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It happens with an all-too-familiar regularity: Another “scientific” study that attempts to draw some connection, however tenuous, between smoking pot and schizophrenia.

For example, in November, the findings of a Norwegian study allegedly indicating that smoking marijuana can “irritate the cognitive weakness” of people who are prone to schizophrenia — like a 2010 study that supposedly showed cannabis can “double the risk” of psychosis — received heavy and uncritical publicity from mainstream media.

Of course, there were the inevitable “sky is falling” reactions on the part of faux-horrified commentators who had already decided, years ago, that they were against pot and are all too happy to trumpet what looks like confirmation of their prejudices.

Problem is, those findings are in conflict with previous reviews and ought to be interpreted with caution – but you won’t be reading that in mainstream news outlets.

Here’s something else you won’t see in the mainstream media. There is absolutely no empirical evidence – none – indicating that rising rates of cannabis use have resulted in parallel increases in rates of mental illness.

It would stand to reason, wouldn’t it? Considering modern rates of usage, if marijuana really produced psychosis, the streets would be choked with non-functional, burned out potheads. It doesn’t. They aren’t.

“I’ve said it for years now,” film director John Holowach, responsible for the documentary High: The True Tale of American Marijuana, told me. “If pot and mental illness were linked, the two should rise and fall with one another, but they don’t.

Daniele Piomelli, University of California-Irvine: "Quote"
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Daniele Piomelli, University of California-Irvine:
“The results were amazing. Not only was [CBD] as effective as standard antipsychotics, but it was also essentially free of the typical side effects seen with antipsychotic drugs”

It’s not merely anecdotal evidence that says so. Widespread marijuana use by the public has not been followed by a a proportional rise in diagnoses of schizophrenia or psychosis, according to the findings of an important study published in 2009 in the scientific journal Schizophrenia Research.

Researchers noted that the “incidence and prevalence of schizophrenia and psychoses were either stable or declining” during the period studied, 1996 to 2005.

“This study does not therefore support the … link between cannabis use and incidence of psychotic disorders,” the study concludes. “This concurs with other reports indicating that increases in population cannabis use have not been followed by increases in psychotic incidence.”

Simply put, the empirical data do not support the hypothesis that smoking marijuana is associated either with increased rates of schizophrenia or other illnesses among the general public, according to the scientists who did another marijuana/schizophrenia study back in 2007.

Dr. John Krystal, Yale University School of Medicine: "Quote" [UF Department of Psychiatry]
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Dr. John Krystal, Yale University School of Medicine:
“These exciting findings should stimulate a great deal of research”
[UF Department of Psychiatry]

“Projected trends for schizophrenia incidence have not paralleled trends in cannabis use over time,” they admitted.

The results of another clinical trial published in 2009 indicate that the recreational use of marijuana does not affect brain chemistry in a way that is consistent with the development of schizophrenia.

The Antipsychotic Power of CBD

Any correlation that might exist between schizophrenia and usage of marijuana can be easily explained by the schizophrenia occuring first – resulting in self-medication by the patient in a poignant attempt to alleviate the symptoms. (Studies have shown many schizophrenics report cannabis relieves their symptoms.)

At least one clinical trial has, in fact, shown that at least one compound in marijuana — cannabidiol, or CBD — can treat schizophrenia as effectively as antipsychotic medications, but with far fewer side effects.

“The results were amazing,” said Daniele Piomelli, assistant professor of pharmacology at the University of California-Irvine and coauthor of the study, reports Maia Szalavitz at Time. “Not only was [CBD] as effective as standard antipsychotics, but it was also essentially free of the typical side effects seen with antipsychotic drugs.”

In the German study, published online in March 2012 by the journal Translational Psychiatry, weight gain and movement problems were seen in patients taking amisulpride — the standard Big Pharma treatment — but not in those taking CBD.

“These exciting findings should stimulate a great deal of research,” said Dr. John Krystal, chair of psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine. Dr. Krystal pointed out that CBD not only had fewer side effects, but seemed to work better on schziophrenia’s “negative symptoms,” which have historically been very resistant to treatment. (Negative symptoms include social withdrawal, blunting of pleasure, and lack of motivation, all of which commonly occur in schizophrenia.)

The Brain Attempts To Heal Itself With Endocannabinoids

Researchers also found — very tellingly, and against their expectations — that the more anandamine (the body’s natural endocannabinoid which most closely corresponds with THC) schizophrenic patients had in their systems, the fewer symptoms they displayed.

Conventional thinking had been that the higher levels of anandamide (up to nine times higher than non-schizophrenics, in fact) found among schizophrenics would correlate with hallucinations and delusions. Researchers had believed that people with schizophrenia are, basically, constantly high on their own natural THC.

But the opposite was true. “What you get is not a positive correlation, but a negative one,” Piomelli said. “The higher the levels of anandamide, the lower the symptoms.”

Subsequent research in both humans and animals has shown that anandamide is a natural stress reliever and antipsychotic. Piomelli believes that the high levels seen in people with schizophrenia aren’t the cause of the problem, but the result of the brain’s attempts to heal itself.

“It looks like anandamide is a signaling molecule that has evolved to help us cope with stress,” Piomelli said. “It can relieve anxiety and reduce the stress response. It is involved in stress-induced analgesia [when you stop feeling pain while fighting or fleeing].”

Any existing “correlation” between cannabis use and schizophrenia is likely due to the fact that schizophrenics tend to self-medicate with cannabis to mitigate their already-present symptoms.

But What If It Were True?

But even if the claims were true – even if marijuana use, in a tiny percentage of users, was somehow correlated with mental problems – that would serve as an argument against cannabis prohibition, not for it, as pointed out by Paul Armentano at NORML.

We as a society don’t institute alcohol prohibition because of its proven connections with mental illness, domestic violence, automobile accidents, and liver disease. And the reason we have alcohol legal and regulated isn’t because it’s harmless.

The regulations surrounding alcohol are there because we recognize, in some situations, that drinking may pose a risk.

Even if marijuana is, at some point, proven beyond a doubt to cause harm, mental or otherwise – and, mind you, that certainly hasn’t happened yet – the rational reaction to those findings would be to regulate pot similarly to alcohol.


Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in greatly different form on News Junkie Post.


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