Decreasing Stigma of Smoking Pot Poses Increased Danger to Mentally Ill

By Zoey DiMauro | September 15, 2014 | 1:27 PM EDT

A visitor walks through the pot pavilion at the Denver County Fair, the nation's first county fair to allow pot competitions, on Aug. 1, 2014.  (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

(CNSNews.com)--As public support for the legalization of marijuana grows and the stigma surrounding its use lessens, many people suffering from mental illness are unaware that smoking pot could actually make their condition worse.

“Marijuana interacts with their disease,” said Karen E. Moeller, a psychiatric pharmacist at the University of Kansas Medical Center, in an interview with CNSNews.com. “People with mental illness or people in general don’t always know all the side effects.”

“Sometimes marijuana can worsen your anxiety,” she explained. “(If the patient has) schizophrenia, it could make them more paranoid than normal, possibly could worsen their hallucinations. (For patients with depression) it can actually worsen their depression, make them more numb.”

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), there is also a documented link between marijuana use and the development of psychosis, especially for those who start using pot in adolescence.

NIDA also notes that “associations have also been found between marijuana use and other mental health problems such as suicidal thoughts among adolescents, and personality disturbances, including a lack of motivation to engage in typically rewarding activities.”

There is some evidence that marijuana can even trigger mental illness. One study published in The Lancet found the chances of developing schizophrenia increase six-fold in heavy marijuana smokers as compared to non-users.

However, since 2007 the drug has grown in popularity among young people, who have a “diminishing perception of the drug’s risks,” due in large part to “increased public debate over the drug’s legal status,” according to NIDA.

Those with mental illness are especially at risk for becoming drug abusers. Among the 43.7 million adults suffering from any form of mental illness, 19.2 percent (8.4 million adults) met the criteria for a substance use disorder, according to a 2012 survey by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Almost a third of those with a serious mental illness also had substance dependency or abuse problems. In comparison, only 6.4 percent of people without a mental illness were substance abusers.

Many mentally ill people use controlled drugs like marijuana because they think it will help them, not knowing that it can often cause more harm than good.

Bob Leeds, owner of Sea Green Farms in Seattle, checks his recreational marijuana crop. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

“Most of our patients do use marijuana,” Moeller confessed. “It’s actually really hard to get patients off marijuana because they think of it as something that will calm them down.”

“We had a person who was getting marijuana from Colorado, saying he was using it for his headaches,” she recounted.

“He had to drop out of school because of all the substances he was using, but he kept thinking that the marijuana-- because it’s an herbal medication and states are now allowing its legal use-- that it’s safe to use. He couldn't fathom how it could affect his mental illness.”

Moeller believes that patients receive misinformation about pot from popular culture, rather than medical professionals or other reliable sources. “In psychiatry, I don't think any doctor really recommends that they go use it for bipolar, schizophrenia or anxiety,” she told CNSNews.com.

Two states - Colorado and Washington - have legalized marijuana for recreational use and 21 states allow the use of medical marijuana, reports NIDA, despite the fact that the federal government still classifies it as a Schedule I substance with no medical use and a high potential for abuse.

Though mentally ill patients may feel the drug soothes and lessens their symptoms, their assumptions about how marijuana affects them are often wrong, according to Dr. Stuart Gitlow, president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), who maintains that whatever an individual may feel, “all the medical guidelines say there is no such thing as medical use of the plant marijuana.”

“Subjective perspective and anecdotal evidence are not a scientific basis for saying a drug works,” he pointed out.

For example, “I have many patients who feel as if they have to keep taking Valium for their anxiety because they think it helps them,” Gitlow told CNSNews.com. “What they never realize is that Valium causes more anxiety than it solves if they've been taking it for more than eight weeks.

“So right now, I’m having an anxiety attack. I take my Valium, I feel better and it seems to me that the drug worked. What I don't realize is that the next anxiety attack is because I took the Valium to solve this anxiety attack,” he explained.

Gitlow also serves on the advisory board of the Smart Approaches to Marijuana Science, an organization which strongly opposes the legalization of the marijuana plant, though not necessarily all of its chemical components.

“Marijuana itself as a plant is sort of like talking about willow bark, which contains the components of aspirin,” he explained. “But no one says if you have a headache, you should go strip some bark off a willow tree and chew on that, because there are hundreds of other components in willow bark and we don't know how bad they are.”

“In many ways [pot] is like alcohol,” he continued. “About 80 to 90 percent of the population can drink alcohol without having an immediate negative consequence like addiction. But 10 percent of the population will, and there’s no way of knowing before they drink.

“Essentially we're looking at a drug which will eventually cause a significant but minority part of the population great harm,” he added.