It was Harry’s fault, really. Before Harry, hemp had been a Mexico-America border problem. After Harry, hemp became marijuana and marijuana became illegal.

Harry J. Anslinger commandeered the start today’s anti-narcotics law enforcement. But truthfully, he didn’t care much about hemp. He was hunting opiates and cocaine in the 1930s, until the Depression chopped his budget and he had to find a shiny new drug target with which to win his government dollars back. Mallihuan, “prisoner taken captive by the plant,” from Aztec descent, became the illicit moniker Harry insisted upon, and the drug thus became said target. And so, the governmental charge on marijuana began because of a budget crisis.

Nearly 100 years later, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) stands by that decision, ruling that marijuana in all forms, including medicinal, should remain classified. There are a number of suggestive reasonings, political, and otherwise that ferry the no-no gauge back and forth across the argument, but let’s take a look from mental health’s frame of reference. Is the “harmless” drug really harmless?

How Marijuana Works

Marijuana is a Schedule I narcotic in the U.S., meaning that it’s illegal in all settings, from the wildest of parties to the mellowest of hospital beds, and has high potential for abuse. Of its over 400 chemicals, several are psychoactive; that is, they cross the blood-brain barrier to affect brain function and handicap the central nervous system. It's predominately THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) present in the plant’s flowers, in the resin, that's most active and determines what kind of high the user will receive. If there’s little of this magical compound, the unfortunate user gets a “headache high.” More THC results in a clear high, but in overmature plants, where THC has converted to cannabinol (CBN), users feel more sedated, heavy and “stoned.”

When smoking marijuana, our lungs quickly absorb THC and carry it through the bloodstream to our brain, resulting in a high within minutes. Cannabis is a bit curious because unlike most drugs that fall firmly into either the hallucinogen, stimulant or depressant category, it falls in all three. Once in the brain, THC interacts with cannabinoid receptors in different parts of the brain, mainly impacting regions controlling sensory perception, motor control, pleasure and memory which results in a distinct high. It furthermore toys with the brain’s noradrenalin and GABA receptors to lessen anxiety.

The Aftereffects and Mental Illness Maladies

Nearly 6,000 Americans a day embrace the plant’s mind-altering influence for the first time, which totals about 2.1 million new users a year. Of this 2.1 million, 62 percent are under the age of 18.

The jury’s still out on whether or not marijuana is a “gateway drug” to harder stuff like opiates and cocaine, and we’re not even sure if marijuana is addictive in the ways of traditional drugs, though it does tweak our dopamine receptors. On this basis, it makes sense that marijuana was dubbed the “harmless” drug.

The frightening part lies not in the drug’s immediate addictive effects but in what marijuana can trigger. Studies show that marijuana increases the risk of psychosis, a loss of contact with reality, in children and adolescents predisposed to mental illness by 40% in their lifetime,1 meaning marijuana can cause predisposed mental illnesses like schizophrenia to blossom. Though this is a relatively rare occurrence, it's especially important to note for families with young adolescent children and a history of mental illness in the family. In more frequent pot users, this already staggering percentage can escalate to a 50-100% lifetime risk of psychosis for those genetically predisposed. Some mental illnesses may never begin without marijuana’s influence.

Studies have even gone so far to say that marijuana causes psychosis, saying that if the drug was never used, the population would have about 8% less schizophrenia incidence rates.2 To top it off, marijuana can shake and derail the brain’s neural pathways among cannabinoid and dopamine receptors, what’s in charge of our emotional and motivation processing, which may be the root of emotional processing problems seen in addiction and schizophrenia disorders.3

Marijuana's Legacy

I admit, the first time I read these studies I felt sick. Sick because my uncle is schizophrenic. I’ve rewound his life on a mental VHS tape and have wondered whether or not marijuana began the pull of the first cog in his psychosis. Of course I’ll never know, but I do know he was at the height of his teens in the 70s and that his siblings, like most teens, dabbled in pot use. Of the young adults in the study above, 14% may have never encountered psychotic illnesses if marijuana wasn’t first used.

And so, what I want to focus on in this medicinal marijuana fight is not state law, or politics, or even addiction but on mental illness and education. The message we need to cultivate is a warning. We should be deeply worried for those 6,000 new Americans who sample pot for the first time every day, who get no advice on this outlook of psychosis and the risk involved with jumping in the bed of the “harmless” drug. In this national war over marijuana, it’s protecting and educating the vulnerable early adolescents that we should remember.

1 Moore et al. 2007. Cannabis use and risk of psychotic or affective mental health outcomes: a systematic review. The Lancet. vol 370, pgs. 319-328.

2 Arseneault et al. 2004. Causal association between cannibis and psychosis: examination of the evidence. The British Journal of Psychiatry. vol 184, pgs 110-117.

3 Laviolette, S.R. and A.A. Grace. 2006. The roles of cannabinoid and dopamine receptor systems in neural emotional learning circuits: implications for schizophrenia and addiction. Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences. vol 63, pgs 1597-1613.

On 7/12/11 I rearranged the following sentence under the "Aftereffects and Mental Illness Maladies" to alleviate confusion: "Studies show that marijuana use among children and adolescents (with over 1.3 million new young Americans partaking a year) increases the risk of psychosis, a loss of contact with reality, in their lifetimes by 40%,1 meaning marijuana can cause predisposed mental illnesses like schizophrenia to blossom." Please note the change above. I furthermore noted the rarity of such an occurrence.