By Heidi Anderson-Swan
My brother was a homeless drug addict with schizophrenia who went to jail eighteen times. He refused treatment. What could we do? It was agonizing for me to imagine him outside, finding shelter under a freeway overpass. To make it worse, he was homeless in Seattle, where it seems to rain practically every day.
After many excruciating years, he finally got off the streets, got sober and received treatment. Shortly after that, we found out about the relationship between teen marijuana use and adult schizophrenia. Weed is a big part of the culture in Seattle. Beginning as a teenager, my brother used it almost every day for a decade.
I was shocked. Why doesn’t everyone know about this risk?
Are other people unwittingly putting themselves at risk for mental illness by using marijuana? What are the long-term ramifications of acquiring a mental illness? Like my brother, could that result in an increased risk for homelessness?
California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, has spoken much about the homeless crisis. Millions upon millions of dollars have been allocated to it.
The Sacramento Bee reported in 2020 that, Former Gov. Jerry Brown and lawmakers steered $500 million in 2018 to local governments to help homeless people. They also approved an additional $100 million in homeless aid through the state’s health, social services and emergency departments.
Last year, Newsom and lawmakers approved $650 million for local governments and $450 million through health and human services programs aimed at homeless people and those at risk of losing their homes.
This year, Newsom wants to spend $750 million on homeless aid through a new fund that would provide grants to local organizations.( https://www.sacbee.com/news/politics-government/capitol-alert/article240314016.html)
This does not account for the money spent by families and insurance companies on medical care, treatment facilities and psychiatric care. This also does not account for the loss to Social Security (people who are unemployed do not pay in but some, like my brother who get off the streets, receive Social Security Disability Insurance beginning at an early age). There is also the cost of human misery, the loss of human potential, the loss a family suffers when they know their loved one is living under a freeway and they’re helpless to do anything about it.
It is confounding to me that there is never a discussion of about preventing more homelessness. Once we have human beings living on our streets, we go to great expense to help them. So why aren’t we doing anything to prevent more?
The LA Times reported that 76% of the homeless in Los Angeles suffer from mental illness, addiction, poor health and physical disabilities. (Are many homeless people in L.A. mentally ill? New findings back the public’s perception)
Can we prevent more homelessness by preventing more addiction and, whenever possible, mental illness? In this time of unprecedented homelessness, we should be doing everything in our power to prevent more people from winding up on our streets.
One of the ways we can do this is to educate about the mental health and addiction risks of marijuana use, especially for people under the age of 26. Most people have not heard how much stronger marijuana has become in the last 20 years.
U.S. Surgeon General Vice Admiral Jerome Adams, issued a warning in 2019 about the mental health risks the use of the new high potency marijuana products pose to the developing brain.
Dr. Adams said, “The risk for psychotic disorders increases with frequency of use, [with] potency of the marijuana product, and as the age at first use decrease.” (https://www.hhs.gov/surgeongeneral/reports-and-publications/addiction-and-substance-misuse/advisory-on-marijuana-use-and-developing-brain/index.html)
The younger a person is when they begin using marijuana, the higher the potency of the product and the frequency of use, the higher the risk for a negative mental health outcome.
The increase in marijuana use certainly is not the only reason for the increased homelessness, but it is a contributing factor. For me, the logic is simple:
If marijuana increases the risk for schizophrenia and…
If schizophrenia increases the risk for homelessness…
Then marijuana increases the risk for homelessness.
But how many teens heard the warning from our Surgeon General? Not many.
However, many of them have heard marijuana is healthy and harmless.
As a Los Angeles resident, I see a lot of cannabis stores & billboards. People smoke pot while strolling over the stars on Hollywood Blvd, the beaches in my neighborhood smell like pot at all hours of the day, and pot smoke billows from the drivers’ side windows of cars on our freeways and streets beginning in morning rush hour. Teens get messages on their phones about how to purchase “medicated” THC candies. Social media teaches them how to purchase odorless THC vapes which can be hidden and used in plain sight. Because of its normalization, teenagers assume weed is harmless, safe and normal.
