STUDIES REVIVE MARIJUANA'S CONNECTION TO MENTAL ILLNESS
Pot May Lead To Schizophrenia
A pair of articles in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry has resurrected the "reefer madness" argument about marijuana and its links to mental illness.
Cannabis use can trigger schizophrenia in people already vulnerable to the mental illness -- and this fact should shape marijuana policy, argue two psychiatric epidemiologists in this month's journal.
The link between marijuana use and schizophrenia is generally accepted in the psychiatric community. The problem is that the vulnerable population -- mostly teenagers -- generally isn't eager to absorb the message.
Australian epidemiologists Louisa Degenhardt and Wayne Hall reviewed eight international studies of teens and young adults that examined the link between marijuana use and schizophrenia. They concluded that using marijuana can precipitate schizophrenia in users who have a personal or family history of schizophrenia.
One 15-year study of 50,000 young people in Sweden, for example, found that those who had tried marijuana by the time they were 18 were 2.4 times more likely to receive a diagnosis of schizophrenia. The Swedish researchers concluded that 13 per cent of schizophrenia cases could be averted if all cannabis use was prevented.
Another study of almost 5,000 subjects in the Netherlands replicated the findings, and also found that marijuana users were more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia during the study's three-year follow-up period. Other studies suggested that subjects who used marijuana in their early teens were more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia by their mid-20s. In a companion article, Hall and Degenhardt argue that the evidence has policy implications. Young people should be warned of the marijuana-schizophrenia link -- most schizophrenics are diagnosed by their late teens, about the same time teens are experimenting with cannabis.
The link has been used to argue in favour of recriminalizing marijuana in some Australian states. However, only one per cent of the population will be diagnosed with schizophrenia in their lifetimes.
Hall, a researcher at the University of New South Wales in Australia, said it's a tricky argument to make when, by the numbers, marijuana will adversely affect so few people. But he points out that schizophrenia has a high personal and economic cost.
Although it's unlikely that a vulnerable person will develop the illness after puffing on a single joint, Hall said some studies suggest that marijuana smokers are two or three times more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia. In Australia -- where marijuana use is heavy among teens -- it's not uncommon for 20 to 30 per cent of new episodes of schizophrenia to be among patients who use marijuana daily or almost daily.
"There are a lot of other reasons to discourage young people from using cannabis," said Hall, who believes that young people should know about the link and also be on the lookout for schizophrenic symptoms that show up among their friends who smoke marijuana.
He also argued that penalties for growing pot should depend on the potency of the product. Authorities cracking down on field-grown crops have inadvertently pushed growers indoors, and these crops are more potent, he said.
Wende Wood, a psychiatric pharmacist at the Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health said people who want to smoke marijuana should wait until they are at least 25 -- the human brain had developed fully by that time, and if schizophrenia is present, it has usually already become apparent.
Winnipeg Free Press (CN MB)
Copyright: 2006 Winnipeg Free Press