Amanda Bynes made headlines last week, sharing her story for the cover of Paper Magazine. Her optimistic tale of recovery repeats in People Magazine, which published portions of the interview. Amanda admitted that she began drug abuse starting with marijuana, age 16. She continued pot use and also used Molly, Ecstasy and Adderall.
As a child, I was stung by bees several times. Each time my reaction got progressively worse. The last time it happened was at age 16; the doctor told me I could die if it happens again. Why is marijuana use like a fatal bee sting that makes some people swell until they implode? So many young people develop adverse effects from using today’s high-strength pot. Just because marijuana originated in nature doesn’t make it safe.
Research around the globe proves that marijuana causes panic attacks, paranoia, severe anxiety and/or depression. American hospitals often don’t consider marijuana a factor in the picture of mental health, and that’s a tragedy. There’s an urgent need for psychiatry to train more addiction specialists. If users quit after the first episode of psychosis or mental health condition, they probably can avoid a permanent psychological problem. However, these users must never go back to pot again. It’s like avoiding the bee stings if someone who’s allergic doesn’t want a fatal reaction, or like someone in Alcoholics Anonymous who can’t take one drink again.
My nephew Jason, is one that followed this advice. In 2011, when he was 16, he experimented with marijuana and developed severe anxiety and panic attacks. Ryan was still alive at the time. My brother and his wife took him to his pediatrician, who referred him to a psychiatrist, a psychologist and a pediatric neurologist. Each doctor insisted that pot could not be the cause of Jason’s severe anxiety, panic attacks and sweats. Maybe they didn’t realize that the highly potent pot in California today has 12-15 % THC, at least 5x what it was when those doctors were in school.
He survived because he stopped using pot, made more urgent after attending his oldest cousin Ryan’s funeral. He was never hospitalized and his brain fully recovered in nine months. Today, Jason plays Division 1 basketball in college. When I saw my brother at Thanksgiving, he thanked me for sharing the knowledge about marijuana that has kept Jason alive and thriving.
I’ve read about the COMT gene polymorphism which explains why there may be a genetic link for anyone who carries the recessive gene allele, about 25% of the world population. I contacted three researchers around the globe in hopes of getting my family’s blood analyzed. Even though the research has been published, a blood test for DNA recognition of this gene identification is at least 10 years away.
Stopping a Problem in its Tracks
A young neighbor recently confessed he was a big pot user all through high school. Suddenly, he’s been dealing with his mother’s unexpected illness and the stress of a job change. He developed anxiety out of nowhere, but felt it was related to his marijuana use. His friends keep pushing him to use pot, and to use even more than he had before. (How could someone who would goad another young person to use pot be called a “friend?”) Thankfully, this young man listened to his own body and mind.
Now I’ve heard that Amanda Bynes has gotten her life back on track. As of late December, she plans to go to college, stay sober and study psychology. Congratulations and best wishes for her continual recovery. Let’s hope this time she realizes that returning to marijuana could easily lead her to permanent psychosis.
A Story from Colorado
On a cruise to Alaska with my mother, a story emerged from a couple living in Colorado. Their 21-year-old son had developed depression, out of nowhere. The mom wasn’t concerned her son was smoking pot with his college roommates. “It’s just pot and I smoked while at UCLA in the 70s.” By the end of dinner, she wanted to heliport herself back home to save her son, because of the tragic events I had shared about my son and the high THC content of today’s cannabis.
It was when she finally said her son does too much pot with his friends that I couldn’t hold my tongue. Her boyfriend (not the boy’s father) was Dutch and had a ponytail, so I had instantly judged him to be cool with marijuana, since there have been marijuana coffeehouses for decades in Amsterdam. To my shock, he said that lawmakers in the Netherlands recently capped the strength of pot!! Then this woman blurted: “Tim’s been attending a drug education series at the local Sheriff’s Department for several weeks. He’s been telling me the same thing about pot as you did, but I’ve been blowing him off, as though it was just “‘crazy talk.’”
Afterwards I felt upset that I had violated my vow not to discuss anything about pot or my son Ryan when I boarded the ship. My mom saw the woman later and said: “You just may have saved that young man’s life.” Her boyfriend had been feeding her the same facts I had, but she continued in denial until hearing the story of my son’s pot use and my belief that it led to his tragic demise.
