In some cases, cannabis can increase feelings of paranoia – “They’re out to get me.” In most cases, what is called paranoia comes from a place of fear.
The police are out to get you if youconsume cannabis illegally – this is the law. In most of these cases, paranoia is justified by rational fear of the consequences of prohibition. Would these feelings be as severe if they were not, in fact, out to get you?
Cannabis consumption can be a very divisive issue. Many years have gone into perpetuating anti-cannabis propaganda. It is unraveling all the misinformation and scaremongering around cannabis and mental health. Headlines of crazy killers driven to fury and bloodlust only serve to perpetuate the ‘scariness’ and otherness ofcannabis.
Prohibition means only the strongest strains are available to most consumers, which can only be a recipe for disaster.But where did this all start? A great way to uncover many of these perceived mental health issues started is to look at the Parliamentary record. Whist cannabis was ubiquitous in the British Empire, with the sails and ropes needed for traversing the Seven Seas mostly being made from cannabis – it’s where the ‘can’ in canvas comes from.
Even Henry VIII knew cannabis made great ropes and ordered his subjects to grow it, even fining farmers who did not. However, there is a darker truth behind these negative associations with cannabis. When it comes to a negative association between cannabis and mental health, it doesn’t go back quite as far as theassociation between cannabis and criminality.
This is important as there is a clear link between the two. As early as the 1790s, the British, determined to seize a tax revenue from cannabis in India, encountered producers who were determined to avoid that taxation. And so, the idea of cannabis consumers being criminals was established in the minds of British officials.
The belief that cannabis causes mental health problems comes from a time when it may have been convenient toclaim that any dissident to the British were, in fact, ganja smoking lunatics. While many doctors and scientists, such as Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, sought to experiment and discover the medical benefits of cannabis, the adverse effects of cannabis only seemed to come to light in the late 19th century. By this time, there may have been a more nefarious reason to demonize cannabis – to control colonial India. A sadhu (holy person) would be shocking to someone in the 19th century which has never encountered someone from that culture.
The TV shows Jack Ass / Wild Boyz even used a sadhu to shock an audience in the 21st century – if the sadhus are too extreme for them, you can imagine that a prim and proper young Englishman, trying to make a name for himself, would have thought this culture was highly shocking.
Cannabis has had a rough deal; it fell afoul of the temperance movement that was campaigning to control substances within the British Empire. On the 16th of July 1891, Mark Stewart MP stood in parliament. He asked the Under-Secretary of State for India whether he was aware that cannabis or ‘ganja’… “grown and sold under the same conditions as opium” is far more harmful than opium and that the “lunatic asylums of India are filled with ganja smokers .”In a move that would be replicated again with the Opium Act, cannabis was subsequently considered a narcotic and given the same treatment.
Opium was a considerable earner in India, and with huge profits from exporting to China, it is possible the colonialgovernment of India wanted to keep these profits in the face of the temperance movement.
They added cannabis to muddy the waters and be a sacrifice to save their opium money. It is unclear exactly why cannabis was included; however, cannabis being the cause of mental health issues was used as a justification – the implications of which are still felt to this day.
A 2009 study from the University of Keele showed nocausal link between cannabis and schizophrenia. For the small section of the population that may have had a psychotic event induced by high-strength cannabis, the law is hardly helping. Let’s, for example, look at the prescription cannabis market.
Project 2021 has 3000 patients enrolled on it, and nearly 60% of those are prescribed high-THC flowers – thesame flowers that the government and police say are dangerous. Suddenly it turns into medicine when given by a conglomerate of businesses, but if you take it into your own hands, you are a criminal. I spoke to some patients with a prescription and some adverse side effects. Lucy, 36, said, “I had never tried cannabis before I got my prescription from a clinic. They prescribed me a 15% THC flower and a 7% THC:7% CBD flower.
Whenever I vaped the 15% THC with my Mighty vaporizer, I felt unpleasant and uncomfortable – my mind was racing. I spoke to my clinic, and they prescribed me a 14% CBD flower instead of the THC flower and kept the 7% strain.” This level of support is helpful and can make a difference to a patient. When I asked if the support had helped, Lucy said, “Massively! It’s helped so much – I may have been more skeptical of going back or trying it again had I not had the proper support.
