Like so many things in life Cannabis is a duality. It can be valuable as a tool for healing and pleasure, or a catalyst for aimlessness and mental illness. It can provide an occasional evening of enjoyment with friends, or become a lonely prison that saps motivation, adds to depression and ruins your life. It is useful as a treatment for pain and nausea, and components of it can treat seizure disorders untreatable by other means, and it can also become an addiction fraught with all the hallmarks of despair addiction brings with it.
Yes, Cannabis is many things to many people. And, now that it is legally available to the masses, it is important to have accurate information to guide use or determine abstinence.
The purpose of this post is to raise awareness about the possible negative effects of a drug that we still know too little about, due to draconian federal laws that have hampered scientific research. But there is data out there, much of it from other countries such as Israel and the UK where more inquiry has been supported. So what do we know so far? Here are some of the concerns that are backed up by substantial research:
Cannabis is much stronger these days: Experts say it contains 2-3 times the active agent THC than in times past, (due to a genetic selection process that favors more THC) and creates a more intense, quick acting and long lasting high. It is also more likely, in its current strength, to induce hallucinations, paranoia and other temporary psychotic symptoms. For many people these experiences are short lived. However, Cannabis, like alcohol, has many troubling long-term consequences when it is used regularly and in excess:
Anxiety: Many people use Cannabis to relax. It is true that in small amounts it works. Unfortunately, in higher doses it has the opposite effect, creating often dramatically increased anxiety. In my counseling practice, I have worked with clients who began using Cannabis to ease their nervousness but after a while instead of helping them, their anxious symptoms increased to the point where they can barely drive, interact with people in public or even leave the house. According to much research, this is a common occurrence amongst heavy, long term users of Cannabis.
Thinking and Motivation: We now have considerable evidence too that Cannabis use over a long period of time has a depressant effect and can significantly reduce motivation and cause cognitive deficits. It can also affect memory and the ability to organize, integrate and use information.
Mental Illness: There is more and more research pointing to a strong link between use of Cannabis, (particularly in adolescence) and schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder and other psychotic illnesses. The link seems to be “dose related”, in other words the more used the more likely it is to develop such an illness. Read more about it here.
Problems in Living: In the past it was thought that Cannabis is not addictive. But recent research demonstrates that it is. How do they know? Addiction is present when tolerance develops and withdrawal symptoms appear when use is reduced or ended. (Tolerance is defined as a having to use more and more to get the same effect.) Cannabis withdrawal symptoms include:
• Decreased appetite
• Sleep difficulty
• Weight loss
• Aggression or increased irritability
• Strange dreams
These withdrawal symptoms usually appear about 10 hours after last use and peak at about a week after use is discontinued. Another strong indication of addiction is a compulsion to use, and life being taken over by the need to seek, buy, and use Cannabis, even when these activities are damaging relationships, work, health and well-being.
Cancer and Breathing Problems: If Cannabis is used by inhaling its smoke, some of the same health problems can occur as with cigarette smoking. Like cigarettes, Cannabis is a carbon based substance that when inhaled regularly has the potential to create lung cancer, COPD or other breathing problems. If you are using Cannabis to relieve pain or for another medical problem, consider switching to a topical application or other delivery system. Talk to your health care provider about the safest way to use it.
Join me next week when the topic will be getting help when Cannabis use is a problem.