Does Cannabis Harm or Help Mental Health?

As cannabis regulations loosen around the world, more people are gaining easy, legal access to this psychoactive drug. In most cases, greater accessibility to weed is a good thing; it means that cannabis advocates and enthusiasts don’t have to risk incarceration to enjoy a relatively safe substance, and it means that patients suffering from diseases improved by cannabis consumption can find their medical treatment with ease.

However, even as we celebrate cannabis decriminalization and legalization, we need to continue asking important questions about how the drug affects our bodies and minds. In particular, is cannabis consumption good for a user’s mental health, or does it have negative effects on a user’s psychological state?

Myths About Marijuana and Mental Health

Unfortunately, a century-long ban of a substance can result in a lack of public knowledge regarding the truths about that substance. In many ways, America’s prohibition on cannabis prevented researchers from studying the drug in depth, which encouraged myths about weed to proliferate. Many of the worst myths regarding marijuana center on its effects on mental health, such as:

Myth: Cannabis use causes violent and deviant behavior. Truth: One of the earliest myths about cannabis, this idea was debunked as early as the 1890s. Still, many believe that all drugs can cause users to become dangerously violent and participate in criminal activity. More accurately, because cannabis has been illegal, users by default were engaging in criminal behavior, and the cannabis industry was one that often necessitated violence. Though cannabis can lower a user’s inhibitions, it certainly does not increase one’s aggressive tendencies or inspire violent fits of rage.

Myth: Cannabis makes people mellow. Truth: While cannabis consumption can help ease tension and feelings of stress in some users, other users experience heightened stress and anxiety as a result of the drug. Researchers aren’t yet certain why there are such vast differences in reactions to cannabis, but many believe it is a question of tolerance and dose — higher doses in individuals with lower cannabis tolerance are likely to feel increases in stress.

Myth: It is impossible to become addicted to cannabis. Truth: Any substance or behavior can become an addiction, even seemingly non-addictive substances like potato chips or activities like watching TV. Because cannabis stimulates the pleasure centers of the brain, it isn’t uncommon for users to develop abusive patterns regarding its use. Moderate and frequent cannabis consumers should know the signs of cannabis use disorder and seek help before consumption gets out of control.

Unfortunately, some of the myths surrounding cannabis consumption and mental health are proving, with study, to be somewhat true. Here are some examples:

Myth: Cannabis inhibits motivation. Truth: Not all cannabis users experience decreases to their motivation, but some research shows that heavy, chronic users alter the sensitivity of the reward centers of their brain. However, it is likely that this effect is linked with cannabis use disorder, so most cannabis consumers are not at risk for motivation deficits.

Myth: Cannabis worsens depression. Truth: Cannabis is often classified as a “depressant” substance, meaning it reduces stimulation — not that it is inherently a downer. However, there is some link between depression and cannabis consumption, as cannabis users are more often diagnosed with depression than non-users. Researchers believe that those experiencing depression are drawn to cannabis as a tool for self-medication — but because cannabis can intensify feelings of anxiety and depressive symptoms, the drug could worsen the disease.

Evidence of Marijuana Supporting Mental Wellness

Thanks to states relaxing their regulations on cannabis and many states’ financial support of cannabis-related research, clinical researchers are finally beginning to launch investigations into the short- and long-term psychological effects of cannabis consumption. In doing so, researchers have already identified several potential applications of cannabis to benefit those suffering from mental health disorders.

Most interestingly, cannabis seems to offer noteworthy benefits to those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD typically causes sufferers to relive a traumatic experience, which impacts sufferers’ ability to manage daily life. Memories of the traumatic event can intrude on everyday activities and during sleep, creating additional issues like anxiety and panic, insomnia, detachment and destructive behaviors.

Fortunately, PTSD sufferers who consume cannabis — under the supervision of a mental health provider — have been found to enjoy higher rates of recovery than PTSD sufferers who abstain. Though reasons for this outcome are as yet not fully understood, many experts believe that cannabis’s interference in the memory centers of the brain can block intrusive and traumatic thoughts, helping PTSD sufferers work through trauma without reliving it.

Such advantageous findings regarding cannabis consumption and PTSD are helping fund more research surrounding cannabis use and disorders affecting memory. Though neither dementia nor Alzheimer’s is technically a mental illness — instead, both are classified as conditions of the brain or neurodegenerative diseases — researchers believe that cannabis has the potential to slow the progression of these diseases and perhaps help sufferers repair some previous damage. In this way, cannabis could be overwhelmingly good for those with certain mental health concerns.

Is Cannabis Good or Bad?

In truth, the question “Does cannabis help or harm mental health?” is much too broad, and the research on cannabis’s short- and long-term effects is only in its infancy. While we know that many of the myths about cannabis and mental health are utterly unfounded, some seem to be true to a certain extent — which means anyone who visits an Illinois dispensary needs to know the risks associated with the drug and exercise caution when it comes to dosing and frequency of use. As is always true of a new substance, prospective users should consult their health care providers to learn more about how cannabis might impact their unique health situation — and anyone already suffering from a mental health concern should find professional help, not turn to cannabis as a sole solution.

Eliminating prohibitions on cannabis is unequivocally a positive development for our society, but that doesn’t mean cannabis is always inherently good. Users should stay up-to-date on the latest research regarding cannabis and mental health, so they can keep their emotions and behaviors as healthy as possible.

Image by M. Maggs from Pixabay 

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