Cultural attitudes toward marijuana are changing. In 1992, when Bill Clinton was running for president, he was asked if he ever smoked marijuana and replied yes, “but I didn’t inhale.” More recently, Vice President Kamala Harris was asked during the 2020 presidential campaign about her use of pot in college and she replied marijuana “gives a lot of people joy” and “we need more joy in the world.”
But what if marijuana is leading many young people down a dark road toward mental illness and violence? Alysia Finley, writing in The Wall Street Journal, says we need to take another look at the use of cannabis, the active ingredient in marijuana. Nineteen states have legalized cannabis for recreational use and politicians of both parties increasingly treat it as harmless. But this attitude is mistaken.
Alex Berenson, author of “Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness and Violence,” pointed out that the New York Times had curiously removed from an article about the Uvalde school shooting a former co-worker’s recollection that he complained about his grandmother not letting him smoke weed. (He shot his grandmother just minutes before he went on the school shooting rampage.) The Times didn’t append a correction to the story as it might be expected to do when fixing a factual inaccuracy.
Finley says a pattern is emerging. Mass shooters at Rep. Gabby Giffords’s constituent meeting in Tucson, Arizona (2011), a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado (2012), the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida (2016), the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas (2017), and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida (2018), were all reported to be marijuana users. Is this a coincidence? Maybe not.
The use of marijuana today is different. This isn’t your grandfather’s pot he smoked during the 1960s. Youth today are consuming marijuana more frequently and in higher doses than their elders did when they were young. This is leading to increased addiction and antisocial behavior. THC, the chemical that causes a euphoric high, interacts with the brain’s neuron receptors involved with pleasure. Marijuana today is on average about four times as potent as in 1995 (let alone the 1960s). But dabs – portions of concentrated cannabis – can include 20 times as much THC as joints did in the 1960s.
That means it’s much easier for young people to get hooked. One in 6 people who start using pot while under 18 will develop an addiction, which doctors call “cannabis use disorder.” As they use the drug more frequently to satisfy cravings, they develop psychological and social problems.
We now know that’s what happened to Colorado teenager Johnny Stack. His mother, Laura, wrote a harrowing book describing his descent into cannabis addiction. He started smoking weed at 14, after Colorado legalized it, and progressed to using more-potent products such as dabs. He gradually withdrew from social activities and developed psychosis. Substance-abuse treatment and a stay at a mental hospital failed to cure him because chronic marijuana use permanently rewired his brain. Delusional, he jumped off a six-story building and killed himself.
“People who have taken large doses of the drug may experience an acute psychosis, which includes hallucinations, delusions, and a loss of the sense of personal identity,” reports the National Institutes of Health. Roneet Lev, an addiction specialist who previously led the Emergency Department at Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego, said in a recent interview with the American Council on Science and Health that California cannabis emergency-room visits climbed 53% in the three years after the state legalized recreational marijuana in 2016. Daily marijuana E.R. visits in San Diego nearly quadrupled between 2014 and 2019.
Cannabis-induced psychosis is fairly common, says Lev. Countless studies have also linked chronic cannabis use to schizophrenia. A meta-analysis in January examining 591 studies concluded that early marijuana use among adolescents was associated with a significant increase in the risk of developing schizophrenia. While a causal relationship has not yet been established, the weight of evidence is hard to dismiss.
Proponents of legalization claim other countries where marijuana is widely available have fewer mental-health problems than the U.S. This information is inaccurate. A study from Denmark last summer found that schizophrenia cases associated with pot addiction have increased three-to- fourfold over the past 20 years as marijuana potency rose 200 percent.
Clearly, use of marijuana is ruining the lives of many young people, but does it make them violent? A study last year found that young people with such mood disorders as depression who were also addicted to pot were 3.2 times as likely to commit self-harm and die of homicide – often after initiating violence – than those who weren’t. A meta-analysis found the risk of perpetrating violence than twice as high for young adults who use marijuana.
Finley says it’s possible that pot can trigger dangerous behavior in youths who may be predisposed to it for other reasons such as prenatal exposure to drugs. The use of pot in pregnant women is rising. About 20% of pregnant young women in California tested positive for marijuana in 2016. Since THC crosses the placenta and can impair neurological development, this is a serious finding.
There are legitimate reasons for doctors to prescribe marijuana for treatment of chronic pain in cancer patients and those with debilitating disease or injury. But recreational use of marijuana may be leading to mental illness and even violence in young people. That’s a prescription that society cannot tolerate.