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Cannabis and mental health: How marijuana affects mental health

cannabis use

What is the impact of marijuana on mental health?

Cannabis can impair thinking, memory, and the ability to feel pleasure, and increase risks of developing schizophrenia and other psychotic experiences. The mental effects of marijuana are more severe in people who start using the drug at a young age.

And did you also know that people who use cannabis before age 18 have 4-7 chances of addiction? The negative effects of marijuana are pretty bad.

Why cannabis use is becoming more of a concern now

Cannabis has been in use for centuries and is now the most widely abused illicit drug. Interestingly, young adults who are more vulnerable to the negative mental health effects of cannabis are the biggest users.

In 2021, about 43% of young adults reported having used marijuana. In 2016, the figure was 34%, and 29% 10 years before that. Obviously, the rate of cannabis use is increasing. With medical marijuana becoming a thing and since almost all states have legalized its use, we can only expect the figure to go up from here.

If cannabis can influence how we think and feel, how does it affect our minds in the long term?

Studies show that cannabis use can affect several cognitive and psychological processes.

Marijuana’s psychological effects: how the drug affects your mind

Cannabis influences how we feel and think and, consequently, our mental health.

Furthermore, cannabis use can lead to anhedonia, an inability to feel pleasure in normally pleasurable activities. We can deduce this to result from the brain's dependency on cannabis to feel pleasure. Moreover, use of medical marijuana can trigger cannabis use disorder, a severe craving for the substance despite the mental pain it’s obviously causing the individual.

Can marijuana cause psychosis?

In adolescents, cannabis use is a risk factor for developing schizophrenia and other psychotic experiences. Although we don't fully understand the link between cannabis use and psychotic episodes, it is likely due to dopamine and glutamate action in these processes.

The cognitive effects of cannabis

Cannabis can impair memory and influence cognition, particularly in people with cannabis use disorder (CUD). These people are prone to cannabis cravings, which usually disrupt their daily activities and living.

The research tested 39 people with CUD. The control group was made up of 20 people who have never or rarely used cannabis.

The results showed that participants with CUD had generally worse performance on memory tests than the control group. Clearly, cannabis impaired their mental process responsible for flexible thinking.

Interestingly, the cognitive effects were stronger in those who started using the drug at an early age.

Nonetheless, mild cannabis users also suffer cognitive impairment, as they tend to make riskier, more spontaneous decisions with difficulty planning.

While male cannabis users had more difficulty remembering or recognizing things, female users had more problems with attention and executive function.

The chemistry of how cannabis affects the mind

Cannabis contains tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), its main psychoactive compound that induces the "high" feeling. Notably, THC acts on the part of the brain known as the endocannabinoid system, made up of receptors that respond to the chemical effects of cannabis. These receptors regulate the release of dopamine, GABA, and glutamate.

Dopamine plays a role in pleasure, motivation, and learning. On the other hand, GABA and glutamate are involved in cognition, such as memory and learning. Of course, we know that these cognitive processes develop over time as the brain develops up till the mid-20s when brain development finally stops.

But the United Nations on Drugs and Crime has reported that young adults are the largest consumers of recreational cannabis. About 35% of people between 18 and 25 use cannabis, and only 10% of people above 26 use it.

This shows that most people using recreational cannabis are those whose brains are still underdeveloped, making them more vulnerable to the cognitive and psychological effects of cannabis.

Final Words

The cognitive and psychological effects of cannabis are largely dependent on the dosage and frequency of use. So, chronic users are affected more severely.

Also, mild users will feel the effects weakening the longer they abstain from cannabis. But we don't yet know if the effects can completely go or if they are permanent.

But one thing's for sure: cannabis use can affect our minds, and it is crucial to start creating awareness among young users who are more vulnerable to these effects.

Satu H. Woodland, PMHCNS-BC, APRN Satu H. Woodland, PMHCNS-BC, APRN Satu Woodland is owner and clinician of Hope Mental Health, an integrative mental health practice located at Bown Crossing in Boise, Idaho. She sees children, adolescents, and adults.  Ms. Woodland with her background in nursing, prefers a holistic and integrative approach to mental health care that addresses the mind and body together. While Ms. Woodland provides medication management services in all her patients, she believes in long-lasting solutions that include a number of psychotherapies, namely cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure and response prevention therapy, attention to lifestyle, evidenced based alternative psychiatric care and spirituality. If you’d like to gain control over your mental health issues, call Hope Mental Health at 208-918-0958, or use the online scheduling tool to set up an initial consultation.

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