There is a lack of research investigating the long and short term effects of marijuana on physical and mental health.
There are a number of reasons for the lack of research. First, marijuana has not been approved by the FDA. Second, because marijuana has been classified as a drug, residing in the same class as heroin, researchers who do want to study it need a special license.
In an attempt to find out what we do know, the National Academy of Medicine brought together several experts to analyze the research we have available on cannabis, the findings were disappointing, however, as they revealed all that we do not know — that the drug remains to be much of a mystery.
What we do know
Surveys have found that those who have (on their own) decided to use marijuana are at an increased risk to develop a psychotic disorder. For example, a longitudinal study (a study which follows the same people over an extended length of time) found that using marijuana during adolescence increased the risk of developing a psychotic disorder. Additionally, many studies show a link between marijuana and memory loss.
However, in order to understand what this finding means, we need to consider the stress-diathesis model.
Marijuana, psychosis and the stress-diathesis model
The stress-diathesis model proposes that if a person has a genetic vulnerability to developing an illness, the likelihood of developing the disorder increases with exposure to environmental stress. Environmental stress can be maltreatment during childhood (neglect, physical, emotional, sexual abuse) stress outside the home (poverty, dangerous environment) toxins, or in the context of this article, marijuana use.
If a person is vulnerable to developing psychosis, using marijuana greatly increases the risk. One example of vulnerability is genetic inheritance. This means if you have a family member with schizophrenia or any type of psychotic disorder or episodes, you already have an increased risk of developing psychosis due to the fact that you are related to this person.
Given what we know about the potential for psychosis with the use of marijuana, it is strongly advised not to try it even once if you have any type of psychosis in your family.
Legality does not mean safety
It is important to remember that legality does not mean safety for all people. Tobacco is legal but we know it is addictive and causes illness and death for many people. Alcohol is also addictive and dangerous if not used responsibly. Just because marijuana is legal in some states and being used for medical purposes does not mean it is safe for everybody.
The marijuana we have today is much more potent than what we had circulating the 1970’s. To put this in perspective, in the 1970s the average levels of THC in street marijuana was <1%. By 2012, the average THC levels were found to be around >12%. Marijuana is an addictive substance and many people find that once they start using it as a “medicine” to treat symptoms of depression/anxiety or any other maladies, symptoms are likely to worsen once they reduce or stop use.
Edible marijuana is particularly risky for hallucinogenic properties and may have more psychoactive effects compared to smoking. Using marijuana for Cancer, Glaucoma, or appetite disturbance may have good effects for some, especially if it is clean and organic. But be aware, the labeling in most medical marijuana shops may be unreliable.
Natural alternatives for marajuana and medical marajuana
There are healthy and safe natural alternatives for medical marijuana. I have worked with a number of people with Autistic Spectrum Disorders or Anxiety who at first, experienced some relief, but over time their symptoms worsened, they became agoraphobic (fear of having fearful feelings) depressed and unmotivated to pursue work or school, apparently due to marijuana use. A holistic approach to mental health issues can provide safer and healthier alternatives that will help you more into a more rewarding and fulfilled life.
Some individuals use Cannabis as a Vasodialator thinking that this is their only choice. However, there are several non-addictive alternatives available such as Chinese Medical Herbs or Ayurvedic Herbs prescribed by a Licensed Acupuncturist, Naturopathic, or Integrative Medical doctors such as James Greenblatt MD or Kelly Brogan MD.
You may also find appropriate resources through Integrative Medicine for Mental Health (IMMH).
This artical is not intended for diagnosis or treatment. These are viewpoints to consider and check out with your physician
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Eric Buck MA MFT CAMF is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist providing a wide range of psychotherapy and consultation services.