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Alex Berenson

The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, And Violence

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Extracts from the Introduction to “Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, And Violence“.

In the early morning hours of December 19, 2014, in Cairns, Australia, a subtropical city of 160,000, Raina Thaiday stabbed eight children to death.

Seven of the kids were hers. The eighth was her niece. She was 37 years old. And she was very, very sick.

The case was among the worst incidents of maternal child killing ever recorded. But Cairns is a long way from anywhere, and Thaiday was the opposite of a glamorous defendant, a poor single mother. Within a month, she and her children had largely been forgotten. The house they haunted would be torn down, its grounds turned into a memorial.

So neither the killing nor the ultimate verdict in Thaiday’s case attracted much interest.

They should have. They are signal events, proof of hidden horrors present and worse to come.

On April 6, 2017, before about twenty spectators in Brisbane, Australia’s third-largest city, Justice Jean Dalton of the Supreme Court of Queensland heard testimony from Thaiday’s psychiatrists. A month later, Dalton released her finding.

“Ms. Thaiday had a mental illness,” Dalton wrote. “She is entitled to the defence of unsoundness of mind. There is just no doubt.”

Thaiday had broken from reality when she killed her kids, Dalton wrote. She couldn’t control her actions. In medical terms, she suffered from psychosis and the devastating mental illness schizophrenia, which can cause hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia.

Nearly 1 percent of people will be diagnosed with schizophrenia in their lives. Many more will have other types of psychosis. Schizophrenia, the most severe form, usually strikes in the late teens or twenties. The disorder has a strong genetic component; scientists estimate almost half of the risk comes from genetic factors. Men are diagnosed more often than women, and in the United States, black people more often than those of other races, though researchers are not sure why.

Some drugs help control its symptoms, but schizophrenia has no cure. Most of its sufferers do not work, marry, or have families. They die on average about fifteen years younger than other Americans.

People with schizophrenia are also far more likely to commit violent crime. Mental illness advocacy groups play down that grim reality. “Most people with mental illness are not violent,” the National Alliance on Mental Illness explains on its website. “In fact, people with mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violence.”

Those statements are deeply misleading. They tuck schizophrenia into the broader category of “mental illness,” including depression. In reality, men with a schizophrenia diagnosis are five times as likely to commit violent crimes as healthy people. For women, the gap is even greater.

As insanity cases go, Thaiday’s was uncontroversial. The psychiatrists who testified before Justice Dalton agreed she was psychotic when she killed her children. She was paranoid and delusional before the murders. She made no effort to flee afterward. She stabbed herself and then waited outside her house, talking to herself and God, until her son Lewis found her.

Thaiday’s delusional thinking continued after she was hospitalized at “The Park”—a psychiatric hospital in Brisbane once known as the Woogaroo Lunatic Asylum. Despite medicine meant to help her control her thoughts, Thaiday fantasized about killing other patients.

Thus, Justice Dalton determined that when she murdered her kids, Thaiday “was suffering from a mental illness, paranoid schizophrenia, and that she had no capacity to know what she was doing was wrong.” Had Dalton ended her verdict there, the case would have been just another awful story of untreated mental illness. But she didn’t. She found Thaiday’s illness was no accident.

Marijuana had caused it.

“Thaiday gave a history of the use of cannabis since she was in grade 9,” Dalton wrote. “All the psychiatrists thought that it is likely that it is this long-term use of cannabis that caused the mental illness schizophrenia to emerge.”

With those words, Dalton made one of the first judicial findings anywhere linking marijuana, schizophrenia, and violence—a connection that cannabis advocates are desperate to hide.

People have smoked marijuana for thousands of years to feel the effects of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, commonly called THC. The cannabis plant naturally produces the compound. Among other effects, THC can induce euphoria, enhance sensation, distort the perception of time, and increase hunger—the infamous munchies.

For most of the twentieth century, cannabis possession and use were illegal in the United States. The modern wave of legalization began in 1996, when stories of suffering AIDS patients moved California voters to approve cannabis use with a doctor’s okay. By 2006, ten more states had allowed medical marijuana.