They give you a little printed info sheet when you get your first prescription with a number to call, and just knowing I had the number to call when I was ready kept me in more control of my thoughts. I’m glad I stuck with it, as the flowers I am now prescribed have helped with my pain levels.” I asked if Lucy thought her unpleasant experience could have been called ‘paranoia,’ and she said, “yes, absolutelyit could have been, but because I had the right information and knew what to do, I was able to get through it and seek help. If I didn’t have that support, I dread to think what may have happened.” When a skunk is way easier to find than hope, it must be a life-altering experience.
For some people, high-THCcannabis can be highly unpleasant, especially if you take too much, which might be a terrifying experience – having that experience alone in a country that criminalizes you and has cut all services for young people. To help people, we need to regulate cannabis, so everyone has the support they need. When regulated, the most significant change is information
and discussing the topics. When we talk about the real dangers of cannabis with regulation, we must speak honestly. I think our young people deserve honesty and empathy. Nothing changes if we tell them lies like we were told about cannabis.
If we open the conversation, young people will be able to find out what to do to make an unpleasant cannabis experience not so terrible, rather than seeing it as a psychotic episode that has now resulted in negative feelings towards cannabis.
But what if there is more to it, and these bad and traumatic experiences could turn out positive in different contexts? We will find out via the new medical system if the dangersof cannabis can be mitigated by the free exchange of information and ideas. There is vast scope for harm reduction when there is the opportunity for cannabis to be consumed in the safest way possible.
When a support structure is in place to help with the unwanted and adverse effects, these negative and often awful experiences become lighter, less dramatic, life-changing, and more damaging. That’s not to say that cannabis is for everyone and that no one will have a psychotic episode ever again when consuming cannabis.
Even if it’s rare when something like this happens, it’s a far more significant benefit to the patient and society to have an adequate system in place. ‘Just say no’ doesn’t cut it. People will, for many reasons, say yes to cannabis. For doing so, I don’t believe we deserve to be criminalized.
Criminalization helps no one, and while it may not affect many (in the UK, at least, it has become impossible to police), the mere suggestion of wrongdoing can sometimes be enough to make a pleasant experience into a place of worry or paranoia.
Tobacco smoke is a contentious issue within thecommunity, possibly because the hash was often the only thing on offer in the UK and many of Europe for a long time. Whatever the reason, most people in the UK seem to smoke their cannabis with tobacco. There have been various studies into the psychotic-inducing properties of tobacco – in Native American culture, shamans used tobacco to communicate with their ancestors. There is also evidence to suggest that the addition of nicotine may increase the absorption rate of THC in the brain.
This isn’t something that is taken into consideration by the anti-skunk rhetoric, but it might explain what is happening and why it is having such a profound effect on some people. That’s not to say cannabis does not affect its own. As a community, I think we must step back and accept some people’s experiences. There may be various mitigating factors, including the law, the stigma, the lack of lower THC strains on the legacy market, and that it is smoked
with tobacco rather than vaporized. We know this, but that might not be super helpful for someone who believes that their negative experience is being caused by cannabis itself. Cannabis is fantastic for many people, but it’s not for everyone, and that’s okay. What is not okay, however, is justifying draconian laws which only serve to divide communities from each other.
Cannabis may have some negative consequences for a minority of people who consume it. Still, we will be stuck in a loop until we drastically look at our laws that criminalize people. The only way to help people is to allow them to have their experience in a fairer and more just world, where they do not feel they need to watch their back or worry about the law’s effects on their lives.
In a world where harm reduction comes before criminalization, some simple changes to the law may mitigate a lot of the harmful effects. I fear the stigma will take much longer to overcome; however, we have started that journey.
In 2022 a person who has depression can callup a private cannabis clinic and get a private prescription for high-THC cannabis flowers to treat their depression. Once this has happened, a whole new world awaits cannabis patients where they can fully access mental health support on the NHS, which can only be a good thing.
As someone diagnosed with depression, I know that cannabis helps my mental health as much as it helps my MS. People who find cannabis helps them should not be stigmatized. I will be filming with a group of patients and following their journeys. I believe it’s extremely important that the positive side of cannabis and mental health is shown as widely as the negatives.
It will take a lot of work to undo all the issues and stigma around cannabis and mental health, but with access to legal cannabis prescriptions, I believe it just got much more accessible. It’s time the public sees cannabis helping someone to recover from mental health problems rather than cannabis causing them.
I have started filming my new documentary Skunk Madness. We be following mental health patientsover the next year – if you have had a positive or negative experience with cannabis and mental health, please contact [email protected]