effects. But for some, marijuana can cause a variety of unwanted side effects, including:

• Paranoia

• Anxiety

• Depression

• Confusion

• Hallucinations

• Psychosis and Schizophrenia

• Suicidal Ideation

Bad Experiences on Pot

Many people may have latent mental health issues that may be exacerbated by using marijuana. A common time for these types of symptoms are during the formative teenage years. We are concerned about the increased acceptance and use of marijuana, especially by teens and young adults.  Marijuana is by far the most abused drug by 13-17 year olds.

Cannabis-induced psychosis is a possible side effect of excessive marijuana consumption. In those predisposed to a psychotic disorder, cannabis can act like a trigger, setting off symptoms of psychosis that are usually associated with conditions like schizophrenia.

Suicidal Ideation

There’s an increasing number of people reporting that they’ve experienced suicidal thoughts on marijuana. There are also more bereaved loved ones who blame the suicide of their family member on marijuana.  In June, the National Institute of Health released study findings that correlated marijuana use with increase suicidal ideation.

Legal Pot is Extremely Potent

The cannabis that is being legally consumed today is three to four times more potent than the marijuana Baby Boomers were smoking in the 1970s.  This has increased the unwanted side effects. 

It is hard to monitor the amount of THC being ingested, especially when the user smokes the marijuana flower, or ‘buds,’ which is the traditional method used.  Now, concentrated marijuana products like ‘wax’ allow the user to quickly ingest (or ‘dab’) an extremely strong dose of smoke, increasing the likelihood the user will overindulge.

Many users of edibles have reported the negative side effects we have discussed above, although these products are more often labeled with their THC content. The edible forms of cannabis are often packaged as tasty cookies, candies, and sugary drinks. The appetizing nature of the treats leads people to ingest more THC than they should.

Synthetic Cannabis is Unregulated and Dangerous

There have also been synthetic cannabis products, both legal and illegal, that have grown in popularity, especially in the last two decades.

Illegal synthetic cannabis products should especially be avoided,  due to their unregulated formulation, unpredictable ingredients, and unknown potential side effects.  The drug “Spice” or “K2” has caused many people to overdose, some fatally.  There have been others who have unknowingly smoked rat poison and have experienced unexplained bruising,  coughing up blood, and bleeding from the nose and gums. Some formulations, like AMB Fubinica, can cause users to go into a ‘zombie-like’ state.

Legal synthetic marijuana products have been growing in popularity as well. The most common product is Delta-8, a synthetic “CBD” product that is available in vapes, gummies and other forms. It has been the fastest-growing segment of the market for hemp chemicals for roughly the last year, but also not adequately regulated.

Being ‘California Sober’ and Risking a Relapse on Harder Drugs

I am concerned about those who have achieved recovery from a more dangerous drug (like alcohol or opiates) and are experimenting with marijuana. My concern is that they will relapse on a more dangerous drug of choice.

California Sober and Sober Lite

Our society’s changing attitudes about marijuana are underscored by Demi Lovato’s recent discussion of being “California Sober” and The Weeknd’s self-described “sober lite” lifestyle. Both approaches allow for using moderate amounts of marijuana and the occasional drink, but nothing ‘too strong.’  I applaud both entertainers for sharing their recovery and helping to reduce the stigma of addiction.  Since they are not in my care, I have no insight or ability to judge whether or not these approaches to recovery are wise or effective.

However, in the recovery community, we have traditionally forbid a recovering individual from using marijuana, and for good reason. Studies have indicated that many who are abstinent from opiates and experiment with marijuana and alcohol frequently progress to abusing the stronger substance again. And, In this day an age of “hyper-potent” fentanyl, if the person’s recovery period has reduced their tolerance to opiates, their relapse can be fatal.

Unresolved Issues

When someone in recovery chooses to use marijuana or “moderate amounts” of alcohol, I wonder if they are covering up feelings that they need to process. Is there a root problem that is being ignored? Part of successful recovery is facing and processing your life history that may have contributed to your substance abuse. For many, this happens in counseling and/or support group sessions.

Marijuana: Proceed With Caution

Everyone is unique and most people can enjoy marijuana recreationally without noticeable ill effects.

For those that do experience an unwanted side effect, the good news is that more help is available than ever before. If you know someone who has experienced negative mental health side effects, or may be struggling with a substance use disorder, then get help today.  Use the SAMHSA Helpline or accompanying directory to speak with a trained drug and alcohol counselor who will assist you in finding professional help in your area.

About the Author

Scott H. Silverman has been fighting against addiction for over 20 years. He is the CEO of Confidential Recovery, an outpatient rehab in San Diego

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