CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 39 . . . . June 8, 2012
The Downside of High. (The Nature of Things).
Toronto, ON: CBC Learning (www.cbclearning.ca), 2010.
44 min., DVD, $56.25 (Single site license price).
Product ID ZZY-09-06.
Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.
Review by Joanne Peters.
“Call it pot, weed, or dope. It’s all marijuana. And for many people, smoking it is simply a way to unwind. Not a big deal. But for others, it can be a very big deal. There’s new evidence that it can contribute to mental illness. And some of our teenagers are most at risk.
London, Ontario, 1999. A young man with schizophrenia is waiting in a hospital for a brain scan. Perhaps agitated by the prospect of the procedure, he slips outside and smokes a joint. The subsequent scan reveals unusually high levels of dopamine. This unexpected finding points to evidence indicated in other studies: a link between adolescent marijuana use and schizophrenia, as well as other mental illnesses which typically involve psychotic episodes. And for patients and their families, that is a very big deal.
Why do some users experience paranoia, anxiety, and terrifying hallucinations, while others just enjoy “a pleasant buzz”? Produced in association with CBC’s ‘”The Nature of Things”, The Downside of High presents the work of current research into the connection between marijuana use and schizophrenia. As well, the film tells the stories of three young people living in British Columbia whose ongoing struggles with severe mental illness are thought to have been triggered by their marijuana use.
As early as the 1980’s, an investigative reporter for The Times of London noted that families of adolescent schizophrenics related stories of personality changes resulting from their son or daughter’s pot smoking. At the same time, a British scientist began examining the connection between cannabis use and schizophrenia, and in 1987, a Swedish research paper related the findings of a large study, indicating strong causality. Individuals who began smoking marijuana at age 18 were six times more likely to experience schizophrenic episodes. In the Netherlands, where up to 5 gm of cannabis may be purchased for personal use, similar results were reported. After 15 years of studies, a meta-analysis indicated that marijuana use doubles the risk of future psychotic states, either isolated or ongoing, and for smokers younger than age 16, the risk quadruples.
During the 1990’s, marijuana use doubled in Canada and the United States. Tyler, who began smoking pot in Grade 9, stated that, at his school, it was easier to obtain than alcohol. Melanie began smoking at age 19, believing that it was “an organic thing, made by nature”. Ben, a creative, highly articulate young man, interested in cannabis’ “transformative effects” started smoking at age 15. All three have subsequently spent considerable time undergoing psychiatric hospitalization and treatment while their parents and friends watched helplessly as the children they once knew disappeared.
Why did this happen to them? It seems that the active ingredient in marijuana, tetrahydracannabinol (THC) increases dopamines in the brain, and dopamines control mood. Increased dopamine leads to a heightened awareness, hallucinations, and the “voices” heard in the heads of those in psychotic states. Today’s marijuana is not the “hippie” drug of the 1960’s and 1970’s; then, pot’s THC level was 1-3%. Growers have re-engineered the plant so that it is far more potent, and now, it delivers a THC hit of 18-25%.
Still, the vast majority of teenage marijuana users – as is the case with alcohol – experience no untoward after-effects. What makes some pot smokers experience severe mental illness? A number of factors are suggested in the film: a family history of mental illness, personality traits of eccentricity and social isolation, use of other types of drugs, childhood trauma, even the stresses of urban life. As well, the brains of teenagers are in a state of significant development; “neural pruning” takes place, enabling the brain to work more efficiently. Marijuana not only interrupts this process, it also wreaks havoc on memory. Ben tells of huge memory gaps, and his mother recounted the slide in his grades, his state of confusion, profound sadness and catatonia.
When Ben, Melanie, and Tyler get together to share their stories, it is clear that they believe that marijuana use was a trigger for their mental illness; however, it is also possible that cause and effect are being confused. Perhaps for these three young people, self-medication through marijuana use was a way to deal with the onset of mental illness. At a major conference on schizophrenia, a researcher suggests the possibility that adolescents who are “prodromal” (experiencing the earliest phase symptoms of schizophrenia) and who use marijuana, may be exacerbating their condition. Canadian scientists are in the forefront of genetic research into the identification of genotypes of individuals who are likely to have severe reactions to marijuana. Perhaps in 5 to 10 years, there may be a genetic test for “the psychosis gene” so that the highly susceptible can be forewarned. In the mean time, users take their chances with a highly potent drug, lacking the ingredient which can buffer the effect of THC. Paradoxically, research has suggested that cannabidiol (CBD), the substance which buffers the effects of THC, might have promise as an anti-psychotic drug. It is CBD which made the “old school” pot of the 1960’s and 1970’s a less-potent high; however, it is CBD which has been bred out of current strains of marijuana, intensifying its danger to the vulnerable.
Adolescence is a risky time of life, and it’s unlikely that teens are going to stop smoking marijuana, regardless of how convincing is the evidence that they might suffer serious mental health problems. This isn’t the first time that they’ve been told “just say ‘No!’ to drugs”. However, The Downside of High presents clear, non-judgmental scientific explanations of just how marijuana works on the brain’s chemistry, how this can lead to serious and permanent damage, and why teens who may be susceptible to these outcomes must know the risks they are taking. If nothing else, the stories of Tyler, Melanie, and Ben are cautionary tales to be taken seriously. This is a film which has a place in a variety of senior high school settings: guidance counselors and health teachers can use it in drug and alcohol education classes, and biology teachers will find it useful for its clear explanation of “this is your brain on drugs”. Parents of teens can certainly benefit from viewing this film, as well; they need to know that today’s “weed” is a very different plant from the marijuana of their youth.
Joanne Peters, a retired high school teacher-librarian, lives in Winnipeg, MB.
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