Cannabis and Psychosis: What You Need To Know
Alt. title: It’s Time To Clear The Smoke On Cannabis And Psychosis
You’ve probably been reading or hearing that cannabis may induce psychosis.
In fact, the very mention of psychosis in itself is already a negative connotation. The word “psychotic” has been thrown around for a very long time; it’s been used as a slang word referring to someone crazy when they act irrationally, out of behavior, or illogically from a person’s point of view. You could be called psycho for texting your ex boyfriend at 3 in the morning. You could be psycho for answering back to your boss. You could be psycho for getting a tattoo. You could be psycho for… (GASP!) smoking weed.
It’s all subjective.
Pop culture has also contributed to the stigma attached to this word, with the release of horror movies entitled “Psycho”, which feature mentally ill characters doing strange, unexplainable, and sometimes terrifying things to other people that most others can’t understand.
But it isn’t fair to link cannabis to psychosis, which is what many prohibitionists have been doing, unfairly. To the prohibitionist’s eye, or someone far too conservative or uneducated, being high isn’t normal. When some people are high, they talk slower, have red eyes, or even laugh a lot – even when things are no longer funny. To others, this is seen as psychotic behavior. There is a huge difference between using psycho as an insult, and being clinically psychotic. The only way to be smart about this is to be educated on the matter, and it also helps to stop spreading the stigma attached to the word psycho by using it, because psychosis is very real, and it’s serious.
What Is Psychosis?
Psychosis is actually a symptom, as opposed to an actual disease. Individuals with psychosis generally have lost contact with reality, which is when one is unable to tell the difference between what’s real and what isn’t. Other symptoms of psychosis include hallucinations, delusional thinking, or hearing voices. During psychotic episodes, the symptoms get much worse over a short period of time. In some cases, this may require hospitalization.
Psychosis is usually linked to schizophrenia spectrum disorders. Oftentimes, the presence of psychotic behaviors makes the case for a schizophrenia diagnosis.
The Cannabis-Psychosis Link
So which came first, the chicken or the egg?
Cannabis doesn’t cause psychosis, contrary to what people think. However, research shows that individuals with a certain gene seem to be at higher risk for suffering from psychotic episodes when using cannabis. The information is still lacking, but what we know so far tells us that a certain genetic variant present in people who have childhood trauma or are paranoid, are more at risk. Additionally, young adults and adolescents who use cannabis, and who are at an age when schizophrenia is likely to develop, are more at risk.
Lab research shows that people with schizophrenia are more likely to experience psychosis when THC is consumed. THC, the psychoactive cannabinoid in cannabis, has been shown to give some people minor side effects that go away when the high has worn down. These include anxiety and paranoia. In a healthy person, these symptoms are manageable, and are part of the trip. But for someone who is already schizophrenic, consuming cannabis with THC is not a good idea.
Harvard Medical School research digs deeper into the topic. A study of families who have a history of schizophrenia was done and compared it to families that don’t. “The results of the current study suggest that having an increased familial morbid risk for schizophrenia may be the underlying basis for schizophrenia in cannabis users and not cannabis use by itself,” says the study.
Harvard’s study is the first of its kind that “examines both non-psychotic cannabis users and non-cannabis user controls as two additional independent samples, enabling the examination of whether the risk for schizophrenia is increased in family members of cannabis users who develop schizophrenia compared with cannabis users who do not and also whether that morbid risk is similar or different from that in family members of schizophrenia patients who never used cannabis.”
We can’t generalize that cannabis as a whole has any link to psychosis.
Cannabidiol (CBD), another major compound in cannabis but one that doesn’t give you a high, has been shown to be effective in reducing the symptoms of schizophrenia. CBD and high-CBD products are used by individuals prone to anxiety and paranoia, so it only makes sense.
A study looked at the efficacy of CBD in psychosis, and found that it assists in resetting some parts of the brain that are severely affected by psychosis. The double-blind and randomized study analyzed 33 individuals who are at high risk for developing psychosis, and compared them to 19 healthy control subjects. The control group wasn’t given anything, although the 33 people were divided into a test and placebo group. The test group were given a single dose of 600mg CBD. All three groups were then required to perform a series of memory tasks while the researchers assessed the impact of CBD on three parts of the brain.
“..These results suggest that cannabidiol may normalize dysfunction in these brain regions, which are critically implicated in psychosis, and this may underlie its therapeutic effects in psychosis,” writes the study’s lead author, Dr. Sagnik Bhattacharyya.
The Bottom Line
Cannabis use does not cause psychosis. But high-THC cannabis may trigger or worsen symptoms especially if you already have psychosis, or if you have a family history of schizophrenia or any other mental disorder that may lead to symptoms of psychosis. If this sounds like you, it’s highly recommended to avoid medicating with THC. Your best bet is to stick with CBD instead because not only is it safer for your condition, but it can provide relief from symptoms as well.