The link between marijuana use during the teenage years and the development of schizophrenia later in life seems to be established, according to the World’s Psychiatric Institution. For decades, scientists have speculated on the correlation between early marijuana use and the later onset of psychosis. That such a correlation existed was even the subject of much debate.
Latest on Schizophrenia-Marijuana Link
Now Hannelore Ehrenreich of the Max Planck Institute of Experimental Medicine has added another study to a growing body of research that suggests cannabis may be responsible for an earlier onset of schizophrenia in patients who are already vulnerable to the disease. Her research showed that those who had smoked marijuana as teenagers developed the mental illness 10 years earlier than other patients with schizophrenia. The study also shows that genetics and alcohol use did not play a role in the earlier diagnosis. It did show, however, that the frequency of marijuana use did play a role.
Ehrenreich’s research is pivotal because it establishes a clear link between future mental illness and marijuana use, a link that critics have previously decried. They often cite a British study that compared the increase in pot use between 1990 and 2010 and the number of new schizophrenia diagnoses. It found that despite the increased use of marijuana, schizophrenia diagnoses did not increase. The International Center for Science in Drug Policy concluded that “these findings strongly suggest that cannabis use does not cause schizophrenia.”
Does Marijuana Cause Schizophrenia?
Ehrenreich’s study doesn’t weigh in on whether marijuana causes schizophrenia. But her assertion that cannabis induces an earlier onset of schizophrenia in those already vulnerable to the disease establishes a scientifically clear link between marijuana use and the development of mental illness. Those most excited about the study’s implications point out that for years researchers could only speculate on the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. Just as extensive research firmly established that cigarettes cause cancer, research in the coming years, they believe, will likely prove a causal relationship between cannabis and the onset of mental illness.
The key to firmly establishing that causal link may be in how the psychoactive substance in marijuana, Tetrahydrocannabinol, better known as THC, behaves once it’s in the brain. Research has shown that THC interrupts brain signals that are normally regulated by substances called endocannabinoids. THC blocks the receptors otherwise used by these endocannabinoids. Disrupting these brain signals in the endocannabinoid system has also been linked to psychosis.
Scientists point out that the human brain continues to develop until we reach the age of 25. If teenagers, with their undeveloped brains, are frequently smoking weed, they could permanently damage an area already linked to schizophrenia.
Role of New Strains of Marijuana
THC’s influence on a part of the brain which is already implicated in the development of psychosis is particularly disturbing because growers are actively increasing the amount of THC in their plants. Marijuana use among teenagers is sharply on the rise. More teens today smoke pot than do cigarettes. With the proliferation of medical marijuana and sophisticated growers able to manipulate the chemical concentrations in their crops, teenagers today may be exposed to more THC than previous generations.
This is just one of the disturbing realities in store for California’s recently legalized recreational marijuana amid an approving public poorly informed by the media. What began as a marginalized effort to find a compassionate solution for patients with chronic conditions unresponsive to mainstream medicine has ballooned into approval for the widespread use of a potentially dangerous drug. Questions such as, does marijuana cause schizophrenia, need answers. Without the proper research, the true cost of legal recreational marijuana use may not be known for years. By then, the teenagers of today may be the ones paying the price.