This post was originally published on March 2, 2015.
There’s old-school hippy hash and then there’s chronic, better known as skunk in the UK. You know when you’re smoking it because of that harrowing paranoia. You might hear voices from the devil or see shadows walking across your walks, you might believe your friends are plotting to kill you or your nose is falling off—these are the fun times of smoking high-powered weed.
While psychiatrists have long suspected that THC plays a big role in triggering latent schizophrenia in the predisposed, leaders of a recent study in London believe skunk can lead to episodic psychosis—and eventually schizophrenia—in people who aren’t wired to develop mental illness in the first place.
Given the legalization wars waging throughout America and the insistence by many cannabis advocates that marijuana does not cause any kind of brain damage or mental illness, this is big breaking news.
The Nitty Gritty
From 2005 to 2011, London scientists studied 410 patients between the ages of 18 and 65 who were brought into city hospitals during their first psychotic break. They then rounded up 370 perfectly healthy participants from the same part of London to use as a control group. The study, which is hot off the Lancet Journal of Psychiatry press, found heavy smokers of high-potent pot were five times as likely to develop psychosis and moderate smokers were three times as likely to crack up. Half of these cases lead to full-blown schizophrenia.
“The argument initially was that the people who are going to smoke cannabis are a bit odd anyway,” says Sir Robin Murray, one of the study’s authors and professor of psychiatric research at King’s College London. “In South London, two-thirds of people have used cannabis and it seems unlikely that two-thirds of people are abnormal.”
Does this mean the casual hash smoker should ditch their bong and give up toking for good? Maybe, maybe not. Good old hash didn’t appear to increase risk for psychosis, and if the subjects smoked very low doses of skunk every now and then, they weren’t as prone to developing psychosis. But whether it’s wise to tempt fate when your mental health is on the line is an important question any cannabis lover should ponder. And if you can’t lay off the hard stuff, Murray recommends switching from skunk to hash to at least try to save your marbles.
It Gets Personal
Sarah Graham, a drug counselor in London, piped in on the conversation, claiming the study’s findings are “just the tip of the iceberg.” Not only is she a drug counselor but she’s also a recovering addict, and describes skunk as the “Incredible Hulk of cannabis,” adding that it’s destroying young people’s lives.
“It’s not the weed that many parents may have experimented with at university or college. This is a very, very potent drug. It’s like a turbo-charged version of ordinary cannabis—and it’s laced with chemicals, too,” she says. “I see so many young people who are having their mental health decimated by this drug. I see them in hospitals, in psychiatric wards…I see them being diagnosed with forms of schizophrenia. We need to start taking this seriously.”
Not So Blurry
With some advocates for the legalization of weed (and high school students) claiming all weed is harmless, it’s easy to think chomping on those magic brownies might not pose much of a threat—especially if you’re 15 and bored in the basement of your best friend’s house. But in the midst of the fiery legalization debate, science is unloading more and more evidence that this is no innocuous substance, for both teens and adults alike.
As someone who’s suffered from terrifying psychotic breaks after sucking down loads of chronic at parties filled with half-witted hipsters, and as someone with a severely paranoid schizophrenic sister whose illness developed right after she inhaled God knows what kind of pot up in Berkeley, I’d say it’s best to just stick to Grandma’s regular old brownies.
They’re pretty delish on their own.