By Laura Stack
In 1971, psychiatrists Harold Kolansky and William T. Moore sounded an alarm about the effects of marijuana on young people that’s eerily reminiscent of many of today’s medical studies. Their study documented the effects of the relatively weak herb marijuana of the time, which rarely exceeded 3% THC concentration—as opposed to the 15-35% strains common today, not to mention the high-potency wax, shatter, and other butane hash oils available at 90%+ THC. In “Effects of Marijuana on Adolescents and Young Adults,” originally published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, they reviewed and chronicled adverse psychological effects on 38 marijuana users, age 13-24, whom they had treated between 1965 and 1970. All users smoked marijuana at least twice a week, usually smoking at least two joints each time.
According to the authors, “These patients consistently showed very poor social judgment, poor attention span, poor concentration, confusion, anxiety, depression, apathy, passivity, indifference, and often, slowed and slurred speech. An alteration of consciousness which included a split between an observing and an experiencing portion of the ego, an inability to bring thoughts together, a paranoid suspiciousness of others, and a regression to a more infantile state were all very common.”
Eight of the patients in their study (21%) developed psychoses; four attempted suicide. This is significantly higher than the psychosis rate observed in the general public. Keeping in mind that psychosis is a symptom, not a diagnosis, schizophrenia (characterized by psychosis) occurs at most in about 1% of the general population. Researchers estimated the overall rate of psychosis at 5.8% in a 2015 meta-analysis. While only the worse patients were likely to see a psychiatrist at the time (especially voluntarily), and the authors didn’t establish the direction of the correlation, this suggests a definite correlation between marijuana use and psychosis—beating the recognition of “ganja psychosis” among heavy users in Jamaica by five years.
Despite the small sample, the psychological effects are almost exactly those established by medical science in the subsequent 40 years, as I’ve documented in numerous articles (for example, this one and this one).
Depression and Weed
One of the psychological effects Kolansky and Moore recorded was depression, which figures prominently on my list of pot’s psychological effects. Ironically, it’s also one of the disorders some users says they use pot to alleviate. In recent years, pro-pot advocates have prescribed it for depression, insisting from anecdotal use that it helps the disorder. In a few published studies, users have reported that marijuana relieved their anxiety and depression, especially women. However, this may represent examples of the placebo effect, where people felt better after using marijuana because they expected to; in addition, if you are addicted to a substance, using it alleviates withdrawal symptoms. Not only does such reporting ignore the poor quality of anecdotal evidence, but it also ignores the fact that most problems go away while you’re high, only to come crashing back when you’re not. Indeed, even one study claiming marijuana reduced perceived depression, anxiety, and stress conceded “continued use may exacerbate baseline symptoms of depression over time.”
Most science-based publications disagree with the pro-pot advocates, though one of the largest studies of marijuana’s medical effects claimed moderate evidence for “A small increased risk for the development of depressive disorders.” But the consensus is, marijuana use makes depression worse—and can trigger depression in those who don’t already have it. An Australian study following 1601 high school students aged 14-15 for seven years revealed that weekly or more frequent marijuana users are twice as likely as non-users to develop depression and anxiety disorders. Proof that the direction of causality was from marijuana to depression came from a review of students who already had depression; their diagnosis “predicted neither later weekly nor daily cannabis use.” That is, depressed people did not turn to marijuana for solace in higher than normal numbers.
Another study, with a sample population of 13,986 twins, revealed that among the 6,181 identical twins, if one frequently used marijuana while the other did not, the frequent user was twice as likely to develop major depressive disorder (MDD), even after adjusting for other factors. A meta-analysis of 14 longitudinal studies found that the risk of depression increased by 17% for those who had used any amount of marijuana, while those who used weekly or more often experienced a 62% greater risk of depression. Even many marijuana users recognize the link between marijuana and depression. Up to 25% of self-reporters relate experiencing depression as a side effect of marijuana use.
An individual ‘s brain continues to develop and mature until at least age 25 and introducing pot to a growing brain invites disaster. Chemicals in marijuana called “cannabinoids” just happen the mimic natural neurotransmitters that regulate growth, brain development, sleep, and other important processes. When the cannabinoids block the natural chemicals often enough, they stunt brain growth. This can result in lowered IQ, amotivational disorder, anxiety, suicidal ideation, serious depression and more.
Despite the literature available, the pro-pot advocates, and even some misguided studies, marijuana is not medicine. The one truly cannabis-based medication comes in pill form, not as shatter or herb you smoke or candy or baked goods you eat. Yes, marijuana can make you feel better temporarily, the same way any drug can: by making you forget your problems because you’re high. But not only is this a short-term solution that will demand more and more pot to work, it hurts you mentally and causes addiction. The chasm of depression becomes wider and deeper as cannabinoids pummel your brain, which is especially true if you’re young.
Those truly looking for a depression treatment—rather than using depression as an excuse to get high—should know there are cheaper, better options than marijuana, such as counseling, a good diet, friendship time, and exercise. If needed, doctor-prescribed depression medications are usually less expensive than marijuana, especially when using insurance or generic brands. As of early 2021, for example, a month’s prescription for most depression medications costs as little as $4.00 to $8.00 at Walmart and similar chain pharmacies—about the same price as just one joint! Plus, they’re completely legal everywhere, and they really work. While it may take a while to find the right medicine and dose, depression meds can stop depression in its tracks and give you your life back. Eliminating the cause of many people’s depression—addiction to marijuana—for six weeks may be a cure for you. Try it!