Will Legal Pot Make Teens Go Schizo?

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I wonder why people back in the day thought marijuana was riskier?
Brain on Drugs Ad
This is your brain, over easy.

That’s the headline they really wanted to use over at the Los Angeles Times for last Friday’s commentary, “Marijuana: A potent disruptor for young users, whose brains are still developing“.

In the piece we learn the story of Devan Fuentes, a young man who first smoked pot in college in Southern California at age 18[i]. He moves to Oakland at age 19 and soon is spending up to $160 a week at the dispensaries. At age 20, he finds himself suffering from a psychotic break:

(LA Times) “I was thinking so hard, my mind started traveling so fast, until I experienced a big, bright light flashing in front of my eyes, like being shot from the base of the Earth into the universe, to outer space, and then coming to a final epiphany. And then I am back inside my body, and I start running around my room to find pieces of paper to write on.”

Terrified, he called 911. “I feel schizophrenic,” he told the dispatcher. “I am afraid I am going to hurt myself.”

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Click to visit the official Prop 64 campaign website

Prop 64 in California is getting great poll numbers and most observers believe it will pass. Legalization in the world’s sixth-largest economy is a global tipping point for prohibition. The polls and the facts aren’t on their side, so the only chance now for prohibitionists is to sow the seeds of fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

I agree with the writer, Robin Abcarian, that “it’s important to own up to the fact that marijuana is not always the benign bud that many advocates would have us believe, particularly for teens and young adults, whose brains are still developing.” I didn’t start smoking pot until I was 22 years old.

But c’mon, man. This is just rampant scaremongering without the balance. The middle section that follows the Fuentes anecdote allows two UCLA neuropsychiatric doctors to tell of their experiences with youngsters in the grips of marijuana psychosis.

Animal House - Pot Schizo
Pinto: I won’t go schizo, will I?
Jennings: It’s a distinct possibility.
(Screenshot from Animal House / Universal Pictures)

Yes, some people can have a psychotic reaction to pot, but it is a very rare occurrence. The writer makes no mention of the incidence with which this occurs, but the section does mention that “today’s stuff… is way more potent than it used to be,” that it “can cause psychosis,” and that the doctors “often see young patients who are having …a brief psychotic reaction” to pot.

There are many confusing and conflicting studies about marijuana and psychosis. But we have seen rates of schizophrenia and psychosis remain virtually stable at about one percent of the population, even as marijuana use rates have risen and fallen.

There is also no mention that psychotic breaks and schizophrenia are most likely to occur between the ages of 16 and 25, with an average age of onset of 18 (stats for males). We don’t know that Fuentes wasn’t biologically predisposed to schizophrenia and would have had his break anyway.

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I don’t blame TV for the candidacy of Donald Trump. But TV definitely played a part. (Image: CNN)

In the third section, Fuentes tells us he doesn’t blame pot for his illness, but “pot definitely played a part.” Indeed, there is research to back up the notion that people with genetic risk factors and family history of mental illness shouldn’t smoke pot.

But what does this have to do with whether we legalize marijuana in California? Fuentes is now 23 years old and two years sober. He got his marijuana at age 19 with a medical card; Prop 64 won’t change that. He was also a pot-a-day coffee drinker and occasional user of salvia and psilocybin mushrooms – are we sure it was marijuana that was his trigger?

In the penultimate paragraph, Abcarian writes:

(LA Times) As we face the possibility of plunging headlong into the brave new world of recreational marijuana, we have to be certain that the barriers to teen and adolescent use will be high, no pun intended.[ii]

MTF 2015 Access by 12th Graders

The barriers to teen marijuana use couldn’t have been lower under prohibition! The Monitoring the Future survey has asked high school seniors since 1975 how easy it is for them to get marijuana. Only this latest survey has found that figure to be lower than 80 percent of them.

So four-out-of-five teens can already get marijuana; legalization isn’t making it any easier. Surveys also show the greatest rates of teen marijuana use occurred in the 1970s; legalization isn’t increasing teen use. There have always been young men between 16 and 25 who develop psychotic illnesses; legalization isn’t going to change that.

We’re not “plunging headlong” into anything we haven’t already seen before. This “brave new world” of recreational marijuana has always existed. The only thing legalization is changing is us having to be brave to admit we smoke marijuana.


[i] My estimate from the timeline of other events in the story. He could have been 17, as I was as a freshman in college.

[ii] Then you could’ve written “the barriers… will be strong,” or “the protections against… will be robust,” or “the obstacles for… will be difficult.” Look for my forthcoming guide for journalists entitled, “How to Cure Your Pot-Pun Addiction.”

Russ Belville
About Russ Belville 199 Articles
Russ Belville - or "Radical" Russ, as he is known on-air - hosts The Marijuana Agenda, a live news and talk radio program for the cannabis community, weekdays at 3pm Pacific on MJAgenda.com.  The show is based in Portland, Oregon, but "Radical" Russ has traveled over 300,000 air miles in the past five years, bringing his show to report live from hundreds of cannabis conferences, marijuana expos, hemp festivals, and legalization events in over 70 North American cities.