Photo courtesy of Lizzy Oakley Photography

Is Marijuana Good or Bad? Maybe It’s Both

“Want a toke?” Jerry, my friend of 20 years, asked me after he lit a joint, and the thick, lingering smoke wafted upwards in the confines of his apartment. The unmistakable scent of marijuana soon filled the room as he exhaled, the smoke billowing like a cloud in the sunlight from the open window. I soon felt a sensation of relaxation roll over me as I breathed in the second-hand smoke. Marijuana wasn’t legal back then, but Jerry was getting quality pot. We had smoked pot together before. I trusted him because he was always mindful of my mental shortcomings and the care I needed to take when I smoked THC products.

After a few hits, Jerry and I were thirsty, and our throats were sore, so we decided to walk the two blocks to the corner store for some pop. We went through an alley lined with telephone poles and the back driveways of apartments and houses. I was feeling the THC work its way through my thoughts, and somehow I was transported back to the city block of low-income housing where I grew up. It wasn’t that it looked like where I grew up or seemed like it. It was more like it was the actual place where I grew up. I was there again, back in time, feeling like a scared, abused, skinny young adolescent. I nearly froze up in fear as the memories hit me. 

The thoughts of going home to an unstable family life came back. The fear of the torture chamber of stress of my middle school came back. Even the feelings I had when I had no one to hang out with other than my brother returned with a vengeance. I re-experienced how it felt when he would go to great lengths to get rid of me to hang out with his friends, often leaving me alone and desperately sad. That flashback, which happened almost 15 years ago, was the last time I ever smoked pot. I had never felt such a loss of mental control. The only thing I could compare it to would be the feeling of drowning. 

I was with someone I trusted, Jerry knew about my mental health concerns and limitations. What he didn’t know was how susceptible I was to negative reactions like the one I had in the alley. I suffered from schizophrenia, which made me much more prone to THC side effects like paranoia.

I wish I had more information back then, and evidence continues to suggest that young people need better guidance before using cannabis than they are getting now. We need kids to ask the tough questions I didn’t know about. Is the possibility of triggering a mental illness like schizophrenia worth the fun you can have? Are providers of the drug conscientious enough to explain these risks? Do potential users know where they can find someone to discuss the risks? Is this person qualified to advise on the topic? Stigma surrounding marijuana keeps too many in the dark, even as it is being decriminalized and legalized across North America.

I am diagnosed with a rare, chronic mental illness which combines symptoms of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and anxiety. One time I agreed to smoke up with some people I barely knew. That afternoon, after I deeply inhaled a knife-hit, one of the other users let on that someone had laced the pot with something. They implied it could have been PCP (aka angel dust). When a person is genetically predestined to develop psychosis, either by family history or random genetics, like I am, chronic use of THC can be a trigger to that terrifying experience, and I knew that PCP could affect users even more seriously. Horrified at the possible reaction I may have had, I made a hasty exit from the party, deeply worried I would erupt into some bizarre behavior or have some kind of epileptic fit. I went home and slept things off and never associated with those guys again. 

I didn’t like what smoking pot did to my state of mind and my health. I hated how it burned my throat and left it sore for days. But I did like bonding with close friends by sharing a joint with them. Everything seemed intensely more fun. Jokes were 10 times more hilarious. And dumb little things like picking up a key could turn into a laugh riot, not to mention that video games were way more enjoyable and fascinating. It was a shared experience that I wanted to remember for a very long time. 

I avoid consuming any products with THC now. But there are still some from the cannabis plant that I continue to use. I wear shirts made out of strong and durable hemp fabric, and I use moisturizers made from the hemp plant. The shirt and moisturizers contain no THC. but the quality and affordability of these products are off the charts. 

The psychosis that occurred when I smoked pot was real, but it was a pre-existing condition. Pot was the trigger, not the gun or the bullet.  What about those in pain, or experiencing extreme anxiety, or insomnia? I felt smoking marijuana that contained THC wasn’t worth it in my case, but I learned there are reasons that many people do feel that THC products are worth the risk. 

Yesterday and Today

There are now legal cannabis stores spread throughout Canadian cities and towns offering a broad range of edible and smokable THC and non-THC cannabis products. All you need is to prove you are over 18 or 19 (depending on provincial laws). In addition to buying in stores, each person is allowed to cultivate up to four plants. But for me, the question of whether to use or not has little to do with cost or convenience. My issue is what effect THC has on my mental health, and there is a minefield of positive and negative information to navigate. 

