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Safety not guaranteed

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

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Is it time to rethink the notion that marijuana—long considered a relatively “safe” method of altering one’s consciousness—is harmless?

According to health professionals and a raft of recent studies, the answer is most definitely yes.

Ever since folks started keeping track of such things (after all, LSD was legal in the United States until 1968, cocaine until 1914) it has been common knowledge that other means of intoxication such as alcohol, pills, heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine, to name a few, could surely end your life, some more quickly than others.

And with so many of these drugs now being cut with the deadly and powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl, we know all too well that possibility is increasingly common.

It’s also true that nobody in the United States has died (1) from a marijuana overdose, according the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Reefer Madness” aside, weed’s reputation has always been as the mellow, slightly goofy uncle in the dysfunctional family of the more destructive drugs to which it is often linked.

And even today, with traditional, dried marijuana—used judiciously and not abused—that characterization still holds.

But marijuana has changed; it’s much more powerful than it was a generation ago, both in its natural form and especially as a derivative. And as it has evolved, with many states legalizing it for recreational use in recent years, so has its reputation.

“For years we have heard in popular culture that cannabis use is less harmful or no more harmful than alcohol use; however, this does not appear to be the case for everyone,” according to a 2021 study (2) from the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

The major psychoactive ingredient of cannabis, the one that gets you high, is called delta 9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.

According to the N.I.H.(3), in the early 1990s, the average amount of THC in traditional dried marijuana seized by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration was less than 4%. In 2018 it averaged more than 15%.

But the pure THC levels in new man-made products such as “wax”—which can be as high as 90%—make traditional marijuana seem like decaf coffee by comparison. And, naturally, kids have taken notice.

A 2020 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services survey (4) found 3.3 million American adolescents ages 12 to 17 used marijuana in the previous year. That number is actually down from previous years’ totals, but with more and more kids opting for super-potent natural and synthetic THC products, the risks associated with smoking weed in any form are on the rise.

According to a 2021 study (5) by the U.S.-based trade journal Psychiatric Times, “there are robust associations between cannabis use and psychosis risk.”

Largely unregulated, high-dose THC products like wax are prime drivers (6) of a sharp increase in American adolescents being admitted into psychiatric facilities, diagnosed with “cannabis-induced psychosis” (CIP).

“Whenever you work with an adolescent who shows psychotic symptoms, your biggest fear is this is a first schizophrenic break,” said Pomona resident and retired psychiatric technician Joel Huschle, who spent 30 years working in state and county mental health facilities. “What we would see quite a bit is recurrence if they started using pot again. Because it’s like a flashback;  you’ve been down that road before, so you’re kind of training your brain to become psychotic.”

At the Yale School of Medicine, studies have shown (7) modern synthetic cannabis products, as well as heavy use of today’s potent traditional dried marijuana, can both cause psychosis.

Sufferers of CIP lose contact with reality, and are left unable to distinguish what’s real from what’s not. Symptoms—which can last minutes, days, months or even years—include hallucinations, hearing voices, and often terrifying delusional thinking, and often result in hospitalization in a psychiatric facility, followed by a regimen of anti-psychotic drugs.

And that’s not all.

Those same Yale studies also showed (7) kids exposed to high-potency weed or cannabis products in adolescence are two to four times more likely to develop a schizophrenia spectrum disorder compared with those who don’t indulge.

A 2021 study (8) by the British scientific journal Nature concurred, suggesting “cannabis use is a predictive risk factor for psychotic experiences, including early-onset and distressing experiences. Individuals genetically predisposed to schizophrenia may be especially vulnerable to psychotic experiences as a result of using cannabis, supporting a long-postulated hypothesis.”

Granted, marijuana doesn’t kill. But high-potency THC products—especially those bought on the street, unregulated by even the most basic standards of legal weed dispensaries—can nonetheless have life-altering consequences for some users.

So much for the chilled out, goofy uncle.

Most American parents were exposed to marijuana when they were teens, and many still use it. But the stem and seed laden Mexican or Columbian weed they were smoking in the 1970s and ‘80s is child’s play compared with today’s genetically bred super-cannabis strains.

