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Cannabis and Mental Health


CannaCritic: Highlighting important and challenging issues around cannabis.

Cannabis and Mental Health
Many believe that medical cannabis may be helpful with alleviating symptoms of mental illnesses, such as Post traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but the effects of cannabis use on the brain and mental health are not yet fully understood.

One of the greatest concerns many doctors have about cannabis is its association with mental illness. Many people with severe mental illness are heavy marijuana users. Pro-cannabis organizations usually respond to this by saying that it is the mental illness that leads these people to use cannabis as a form of self-medication, but this point is not fully supported by scientific evidence.

The most worrisome effect on the brain is an increase in the risk of developing psychosis. Symptoms of psychosis include delusions and hallucinations and a general disconnection from reality. Psychosis is the hallmark sign of schizophrenia, a severely disabling psychiatric disorder. Again, staunch supporters of cannabis will usually write this off, stating the reason for this is that these people are very sick. Their illness drives them to seek any means of treatment to feel better— cannabis is readily available and seems to work.

The correlation for cannabis use and risk of psychotic illness appears to be dose-dependent. In other words, the heavier the use, the greater the risk. The effect is thought to be due to THC, and while correlation doesn’t equal causation, the link has been repeatedly confirmed and is a major concern of the National Academy of Medicine.

Another concern is the development of hypomania in adolescents and early adults using marijuana. Hypomania is a milder form of mania which is typically seen in Bipolar Disorder, and is characterized by hyperactivity, feelings of grandiosity, increased energy, and decreased need for sleep. A study done in the UK followed 3370 participants who used cannabis at age 17, and followed them throughout the next five years. Cannabis use at least 2-3 times a week was associated with a higher risk for hypomania at ages 22-23. Again, the risk appeared to be dose-dependent, with weekly use being associated with a greater risk compared to any use at all.

Cannabis Use Disorder
Despite the medical application of cannabis and the millions of people who consume cannabis for therapeutic use, like any substance, it is susceptible to abuse. The American Medical Association cites marijuana’s large potential for misuse and abuse as their reason for opposing medical marijuana legislation. Cannabis use disorder has become more of a concern in recent years due to increasing potency of marijuana. In the nineties, the average THC content in marijuana was around 4%. By 2014, THC content had risen to 12%. Now, with the use of extracts on the rise, potency is even higher. Samples of marijuana extracts show THC content as high as 50-80% on a weight by weight basis.

Historically, cannabis use was thought to sap motivation. This has been somewhat debunked, and changes in motivation no longer seem to be a major concern. Studies show frequent cannabis users rate their motivation levels similar compared to non-users.

While there is potential for THC to have negative effects on the brain, CBD seems to have more positive effects. CBD is neuroprotective and is being explored as a potential treatment for anxiety, schizophrenia, and a range of other neurologic and psychiatric disorders.

As always, this is not medical advice and is for informational purposes only. Always seek the opinion of your doctor or psychiatrist before making any medical decisions regarding your mental health.

Related: Cannabis for Migraine: Promising Treatment or Faux Pas?




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