Is the Heavy Use of High-Potency Cannabis Exacerbating the Mental Health Crisis in the US?

Author and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Jose Toledo

Is marijuana actually addictive

Today, 55 million Americans regularly use cannabis, and Minnesota recently became the 23rd state in the US to legalize its recreational use. For many, this spread of legalization represents progress: a long-awaited improvement on the intolerance of the previous century. 

Frequently the subject of comic relief in popular media (think Dazed and Confused, Cheech & Chong, or Pineapple Express), cannabis is widely perceived as a relatively mild substance; one that’s even been shown to be effective at treating a variety of conditions, including cancer and treatment-related symptoms

However, a growing body of research is showing that using marijuana can pose significant health risks. What’s more, heavy use of high-potency strains, along with increasing legalization, could be contributing to the mental health crisis among young adults.

Psychotic disorders linked to cannabis use

Firstly, it’s important to outline the complexity of this subject. Multiple factors contribute to an increased risk of cannabis-induced psychosis—genetic, socioeconomic, psychological, and so on. However, while more research needs to be conducted, the correlation is becoming harder to ignore. 

This study revealed that users of high-potency cannabis were three times as likely to receive a diagnosis of psychosis compared to non-users, and meta-analysis from 2016 found that:

​​”Higher levels of cannabis use were associated with increased risk for psychosis in all the included studies.”

Furthermore, a study from Denmark assessed data from almost 7 million people and found that young men were extremely susceptible to cannabis-induced psychosis. What makes this trend even more concerning is the fact that marijuana consumption among young people has reached record highs

The typical age group for onset of many psychiatric disorders coincides with the age range where the use of cannabis is most prevalent. The link is significant enough that many health professionals are calling for greater scrutiny of cannabis use in young people, particularly those with emerging symptoms of mental health disorders.  

This concern isn’t solely related to the prevalence of cannabis use, but also the increasingly potent strains being consumed. In particular, those with high levels of THC (the psychoactive component of cannabis) are believed to have a stronger link to the development of psychotic disorders. As the market continues to produce stronger strains, the severity and frequency of such disorders may rise correspondingly.

Marijuana use and psychiatric disorders

While schizophrenia and psychosis are the most recognized risks, evidence linking marijuana use to psychiatric conditions such as depression and bipolar disorder is also accumulating. 

While the research is mostly observational and doesn’t directly prove a causal relationship, it nonetheless suggests a link at odds with cannabis’ reputation as a benign substance. That being said, it remains inconclusive whether people with these conditions are more inclined to use the drug as a form of self-medication, or whether cannabis is the chief cause.

How does cannabis affect the brain?

human brain made of hemp

When you consume cannabis, it has a direct impact on your brain’s endocannabinoid system. This system is involved in regulating a variety of functions such as mood, appetite, sleep, and memory. It also plays a crucial role in brain development, particularly during your adolescent years.

Put simply, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), latches onto the receptors in your endocannabinoid system. This action triggers a series of chemical reactions, leading to feelings of euphoria, or the “high” you might experience.

While the immediate effects might feel enjoyable or calming, it’s important to consider the long-term impacts. Regular, heavy use of cannabis during your teenage years can severely disrupt your endocannabinoid system. This can have serious implications, potentially affecting functions like attention, memory, and learning.

Research also indicates that the frequent use of high-potency cannabis can lead to long-term structural and functional changes in your brain. Moreover, as we’ve pointed out, the use of cannabis (especially frequent use of high-THC strains) may heighten your risk of severe psychiatric conditions.

Remember, your brain continues to develop into your mid-to-late twenties. Introducing cannabis into your system during this critical period may have long-lasting effects, possibly hindering your brain’s full developmental potential. It’s therefore vital to be informed about these potential risks, for the sake of your own health, as well as the wellbeing of younger family members.

Is cannabis addictive? Experts say yes

For many years, cannabis wasn’t considered physically addictive. Today, however, research confirms the opposite to be true. 

The National Institute of Drug Abuse states that:

“30% of those who use marijuana may have some degree of marijuana use disorder. People who begin using marijuana before the age of 18 are four to seven times more likely to develop a marijuana use disorder than adults. This percentage dramatically increases for those who start using during their teenage years or use cannabis daily.”

Understanding the potentially addictive nature of cannabis is crucial. While the “high” might initially seem pleasurable, regular consumption can lead to the development of a tolerance, necessitating larger amounts to achieve the same effect.

A study in JAMA Internal Medicine supports the veracity of physical dependency, indicating that the prevalence and severity of withdrawal symptoms correlate with the frequency of marijuana use before cessation. While cannabis may not seem as addictive as substances like alcohol, opiates, or nicotine, you shouldn’t underestimate its potential for physical dependency.

Not all cannabis is the same: the rise of THC

The increased urgency is twofold—not only is marijuana consumption rising, but the manner of use is potentially more harmful. The THC content (associated with marijuana’s psychoactive properties) has risen greatly over the last several decades. This increase means users are consuming a far more potent drug than they might realize, putting themselves at greater risk for adverse effects.

While the cannabis of yesteryears contained THC concentrations of around 2–3%, today’s popular strains can boast an astonishing 90% THC concentration. Rather than being due to natural variations, this spike is a product of sophisticated cultivation and production techniques.

The increase in THC concentrations in cannabis products—combined with the lack of regulatory oversight—highlights a vital public health issue. Given the aforementioned correlation between THC and mental illness, understanding the implications of this rising potency is vital, not only for users but also for those tasked with crafting effective policies.

Underestimated risks and growing concerns

close up image of someone using a cannabis joint

The full impact of legalization on underage cannabis consumption remains unclear. However, frequent marijuana use among young adults has skyrocketed. For example, in 2020, 8% of college students reported daily or near-daily use. 

There is mounting concern that many are significantly underestimating the risks associated with cannabis. With increasing legalization and the rising potency of cannabis products, the potential mental health effects on young users should be a pressing concern.

Ultimately, it’s still early days, so predictions shouldn’t be based on the current impact of cannabis legalization. What is clear is that legalizing marijuana has already made it cheaper, stronger, and more widely accessible—and the price could drop even more if it becomes legal throughout the US. It’s also a fact that legalization has led to more people using it regularly. 

Given what we know about the potential dangers of cannabis use, regulation, education, and guidance for young people must be top priorities.

How Tikvah Lake can help

Overcoming cannabis addiction can be a complex process, and this is where Tikvah Lake Recovery can shine as your ally. Our luxury facility and personalized treatment plans make us an ideal choice for tackling the challenges associated with this addiction.

With our seasoned team of medical professionals and therapists, we understand the intricate facets of addiction. Our comprehensive treatment approach combines treatments like cognitive-behavioral therapy with a holistic approach to address both the physical symptoms of withdrawal and the psychological aspects of addiction. This enables us to help you understand and manage the triggers leading to cannabis use.

Tikvah Lake’s support doesn’t end with our premium treatment programs, as we also provide comprehensive aftercare programs to help you maintain and sustain your recovery. Remember, while the effects of cannabis addiction can be daunting, with the right help, lasting recovery is completely achievable. 

If you’d like to talk to us about marijuana addiction, or how we can help you or a loved one, please book a confidential consultation with us today.

About Adam Nesenoff

Adam Nesenoff has been working in recovery for over ten years.

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