Cannabis use, especially over a prolonged period, can affect an individual in a number of ways.
When they first start taking marijuana (also known as weed, pot or dope), they experience a ‘high’, with sensations ranging from joy and a significant improvement in the mood to profound feelings of relaxation. However, like any substance, cannabis can also have several negative effects, depending on the duration and frequency of usage.
Rightly or wrongly, heavy cannabis use is often associated with a lack of intelligence, laziness, mood changes, loss of memory and concentration, and a lack of motivation. Many also believe that those who smoke cannabis are much more likely to develop other substance use disorders.
Marijuana for medicinal purposes
However, though cannabis use has traditionally been associated with these negative connotations over the years, more and more recent research has supported positive medicinal uses for the drug.
An increasing number of people diagnosed with conditions such as depression, Alzheimer’s disease, chronic pain, cancer, glaucoma, and Crohn’s disease use medical marijuana to help alleviate their symptoms.
Cannabis-induced psychotic disorder (CIPD)
That said, while researchers and experts now believe cannabis is safer than initially thought, there are still some significant risks in taking the drug.
For example, a rare but severe mental health condition called cannabis-induced psychotic disorder (CIPD) can be one of the long-term side effects.
While it is common for people who use cannabis to experience mild symptoms of paranoia or hallucinations during use, these usually disappear after the high wears off. Even while under the influence of the drug, users can normally recognise such symptoms for what they are – a direct result of drug use and therefore no real cause for concern.
In contrast, with cannabis-induced psychosis, users have no such reasoning and experience:
- Delusions. These involve the user believing something untrue (that they have psychic or supernatural powers or that someone is out to hurt them, for example).
- Hallucinations. Experiencing sensory perceptions that aren’t real (hearing or seeing something that others can’t, for example).
- Feeling disconnected from reality.
These symptoms can present during or after cannabis use, can last for several hours or even days, and seem entirely real to the individual at the moment.
Additional symptoms of cannabis-induced psychosis can include:
- Strange or unusual thoughts
- Memory loss
- Having difficulty expressing feelings or emotions
- Disorganised speech
- Feelings of grandeur
- A lack of cooperation
Can cannabis use lead to schizophrenia?
The cannabis-induced psychotic disorder is sometimes only the beginning. A recent cohort study on seven thousand people with CIPD revealed schizophrenia or bipolar disorder diagnosis in 47.4 percent of the sample studied.
Experts explain that while there is a profound correlation between cannabis use and mental disorders like schizophrenia, the exact nature of the link is yet to be discovered.
More questions need to be asked about whether cannabis use causes schizophrenia or whether it triggers an earlier onset of the disease in people who would have eventually developed the condition later on.
What causes cannabis-induced psychotic disorder?
The causes of cannabis-induced psychotic disorders are not yet fully understood. However, early research seems to suggest that the following factors can increase the likelihood of being affected:
Studies show that long-term cannabis use may put people at higher risk of developing psychosis. A study conducted in 2003 found that young adults between 18 and 21 who used cannabis regularly reported having higher rates of psychotic symptoms.
Another study on hospitalised patients and control groups found those study participants that used cannabis regularly also experienced increased psychosis symptoms compared to control groups who didn’t use the drug.
Researchers haven’t ruled out a link between cannabis-induced psychotic disorder and a family history of substance abuse and other co-occurring mental disorders. However, there is yet not enough evidence to support the link between these disorders and CIPD.
Experts also report that cannabis potency might play a role in psychosis with researchers finding in control studies that cannabis users that prefer high-potency cannabis or higher levels of THC (up to 18%) are more at risk of psychosis.
- Starting age
Some evidence suggests a link between cannabis-induced psychosis and the age that someone starts using, with a 2013 study showing a strong correlation between a young starting age and the development of psychosis symptoms or schizophrenia later on in life.
Diagnosing the cannabis-induced psychotic disorder
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM – 5), the following criteria must be met for a CIPD diagnosis:
- The symptoms must be distressing enough to interfere with a person’s daily functioning, i.e., social and work activities.
- The symptoms persist even after the cannabis high has faded, where symptoms may last for days or weeks after cannabis use.
- The symptoms cannot be explained by another cause, for example, schizophrenia or any other mental health condition.
- If all three are met, the individual must accept that they have a problem and seek professional help.
Treatment for cannabis addiction
The cannabis-induced psychotic disorder is not always a permanent condition and there are various treatments that can help. While there is no specific treatment for CIPD, evidence shows that even just abstaining from cannabis use can improve symptoms.
A study conducted in 2007 found that when people stopped cannabis for an entire week, the 20 participants involved in the study reported a significant reduction in symptoms such as confusion, hallucinations and delusions.
However, going ‘cold turkey’ without supervision can result in mental and physical side effects. For this reason, a medically supervised detox in a facility is advised in conjunction with cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), as well as other therapeutic methods.