A patient, we’ll call him John, called my office several years ago, frantic over the behavior of his son Aaron. “My son thinks there are helicopters circling our home, following his movements,” he said.
At my office the next day, dad was frantic. Aaron, who appeared disheveled and preoccupied, presented his experiences in a matter-of-fact style. He was certain some authority had singled him out to be placed under surveillance. He had no insight into the psychotic nature of his thinking.
Aaron was a daily marijuana smoker, with consumption of one to two joints or bowls a day. Typical of currently available marijuana, Aaron’s was quite potent.
This real-life case, and others like it I’ve seen over the years, represents the significant risks of marijuana use. The concept of “medical” marijuana is foreign to a physician like myself. I was trained to understand the science of the body and the various treatment modalities utilized to treat the illnesses that result when bodily mechanisms fail.
The medications I employ have been studied under scientifically controlled settings, having to pass very stringent guidelines and evaluative processes of the Federal Drug Administration. This system is not perfect but is currently the best model to guarantee efficacy and safety of medications. When I prescribe a given medication, I have confidence in the amount of active medication in the pill as well as the possible side effects and therapeutic actions of this agent. The FDA mandates the quality control of both brand and generic medications.
Marijuana is not a drug. It is a plant that has been genetically modified over the years to intensify its actions. The combustion and inhalation of this plant leads to rapid and very high concentrations of active byproducts. Numerous byproducts are toxic, including benzene, xylene, toluene, hydrogen cyanide and carbon monoxide. Many of these toxins are carcinogenic as well.
As a psychiatrist in clinical practice, I have had the unfortunate experience of seeing a number of psychosis cases resulting from marijuana. Additionally, I see a large population of marijuana abusers in recovery referred to me by treatment centers and halfway houses for depression, anxiety and mood instability disorders. Nearly all of them state that their lives are better free of marijuana. They also indicate that they did not realize the impact of their marijuana use on memory, attention, concentration and problem-solving abilities.
As a physician I have been trained to “first do no harm.” I will continue to respect this wise advice and can in no way condone “medical” marijuana.
Fortunately, Aaron did not have any significant prior psychiatric problems and was not genetically predisposed to major psychiatric disorders. Because I was concerned that Aaron’s psychotic state put his and others’ safety at risk, psychiatric hospitalization was arranged.
In the hospital and off of marijuana, Aaron rapidly recovered. He recognized the impact of his regular marijuana use on his thinking and came home a month later. Five years later, there have been no signs of psychiatric symptomatology since. Aaron is marijuana free and working in the healthcare field after successfully completing an intensive training program.
Dr. David A. Gross is a Yale-trained psychiatrist and actively involved in the private practice of adult, adolescent and geriatric psychiatry in Delray Beach. He is the Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and Chair of the International Medical and Scientific Forum on Drug Abuse. He wrote this article on behalf of the Drug Free America Foundation.