I currently work for the Schizophrenia Society of Alberta, which employs me as a lived-experience presenter of information. My lived experience is from more than 30 years of being treated for a diagnosis of mental illness, and my job includes giving presentations to high school and university students and many other groups. Though high school students aren’t old enough to buy cannabis products, that never stopped a large group of teens I knew in my high school from getting them, and I am sure it doesn’t stop teens now.

We try to explain to students that chronic use can increase their chances of developing psychosis or trigger an illness like schizophrenia. We also say that THC use becomes even more of a risk if you have a family history of mental illness. The Health Canada website states that using cannabis under the age of 25 can cause damage to the brain’s cognitive functions (learning, thinking, reasoning, remembering, etc.) and adds that more damage can be done the younger a person starts using cannabis.

Evidence continues to suggest that young people need much more information and better guidance before using cannabis than they are getting now.

the author writes

The website also advises that if you start to use regularly as a teen, your chances for addiction increase. Health Canada notes that the effects of THC use on cognitive abilities may never completely go away, whether you stop using or not. Marijuana can affect concentration, coordination, and reaction time, any of which could cause car accidents. And when you mix cannabis with alcohol or other recreational drugs, the risks for ill effects and accidents only go up. 

On the other hand, another study shows that even though research is in early stages, there is encouraging evidence cannabis could help treat a spectrum of psychiatric disorder symptoms and social anxiety. As a nervous teen, I often self-medicated my anxiety with alcohol. Looking back now, knowing all of the problems that come with alcohol abuse, cannabis, like I take now with just a trace of THC, now seems a better option.

The study also suggests medicinal cannabis can help deal with some of the effects of Post Traumatic Stress. The website is quick to caution against the use of high-THC formulations and to avoid use with youth or those with psychotic disorders, and to avoid becoming a chronic user.

Another study published in “The Psychiatric Times” states that much is to be learned about cannabis use. Many psychiatric patients use cannabis that isn’t legal, prescribed product, and report improvements in their symptoms. The research has also found positive results in treating depression, insomnia, opiate dependence, and even schizophrenia, not to mention benefits to those with multiple sclerosis, chronic pain, and chemotherapy-induced nausea.

At the community level, psychiatrists will most often advise against cannabis use. But in individual cases, many are likely to support or recommend it. The apprehension could be due to evidence that long-term cannabis use has been known in some cases to cause psychotic disorders, as the Schizophrenia Society of Alberta suggests, though some proponents of marijuana use believe those who become mentally ill may have been ill before they tried THC. The drug certainly had something to do with my brief psychotic episode when I was at the gathering where I became severely paranoid after using.

And Then There are the Teens

There needs to be more open, honest talk about marijuana use among teens, but the stigma surrounding marijuana often prevents healthy conversations. The plant itself isn’t good or bad; what makes it good or bad is what is done with it. There is still confusion over the difference between THC and hemp products. Both come from the same plant, but hemp rope, for instance, is made from cannabis that has little or no THC, and is an example of a neutral use. Another could be senior citizens smoking cannabis with THC to deal with pain, or when a person who is HIV positive uses it to increase appetite. The ignorance brought on by stigma sometimes makes every aspect of cannabis seem bad. 

In the ninth grade, I had a friend that told me he smoked a great deal of pot because it burns off body sugar without expending any effort. I don’t even completely understand what he meant by body sugar. It alarms me to think of young people making important decisions based on unsubstantiated rumors. Evidence that there is much room to improve is that Canada has one of the highest rates of teen cannabis use, with 23% of males and 21% of females using at age 15.   

The Recovery Model

Mental health and addiction treatment, in recent years, has been moving towards something called “The Recovery Model.” This approach to mental health and addiction considers it more important to empower patients with knowledge and shared control of their treatment rather than giving all the power to police or psychiatric/addiction workers. With the Recovery Model, clients would have the support of addiction workers and educational opportunities, but they would always keep the ability to make decisions in their own treatment. It would help uncover and treat the reasons why they use substances in the first place. People would have that all-essential voice in their treatment and, hopefully, better chances of successful rehabilitation.

Many THC and non-THC products can also have positive effects on mental and physical health. For a while, I used non-THC hemp oil as a moisturizer, something essential for my diabetes, as I need to take my foot care seriously or face amputation. I also have an aunt who has chronic pain from arthritis and uses drops of cannabis oil under her tongue to ease her pain and as an effective sleep aid. 

