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Marijuana is without question the most widely used illegal drug in the United States and the Western Hemisphere. You may also know it as weed, mary jane, reefer, a blunt, or it’s scientific origin, cannabis.
Marijuana comes from the dried leaves of the Cannabis plant and is the least powerful of all cannabis products. But users love the drug because it ‘chills them out’ and makes them feel good. Some even argue that they feel “healthier” when taking it. They are not totally wrong. Scientific research shows marijuana does, in fact, have several health benefits including, suppressing some cancer cells, reducing blood pressure, treating glaucoma, alleviating pain and even inhibiting HIV replication.
As of this writing, marijuana has been legalized for medical use in 20 states, including California and the District of Columbia. Colorado has made it legally available to residents as of the new year.
But marijuana is not completely without danger, especially when it comes to mental health. Several studies have shown an association between heavy, chronic marijuana use (5 blunts a day or more) and mental illness, especially for individuals who already have an underlying mental illness or have a family history of mental illness, including depression, anxiety and psychotic spectrum illnesses such as schizophrenia. People in these risk categories are usually advised not to smoke marijuana, as they are likely to experience psychotic breaks more than other users.
Although many people experience a temporary lifting of depression after smoking weed, multiple studies confirm that over time it worsens depression and increases the occurrence (Lev-Ran et al., 2013; Pacek et al., 2013). Drinking alcohol with weed can make depression much worse leading to lack of motivation and possibly suicidal thoughts.
A recent study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that people who smoke the drug before age 17 are 3.5 times more likely to attempt suicide as those who started smoking it later in life. Adolescents who use marijuana heavily have been shown to be at increased risk for developing depression and a host of other mental illnesses (Copeland et. al 2013). In general the earlier an individual starts using marijuana the more susceptible they are to various mental health issues like, memory problems, poor decision making, including sexual risk-taking and delinquency.
Though many argue marijuana is not addictive, neuroscientists have demonstrated that it affects the brain’s reward center the same way other illicit drugs have shown; and clinical studies show that some individuals experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop using marijuana.
The bottom line is that while many of the marijuana’s side effects are reversible, it can be addictive and can predispose users to depression and risk taking. Early use can also negatively impact brain development during formative years. Remember while medical use is allowed in several states, it’s still an illegal substance.
If you or someone you know needs assistance with an addiction, contact Marijuana Anonymous (MA).
Dr. Derek H. Suite, M.D., M.S. is the Founder and CEO of Full Circle Health (FCH), a New York based community practice devoted to providing culturally competent, spiritually sensitive psychiatric and psychological services.