Cannabis-Induced Psychosis in Teens & Young Adults

marijuana induced psychosis

How many times has your teenager told you, “Marijuana is harmless, Mom!” or that it is being legalized for some reason? How many times have you told yourself that your child’s marijuana use is just a phase, or that, because weed is now being used therapeutically, you don’t need to be as concerned?

With the growing acceptance of marijuana use throughout our country, it’s becoming easier for people – including parents and their children – to turn a blind eye to the risks of marijuana. Legalization and medicinal practices have only bolstered the public attitude that marijuana use, even daily marijuana use, is generally benign. Yet new research is showing otherwise: according to psychosis experts in 2017, dangers do remain when it comes down to marijuana’s effect on the teenage brain. Specifically, that frequent and early cannabis use can increase a teen’s risk for mental health issues later in life.

A 2017 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine concluded that the use of marijuana is exceptionally dangerous in adolescence. Between the ages of 13 and 25, the brain is undergoing its most critical developmental stage: the temporal lobe, the parietal lobe, and the frontal lobe are all maturing. This is also the time in which most mental disorders surface. 50 percent of cases of mental illness begin by age 14; three-quarters begin by age 24. It makes sense, then, that the consistent use of mood-altering drugs in adolescence can disrupt the brain’s progress and incite psychosis in youth.

The new report evaluates a longitude of studies and cites evidence that heavy marijuana use, prolonged length of exposure, and early initiation may all be risk factors in triggering psychosis. In cases where mental illness – particularly schizophrenia – already exists, the report confirms that heavy and prolonged pot use can make symptoms worse. It can also lead to the early onset of mental illness (illness can develop it sooner than it would have otherwise) and the development of illness in otherwise healthy individuals, according to Dr. Michael Birnbaum, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and director of the Early Treatment Program at Northwell Health.

The conversation is no longer simply that ‘drugs are bad’ or ‘pot will hurt you.’ Dr. Dost Öngür, chief of the Psychotic Disorders Division at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital, confirms:

"It's a very specific medical risk: In teenagers – and, in particular, in the 12-15 age range – teenagers who are smoking daily are at about threefold higher risk of developing schizophrenia down the road."

The topic of ‘cannabis-induced psychosis’ has been a point of discussion since at least the 1930s, when one medical study linked the “insanity-producing effects of cannabis” to “toxic psychosis” and other long-term mental reactions like dementia and schizophrenia. In 2017, the conversation continues. Just last April, a paper in the journal Biological Psychiatry affirmed, "Overall, evidence from epidemiologic studies provides strong enough evidence to warrant a public health message that cannabis use can increase the risk of psychotic disorders."

The effects of marijuana, and specifically, the concept of cannabis-induced psychosis, is an ongoing debate. The counterargument is a matter of the chicken-and-egg: does the onset of marijuana use or psychosis come first? While a magnitude of studies show that marijuana use in adolescence may be a contributing factor to psychotic disorders (most notably schizophrenia), several studies have also found that adolescents with a predisposition to psychotic illness may be drawn to pot at an earlier age than others — perhaps as a form of self-medication. Nonetheless, the connection between marijuana and mental health remains.

Let’s talk about the known link between cannabis and mental health, about marijuana’s general effects on the brain. Cannabis, popularly known as marijuana, pot, or weed, contains a number of chemicals that interact with brain receptors called ‘endocannabinoid receptors.’ Endocannabinoids are chemicals in the brain that help regulate brain activity. When a person smokes marijuana, it tempers with those receptors in a way that can cause permanent, negative changes in brain function. Because teenage brains are particularly malleable, any changes from marijuana use may be exacerbated.

The immediate effects of marijuana abuse and intoxication often relate to psychosis – users lose touch with reality and often experience delusions, hallucinations, and paranoia. Looking to the long-term, though, early and daily marijuana use is also associated with chronic disorders such as schizophrenia, depression, and addiction, particularly in people who are genetically susceptible.

Dr.  Öngür, cited in a WGBH article, explains, “We're not talking about smoking pot and having a reaction to it. We're talking about pot smoking that seems to be modifying the brain and then years later actually manifesting as a diagnosis of schizophrenia [or other mental health disorders]."

What does he suggest we do about it?

"I think the most clear-eyed advice we can give kids who are entering [their] teenage years is, it's not healthy for you to be smoking pot now. As an adult, if it's legal, if it's in a different context, that's something you can consider separately. But smoking cannabis in [the] teen years, specifically the 12-15-year age window, is asking for trouble."

As parents, educators, mentors, and addiction professionals, it is essential to talk to youth about the risks of marijuana. Arm your children with the facts, help them understand that the daily use of marijuana can cause serious mental health issues down the road, and that any heavy or regular use of marijuana can set them up for an addiction. This is an ongoing conversation we all must have with teens and young adults, to prolong or prevent the initiation of marijuana use during these critical years.

About 9 percent of people who experiment with marijuana, and about 17 percent of those who use it as teenagers, will become addicted. Up to half of users who smoke marijuana daily will also become addicted. According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, four million people over age 12 currently meet the criteria for marijuana addiction. This number includes 651,000 adolescents (ages 12 to 17) and 1.8 million young adults (ages 18 to 25) in need of marijuana addiction treatment.

If you believe your child or someone you love is facing a marijuana addiction or a mental health disorder, it is critical to seek professional help. Please do not hesitate to call Turnbridge young adult rehab center at 877-581-1793 to learn more.