Is cannabis good or bad for mental health? Well, that depends on a variety of factors. They include your relationship to the plant, your life experience, and even your genetics.
Cannabis and Mental Health
The relationship between cannabis and mental health is hard to pin down. That's because cannabis is a complicated plant made up of hundreds of compounds, including cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids that all act synergistically. Depending on your existing neurochemistry, your genetic predisposition, and the state of your endocannabinoid system, the effects can vary drastically.
When it comes to our mental health, most of us feel positive effects from cannabis. They include heightened mood, a lowering of anxiety, enhanced creativity, and increased self-awareness. But not everyone is so lucky. Some experience negative effects, and science is slowly uncovering the reason why.
Modern science is currently battling to make up for lost years of research due to prohibition. And whether for depression, anxiety, PTSD, psychosis, or addiction, the science isn't settled on how cannabis influences each. But it does hint at one important factor; that the effects of cannabis depend very much on the relationship that you have with the plant.
Where some people maintain a healthy and respectful relationship with marijuana and use it mindfully and with intention, others use it merely as a crutch to escape, to stop feeling, or to dissociate from underlying issues deep within. When coupled with genetic predispositions, it may be this that influences any negative relationship between mental health and cannabis.
Understanding THC and CBD
The two most well-known cannabinoids in the cannabis plant are THC and CBD. THC is much more contentious when it comes to its effects on mental health. Many claim that those with underlying psychological conditions who use THC may experience an increase in symptoms like anxiety and paranoia, especially at higher doses. CBD, on the other hand, tends to induce anxiolytic and antipsychotic effects without the intoxication.
But when we try to understand the mechanisms of action of cannabinoids like THC on someone's system, things get complicated quickly. Many factors determine its effects, including the dose and whether the THC is ingested in edible form, smoked, or applied topically with a cream.
Let's look at how cannabis use relates to the most common mental health issues in modern society.
Cannabis and Addiction
Cannabis and addiction have a long and checkered past. While it is possible for a small number of people to experience an addiction to cannabis, most people consume the plant without experiencing any dependence. THC accounts for much of the addictive potential of cannabis among the susceptible due to its euphoric effects.
But while small numbers of people succumb to an unhealthy reliance, on the flip side, cannabis is extremely effective in helping treat addictions to other substances, most notably opioids.
As a harm-reduction protocol, it makes much more sense for people to use cannabis than to use opioids as the mental health consequences of such a reliance are much less harmful. In addition to treating addiction, cannabis also helps control withdrawal symptoms and cravings.
Cannabis and Schizophrenia
Schizophrenia is a set of conditions that affect brain function, one where sufferers lose touch with reality. Scientific studies aren't conclusive on whether cannabis provokes schizophrenia or merely potentiates an underlying tendency to develop the condition regardless.
The latest science suggests that the biggest risk to schizophrenia is cannabis use during childhood when the brain is undergoing critical development. Scientists believe that THC consumption during this time is a risk factor. Right now it's hard to say if cannabis plays a role in the development of schizophrenia, or if those who are predisposed to develop schizophrenia are simply more drawn towards using cannabis regardless.
When it comes to CBD use, the results are mixed. Some studies show CBD's antipsychotic potential, while others uncovered no therapeutic link.
While scientists have established a causal link between marijuana and schizophrenia, it affects a small percentage of the population. The available evidence suggests that it is more common in those who began consuming cannabis at an age well below the legal limit.
Cannabis and Depression
Depression is a complex condition with many causes that stem from genetics to physical, sexual, and emotional traumas, isolation, stress, and substance abuse. The good news is that if you suffer from depression, then cannabis can help.
Cannabis can stimulate the endocannabinoid system to promote the growth of nervous tissue—something that helps battle stress, enhance mood, lower anxiety and fight insomnia.
A 2006 study from McGill University in Montreal found that low doses of THC and act as an antidepressant and enhance serotonin levels in the brain. But they also uncovered that high doses can lead to a worsening of depressive symptoms.
A 2011 study named Taming THC detailed the complex synergies between terpenes and cannabinoids and how they can help promote the medicinal potential of the plant. Researchers noted that the terpene limonene exhibits positive effects on depression when consumed in conjunction with the full plant spectrum.
Cannabis and Anxiety
The relationship between cannabis and anxiety is probably one of the most difficult to understand. We've all known people who find themselves anxious and paranoid about their surroundings after a few tokes. But we also know people who can smoke a whole joint and seem at complete ease in a deep state of relaxation.
Based on the research, low doses of cannabis seem to help anxiety, while higher doses seem to increase it. But that doesn't tell us what's going on.
The endocannabinoid system plays an important role in regulating levels of stress, fear, and anxiety. A significant percentage of our cannabinoid receptors exist in the brain. And a 2020 study showed that THC reduces the anxiety-provoking connections between the amygdala—a part of the brain that controls stress response—and the prefrontal cortex. This leads to a lowering of anxiety symptoms, but scientists also believe that THC can also overexcite the neural pathways. When that occurs, you may experience increased anxiety.
Terpenes also play a role in helping to modulate anxiety levels within the body. When consumed with the full plant spectrum, the terpene limonene is useful in lowering anxiety levels in the patient.
Marijuana and Mental Health
Overall, the effects of marijuana on mental health are positive. But that doesn't mean that it won't negatively affect a small percentage of the population. The available science suggests that responsible use goes a long way, as does avoiding it if you're one of those genetically predisposed to mental illness.
If you have family members with a history of psychosis or you yourself have had a previous episode, it’s best to tread very lightly. Stick with CBD concentrates until you understand your relationship with the plant.