Now the wave has become a tsunami. In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to approve recreational use. As of summer 2018, seven more states, including California and the District of Columbia, had joined them. In those states, anyone 21 or over can walk into a dispensary and buy “flower”—traditional smokable marijuana—as well as “edibles” such as THC-infused chocolate, and “wax” or “shatter,” high-potency extracts that are nearly pure THC. In all, two hundred million Americans have gained access to medical or recreational marijuana in the last twenty years.

Many states have already decriminalized possession. Decriminalization puts marijuana in a twilight zone, neither legal nor illegal. Under decriminalization, police officers do not usually arrest people for carrying small amounts of marijuana. Instead they issue a ticket that carries a small fine and does not result in a criminal record.

Decriminalization sharply reduces the civil rights concerns that drug policy groups raise. Arrests for marijuana possession fell by almost 90 percent in Massachusetts the year after that state decriminalized, for example. Even in states that haven’t decriminalized, almost no one is imprisoned for possession anymore.

But though decriminalization protects users, growers and dealers still face criminal risk. Cannabis itself is still illegal and cannot be marketed. For the marijuana lobby, which now includes forprofit companies, decriminalization isn’t a satisfactory compromise. Advocates want cannabis on equal footing with alcohol and tobacco. Full legalization makes cannabis a state-regulated drug that users can buy at retail dispensaries.

Across the country, advocates have followed the same playbook. They press for medical legalization, then argue for recreational use.

Linking legalization to medical use has proven the crucial step. It encourages voters to think of marijuana as something other than an intoxicant. In reality, except for a few narrow conditions such as cancer-related wasting, neither cannabis nor THC has ever been shown to work in randomized clinical trials. Such trials are the only reliable way to prove a drug works. The Food and Drug Administration requires them before prescription drug companies can sell new treatments.

Further confusing the issue, one of the chemicals in marijuana, cannabidiol—usually called CBD—appears to have some medical benefits. But CBD is not psychoactive. Unlike THC, it doesn’t get users high.

But many people don’t understand the distinction between THC, CBD, and cannabis itself. Advocates have seized on the misunderstanding. They point to studies showing CBD’s possible benefits to claim that marijuana has medical value. There’s only one problem. Most cannabis consumed today—whether called “recreational” or “medical”—has lots of THC and almost no CBD, so whatever good CBD may do is irrelevant.

In 2017, almost 10 percent of American teens and adults used marijuana at least once a month, a rise of more than 60 percent from a decade before. In states where marijuana is legal, rates are significantly higher. As many as onethird of young adults in states like Colorado are past-month users. Those users tend to use heavily—much more heavily than the average drinker uses alcohol. Only 1 drinker in 15, or about 7 percent, drinks daily or almost daily. In comparison, about 20 percent of all cannabis users use at that rate, a percentage that has soared since 2005.

In other words, casual use of cannabis has risen only moderately in the last decade. But heavy use has soared—almost tripling.

All those people are using cannabis that by historical standards is shockingly potent. Through the mid-1970s, most marijuana consumed in the United States contained less than 2 percent THC. Today’s users wouldn’t even recognize that drug as marijuana. Marijuana sold at legal dispensaries now routinely contains 25 percent THC.

Legalization advocates also tirelessly argue that marijuana is safer than other drugs. “There are no documented deaths due to marijuana.”

The risk of marijuana-impaired driving appears higher than previously understood, too. In states that have legalized recreational marijuana, fatal car accidents where the drivers have only THC in their blood and not alcohol or other drugs are soaring.

The Centers for Disease Control compiles information from all the death certificates in the United States; its database shows that more than 1,000 people who died between 1999 and 2016 had cannabis or cannabinoids—and no other drugs—listed on their certificates as a secondary cause of death by poisoning. (That is the traditional method of counting fatal overdoses.) The number soared from 8 in 1999 to 191 in 2016.

British government statistics show a similar trend. There, 14 people died from overdoses related to cannabis alone between 2014 and 2016.

