Liz Kirkaldie says her grandson’s marijuana use led to his schizophrenia diagnosis. She says she’s skeptical the labels will work. “But if it helps even one person? Great.” Beth LaBerge / KQED
Liz Kirkaldie’s grandson was in the top of his class in high school and a talented jazz bassist when he started smoking cannabis. The more serious he got about music, the more serious he got about the substance.
And the more serious he got about cannabis, the more he became paranoid, even psychotic. He started hearing voices.
“They were going to kill him and there were people coming to eat his brain. Weird, weird stuff,” Kirkaldie says. “I woke up one morning, and no Kory anywhere. Well, it turns out, he’d been running down Villa Lane here totally naked.”
Kory came to live with his grandmother for a couple of years in Napa, California. She thought maybe she could help. Now, she says that was naïve.
Kory was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Kirkaldie blames the cannabis.
“The drug use activated the psychosis, is what I really think,” she says.
Indeed, many scientific studies have linked marijuana use to an increased risk of developing psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia. The risk is more than four times greater for people who use high-potency marijuana on a daily basis, compared with those who have never used, according to a study published in The Lancet Psychiatry in 2019. One study found eliminating cannabis use in adolescents would reduce global rates of schizophrenia by 10%.
Doctors and lawmakers in California want cannabis producers to warn consumers of this and other health risks on their packaging labels and in advertising, similar to requirements for cigarettes. They also want sellers to distribute health brochures to first-time customers outlining the risks cannabis poses to youths, drivers and those who are pregnant, especially for pot that has high concentrations of THC, the chemical primarily responsible for marijuana’s mental effects.
“Today’s turbocharged products are turbocharging the harms associated with cannabis,” says Dr. Lynn Silver with the Public Health Institute, a nonprofit sponsoring the proposed labeling legislation, SB 1097, the Cannabis Right to Know Act.
Californians voted to legalize recreational cannabis in 2016. Three years later, emergency room visits for cannabis-induced psychosis went up 54% across the state, from 682 to 1,053, according to state hospital data. For people who already have a psychotic disorder, cannabis can make things worse — leading to more ER visits, more hospitalizations and more legal troubles, says Dr. Deepak Cyril D’Souza, a psychiatry professor at Yale University School of Medicine who also serves on the physicians’ advisory board for Connecticut’s medical marijuana program.
But D’Souza faces great difficulty convincing his patients of the dangers, especially as 19 states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational cannabis.
“Both my patients with schizophrenia, and also adolescents, hear very conflicting messages that it’s legal; in fact, there may be medical uses for it,” he says. “If there are medical uses, how can we say there’s anything wrong with it?”
Legalization is not the problem, he says, but rather it’s the commercialization of cannabis — the heavy marketing, which can be geared toward attracting young people to become customers for life, and the increase in THC, which can often be between 20% and 35% in today’s varieties.
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Published: June 21, 2022
Founder & Interim Editor of L.A. Cannabis News