The Other Side of Cannabis

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Recovery Radio Podcast

The following article is courtesy of the Pain News Network

I knew from my friend Nick’s Facebook feed that he was a cannabis enthusiast. His posts preached how it cures pretty much everything and will lead us to world peace.

Nick never tired of encouraging me to try it for my pain from Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, even as I explained repeatedly that since my mother was psychotic, I avoid all drugs which may cause psychosis. Theoretically, I am at higher risk for that adverse reaction.

Psychosis is a disconnection from reality. A person may have delusions, hallucinations, talk incoherently and experience agitation. Since the 1970s, researchers have been investigating whether cannabis can trigger a psychotic break or full-blown schizophrenia. Daily users of highly potent cannabis are five times more likely to develop psychosis. The risk comes not only from genetic factors, but also from early-life neglect or abuse and even being born in the winter.

Having a rare and complicated medical condition, I get a lot of advice. I took Nick’s insistence I go on cannabis as kindness, as I take all unsolicited health tips. Our social media friendship grew. When my husband and I took a trip to his part of the world, he invited us to stay with him.

Nick picked us up at the train station in the English countryside looking like a dashing movie star. Slim and trim in a crisp Oxford shirt and Ray Bans, spryly maneuvering our luggage, he was still attractive in his 70s. Speaking English like Prince Charles, he confessed, “I am actually a cannabis farmer. I expect no trouble from the local police, but would you prefer to get a hotel room in town?”

My husband and I once risked our lives in the back alleys of Hong Kong to get me a fake Hermes bag. We did not need to consult with each other. We opt for adventure. I would not miss my chance to live a Jane Austen fantasy.

We ate off Nick’s three centuries-old family silver, the forks worn down from hundreds of years of scooting food across the plate. We sat beneath the Regency era portraits of his ancestors. Nick had a room devoted to his cannabis crop, growing fast underneath sun simulating lamps. The odor from the plants permeated his entire country home.

In real life, just as on Facebook, Nick’s favorite subject was the virtues of cannabis. He had been using it since he was a young man. Decades ago, he had spent a couple of years in prison for distribution. Recently his wife had left him over his devotion to marijuana. It was clear from Nick’s stories and life choices that cannabis had created tremendous tension with his family.

We talked of him coming to stay with us in Los Angeles, how we could all go to San Francisco to visit the Haight, as Nick was a genuine 1960s hippie. But leaving home to travel was a problem for him. When he does, he has to ask a friend to tend to his plants, which also means asking the friend to break the law.

Our days with Nick at his charming cottage were governed by his need to partake. Our visits to local sites were cut short, so he could be done driving and functioning for the day, and get home to get high. He did not seem to enjoy the excursions and seemed overwhelmed by being out and about, his anxiety growing, urging us to wrap up and get back home.

Cannabis Side Effects

Like Nick, many people are certain that marijuana helps them get by. On it, life is tolerable and pleasant. Anxiety is calmed. They are out of pain and able to sleep. But are they really benefiting?

At first, marijuana has a calming effect, but over time it negatively changes the way the brain works, causing anxiety, depression and impaired social functioning. With regular use, memory, learning, attention, decision-making, coordination, emotions, and reaction time are impaired. Heavy cannabis use lowers IQ

This damage can persist, even after use stops. Teenage users are more likely to experience anxiety, depression and suicidality in young adulthood. According to the CDC, about 1 in 10 marijuana users will become addicted. For people who begin using younger than age 18, 1 in 6 become addicted.

As is the case with other mood-altering substances, cannabis withdrawal symptoms — which include irritability, nervousness, anxiety, depression, insomnia, loss of appetite, abdominal pain, shakiness, sweating, fever, chills and headache — provokes the desire to use.

If someone is using cannabis to escape emotional distress, they never get the chance to deal with underlying problems. Psychiatrist Dr. David Puder recommends to his patients on cannabis that they stop in order to benefit from therapy.

“When they are off of marijuana, they have the ability to be present and really process what they will need to process in therapy in order to get over anxiety and depression,” Puder says, noting that users will often experience a flood of emotions and memories once they stop.

Medical marijuana has been approved for chronic pain and over 50 other health conditions by various states. Whether it actually helps with pain is uncertain. The U.S. Surgeon General warns the potency of marijuana has changed over time and what is available today is much stronger than previous versions. Higher doses of THC (the psychoactive chemical in cannabis) are more likely to produce anxiety, agitation, paranoia and psychosis. Consumers are not adequately warned about these potential harms.

House Guests

Our friend Nick was sure his marijuana use was his choice and that he was not addicted. He insisted my husband and I get high with him.

What is a polite house guest to do? Go along, of course, although we prefer whiskey and a steak. Nick promised we would love it, and that we were free to go upstairs and have sex and open up about anything. We giggled awkwardly. I ingested the smallest possible dose.

Nick then got higher than we had seen him during our entire visit, wolfing down his dinner in minutes. Then, after promising we’d have a tremendous evening of emotional openness and transcendent sharing, he burst into tears recounting how he was the victim of violence in his youth.

I felt for him, it was a horrifying event. Was this unresolved trauma the cause of a lifetime of drug use, denial and self-isolation? We had to wonder. It was truly awkward and uncomfortable, but Nick didn’t seem to remember his outburst. When we returned home, he continued to hound me to take up cannabis.

By Madora Pennington, PNN Columnist

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