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The Dark Side of Weed

The true story of watching a friend develop schizophrenia after smoking a joint

The Clumsy Gypsy
Dec 2, 2018 · 9 min read

Popularly, we tend to think of weed as harmless, benign. Sure, maybe some people sink into the stupor of a marijuana haze, dragging their feet in complacence and doing little for years on end…but beyond that, what’s the worst that can happen? Well, it can get a lot worse, it turns out…

A Picturesque Preamble

The year was 2014, and I had just moved into Cru s ty House, a backpacker sharehouse in Fremantle, Australia. Unfortunately, the most charming and attractive guy in the house was already taken, but one night he did bring an enchanting new friend to a housemate outing. Hans was always doing that; he was a musician, and he’d bring home some eccentric musician friend or someone he met playing music on the street. You know the type; they always turned out to be bad news, but this was the first time, and it would take me a few more times to learn that lesson. Peering across the picnic blankets, I couldn’t help but stare at the newcomer. His straight black hair was barely long enough to be dreadlocked, and it stuck out at various angles. His features were angular; his eyes were piercing. He looked like a sexy mad scientist. I spent the evening drooling, unnoticed.

When he finally approached me later that evening at a house party, I was elated. His name was Maxime, I discovered, and he was from France. At that time I hadn’t yet lived with my share of annoying housemates from France, so I still found the accent very sexy. We started almost immediately to talk about something that felt deep and philosophical, and he asked if I wanted to go somewhere more quiet. We moved to the back of the yard. The sexual tension was so thick you could have sliced it with a butterknife.

Maxime integrated quickly into our friend group (“Crusties”, we called ourselves), and he came over a few days later to hang out at Crusty House. He and I decided to take a walk and smoke some weed. We meandered to the park next to the house, and after we smoked, I climbed up into the lower branches of a eucalyptus tree. “Stay there”, he told me, climbing up after me to sit on a branch which seemed to have grown magically in the exact right place at the exact right angle for him to perch on it gracefully, lean down, and kiss me.

Nothing out of the ordinary happened that particular night — at least, nothing detectable…to me. Later, he would tell me that that was the night he had his first schizophrenic break, and that it began after we smoked that joint.

The First Signs

A few days later, we went on our first real date. We walked around King’s Park, a picturesque expanse of green space and bushland. Settling on the grass, the conversation turned to spirituality. He was quite intense about this topic, I observed; he seemed to feel that he had experienced some deep metaphysical truths, and he was very passionate about sharing them with me. On the one hand, someone preaching at you in a strong French accent is pretty romantic, even if they are a little bit arrogant about the extent of their spiritual wisdom. On the other hand, though, I started to feel just the teensiest bit annoyed with this charming but very passionate, eccentric Parisian; it seemed he really wanted to teach me something. As the conversation went on, it became exceedingly clear that he felt he was really on a higher level spiritually than everyone else, and he really wanted to share his wisdom with me. It seemed almost that he saw himself as some kind of guru and me as his…student? Consort?

At the time, my vague discomfort with this state of affairs simply led me to the conclusion that he was perhaps too much of a hippy for even me, and that he was indeed quite big-headed about the extent of his metaphysical sophistication. He had seemed very…intense, perhaps, from the very beginning, but this was new. I didn’t know him very well, so I just assumed it was new to me because I was still getting to know him — it didn’t cross my mind that this behavior he was exhibiting might also be out-of-the-ordinary for him.

After a few more days, I decided I had to call it off with him. I didn’t feel comfortable; his intensity was too much for me and I didn’t like being talked to as though my interlocutor fancied themselves to be on a higher plane than me. I told my friend Anna about my plan to end it, and the next morning she sent me a frenzied message: “He’s on his way to surprise you at work! Just so that you know…”

When he arrived, he came bearing a charmingly decorated handmade paper fish. It was a very heartfelt piece of artwork, brought along on a journey to surprise me, and my work was a good 3-hour commute round-trip. That made ending it all the more guilt-inducing. He was so excited about what we might have. I made an excuse and told him that I wasn’t ready, after the ending of my last relationship, to really start anything. I’ll never forget the confused, sad look in his eyes.

I spent the next few days wallowing in guilt, but that faded abruptly one warm March morning when one of my housemates hurriedly came into the bathroom while I was in the shower. “Maxime is here looking for you”, she told me in a hushed tone. “We told him you’re not home, so he’s waiting on the front lawn. Wait here and I’ll tell you when he’s left.” Apparently he had barged into the house unannounced and demanded “Where’s Cait?” in an angry tone.

“Thank goodness you were in the shower”, said my housemate. She looked worried. I had never encountered anything like this before, and wasn’t sure whether to shiver in fear or laugh at the complete absurdity of it. We hadn’t even been a couple; we went on maybe two dates and made out a couple of times. Why was he having such a strong reaction? What even was this reaction? Why was he here?

