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Marijuana, Psychosis, Children, and the Double Standard

Drug-induced psychosis
An expression of a drug-induced psychosis or the typical emotional life of a modern child? (Art by Marzden Parzybok)

A client recently came to me for a consult asking advice about her son with autism. He is a bright, cautious, and sometimes overly anxious 14 year old who has had, like many, a negative and debilitating response to SSRIs (anti-anxiety and anti depression drugs.) As his parents had tried many conventional medications on her son (and who in her college days felt the calming and focusing effects of cannabis,) she thought  that an alternative, natural drug for her son’s anxiety might be worth a try since many adults successfully treat anxiety, depression, and mood disorders with an appropriate, and effective dose of marijuana.

But, being a concerned and informed mom, she found the drug facts web page from the National Institute of Drug Abuse. Although she was open to having her son explore cannabis medicinally, she sheepishly brought me the literature and expressed how “alarming” the data was on the harms of cannabis.

Without going in to too much detail, phrases like, “altered perceptions,” “impaired coordination,” “difficulty with thinking and problem solving,” “disrupted learning,” “lost cognitive abilities,” “psychosis,” and talk of lost IQ points for heavy users are naturally alarming to any parent. (Luckily, “life-threatening” is not on the list.)

In my research, or in explaining when and how to use marijuana, I have a basic rule; take the conventional medication used to treat the symptom and compare its harms and benefits side by side with the data on cannabis. Then, with your family and doctor, make an informed, objective decision about which is the better treatment.

There has been more research confirming the potential for marijuana to lead to psychosis in users, so firstly, I wanted to know the definition of substance-induced psychosis.

Psychosis manifests as disorientation and visual hallucinations.[1] It is a state in which a person’s mental capacity to recognize reality, communicate, and relate to others is impaired, thus interfering with the capacity to deal with life demands.”

Psychosis is a scary word. It’s definition is less scary. Many patients’ experience of their own anxiety, depression, and mood disorders could be defined in a similar way. As a marijuana advisor, I would also say that if you are experiencing the above symptoms using marijuana, alcohol, recreational drugs, or conventional medications such as Benzodiazepines, (Benzos) then you need to re-evaluate your dosage and usage. And, since Benzos, are used to treat mood disorders in adolescents, are addictive, and can lead to psychosis, then not only should marijuana be considered potentially dangerous as a medication, but also potentially just as effective. This is info on Benzos from an adolescent drug addiction website:

Doctors prescribe benzodiazepines to treat anxiety, panic attacks, seizure disorders, and insomnia… [They] can result in a variety of negative side effects, including amnesia, drowsiness, dizziness, blurred vision, slurred speech, irritability, disturbing dreams and hostility, confusion, forgetfulness, depression, insomnia, lightheadedness, mood changes, tremors, muscle cramps and weakness, staggering, dry mouth, menstrual changes, sexual dysfunction, anorexia, hypotension, and problems with urination. Withdrawal from benzodiazepines is long and unpleasant, and can be life threatening. A teen can die if he or she stops using benzodiazepines too quickly.”

Talk about “alarming.” My heart goes out to the parent who has to choose between Benzos or SSRI’s for their child’s mood disorder, but can not even consider marijuana for treating the above ailments.

The mom will ultimately make an informed choice about medical cannabis for her son, and her son has to be on board about that decision as well. All drugs should be held to the same standard. But, we should not be fooled in to thinking that cannabis is a dangerous psychosis-inducing drug and that conventional medication prescribed every day to children is not dangerous…

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