By Patrick O’Neil (RADT, MFA), Group Facilitator, Cast Centers
With 33 out of 50 states allowing marijuana for medical use—and another 11 that have decriminalized marijuana for recreational consumption—a good percentage of people suffering from mental disorders such as anxiety and depression are turning to marijuana as the miracle cure.
Cashing in on this many pro-marijuana websites are touting cannabis’ benefits to fix whatever ails them and every other person with anything from arthritis to cancer is signing on. One site in particular ran an article titled, “4 Best Cannabis Strains That’ll Melt Away Anxiety.” The article recommends brand name strains of marijuana such as Cherry Pie, Granddaddy Purple, and White Widow that proclaimed; “a popular choice for patients with anxiety or PTSD. Users say this strain provides the perfect blend of euphoria and stimulation and often take it to relieve various mood disorders.” And to be fair the site did included the usual, and legally warranted, disclaimer, “Marijuana is known to cause anxiety or paranoia, especially if you take it in large doses over a short period. It can lead to panic attacks, and as of now, it is the number one reason why people stop using it.”
However, who really reads warning labels? The mere fact that there are over 37 million Americans that still smoke cigarettes despite almost 50 years of warning labels and undeniable proof that smoking causes cancer should dispel anyone’s misconception that anyone actually does. People believe what they want and if the argument is persuasive enough then damn the evidence.
Yet in this case the scientific evidence states otherwise and really we need to examine how marijuana affects the brain in order to decipher if it really helps with anxiety. Now when someone smokes marijuana the chemical THC enters the brain and binds with the cannabinoid receptors which in turn releases the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin—both naturally produced chemicals that signal pleasure to the brain—but at the same time another neurotransmitter called norepinephrine, which normally keeps us alert and is naturally produced when we become anxious, gets reduced. Which all sounds good except that for some of us reduced norepinephrine has the opposite effect, and the parts of our brain that regulate arousal, or when we become excited, get switched on and it’s a nervous system overload. With all the symptoms of an anxiety attack: pounding heart, overwhelming fear, shortness of breath, and trembling—which is definitely not the desired effect.
And while medical professionals are not exactly sure what causes anxiety—it’s thought to be a combination of genetics, environment, trauma, stress, and brain chemistry—they do know that to treat anxiety the patient needs to engage with both psychotherapy and medication. The former might entail group anxiety therapy or sessions with a therapist or psychologist in order for the person with anxiety to learn tools and methods to cope when their anxiety occurs. The latter, medication, includes antidepressants and sedatives that balance the brain’s chemistry and calm the nerves. However, for a large percentage of those that suffer from less debilitating forms of anxiety, it is just a matter of making significant changes to their thinking, lifestyles, relationships, and environment—and medications are not even necessary.
But the really deciding factor against smoking marijuana as a cure for anxiety is that you could develop other mental health issues. In her article for Mother Jones magazine, reporter Stephanie Mencimer quoted two studies that warn of marijuana use actually causing schizophrenia and psychosis, “A 2002 study in BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) found that people who used cannabis by age 15 were four times as likely to develop schizophrenia or a related syndrome as those who’d never used. In 2017, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine issued a report nearly 500 pages long on the health effects of cannabis and concluded that marijuana use is strongly associated with the development of psychosis and schizophrenia.”
Now whether or not you choose to believe that this is true is your decision. However, what is true is that people who utilize a drug to the point of dependency to fix their anxiety—rather than engage in the needed internal and external work that will help—will always have anxiety. And while medications have come a long way, they alone are not the cure. As Dr. Thomas R. Insel, former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, states, “the time has come to recognize that there is not a magic bullet for most people with mental disorders, that the best treatment will involve access to multiple interventions tailored to the needs of an individual patient.” And smoking marijuana is just not considered one of the “interventions” that actually work.