Those figures are a fraction of those who died from opiates. But they should put to rest the canard that marijuana has never killed anyone.

The marijuana lobby brands itself as young, hip, and diverse. Cannabis activists are woke, seeing through government propaganda. Never mind that scientists at the National Institute on Drug Abuse go out of their way these days to offer measured assessments of marijuana’s risks and benefits.

The propaganda comes mostly from pro-cannabis groups.

Especially on the issue of cannabis and mental illness. The Drug Policy Alliance offers “10 Facts About Marijuana” on its website, including this question: “Does marijuana negatively impact mental health?”

Its answer: “There is no compelling evidence that marijuana causes some psychiatric disorders in otherwise healthy individuals . . . [T]hose with mental illness might actually be selfmedicating with marijuana.”

A reassuring answer, especially considering the DPA claims it promotes “policies that are grounded in science.”

Too bad it’s not true.

Dozens of well-designed studies have linked marijuana with psychosis and schizophrenia. Researchers have found marijuana users are much more likely to develop schizophrenia. People with the disease suffer more frequent and severe relapses if they smoke.

Even so, doctors and scientists have much to learn about the link between cannabis and mental illness. Most people will never have a psychotic episode while using marijuana. Some will have temporary breaks from reality. But an unlucky minority of users will develop full-blown schizophrenia.

Arguably the most important finding of all came in 2017, when the National Academy of Medicine issued a 468-page research report titled “The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids.”

To produce the cannabis report, sixteen professors and doctors worked with a staff of thirteen for more than a year. It was the first time the academy had looked at the health effects of marijuana since 1999.

The committee found strong evidence that marijuana causes schizophrenia and some evidence that it worsens bipolar disorder and increases the risk of suicide, depression, and social anxiety disorder.

“Cannabis use is likely to increase the risk of developing schizophrenia and other psychoses; the higher the use, the greater the risk,” the scientists concluded.

The higher the use, the greater the risk. In other words, marijuana in the United States has become increasingly dangerous to mental health in the last fifteen years, as millions more people consume higher-potency cannabis more frequently.

The number of people showing up at hospitals with psychosis has soared since 2006, alongside marijuana use.

Emergency rooms saw a 50 percent increase in the number of cases where someone received a primary diagnosis of a psychotic disorder between 2006 and 2014, the most recent year for which full data is available. By 2014, more than 2,000 Americans every day showed up or were brought to emergency rooms for schizophrenia and other psychoses—810,000 people in all.

Worse, the number of emergency room visitors who were diagnosed primarily with psychosis and secondarily with problems with cannabis tripled over that period, from 30,000 to 90,000. By 2014, 11 percent of Americans who showed up in emergency rooms with a psychotic disorder also had a secondary diagnosis of marijuana misuse.

Studies from Denmark and Finland—two countries where mental illness cases can be counted accurately on a national basis— have also shown recent increases in schizophrenia diagnoses, following rising cannabis use. But those studies have received almost no attention.

Yet Mexico itself criminalized marijuana seventeen years before the United States, in 1920, after Mexican lawmakers became convinced the drug caused mental illness and violence.

Almost no one—not even the police officers who deal with it every day, not even most psychiatrists—publicly connects marijuana and crime. We all know alcohol causes violence, but somehow, we have grown to believe that marijuana does not, that centuries of experience were a myth.

A 2018 study of people with psychosis in Switzerland found that almost half of cannabis users became violent over a three-year period; their risk of violence was four times that of psychotic people who didn’t use. (Alcohol didn’t seem to increase violence in this group at all.)

The effect is not confined to people with preexisting psychosis. A 2012 study of 12,000 high school students across the United States showed that those who used cannabis were more than three times as likely to become violent as those who didn’t, surpassing the risk of alcohol use. Even worse, studies of children who have died from abuse and neglect consistently show that the adults responsible for their deaths use marijuana far more frequently than alcohol or other drugs—and far, far more than the general population. Marijuana does not necessarily cause all those crimes, but the link is striking and large.

We shouldn’t be surprised.

