Marijuana and mental health

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Thursday the 18th of July, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up, marijuana use and mental health.

Last month, Illinois became the 11th state to legalize marijuana for recreational use. State officials have until January 1st to come up with a set of rules for cannabis growers and dispensaries. One aspect they’ll regulate is the potency of THC—tetra hydro cannabinol. That’s the chemical in marijuana that gets users high. And the marijuana on the market today has a lot more THC than it used to. The average amount of THC in marijuana has doubled since the 1990s.

REICHARD: Problems associated with habitual marijuana use are also on the rise. Psychiatrists are particularly worried about increasing mental health problems. WORLD Radio’s Leigh Jones has the story.

LEIGH JONES, REPORTER: Psychiatrist Karl Benzio has treated many patients struggling with marijuana addiction. They often suffer from side effects typically associated with the drug: difficulty concentrating, apathy, and that compulsion for the next high.

But some of his patients have experienced far more serious problems. The case of one young man stands out above the rest.

BENZIO: A teenager, some social anxiety but really good at video games. 

He began smoking marijuana to help with the anxiety. As his drug use increased, so did the time he spent playing video games. He became increasingly isolated from his family.

BENZIO: And he starts to get psychotic and starts to hallucinate and he starts to hallucinate within the context of the video game.

A violent video game. And within the hallucination he was convinced he had to do something terrible to advance to the next level.

BENZIO: And as he was hearing voices several days later, he then, in the kitchen, grabbed a knife and tried to cut his mother’s throat.

She survived but suffered significant injuries. And her son ended up in rehab under Benzio’s care.

BENZIO: And once he got off everything, he was very remorseful. He was back to reality. He was able to think much more clearly and he couldn’t believe that, you know, his reality was so disrupted.

Advocates for marijuana legalization dispute claims that the drug causes mental health problems. The Drug Policy Alliance notes rates of psychiatric problems like schizophrenia have not increased even as marijuana use has become more prevalent.

But scientific evidence for a link between the two is growing. Earlier this year, a team of European researchers found daily users of high-potency marijuana were five times more likely to have a psychotic disorder. Previous studies showed a similar association between marijuana use and schizophrenia, paranoia, and hallucinations.

Most people have no idea marijuana can cause such serious problems because it never used to.

BENZIO: The plant as it was used a number of years ago, um, was used as a mixture of the plant. And the buds are the thing that are the most potent. But a long time ago in the 60s, 70s, there was the whole plant that was sort of used so you didn’t get much of the buds. And so the potency wasn’t nearly as strong.

Today’s cultivated marijuana plants are already more potent than their predecessors. And the mixtures sold in dispensaries contain more of the buds and less of the rest of the plant. So-called synthetic marijuana is even stronger and more dangerous.

So why do so many people still think it’s harmless?

Alex Berenson is a former New York Times reporter who recently wrote a book about the scientific evidence connecting marijuana and psychosis. He blames advocates of medical marijuana for influencing public perception about the drug’s dangers.

BERENSON: That’s arguably the worst thing that’s happened with legalization, is that we are pretending that this is medicine. It is not medicine. It is a recreational intoxicant. People use it to get high.

Berenson thinks marijuana’s eventual nationwide legalization is inevitable, thanks primarily to lobbying by companies hoping to turn marijuana into big business. But he believes it’s still possible to curtail use.

BERENSON: I don’t necessarily think the legal status of the industry is more powerful than public opinion. That’s what we need to worry about.

Berenson and other legalization opponents advocate for a strong public health campaign to make people aware of the dangers of habitual use, especially among teens.

In Illinois, doctors lobbied to get public health precautions included in the legalization bill. They also called for strong warning labels on marijuana and marijuana-infused products.

Berenson likens that strategy to the anti-smoking campaign that started in the 1980s.

BERENSON: I think the truth will out, and time will tell. But along the way there’s going to be a lot of damage.

Karl Benzio has seen that damage first hand. But he’s also seen God’s incredible power to heal and redeem.

BENZIO: And even though we’ve made mistakes, we’ve sinned, we’ve done wrong things, whether using marijuana or the things we do when we use marijuana, that there’s God’s grace and love to be able to heal from those things and to lead impactful lives.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Leigh Jones.

(AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File) This Sept. 11, 2018, file photo shows cannabis plants growing at a greenhouse at SLOgrown Genetics in the coastal mountain range of San Luis Obispo, Calif. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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