Wake up, America to the Looming Mental Health Crisis
After losing my own kid, I caution parents not to live in denial of marijuana, as I did. Your child will be exposed to marijuana and is likely to experiment with it. It is my mission to prevent other young people from going down the same path my son did.
If a person who uses today’s highly potent marijuana goes into psychosis (or depression, panic attack, other psychiatric presentation), the mental health system needs to first address the drug effects and the need for addiction treatment. Next, educate the person about brain health and wait for the drug-induced mental illness to run its course.
In California, which has unregulated medical marijuana, it’s been common to rope young marijuana users with psychotic symptoms into the label of a permanent, debilitating mental illness rather than give them addiction treatment. For some, the diagnosis of bipolar disorder may be more comforting than advising them of the absolute need to give up marijuana. When it comes to strong males like my son, they also flood them with powerful, unnecessary pharmaceutical drugs.
Our children and teens need to learn the true harms about today’s pot, especially to their, young, developing brains. The marijuana financiers should stop pretending they know about medicine. Medical marijuana practitioners are doing far more harm than good, as the one who gave pot to my friend Leah’s son, Brandon.
A new Ventura County website suggests that some communities might be waking up from these delusions brought on by changing social norms, and “medical marijuana.” Just because something originates in nature doesn’t mean it’s safe. Like some people die from a bee sting, a part of mother nature, some people die from the consequences of using marijuana, or they spiral out of control.
If marijuana is legalized nationally, the need for mental health treatment will explode. Psychiatry is a tricky field with less success than other medical specialties, like heart disease or emergency medicine. The fallout will be huge. Wake up, America. We are in uncharted waters, as marijuana use is growing nationwide and your kid may be the next casualty.
As I was writing this story, Leah texted me from her husband’s bedside at Cedars-Sinai Hospital: “LA Times, front page article, ‘Cannabis Hedge Funds Rush to Join Green Rush.’” We both wanted to vomit. Our two sons are casualties of this “green rush” movement, a movement to profit from making today’s highly potent strains of marijuana — at the expense of our youth….and their families. We will never address America’s mental health crisis until we accept that marijuana is the trigger that starts too many young lives unraveling.
Leah’s husband, Lee, suffered a major medical crisis, as if losing their 20-year-old son 32 months ago to suicide wasn’t enough for the family. Ed and I met Lee and Leah in the grief series; the four of us share a special bond. We do 5K walks annually in memory of our sons. On Mother’s Day, we took our families to Ojai together.
The Tragedy of Brandon
Leah said to our group back in 2012, “My son died of mental illness.” I didn’t say much, initially, but as the story unfolded and there was no history of psychosis in either family line, I thought marijuana had somehow played a role. I followed a hunch and began asking more questions. She looked at Brandon’s journals and saw his entries. “Am I having drug withdrawals?” he asked, trying to explain his racing thoughts. When he had to be hospitalized, he was convinced his lungs weren’t working.
Brandon died of suicide after being released from a three-day psych hold while experiencing psychotic symptoms tinged with mania (Guess what drug he had stopped using two weeks before entering the hospital…that’s right– cannabis). Despite telling numerous people in the hospital that he had just stopped marijuana use, none of the hospital staff raised a red flag that he was experiencing drug withdrawal symptoms. After Brandon left the hospital, he was convinced he needed a lung transplant despite doctors telling him there was nothing wrong with his lungs. He felt his breathing wasn’t right and was convinced he had caused it because he hadn’t stopped smoking cigarettes.
Brandon had become manic about four months earlier while smoking pot. When his mom expressed concern that he was becoming addicted, he just laughed because pot was a natural herb, not part of big drug companies making big $. Unfortunately Leah wasn’t aware that it’s best to come off pot gradually, under supervision. Unless psychiatrists are also certified for addiction treatment, they often don’t recognize marijuana withdrawal. Brandon had taken it upon himself to get a “medical marijuana” card, because he was having “anxiety.” Leah didn’t mind at the time, despite Brandon’s youth and undeveloped brain. As long as a doctor authorized it, she reasoned that it must be safe and legitimate. Before that time, he was using synthetic marijuana, which had alarmed her.