Why don’t our teenagers have any healthy skepticism about these addictive and dangerous substances being pushed on them? Aside from the industry’s predatory marketing, there are two main reasons. First, too few journalists report on its dangers, and many only write about its purported benefits. Second, our schools are not educating about the harms. In fact, the State of California has not updated its mandated drug-education curriculum since 1987. Since that time, marijuana has been legalized and our educational system has utterly failed to warn kids that it is particularly dangerous to them. Additionally, there is no mandated mental health education in California. Youth marijuana use straddles both topics. (I proposed a bill to address this our K-12 schools–but it went nowhere).
The result? Marijuana’s Impact on California, California High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas Report 2020 says, “From 2005 (1,412) to 2019 (16,151) there was a 1044% increase in California emergency department visits and admissions for primary marijuana use, with a
56% increase from 2016 (10,361) to 2019 (16,151).” As for Substance Abuse Treatment Admissions, it shows that from 2016-2019, 41% of marijuana treatment admissions were amongst those 12 to 17 years of age. https://www.thenmi.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/CA-MJ-IMPACT-REPORT-2020-FINAL-.pdf).
How did so many young teens think such products are okay for them to use in the first place? A study covering teen attitudes about marijuana from 2007-2013 showed that decriminalization increased the perception that marijuana is harmless. It showed an increase in past youth use and expectation to use in the future. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0955395915000122)
Did all these kids understand they are putting themselves at risk for mental illnesses in the present and into adulthood? There was no warning from the Surgeon General at that time. Like my brother, they probably had no idea.
What about California? Can it handle more mental health cases? Many mental health professionals report there is an influx of cannabis-related mental-health patients due to the use of high-potency products, yet there are few treatments available (Psychotic Symptoms in Some Marijuana Users Challenge Providers).
Where will the chronically mentally ill people go when the doctors and their families can’t help them, or, like my family, when the addict is so addicted, he/she does not want treatment? A casual observer, like myself, assumes many will wind up on the streets. The Sacramento Bee reports, “Nearly half of the nation’s unsheltered homeless people live in California.”
Why wouldn’t California’s governor do everything he can to protect our kids from the unique dangers they face if they decide to use pot? A clue could be his cozy relationship to Jason Kinney, a close advisor who is a former cannabis lobbyist (https://lacannabisnews.com/how-will-gavin-newsom-handle-big-cannabis/). This is the same advisor who had the now-infamous party at the French Laundry where Gov. Newsom was seen defying his own mask-wearing orders (https://www.politico.com/states/california/story/2020/11/16/newsoms-cozy-ties-with-top-lobbyist-showcased-by-french-laundry-dinner-party-1336601).
Additionally, federal lobbying by the pot industry has been on a sharp increase in recent years. The $5M and $3M, spent in 2019 and 2020, respectively, have served the industry extremely well. Politicians, red and blue, are refusing to read the science because all they see is green.
It seems our leaders do recognize that our homeless problem is escalated by our problems with the opioid crisis. Aside from blaming the pharmaceutical industry and complicit doctors, will they disregard the other causes of opiate addiction?
According to a study published January 2020, one of the main predictors of Opiod Use Disorder is youth marijuana use:
“Early initiation of marijuana (before 18 years) emerged as the dominant predictor…Curbing early initiation of marijuana may be an effective prevention strategy against opioid addiction, especially in high risk groups.” (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31962227/)
Additionally, the CDC reported in 2020, “…marijuana (43.5%), was common among students currently misusing prescription opioids.” (https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/su/su6901a5.htm)
A current report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration further describe the risks marijuana use pose:
Association between state laws allowing medical marijuana and opioid overdose mortality reversed direction from -21% (1999-2010) to +23% (1999-2017). (Shover, et al., 2019)
Risk of subsequent prescription opioid misuse and use disorder was increased among people who reported marijuana use 5 years earlier (Olfsonet al., 2017)
Use has been linked to the development of drug use disorders including alcohol, tobacco and other illicit drugs (NASEM, 2017).
