Ten years ago, a close friend had a psychotic episode after smoking potent cannabis. He lost all grip on reality. This smart, funny man was left a suicidal wreck, living in the terrified belief that his thoughts were on the internet and could be accessed by anyone. He was committed to a psychiatric hospital. It took months of treatment and therapy for him to show any signs of recovery. Gradually, he rebuilt his life and is now happily married, with a promising career. He has not touched alcohol or drugs since.
Genetic predisposition was a factor but the trigger was marijuana. So how can people advocate relaxing weed laws when it can be such a dangerous drug? Well, it turns out my friend was as much a victim of prohibition as of drug use. Criminalizing cannabis pushes an industry into the shadows, from which more concentrated and more dangerous substances inevitably emerge.
It is important to acknowledge that potent weed can pose a mental health risk. Smoking marijuana was linked to 24% of new psychosis cases analysed in a study by King’s College London. The research suggests that regular cannabis use triples the risk of psychosis. A government spokesman said the report underlines the reasons why marijuana is illegal, while the Mail on Sunday claimed the report “will add weight to calls for a tougher stance towards those caught dealing or in possession of cannabis.”
In fact, the study shows the exact opposite.
Significantly, the report differentiated between different species of cannabis. Problems were recorded only among potent weed smokers, who were exposed to high concentrations of THC, a component associated with triggering hallucinations, paranoia and anxiety. However, hash users were at no higher risk, probably because they were consuming less THC, (five percent, rather than the 15 percent found in weed). Furthermore, hash users also enjoy the benefits of cannabidiol (CBD), a component associated with anti-psychotic effects that balance out the THC.
Unfortunately, the average THC content in U.S. marijuana has risen from 1.37 percent in 1978 to 8.52 percent in 2009. Even more worryingly, certain techniques can skyrocket the THC content as high as 27 percent.
Journalist Johann Hari, author of New York Times bestseller “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs,” believes legalization would regulate against the problem of cannabis-induced psychosis.
It comes down to the iron-law of prohibition, a dynamic that can be illustrated with the example of the United States, where the banning of alcohol saw beer drinkers turn to whiskey and moonshine. The reason was simple.
“Imagine you and me had to smuggle enough alcohol for the local pub across the country in a wagon,” Hari tells the Mexican Labyrinth. “If we fill that wagon with beer, we can only get 100 people their drinks for the night. If we fill it with whiskey we can get 1000 people their drinks for the night because whiskey is more potent and takes up less space.”
A surge in potency is an inevitable side-effect of banning a drug. The most popular way of consuming coca prior to the banning of cocaine was coca tea. As soon as it was banned the only kind you could get was powder cocaine. Then the crackdown on drugs in the 1980’s led to the appearance of super-addictive crack.
“A very similar thing has happened with marijuana,” Hari says. “As there’s been a crackdown on the cannabis trade, the much milder forms of cannabis have largely vanished.”
Moreover, most drug users tend to prefer the milder forms of the drug, which are unavailable to them under prohibition. Hari points out that you can test this by walking into your local bar and counting how many people drink beer and how many drink vodka. There will be some, but not many.
A related experiment involves the behavior of college students at football games.
“We all know college students like beer,” Hari says. “In ball games they’re not allowed to bring in alcohol. It’s a zone of prohibition. So what do they do? They drink whiskey because you can smuggle it in.”
Of course, with the ban lifted, the beer would return. College students don’t like whiskey.
“A very similar dynamic happens with the banning of marijuana,” Hari argues. “If you want to reduce people using THC-heavy weed, make it possible for them to buy the milder versions of the drug they actually want.”
Thanks to legalization in Colorado, Washington and Alaska, we no longer need to talk about hypotheticals. In these states, government regulation and consumer demand have created a range of products that are CBD intensive and often contain little or no THC.
“People worry that more people will use marijuana, therefore there will be more problems of psychosis,” says drug reform campaigner Ethan Nadelmann.
“But the flipside is that we have much better labeling, much better diversity of products, much higher quality research. So I actually think that even if marijuana use increases among adults as a result of legalization, I think we will see a decrease in problems involving marijuana and psychosis.”