How Marijuana Becomes the Problem
Sorry, but I want to share what I truly believe is happening in every town across America, not just to my son, to Lee/ Leah’s son. If Leah and I hadn’t met, she would have accepted “Brandon died of a mental illness.” Rather than telling our children they should avoid having children and blaming it all on faulty genes, as some medical practitioners would advise, consider the environmental effects like marijuana. I think you should advise any child, teen or young adult to practice optimal brain health and avoid all substances that strongly alter the brain. The medical evidence is the marijuana manipulates the brain more than any other drug.
Before my son had his first psychotic episode in 2009, he suffered a terrible knee injury in a boating accident that same year. It required knee surgery and 9 months of physical rehab. It’s likely that Ryan started using a lot more marijuana to treat “pain” just as the medical marijuana advocates suggest — without giving any regards to proper dosing, strength and time intervals that a pharmacy is required to give. He was living with his fiancée at the time, so we were not aware of this choice, or that he had already been using marijuana for about three years. The accident, surgery and pain were the perfect excuse for him to use a lot more marijuana–plus he wouldn’t take the pain meds because they gave him nausea. Pot was apparently the treatment he chose, but we didn’t know it.
So the pattern emerges–using marijuana for a few years, increase the usage for “medical” reasons (in this case an accident followed by surgery and pain), and, then at some point — psychosis.
Close to Home: Amanda Bynes
Another example of the marijuana – psychosis pattern is former child star Amanda Bynes. She went to the same high school as my son; they were born in the same year, but one year apart in school.
Last year she was in treatment at the same psychiatric hospital in Pasadena where Ryan had been at one time. I don’t know her or her parents, but I heard she had some excellent treatment there (wish my son had been treated as well). Afterwards, her parents had a one-year conservatorship for her. Her mother asserted that the effects of marijuana were her main psychiatric problem, not bipolar or schizophrenia, as had been a rumored.
Amanda Bynes did well and looked amazing during most of 2014, until her parents’ conservatorship ended. Then in late summer, when the hold had ended, Amanda had some episodes and accused her father of terrible things. How could that young woman, who had heard that THC alters brain chemistry while in rehabilitation, return to using pot again? The relapse speaks volumes as to how addictive marijuana really is, and how marijuana use alters brain chemistry.
Like Amanda Bynes, Ryan seemed completely healthy to us after his “first episode” of psychosis. Both Amanda Bynes and Ryan went back to the same drug that damaged their young minds. No one knows which brains will unravel with marijuana. Is the risk worth it for anyone? In this country, I’ve found a few psychiatrists, Dr. Stuart Gitlow of Rhode Island, Dr. Christian Thurstone in Denver, Dr. Thomas Carter in Seattle, and some psychologists, who understand the link between marijuana use and mental health problems. Mental health treatment and addiction treatment need to be aligned more closely. A Postscript describes when and how to stop these problems.
The shootings last week in Marysville, Washington, forces into question: What triggers school violence? Jaylen Fryberg, who shot himself and five others, was a popular, 15-year old Homecoming Prince. Last December at Arapahoe High School in Colorado, an 18-year old with few signs of mental illness, shot a fellow student and tried to shoot a teacher. One died at Arapahoe HS, while three died this past week, plus the shooters.
Teachers and mental health professionals are supposed to be able to spot a troubled youth. These teen boys defied that category. Jaylen Fryberg, was upset over a break-up and invited friends to eat lunch with him, knowing he would shoot them. Karl Pierson was upset with a teacher who kicked him off the debate team, and so decided to shoot people. To seek revenge and kill oneself after a disappointment is not normal. These youth came from the states that had legalized marijuana. Marijuana needs to be added to our discussion of what causes mass violence, along with violence in the media, access to guns, violent video games, etc. (Since this article was written, the Twitter feed of Jaylen Fryberg showed him to be quite a marijuana user. His ex-girlfriend said it made his stupid.)
From the esteemed Lancet Psychiatry Journal, we know that teens who use marijuana are 7x more likely to attempt suicide. Marijuana blunts feelings. Both Jaylen and Karl lacked empathy for themselves and others. Did these boys use marijuana? How much? How long? Legalizing pot normalizes it; states that have long-term medical marijuana programs have higher usage of all drugs. Those who support legalization proposals are promoting a system that legitimizes it. When pot is normal (or tobacco or booze) for adults, teen usage rises.