It would make sense that a share of the revenues from the legalization of marijuana should be spent for much-needed research and education. There are things I like about pot. There were times I went to homes of people who were smoking it, and the soothing smell in the air calmed me and made me feel more comfortable, almost like incense. But our society as a whole needs more hard facts about cannabis, addiction, and drug-induced psychosis. Only when knowledge and education advances on the subject can people confidently understand all of the benefits and drawbacks of use. 

Don’t miss our 50 at 50 series: one current or former prisoner published a day until New Year’s Day 2022.

Across the board, the medical community needs to accept medicinal and recreational cannabis, especially now that it is being decriminalized. I have heard of cases where people consult their doctors for advice and knowledge about cannabis, even for valid medical uses, and get nowhere. Many MDs refuse to suggest using cannabis to their patients, whether the patient is at risk or not, regardless if the risk is justified or not. There is so much ignorance of the benefits of medical marijuana, and there is fear of liability or stigma in a large segment of the medical community.

One thing is apparent: more people must arm themselves with all the knowledge they can get regarding the positive and negative aspects of cannabis products. As with mental illness, stigma and ignorance towards cannabis use is toxic. Those most at risk from developing a mental illness like schizophrenia, namely youth in their late teens and early 20s, are all too often in the dark on the subject. 

Perhaps the best example of the dichotomy of cannabis comes from someone that I have known since my teen years. Sgt. Heather Chernoff, a retired member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the girlfriend of one of my closest friends as a teen, shared with me that she uses THC pills at bedtime for sleep.

I recently interviewed a representative from the media department of Veterans Affairs Canada on the subject of cannabis and veterans. He told me that its compassionate health benefits cover any veteran of the RCMP or Canadian military who has a legal prescription from a doctor for cannabis at a rate of $8.25 a gram. They will reimburse their clients for up to three grams per day of fresh cannabis, dry cannabis, or the equivalent in cannabis oil. 

In Canada, cannabis possession and use became legal in 2018. As far back as 2007, Veterans Affairs Canada began reimbursing their clients for the cost of medical marijuana on compassionate grounds. The program began with just one person receiving benefits in 2007. In 2020-2021, the number of veterans and former RCMP members reimbursed for the cost of medical marijuana had grown to 15,369 patients using 14,463,796 grams of cannabis products, which cost Veterans Affairs a total of $119,264,105.00.

Heather and I talked about her career and some of the things she went through as a police officer. Shortly after we completed grade 12 and parted company around 30 years ago, she attended a Law Enforcement program at a local college. Heather was an intelligent, hardworking, and physically fit young woman who showed so much promise that the RCMP hired her before she completed her college program.

Throughout a distinguished 23-year career, Heather went through mountains of trauma, more incidents than can be counted, more than she can recall. Late in her career, the effects of her trauma caused her to take early retirement. She left her dream job even though she was fiercely proud of being an RCMP member. As a result of her mental state, Heather experienced many severe mental health symptoms. 

Among those were sleep. Heather described repetitive incidents of night terrors, heavy sweating, incidents of fighting in her sleep, as well as talking and yelling in her sleep, along with tossing and turning. She had heard of the calming effect of marijuana but refused to smoke anything. 

One day, by chance, Heather spoke to a salesperson from a company that produced THC pills. She hated to take them, given her strong dislike for the smell and taste of marijuana, but she was willing to try anything. The outcome was incredible. The cannabis pills calmed her, eased many of her symptoms, and gave her eight healthy hours of rest each night.

What bothers me about Heather’s situation is that she had to go through such a long period of suffering, then counted on luck and her own experience to find the best treatment for her severe sleep disorder. The ignorance and stigma surrounding marijuana seem to be the most harmful aspects of it, in Heather’s situation, and in the lives of those who can benefit from knowing more about all the good and bad of this fascinating and influential plant.

Leif Gregersen is a writer, teacher and public speaker living with a psychiatric disability in northern Canada. He has written and published 11 books, including 3 memoirs about his life with mental illness. Leif's books are available through Amazon.

Leif Gregersen is a writer, teacher and public speaker living with a psychiatric disability in northern Canada. He has written and published 11 books, including 3 memoirs about his life with mental illness. Leif's books are available through Amazon.

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