I stayed in the bathroom for some time, and every few minutes a housemate would come in to update me with the news that he was still there until finally, finally he left.

A few days later, I heard from Hans (Remember him? Attractive musician #1? None of this would have happened had he not already been taken) that Maxime had had a schizophrenic break, and that he had needed to be sent back to France and was now in an institution getting medications sorted.

What if I hadn’t ended it? What would have happened? And poor Maxime. That explained his inflated belief in his spiritual accomplishments and his erratic, angry entry into our house that day.

Apparently this was a new thing; he had not been schizophrenic before. I wondered what happened, and I felt like I’d narrowly escaped a potentially dangerous situation, and I felt guilty for viewing him as dangerous. Scizophrenia is a really scary illness; it can, at intervals, take over the personality of an individual in a way that makes them unrecognizable as their former self. I wondered what Maxime was really like, beneath that, and hoped that with the proper medication he could return to his former self.

Weed: The Catalyst

About a year later, Maxime sent me a message on facebook. He asked how I was and seemed quite civil and polite. We chit-chatted a little bit and then he asked me to tell him, in detail, everything I remembered from the night we smoked weed and what happened after that. He explained that he was trying to figure out what had happened to him and how it had begun. He ended up coming to the conclusion that the schizophrenic break had begun when we smoked that joint together. After smoking, he had begun to feel that he was grasping at profound universal truths, that he could see and understand reality on a level others could not; that he alone possessed a special metaphysical wisdom.

I’d have thought this was just a symptom of having smoked too much weed; it sounds like every trope in every cliched stoner movie…except in those movies, it mostly fades after you come down from the high, and this time, it didn’t fade. It intensified. Apparently, this is not only a symptom of having smoked too much, it is also a symptom of schizophrenia.

Maxime thanked me for having told him everything I could remember, and after that we would chit-chat good-naturedly every few months. One day, however, he wrote me a very angry message about how (apparently) I used to cheat on him (a difficult task when one is not actually in a couple and during such a short-lived romance.) He elaborated, writing a lengthy, in-depth (and actually startlingly accurate, in some places) criticism of my character. I felt both fascinated and wounded, but the next message was really jarring: He told me that he wanted to kill me, but that he needed my permission first.

At this point I got scared and blocked him immediately. This was about 3 or 4 years ago. My attempts to go back and find our conversations today, for the purpose of writing this, have been unsuccessful; he doesn’t even appear under my list of blocked users. I have no idea what happened to him or where he is now.

The fact that he smoked weed and then became schizophrenic was mind-blowing to me at first, because we complacently tell each other that weed is harmless, that nothing truly dangerous can happen to you as a result of smoking weed. The illegality of it means that there are no solid, empirical studies validating or rejecting this claim; the idea of weed as a drug without real hazards has become widely accepted, yet without solid backing.

What The Research Actually Says About Weed and Psychotic Disorders

This article about marijuana and schizophrenia put out by The Recovery Village, a drug addiction/treatment resource, notes that there is a risk of triggering a psychotic disorder as a result of smoking marijuana. The risk is particularly relevant for those who have a family history of these disorders, for those who already struggle with other underlying mental health issues, and even for those who have suffered childhood abuse. One thing we do know is that marijuana affects the endocannabinoid system in the brain, and that system is also one of the key areas associated with schizophrenia.

Matthijs Bossong, PhD, co-author of a report which dealt with involvement of the endocannabinoid system in symptoms of schizophrenia, found that “for many brain functions, such as memory, executive function and emotional processing, [striking similarities were found] between cannabis-intoxicated healthy volunteers and non-intoxicated schizophrenia patients.”

Another recent study found that found that giving THC to mice who were genetically susceptible to schizophrenia caused them to display schizophrenia-like symptoms, while mice without this genetic predisposition did not experience such symptoms.

Many have attempted to explain away the correlation between cannabis use and psychotic disorders by pointing out that those with psychotic disorders often use cannabis to self-medicate, which means there’s a higher rate of cannabis use among such populations than there is among the general population. This fact makes it difficult to discern whether cannabis is triggering their disorders, or if the correlation is due merely to the prevalence of self-medication with cannabis.

However, a comprehensive 2008 report co-authored by Wayne Hall and Louisa Degenhardt which looked at various longitudinal studies came to the conclusion that the relationship between cannabis use and psychotic disorders “did not seem to be explained by cannabis being used to self-medicate symptoms of psychosis.”

My conclusion from the research? Is sounds like for people who have no family history of psychosis, no underlying mental conditions, and who have not been abused as children, the risk is small enough to disregard. But for those who fall into one of these categories, the stakes are too high.

I’ll probably never know if Maxime fell into one of those categories. I wonder how he’s doing. I wonder if he knew he was susceptible.

