The nation’s annual school survey of drug use, Monitoring the Future (MTF), shows marijuana use among adolescents,
including heavy marijuana use, remaining stubbornly high and significantly higher than in 2008 — despite reductions across the board among the other three substances kids use most.
Daily Pot Use 3x the rate of Daily Alcohol Use Among High School students
See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 , Part 4 and Part 5 of The Unraveling of Ryan, an anonymous testimony. Permission is required to reproduce the story. Names are changed, but details are accurate.
As a child, I was stung by bees several times. Each time my reaction got progressively worse. The last time it happened was at age 16; the doctor told me I could die if it happens again. Why is marijuana use like a fatal bee sting that makes some people swell until they implode? So many young people develop adverse effects from using today’s high-strength pot. Just because marijuana originated in nature doesn’t make it safe.
Research around the globe proves that marijuana causes panic attacks, paranoia, severe anxiety and/or depression. American hospitals often don’t consider marijuana a factor in the picture of mental health, and that’s a tragedy. There’s an urgent need for psychiatry to train more addiction specialists. If users quit after the first episode of psychosis or mental health condition, they probably can avoid a permanent psychological problem. However, these users must never go back to pot again. It’s like avoiding the bee stings if someone who’s allergic doesn’t want a fatal reaction, or like someone in Alcoholics Anonymous who can’t take one drink again.
My nephew Jason, is one that followed this advice. In 2011, when he was 16, he experimented with marijuana and developed severe anxiety and panic attacks. Ryan was still alive at the time. My brother and his wife took him to his pediatrician, who referred him to a psychiatrist, a psychologist and a pediatric neurologist. Each doctor insisted that pot could not be the cause of Jason’s severe anxiety, panic attacks and sweats. Maybe they didn’t realize that the highly potent pot in California today has 12-15 % THC, at least 5x what it was when those doctors were in school.
He survived because he stopped using pot, made more urgent after attending his oldest cousin Ryan’s funeral. He was never hospitalized and his brain fully recovered in nine months. Today, Jason plays Division 1 basketball in college. When I saw my brother at Thanksgiving, he thanked me for sharing the knowledge about marijuana that has kept Jason alive and thriving.
I’ve read about the COMT gene polymorphism which explains why there may be a genetic link for anyone who carries the recessive gene allele, about 25% of the world population. I contacted three researchers around the globe in hopes of getting my family’s blood analyzed. Even though the research has been published, a blood test for DNA recognition of this gene identification is at least 10 years away.
Stopping a Problem in its Tracks
A young neighbor recently confessed he was a big pot user all through high school. Suddenly, he’s been dealing with his mother’s unexpected illness and the stress of a job change. He developed anxiety out of nowhere, but felt it was related to his marijuana use. His friends keep pushing him to use pot, and to use even more than he had before. (How could someone who would goad another young person to use pot be called a “friend?”) Thankfully, this young man listened to his own body and mind.
Now I’ve heard that Amanda Bynes has gotten her life back on track. As of late December, she plans to go to college, stay sober and study psychology. Congratulations and best wishes for her continual recovery. Let’s hope this time she realizes that returning to marijuana could easily lead her to permanent psychosis.
A Story from Colorado
On a cruise to Alaska with my mother, a story emerged from a couple living in Colorado. Their 21-year-old son had developed depression, out of nowhere. The mom wasn’t concerned her son was smoking pot with his college roommates. “It’s just pot and I smoked while at UCLA in the 70s.” By the end of dinner, she wanted to heliport herself back home to save her son, because of the tragic events I had shared about my son and the high THC content of today’s cannabis.
It was when she finally said her son does too much pot with his friends that I couldn’t hold my tongue. Her boyfriend (not the boy’s father) was Dutch and had a ponytail, so I had instantly judged him to be cool with marijuana, since there have been marijuana coffeehouses for decades in Amsterdam. To my shock, he said that lawmakers in the Netherlands recently capped the strength of pot!! Then this woman blurted: “Tim’s been attending a drug education series at the local Sheriff’s Department for several weeks. He’s been telling me the same thing about pot as you did, but I’ve been blowing him off, as though it was just “‘crazy talk.’”
Afterwards I felt upset that I had violated my vow not to discuss anything about pot or my son Ryan when I boarded the ship. My mom saw the woman later and said: “You just may have saved that young man’s life.” Her boyfriend had been feeding her the same facts I had, but she continued in denial until hearing the story of my son’s pot use and my belief that it led to his tragic demise.
Wake up, America to the Looming Mental Health Crisis
After losing my own kid, I caution parents not to live in denial of marijuana, as I did. Your child will be exposed to marijuana and is likely to experiment with it. It is my mission to prevent other young people from going down the same path my son did.
If a person who uses today’s highly potent marijuana goes into psychosis (or depression, panic attack, other psychiatric presentation), the mental health system needs to first address the drug effects and the need for addiction treatment. Next, educate the person about brain health and wait for the drug-induced mental illness to run its course.
In California, which has unregulated medical marijuana, it’s been common to rope young marijuana users with psychotic symptoms into the label of a permanent, debilitating mental illness rather than give them addiction treatment. For some, the diagnosis of bipolar disorder may be more comforting than advising them of the absolute need to give up marijuana. When it comes to strong males like my son, they also flood them with powerful, unnecessary pharmaceutical drugs.
If marijuana is legalized nationally, the need for mental health treatment will explode. Psychiatry is a tricky field with less success than other medical specialties, like heart disease or emergency medicine. The fallout will be huge. Wake up, America. We are in uncharted waters, as marijuana use is growing nationwide and your kid may be the next casualty.
Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4 of The Unraveling of Ryan. Permission is required to reproduce the story. Names are changed, but details are accurate.
As I was writing this story, Leah texted me from her husband’s bedside at Cedars-Sinai Hospital: “LA Times, front page article, ‘Cannabis Hedge Funds Rush to Join Green Rush.’” We both wanted to vomit. Our two sons are casualties of this “green rush” movement, a movement to profit from making today’s highly potent strains of marijuana — at the expense of our youth….and their families. We will never address America’s mental health crisis until we accept that marijuana is the trigger that starts too many young lives unraveling.
Leah’s husband, Lee, suffered a major medical crisis, as if losing their 20-year-old son 32 months ago to suicide wasn’t enough for the family. Ed and I met Lee and Leah in the grief series; the four of us share a special bond. We do 5K walks annually in memory of our sons. On Mother’s Day, we took our families to Ojai together.
The Tragedy of Brandon
Leah said to our group back in 2012, “My son died of mental illness.” I didn’t say much, initially, but as the story unfolded and there was no history of psychosis in either family line, I thought marijuana had somehow played a role. I followed a hunch and began asking more questions. She looked at Brandon’s journals and saw his entries. “Am I having drug withdrawals?” he asked, trying to explain his racing thoughts. When he had to be hospitalized, he was convinced his lungs weren’t working.
Brandon died of suicide after being released from a three-day psych hold while experiencing psychotic symptoms tinged with mania (Guess what drug he had stopped using two weeks before entering the hospital…that’s right– cannabis). Despite telling numerous people in the hospital that he had just stopped marijuana use, none of the hospital staff raised a red flag that he was experiencing drug withdrawal symptoms. After Brandon left the hospital, he was convinced he needed a lung transplant despite doctors telling him there was nothing wrong with his lungs. He felt his breathing wasn’t right and was convinced he had caused it because he hadn’t stopped smoking cigarettes.
Brandon had become manic about four months earlier while smoking pot. When his mom expressed concern that he was becoming addicted, he just laughed because pot was a natural herb, not part of big drug companies making big $. Unfortunately Leah wasn’t aware that it’s best to come off pot gradually, under supervision. Unless psychiatrists are also certified for addiction treatment, they often don’t recognize marijuana withdrawal. Brandon had taken it upon himself to get a “medical marijuana” card, because he was having “anxiety.” Leah didn’t mind at the time, despite Brandon’s youth and undeveloped brain. As long as a doctor authorized it, she reasoned that it must be safe and legitimate. Before that time, he was using synthetic marijuana, which had alarmed her.
How Marijuana Becomes the Problem
Sorry, but I want to share what I truly believe is happening in every town across America, not just to my son, to Lee/ Leah’s son. If Leah and I hadn’t met, she would have accepted “Brandon died of a mental illness.” Rather than telling our children they should avoid having children and blaming it all on faulty genes, as some medical practitioners would advise, consider the environmental effects like marijuana. I think you should advise any child, teen or young adult to practice optimal brain health and avoid all substances that strongly alter the brain. The medical evidence is the marijuana manipulates the brain more than any other drug.
Before my son had his first psychotic episode in 2009, he suffered a terrible knee injury in a boating accident that same year. It required knee surgery and 9 months of physical rehab. It’s likely that Ryan started using a lot more marijuana to treat “pain” just as the medical marijuana advocates suggest — without giving any regards to proper dosing, strength and time intervals that a pharmacy is required to give. He was living with his fiancée at the time, so we were not aware of this choice, or that he had already been using marijuana for about three years. The accident, surgery and pain were the perfect excuse for him to use a lot more marijuana–plus he wouldn’t take the pain meds because they gave him nausea. Pot was apparently the treatment he chose, but we didn’t know it.
So the pattern emerges–using marijuana for a few years, increase the usage for “medical” reasons (in this case an accident followed by surgery and pain), and, then at some point — psychosis.
Close to Home: Amanda Bynes
Another example of the marijuana – psychosis pattern is former child star Amanda Bynes. She went to the same high school as my son; they were born in the same year, but one year apart in school.
Last year she was in treatment at the same psychiatric hospital in Pasadena where Ryan had been at one time. I don’t know her or her parents, but I heard she had some excellent treatment there (wish my son had been treated as well). Afterwards, her parents had a one-year conservatorship for her. Her mother asserted that the effects of marijuana were her main psychiatric problem, not bipolar or schizophrenia, as had been a rumored.
Amanda Bynes did well and looked amazing during most of 2014, until her parents’ conservatorship ended. Then in late summer, when the hold had ended, Amanda had some episodes and accused her father of terrible things. How could that young woman, who had heard that THC alters brain chemistry while in rehabilitation, return to using pot again? The relapse speaks volumes as to how addictive marijuana really is, and how marijuana use alters brain chemistry.
Like Amanda Bynes, Ryan seemed completely healthy to us after his “first episode” of psychosis. Both Amanda Bynes and Ryan went back to the same drug that damaged their young minds. No one knows which brains will unravel with marijuana. Is the risk worth it for anyone? In this country, I’ve found a few psychiatrists, Dr. Stuart Gitlow of Rhode Island, Dr. Christian Thurstone in Denver, Dr. Thomas Carter in Seattle, and some psychologists, who understand the link between marijuana use and mental health problems. Mental health treatment and addiction treatment need to be aligned more closely. A Postscript describes when and how to stop these problems.