As more and more states will be voting on whether to legalize marijuana in November, the arguments for and against legalizing pot are coming out in full force. Many proponents of legal marijuana point to the drug’s benefits and harmlessness—but some are calling into question the supposed innocuous nature of pot. For decades pot has been loosely linked to psychosis and schizophrenia, but researchers are finding that while people with marijuana use disorder or those who need treatment in an addiction recovery center have a higher risk of experiencing episodes of psychosis due to concentrated doses of pot, they are not likely to develop schizophrenia.
Anecdotal evidence over the years points to a link between marijuana and psychosis. Anyone who takes a very high or concentrated dose of pot is at risk of experiencing psychosis, but the symptoms usually fade as the high does. According to Dr. Nora Volkow of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), although pot can cause transitory psychotic episodes in high doses, marijuana does not trigger long-term schizophrenia in people who are not genetically predisposed to the disease. So even people who are daily marijuana smokers and need care in an addiction treatment facility will not develop schizophrenia if they don’t have the genes for it. However, heavy smokers should seek treatment in drug rehab for the range of other negative effects associated with long-term marijuana use.
According to NPR, eight out of nine longitudinal studies found a link between pot use and psychosis. But, as Volkow says, this link may not mean that marijuana causes people to develop schizophrenia. Instead, it’s possible that people who already have schizophrenia or emerging schizophrenia are more likely to use marijuana to self-medicate. The studies are also complicated by the fact that marijuana users are likely to be using other drugs that may also cause psychosis, muddying the results.
However, research has also definitively shown that marijuana initiates the onset or exacerbates symptoms of schizophrenia in people who are predisposed or vulnerable to the disease. According to NIDA, daily marijuana smokers who also have a certain AKT1 gene variation are seven times more likely to develop schizophrenia than less frequent smokers. And marijuana has been shown to worsen the symptoms of schizophrenia in people who already suffer from the disorder.
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