Almost 4% of the world’s population will experience a psychotic disorder. That’s one in every 25 people. So let’s stop telling each other with such misplaced confidence that marijuana is completely harmless. Let’s build a culture of informed decision-making instead, so that susceptible people, people like Maxime, perhaps, aren’t lulled into a false sense of security around smoking weed.

Popularly, we tend to think of weed as harmless, benign. Sure, maybe some people sink into the stupor of a marijuana haze, dragging their feet in complacence and doing little for years on end…but…

Here’s What Actually Happens When You Smoke Weed

Whether you’ve used it yourself, have a friend who tokes, or don’t know anyone who is canna-curious, you probably have an opinion about weed.

Cannabis — as in, the name of the plant that produces marijuana and the substance itself — is no longer considered as taboo as it once was. In fact, 14 percent of American adults have used marijuana in the last year. That’s roughly the same number of people who smoke cigarettes. Keyhani S, et al. (2018). Risks and benefits of marijuana use: A national survey of U.S. adults. DOI: 10.7326/M18-0810

Before it became illegal, cannabis was long used as a medicine. The U.S. government officially criminalized cannabis in 1937, and use quickly declined after that. Zuardi AW, et al. (2006). History of cannabis as a medicine: A review. DOI: 10.1590/S1516-44462006000200015][Abuhasira R, et al. (2018). Medical use of cannabis and cannabinoids containing products – Regulations in Europe and North America. DOI: 10.1016/j.ejim.2018.01.001

Now, with a resurgence in marijuana as medicine and the ever-changing legal landscape, it’s helpful to know about how it works. Here’s what actually happens to your brain and body on cannabis.

You typically hear about two types of cannabis: C. sativa and C. indica. They work in similar ways, with some notable differences. Sawler J, et al. (2015). The genetic structure of marijuana and hemp. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0133292

Cannabis plants produce chemical compounds called cannabinoids. More than 100 unique cannabinoids have been identified in different strains of the cannabis plant. The ones that get the most attention are delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). Lafaye G. (2017).Cannabis, cannabinoids, and health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29302228

“THC is the most psychoactive compound,” says Thorsten Rudroff, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of Iowa who has studied cannabis for multiple sclerosis. “When you smoke cannabis, THC gives you the high feeling. The more THC you have, the more powerful the high.”

The specific effects differ from person to person, but a few are common. “You’re more sensitive to sound; you’re hungrier,” says Beatriz Carlini, PhD, an affiliate associate professor and research scientist at the University of Washington.

“All those different sensations that people who use marijuana recreationally describe — like being more relaxed — are because of the THC.” It also increases dopamine levels, creating that sense of euphoria. Oleson EB, et al. (2012). A brain on cannabinoids: The role of dopamine release in reward seeking. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3405830/

You know that time you thought you smelled a skunk, but it turned out to be someone smoking a J nearby? Those are the terpenes at work.

Terpenes are the compounds responsible for the plant’s unmistakable odor. But recently researchers have found that they can do a whole lot more than that. It turns out that terpenes play a role in how weed hits you.

More research is needed, but scientists have an inkling that terpenes can impact THC’s effects related to pain, anxiety, appetite disorders, and more. It’s looking more and more like a synergistic relationship. Russo EB, et al. (2017). Chapter 3: Cannabis pharmacology: The usual suspects and a few promising leads. Cannabinoid Pharmacology. DOI: 10.1016/bs.apha.2017.03.004

CBD, on the other hand, is a different cannabinoid that acts as an antagonist to THC, Rudroff says.

“CBD does not have psychoactive effects, but it does have beneficial effects,” he says. “It reduces pain and muscle spasticity [stiffness] and can make you more relaxed. This is the compound of greatest interest for medical marijuana.”

You’ve probably noticed how hot CBD products are right now. Sales are expected to reach $22 billion in the next 3 years. Well-known pro athletes like Rob Gronkowski and Lamar Odom are pursuing endorsements or business deals with CBD companies.

“You can look at this and say, ‘THC is bad, and CBD is good,’ but it’s not that simple,” Rudroff says. “There are some interactions. You need both in the product to work together.” Scientists are still working out the perfect ratio, but Rudroff says some research suggests it might be 1-to-1.

The legal status of cannabis means it’s difficult to fully understand the benefits of CBD. In July 2019, the FDA released a consumer update saying they are “working to learn more about the safety of CBD,” but CBD products are not approved.

In August 2019, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell put pressure on the FDA to move faster, proposing an amendment that would force them to implement guidance on CBD products in the next 120 days.

First, a quick neuroscience lesson: Your brain is made up of billions of neurons and neural circuits. Neurons are long cells that are clustered near each other with a tiny space between their active sites.