To prevent more homelessness, we should be doing everything in our power to prevent any kind of drug addiction. Below, see how homelessness and marijuana use follow a similar trajectory over 2010-2019.
Homelessness: This article shows an increase of homelessness of 42% between 2010 and 2017. (https://www.kcet.org/neighborhood-data-for-social-change/a-2018-snapshot-of-homelessness-in-los-angeles-county)
Now, on to 2019: a 12% rise from last year’s point-in-time count. (https://www.lahsa.org/news?article=558-greater-los-angeles-homeless-count-shows-12-rise-in-homelessness)
Marijuana: Does marijuana follow a similar rise? Overall, this data covers 2005-2019:
Marijuana use doubled between 2005-2015. (Marijuana Use in America Has Doubled in the Past Decade, Study Says)
Marijuana use rose in teenagers in legalized states from 2008-2016: “Among respondents aged 12 to 17 years, past-year CUD increased from 2.18% to 2.72% after RML enactment, a 25% higher increase” https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/fullarticle/10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2019.3254?guestAccessKey=3cd6baa3-b7f9-44f4-81bb-ea005c929794&utm_source=For_The_Media&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=ftm_links&utm_content=tfl&utm_term=111319)
From 2017-2018—there was a rise in the use of higher-potency products: “The use of marijuana and electronic cigarettes jumped dramatically among young adult Californians…with large proportions of users of both products being underage, according to a new study by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research…marijuana use increased by 19%…40% of marijuana users…were between the ages 18 to 20.” (https://medicalxpress.com/news/2020-07-surge-e-cigarette-marijuana-state-young.html)
From 2018-2019: The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration says,
“Past month marijuana use and past year daily or almost daily marijuana use significantly increased in adults aged 26+” and “Past year marijuana use disorder significantly increased in adolescents (https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/reports/rpt29392/Assistant-Secretary-nsduh2019_presentation/Assistant-Secretary-nsduh2019_presentation.pdf)
As you can see, homelessness and marijuana use rose together. Gavin Newsom can probably tell you that they rose along with the money spent on marijuana lobbying. OpenSecrets.org shows it went from under $1M in 2011 to over $5M in 2019.
Aside from mental illness and addiction, another reason marijuana has contributed to homelessness is that drug users are drawn to counties, like Los Angeles, where it’s legal and they can use drugs openly:
Users and would-be users may also have been attracted to locations where it is possible to use drugs of all kinds without fear of penalty or jail. This appears to have been the case in Colorado. The increase in the number of homeless and in the number of encampments of homeless have been noticeable since the legalization of marijuana in Colorado in 2014. So too has been the increase in polydrug use in general and in opioid use and addiction.
The article goes on to describe how legalized states also have thriving black market businesses. It says, As users become customers of black marketers, they can be and are too often introduced to a variety of other drugs, including methamphetamine, cocaine, and opioids…This has increased substantially not only the number of marijuana addicts, but the number of polydrug users, and opioid addicts as well. (https://www.domesticpreparedness.com/healthcare/drugs-homelessness-a-growing-public-health-disaster/)
My brother and I want to prevent more people from accidentally ruining their lives because they innocently believed marijuana to be safe to use. We want to tell kids what we wish we knew when we were their age. Our purpose in sharing his story is to warn teenagers about the dire consequences of teen pot use –which includes mental illness, addiction and poor adult outcomes like living underneath a freeway.
For Gavin Newsom to not address the drug problems of our homeless is irresponsible. For the governor of a legalized state, whose top advisor had deep ties to the pot industry, to stay mute about the risks of marijuana use–especially to California’s youth–is to be complicit in the false narrative of the marijuana industry that their products are harmless. Gavin Newsom’s silence will cause more teens to use.
As teenagers continue to use, California will continue to have more mental illness and homelessness.