The violence that drinking causes is largely predictable. Alcohol intoxicates. It disinhibits users. It escalates conflict. It turns arguments into fights, fights into assaults, assaults into murders. Marijuana is an intoxicant that can disinhibit users, too. And though it sends many people into a relaxed haze, it also frequently causes paranoia and psychosis. Sometimes those are short-term episodes in healthy people. Sometimes they are months-long spirals in people with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

And paranoia and psychosis cause violence. The psychiatrists who treated Raina Thaiday spoke of the terror she suffered, and they weren’t exaggerating.

When that terror becomes too much, some people with psychosis snap. But when they break, they don’t escalate in predictable ways. They take hammers to their families. They decide their friends are devils and shoot them. They push strangers in front of trains. The homeless man mumbling about God frightens us because we don’t have to be experts on mental illness and violence to know instinctively that untreated psychosis is dangerous.

And finding violence and homicides connected to marijuana is all too easy. Before legalization passed in states like Washington, advocates claimed that it might reduce crime.

All four of the states that legalized in 2014 and 2015—Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington—have seen sharp increases in murders and aggravated assaults since legalization. Combined, the four states saw a 35 percent increase in murders and a 25 percent increase in assaults between 2013 and 2017, far outpacing the national trend, even after adjusting for changes in population. (Across the United States, murders have risen 20 percent and aggravated assaults 10 percent over that period.) Knowing exactly how many of these crimes are related to marijuana is impossible without researching each of them in detail, but police reports and arrest warrants show a clear connection in many cases.

If the marijuana lobby are so certain legalization is not just the right public policy decision but a moral imperative, why won’t they be honest about the risks? Why won’t they admit that legalizing marijuana, especially in its current high-THC form, amounts to running a giant real-time experiment on the brains of adolescents and young adults?

They know nothing would slow the rush to legalization faster than admitting that cannabis is connected to mental illness and violence, often of a particularly disturbing variety.

Jim van Os, a Dutch psychiatrist and epidemiologist and the author of a 2002 study on cannabis and psychosis, suggests that in countries with heavy use, marijuana could already be responsible for as much as 10 percent of psychosis in all its forms. In other words, as many as one extra person in 250 may develop psychosis from cannabis use. Considering the 11 percent figure from the hospital data, van Os’s estimate seems conservative, if anything.

Even at 10 percent, the numbers are striking. The United States is a big country. About 40 million Americans were born in the last decade. An increase of 0.4 percent in psychosis would mean an extra 160,000 of those kids will suffer debilitating mental illness by 2040 or so. Many thousands of those will wind up committing murder and other violent crime. That figure doesn’t account for other mental health problems marijuana might cause, like depression or suicidality, or decreases in IQ or memory.

And though schizophrenia generally develops in the late teens or twenties, evidence is mounting that prolonged, heavy cannabis use can lead to psychotic disorders for previously healthy adults outside the normal window for the disease. Van Os’s 2002 survey of Dutch adults showed that adult users were far more likely to develop psychosis than nonusers. A more recent study of newly diagnosed psychosis in states with high cannabis use showed a surprising number of adults over 30 receiving diagnoses. Given the soaring number of heavy users smoking high-THC cannabis or THC extracts, millions of adults may be putting themselves at risk.

No wonder the cannabis lobby has done everything it can to shout down discussion of this issue.

I believe most people smoke marijuana for the same reason they drink alcohol or use any other drug: because they like to get high. Because we like to get high. The impulse for intoxication and chemical euphoria lies at the core of what it is to be human. And getting high is fun—at least for a while. The difference between cannabis and every other drug is that an entire industry now trumpets marijuana’s benefits, promising a high with no low, a reward without risks.

Using cannabis or any drug is ultimately a personal choice. What to do about legalization is a political decision. But whether marijuana is dangerous to the brain and can ultimately cause violence is a scientific question, with a hard yes or no answer.

We have that answer. It’s time you heard it…

To read the full text of the Introduction to the book “Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, And Violence” and visit Alex Berenson’s website, please click HERE.