To bridge the gap (or synapse) between neighboring neurons, chemicals called neurotransmitters deliver messages by traveling from one neuron to another. They then attach to molecules called receptors. Your body has many types, including endocannabinoid receptors.

“When we experience pain, inflammation, or stress — or have issues related to fear or mood — our body releases a number of neurotransmitters. Sometimes [endocannabinoids], which go to our endocannabinoid system are released to modulate these sensations as well,” Carlini says. Piomelli D. (2005). The endocannabinoid system: A drug discovery perspective. http://europepmc.org/abstract/med/16044662

Since the cannabinoids in marijuana look and act the same as the kind your body makes, they latch on to the cannabinoid receptors in your brain. There are two known types.

First up, CB1 cannabinoids are (mostly) located in parts of your brain associated with learning, memory, reward, anxiety, pain, and movement control. Then there are the CB2 cannabinoids, which are associated with your immune system. Ameri A. (1999). The effects of cannabinoids on the brain. DOI: 10.1016/S0301-0082(98)00087-2 Priyamvada S, et al. (2012). Chemistry, metabolism, and toxicology of cannabis: Clinical implications. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3570572/ Alger BE. (2013). Getting high on the endocannabinoid system. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3997295/

The exogenous cannabinoids throw your usual neuron functions out of whack, boosting certain signals and interfering with others. That’s why marijuana’s effects can range from a feeling of relaxation and pain relief to clumsiness, anxiety (or lack thereof), and even the munchies.

Just how quickly do you feel those results? Well, it all depends on whether you smoke, vape, or consume edibles.

“When you smoke, [cannabis] enters the bloodstream very quickly,” Rudroff says. “When you eat it, it can take up to 20 or 30 minutes before you can feel the effect.”

How long it takes also depends on the concentration of THC and CBD in the product you’re taking. “For us as scientists, it’s all about the levels of THC and CBD,” Carlini says. “It’s very hard to say, ‘Purple Haze [a popular strain of weed] is sativa, and it has X effect.’”

Weed experiences vary from person to person. What produces paranoia in one person might not have the same effects in someone else. The NIH says you can expect these side effects, among others:

  • altered senses
  • distorted sense of time
  • changes in mood
  • impaired body movement
  • difficulty with problem solving
  • impaired memory

Science can explain certain feelings like muscle relaxation and hunger, but the exact formula needed to create an identical reaction in everyone? That’s a lot trickier.

“We don’t doubt the differences, it’s just not well understood from the perspective of science,” Carlini says. “It’s a very complex plant.”

And strains aren’t as clear-cut as they used to be. You’ve probably heard that sativa strains can make you feel like you’re on cloud nine or ready to create a masterpiece, while indica strains are good for ditching PMS pain or catching some much-needed Zzz’s.

But recently researchers have started questioning conventional wisdom on strains. “The whole thing about strains is that we have no scientific basis that they will produce different experiences,” Carlini says.

She and Rudroff both say this is due to the amount of crossbreeding that has happened. At this stage, it’s tough to track botanical origins. That’s not to say science can’t pin down any effects. For instance, if you’ve ever smoked pot and felt anxious, it’s likely you smoked a strain with a high level of THC.

“Doses that are THC dominant can provoke paranoia,” Carlini says, “but good luck on having an equation on when that is going to happen.”

As for the consequences of habitual pot use, the jury is out. One recent study found that using pot regularly for 20 years resulted in higher incidences of gum disease but not much else. Hill KP, et al. (2016). Minimal physical health risk associated with long-term cannabis use — but buyer beware. DOI: 10.1001/jama.2016.5181

Another study that measured cognitive performance found that middle-aged users had poorer verbal memory than their non-using counterparts. Hall W, et al. (2016). Long-term marijuana use and cognitive impairment in middle age. DOI: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2015.7850

At this point we can’t be sure how reliable the data is. Many long-term studies like these use self-reporting techniques, which aren’t always dependable.

“We don’t know much about the long-term effects of cannabis,” Rudroff says. “In my opinion, cannabis does not lead to physical and mental dependence as long as it is used in a responsible manner.”

However, Rudroff adds that effects seem to be highly dependent on the age at which you start using. He says people who start at a younger age — when the brain is not fully developed — may have more negative effects later in life.

Researchers have only scratched the surface of this powerful plant. It’s getting a buzz (see what we did there?) for its potential to do everything from relieve pain to treat cancer symptoms, but a lot still isn’t known.

That said, canna-culture seems to be on everyone’s radar these days, from topicals to tinctures, edibles to extracts. If you decide to indulge, we recommend you do so responsibly. Everyone has a different sweet spot. Start slow and get to know the dose that works for you.

Most people think weed makes you giggly and hungry. But this plant can cause everything from bursts of energy to appetite suppression. Here’s why. ]]>