Marijuana, mental illness, and crime

I don’t believe I’ve ever written about an article from Mother Jones before, but this one about the effects of marijuana seems well worth considering. It’s based on a book by Alex Berenson, formerly a reporter for the New York Times, called Tell Your Children.

According to Mother Jones’ Stephanie Mencimer, Berensen’s book “takes a sledgehammer to the promised benefits of marijuana legalization, and cannabis enthusiasts are not going to like it one bit.” Her discussion fully justifies this statement.

I’ve always thought that the ill-effects of long-term marijuana use resided mainly in laziness, low ambition level, and a gradual decline in ability to think analytically. But the evils Berensen alleges are of a different order of magnitude.

The book was seeded one night a few years ago when Berenson’s wife, a psychiatrist who evaluates mentally ill criminal defendants in New York, started talking about a horrific case she was handling. It was “the usual horror story, somebody who’d cut up his grandmother or set fire to his apartment—typical bedtime chat in the Berenson house,” he writes. But then, his wife added, “Of course he was high, been smoking pot his whole life.”. . .

[H]is Harvard-trained wife insisted that all the horrible cases she was seeing involved people who were heavy into weed. She directed him to the science on the subject.

Here is what Berensen found:

Cannabis has been associated with legitimate reports of psychotic behavior and violence dating at least to the 19th century, when a Punjabi lawyer in India noted that 20 to 30 percent of patients in mental hospitals were committed for cannabis-related insanity. The lawyer, like Berenson’s wife, described horrific crimes—including at least one beheading—and attributed far more cases of mental illness to cannabis than to alcohol or opium. The Mexican government reached similar conclusions, banning cannabis sales in 1920—nearly 20 years before the United States did—after years of reports of cannabis-induced madness and violent crime.

Over the past couple of decades, studies around the globe have found that THC—the active compound in cannabis—is strongly linked to psychosis, schizophrenia, and violence. Berenson interviewed far-flung researchers who have quietly but methodically documented the effects of THC on serious mental illness, and he makes a convincing case that a recreational drug marketed as an all-around health product may, in fact, be really dangerous—especially for people with a family history of mental illness and for adolescents with developing brains.

Consider a 2002 study in BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal). It found that people who used cannabis by age 15 were four times more likely to develop schizophrenia or a related syndrome than those who’d never used. Even when the researchers excluded kids who had shown signs of psychosis by age 11, they found that the adolescent users had a threefold higher risk of demonstrating symptoms of schizophrenia later on.

Or consider a 2017 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. It concluded that marijuana use is strongly associated with the development of psychosis and schizophrenia. The researchers also noted that there’s decent evidence linking pot consumption to worsening symptoms of bipolar disorder and to a heightened risk of suicide, depression, and social anxiety disorders: “The higher the use, the greater the risk.”

Marijuana use is up 50 percent over the past decade, so many people having become “woke” during this period. Does this significant increase in use correspond to a significant increase in psychotic diseases?

Yes, it does, according to Berensen. He reports that from 2006 to 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, the number of ER visitors co-diagnosed with psychosis and a cannabis use disorder tripled, from 30,000 to 90,000.

But maybe marijuana doesn’t cause mental illness; perhaps mental illness drives self-medication with weed. Not so, says Berensen. Longitudinal studies in New Zealand, Sweden, and the Netherlands spanning several decades identified an association between cannabis and mental illness even when accounting for prior signs of mental illness.

In Sweden, a researcher analyzed a large data base of those who had been conscripted for military service. After adjusting for factors such as a family history of mental illness or existing symptoms of schizophrenia at the time of conscription, he found that using cannabis more than 10 times in adolescence more than doubled the risk of developing schizophrenia.

That study was published in 1987. Mencimer points out that the marijuana consumed today is significantly more potent than back in the day. Some forms, she says, come pretty close to 100 percent THC content. The marijuana I consumed nearly 50 years ago probably had a THC level one-tenth or less that high.

One would expect that if marijuana produces serious mental disorders it will also increase violent crime. It seems to, just as Berensen’s wife told him anecdotally:

Berenson looked at data for the four states that legalized weed in 2014 and 2015—Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and Colorado—and calculated a combined 35 percent increase in murders in those states from 2013 to 2017, compared with a 20-percent rise nationally. This “isn’t a statistical anomaly,” Berenson writes. “It’s real.”

The role of weed in rising violent crime rates in legalization states is a hotly contested question, especially in Colorado, where murders in Denver are at a 10-year high. Berenson admits he can’t say for sure whether those upswings are due to legal weed, but the raw data, he says, definitely contradicts advocates’ claims: “What I want people to stop saying is that legalization reduces violent crime. It doesn’t.”

Mencimer’s article is followed by the following boiler-plate about Mother Jones (which precedes an appeal for financial support):

Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn’t fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

With all the money to be made by corporations if the marijuana legalization movement continues to prevail, I’m pretty sure corporations and the wealthy won’t be funding the hard-hitting journalism contained in Mencimer’s piece.

JOHN adds: Reefer madness… Like most people of my generation, I smoked some marijuana when I was young. Its potency was, I understand, a fraction of what is being marketed today in candy form, where it is apt to be consumed by children.

Years ago, we ridiculed efforts by our elders to warn us of the dangers of dope (as we called it). We were wrong, as has tragically been proven since. Now, I have a horror of the stuff. With Democrats taking control in my state, word is that they will try to add Minnesota to the list of states where recreational marijuana is legal and smiled upon by government. Not if I can help it.

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