Mass shooters James Holmes and Jared Loughner were known to be marijuana users — and not moderate in their use. Marijuana averages 13% THC today, opposed to 1-3% in the 1970s and 80s. Did marijuana feed their psychosis and the psychopathology of Fryberg, Pierson, Columbine killers and others? Using marijuana increases the chances for psychotic episodes, anxiety, aggression, schizophrenia, among other problems.
In all fairness, two of the worst mass shooters in the US, the perpetrators of the Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech massacres, appear to have never used marijuana. They were more logical in their planning and succeeded in killing more people, unfortunately.
Modern Reefer “Madness”
For every claim of a brilliant mind that used marijuana, without negative effect, there’s another person who was harmed by using it. The people described below indicate that marijuana has strong adverse reactions for some individuals, and for society.
1) On September 26, Brian Howard started a fire at the air traffic controllers station in Aurora, IL, holding up commercial planes for days. He was high, and admitted to having smoked marijuana right before the incident.
2) Amanda Bynes’ mother said she hasn’t been diagnosed with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, as rumored, and blamed the weird behavior on heavy marijuana use. Amanda alleged her father had committed child and sexual abuse, but recanted.
3) Kevin Ward, Jr., was tragically hit by race car driver Tony Stewart on August 8, 2014, after he got out of his car to confront an oncoming driver on the track. He eventually died. It’s perplexing that he would get out of his car considering the situation, but autopsy results show he had marijuana intoxication.
5) According to the father of Jodi Arias, accused of the bizarre behavior and the murder of her boyfriend, she has never been the same since she started to grow marijuana at age 14.
6) Johar Tsarnaev, one of the Boston bombers, was supposedly easy- going and smoked a lot of pot. Since the Boston Marathon bombing, his brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev has since been linked to a triple murder on Sept. 11, 2011. The victims had their throats slashed and were covered in marijuana.
7) In 2012, James Holmes shot and killed 12, and wounded 58, in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater. Though he probably had not been sane for a number of years, a neighbor reported that he was frequently seen outside by the apartment building smoking pot.
8) On May 26, 2012, Rudy Eugene was caught on tape eating another man in Miami for 18 minutes before police arrived. When police couldn’t stop him, he was shot. Eugene died while the disfigured man survived. Toxicology reports showed that marijuana was the only drug in Eugene’s body when he gnawed the man.
9) Casey Anthony was amazingly detached from her actions and from her daughter’s death. According to a friend of Casey Anthony, she smoked a lot of marijuana, but he was unaware if she used other drugs.
10) Amanda Knox, when confronted by police the day after Meredith Kercher’s brutal murder. A regular pot smoker at the time, she admitted to smoking marijuana the night of the murder. Her blunted emotional reaction to the bloody incident during police questioning was very strange. (THC stays in the body up to a month, it doesn’t pass like alcohol.) Without judging Knox to be guilty, we can certainly understand why Knox’s non-reaction to her roommates’ bloody death would lead Italian police to think she was guilty. She is also from Washington, a state that worships marijuana usage at a festival each year. One may conclude that Knox was excessively immature and out of touch, but then what was she doing in a foreign country?
A recent shooter in Washington, Aaron Ybarra , had also “dabbled” in marijuana, although alcohol also played into his demons. These shooting seem frequent in western states. We need to see the correlation between the most unexpected school shootings and having medical marijuana in a state. Why do states without medical marijuana come up in the news less frequently?
The list could go on, but this page represents a warning against validating marijuana. It’s ungrounded to think legalization would make marijuana less appealing to those under age 21, or regulate underage usage. Knox, Ward, Anthony,Johar Tsarnaev or Arias were under age 21 during the incidents, or when they started using marijuana. It’s likely that every individual mentioned above began use while while in adolescence.
This “experiment” in legalization is an opportunity for us to step up the warnings and increase funding for drug education and prevention. It’s time to stop saying that marijuana isn’t harmful, or that it’s safer than alcohol. Most of these examples are Caucasians, but there’s also a Native American, one black and one Hispanic. Crazy, pot-influenced behaviors and psychosis don’t discriminate. They affect male and female, though the males are more likely to be shooters.