The Complicated Link Between Marijuana and Schizophrenia

Man looking sadThe relationship between medical cannabis and psychosis is a heated issue. Despite the fact that many research studies have been conducted on how cannabis affects the human brain and if the drug can be used to treat or manage certain mental health issues, scientists have been unable to reach a definitive conclusion. This is mainly because the research studies have provided mixed results.

While scientific research has not reached a conclusion, there have been a few anecdotal claims regarding the drug’s efficiency for treating and managing various health problems, including some mental health issues. The contradictory evidence has made the issue of cannabis legalization and its use for treatment even more controversial.  

Before analyzing the link between marijuana and schizophrenia, let’s try to understand what schizophrenia is.

What is Schizophrenia?

Brain and Behavior Research Foundation explains schizophrenia as “a chronic brain and behavior disorder that affects a person’s thinking, feelings, and actions. The person can have trouble distinguishing reality from fantasy, expressing and managing emotions, and making decisions. The disease can also affect the patient’s thought processes, they may hear imaginary voices and may believe that other people are reading their minds, controlling their thoughts or plotting to harm them.”

Due to the debilitating effects, a person suffering from schizophrenia can become socially withdrawn, unresponsive, and emotionless.  

Contrary to public perception, schizophrenia is different from split personality or multiple personality disorder. Unlike a person suffering from a split personality, patients of schizophrenia are non-violent – they do not pose any threat to people around them.

What Causes Schizophrenia?

Despite all the advancements in the field of medical science, the exact cause of this severe brain disorder is still unclear. Healthcare professionals and researchers are of the opinion that multiple factors can contribute to the development of schizophrenia. These are:

    • Genetics
    • Biology of a person’s brain— some abnormalities in the chemistry or structure of the brain can trigger the development of the disease.
    • Immune disorders
    • Certain viral infections
    • A variety of psychological factors

Warning Signs and Symptoms of Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is not as common as other brain disorders. According to the American Psychiatric Association, less than one percent of people in the U.S. suffer from chronic brain disease. However, its symptoms are severe and disabling.

Patients with schizophrenia experience and exhibit the following behavioral changes during the early stages of the disease:

    • Change in appearance and personal hygiene
    • Strange body positioning
    • Social withdrawal
    • Being indifferent to important situations
    • Distorted thinking and speech
    • Hallucinations
    • Hearing voices
    • Disorganized or inappropriate behavior
    • Lack of emotions as well as the inability to express
    • Extreme apathy
    • Inability to concentrate
    • Inability to sleep
    • Lack of drive or initiative
    • Patients with schizophrenia constantly feel as if they are being watched

While these are some of the most common signs of schizophrenia, not every patient experiences the same symptoms; they differ from person to person, making the treatment even more difficult. Some people may develop the symptoms slowly, over months and maybe years, while others can develop them abruptly.

Treatment of Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is an incurable disease. However, there are medications and treatments available that can help manage the disease by reducing the severity of symptoms.

There are a variety of treatment methods that are used along with antipsychotic medicines. These include behavioral therapies, supportive psychotherapy, and other psychological treatments. In addition to reducing the severity of symptoms and improving the quality of life, these treatment methods also help prevent the relapse of the disease.

Cannabis and Schizophrenia – Understanding the Link Between Them

Does Schizophrenia Drive More Pot Use?

Man rolling up marijuana The link between cannabis and schizophrenia is complex and historically fraught. Scientists have been trying to understand the complex relationship between cannabis and psychosis for a long time.

During the 1960s and 70s, scientists believed that people who use marijuana are more likely to develop a number of psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia; however, it was found that the disease can increase the likelihood of drug use – patients with schizophrenia are more likely to use marijuana than a healthy person due to their unique neurobiology. Dr. Suzi Gage, a research associate at the MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit, said, “The evidence suggested that schizophrenia risk predicts the likelihood of trying cannabis”.

Does Pot Use Drive One to Schizophrenia?

A research study conducted in 2007 found that using the drug just once can make a person 40% more vulnerable to psychotic disorders, including schizophrenia, but if we look at the real situations, among the millions of people who use pot (both legally and illegally), those that fall ill to any type of diseases is quite low. That said, we are not including those who start pursuing more dangerous drugs because of their use of marijuana; such as cocaine, heroin, and opioids, and once one is using these narcotics,  it is certainly a situation that may then lead one to schizophrenia, but we will leave that for a separate article.

There are many factors and evidence that challenge the research findings of marijuana use and schizophrenia. Many scientists refute the claims on the basis of the fact that while the use of marijuana has generally increased, the number of people suffering from schizophrenia has actually decreased. This leads many scientists to reach the conclusion that the relationship between the two factors isn’t causal but coincidental.

There are multiple factors that need to be considered to understand the link between marijuana and schizophrenia. Some of them are the age of the person, the amount of drug, how long the person has been consuming the drug and genetics.

Many modern research studies have found that the use of cannabis can lead to schizophrenia in people who have a genetic vulnerability, i.e., a family history of the disease.

Due to the different and often conflicting evidence, there is a lack of consensus among healthcare professionals and researchers. Also, the link between cannabis and schizophrenia is not clear yet.

According to the findings of a study that was conducted over more than 2000 healthy individuals and was published in Molecular Psychiatry in 2014:

“Although considerable evidence implicates cannabis use as a component cause of schizophrenia, it remains unclear whether this is entirely due to cannabis directly raising risk of psychosis, or whether the same genes that increase the risk of psychosis may also increase the risk of cannabis use.”

Cannabis for Treating Schizophrenia

While still in its early stages, there are some studies that have found that the use of marijuana may actually help patients with schizophrenia.

Some researchers at the University of Wollongong found that Cannabidiol (CBD) – a compound that is often termed as the magical compound of the cannabis plant – can provide symptomatic relief to people suffering from a brain disorder.

According to Dr. Katrina Green, the lead researcher, CBD can offer neurological support to cope with a number of mental disorders, ranging from schizophrenia to Alzheimer’s.

Bottom Line

In view of the diverse and contradictory evidence, researchers have reached the conclusion that the relationship between cannabis and schizophrenia is not clear-cut. On the other hand, the research regarding the effectiveness of medical cannabis in providing relief from the symptoms of schizophrenia is in its preliminary stages. It is too early to establish the claim; a thorough investigation is needed to confirm the findings.