The Natural Center for Natural Projects Research (9) at the University of Mississippi has been testing marijuana samples confiscated in U.S. government marijuana raids since the 1970s. Its data proves today’s marjuana is up to 67% more potent when compared with samples from the 1970s.

As a result of regular use of potent dried marijuana and incredibly powerful synthetic products, an increasing number of adolescents are experiencing CIP. It’s a harsh and terrifying experience, especially for a child.

One Claremont Unified School District teen talked to the COURIER about his experience with CIP, on the condition he remain anonymous.

About a year prior to his psychotic break, he began using cartridges (“carts”) of THC oil, and occasionally smoking “wax,” the intensely potent, very popular cannabis concentrate, through a vape pen.

It all came crashing down last year when he was admitted to a psychiatric facility and diagnosed with CIP. He was hospitalized for about a month, and spent weeks on both sides of that stay reeling from the effects.

Prior to being hospitalized, he spent about a week in a euphoric state, which gradually gave way to darker, more paranoid thoughts, and eventually delusions.

“It was kind of a blur,” he said. “There was a kind of a week where I was manic, then there was a week when I was depressed and everything was in slow motion. It just felt like everything was ticking by very slowly.

“It felt like the whole universe was giving me messages. Street signs. Newspapers. Just little things made me doubt myself. It just made me feel like the world around me wasn’t what I thought it was, and everything was a conspiracy. Pretty much every stranger I saw, it felt like they were part of some big conspiracy.”

Multiple delusions cropped up, some lasting minutes, others days.

After being admitted to the hospital he was quarantined for a week due to COVID protocols.

“So I didn’t get to see anyone,” the student said. “They would just drop my food at the door. I didn’t really see any humans. I feel like that made it a lot worse, because they made me think there were cameras, and there were things like people knocking on the doors and stuff that were trying to communicate with me.”

After a week in isolation, things began to improve faintly. He was allowed to interact with other patients, nurses and doctors. It helped.

After another week, as the THC was metabolized by his body, his mind could once again take partial root in reality. Some of the delusions began to­ lose their intensity. Others persisted.

“I don’t know if it improved or got worse [in the hospital]” he said. “It was like, one week I felt like I’d seen God and I was so connected with the universe, and then one week I just felt like I was in a universe where everyone was against me and everything was horrible.

“Basically every conspiracy theory had a point where it was just like, ‘Oh that wasn’t true at all,’” he said. “And then I would just like kind of laugh about it and be like, ‘Oh, I can’t believe I believed that.’ And then another one would crop up and it would seem just as real as the last.”

The days and nights were a puzzle.

“I didn’t really perceive time. It just seemed like everything blended into one long day,” he said. “There were parts where I thought it had been going on for years. I remember some of it. But most of it is just blurred together like trying to remember a dream.”

Now approaching a year removed from the psychotic break, life has mostly returned to normal. Routines, responsibilities, and the drama of adolescence are back in the forefront of his mind, along with a few stubborn remnants of the experience.

Asked what advice he had for kids, he paused and chose his words carefully.

“Don’t go near anything that could be laced, or is from someone you don’t trust, or even someone you do trust if you know they’re not getting it from a safe place. Be careful. Tread carefully. Because there are things out there that could ruin your life. And it hurts a lot.

“So don’t let your life be ruined, or don’t let your friend’s life be ruined, or your cousin’s life be ruined. Look out for the people around you.”

If you are concerned about this issue and want to learn more, go to https://drugfree.org/article/marijuana-what-you-need-to-know/.

References:

  1. https://www.cdc.gov/marijuana/faqs/overdose-bad-reaction.html
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7917124/
  3. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/marijuana/marijuana-addictive
  4. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/reports/rpt29393/2019NSDUHFFRPDFWHTML/2019NSDUHFFR1PDFW090120.pdf
  5. https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/cannabis-cause-psychosis
  6. https://psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/appi.ajp-rj.2016.110604
  7. https://medicine.yale.edu/psychiatry/step/resources/Cannabis%20Use%20and%20Psychosis_380524_284_47327_v2.pdf
  8. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41398-021-01330-w
  9. https://pharmacy.olemiss.edu/ncnpr/

 

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