Menace or medicine? The long strange story of cannabis and mental health

These days, a quick glance at national headlines will tell you that America’s mental health crisis has reached epidemic proportions. Uvalde was at once the second-deadliest school shooting in our history and among more than 250 mass shootings in 2022 alone, emphasizing the urgent need to reckon with the state of our nation’s mental health. Advocates argue that increased cannabis access will play an important role in healing the national collective consciousness. But with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham blaming school shootings on “pot psychosis,” it’s obvious there’s a long road ahead before cannabis is widely accepted as a potential treatment for stress-based disorders and other mental health issues.

For those working in the trenches of cannabis legalization, social stigma is one of the biggest barriers to increasing the availability of plant medicine. Every gain in public awareness requires an exhaustive advocacy effort to disabuse Americans of their misconceptions, especially where mental health is concerned. Though doctors are now writing more cannabis prescriptions for mental health issues, many of the nation’s most powerful medical institutions refuse to update a position on cannabis and mental health first developed in the 1930s. 

The radically anti-cannabis position that is now normalized throughout the United States is a relatively new phenomenon—for many years cannabis was widely accepted by the medical community as beneficial to mental health. In the 19th century, American pharmacists prescribed cannabis for nervous conditions such as hysteria, and the Ohio State Medical Society supported the use of cannabis by finding it to be useful in treating postpartum depression. 

As most industry veterans are aware, the belief that cannabis can make consumers dangerous and unhinged can be traced to a single source. The anti-cannabis campaign began in the 1930s under the nation’s first drug czar, Harry Anslinger. When he was appointed as the founding commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Anslinger was determined to recategorize the plant from a harmless medicine to a dangerous drug. Along with his appointment, Anslinger was given a hefty budget and carte blanche to shape the country’s drug policy as he saw fit. 

In 1938, Anslinger wrote “Marijuana: Assassin of Youth,” a lengthy Reader’s Digest editorial in which he compares the plant to a “coiled rattlesnake” threatening the American social fabric through the destruction of its youth. Under the influence of cannabis, he claimed, young girls threw themselves out of windows and gangs of young men set off on bank-robbing sprees of which they had no memory afterwards. He quoted one such delinquent as saying, “If I had killed somebody on one of those jobs, I’d never have known it.” 

Throughout the editorial, Anslinger hammered home the notion that the consumption of cannabis stokes criminal impulses and releases all inhibitions. Ultimately, he concludes that “there should be campaigns of education in every school, so that children will not be deceived by the wiles of peddlers, but will know of the insanity, the disgrace, the horror which marijuana can bring to its victim.”

Reefer Madness, the infamous 1936 anti-cannabis propaganda film, enthusiastically responds to this call to arms with a plot that follows Anslinger’s line to a T. In it, an all-American high schooler’s life completely derails after he accidentally consumes a joint, believing it to be a cigarette. In swift succession his grades drop, he assaults a young woman, and is framed for murder by the weed pusher. In the courtroom, though the young man is technically the one on the stand, it quickly becomes clear that cannabis itself is on trial. When the school principal of the accused is asked to testify to the decline of a student who, six months ago, “was a fine upstanding American boy,” he says, “At times [there was] dissociation of ideas. In another instance, during a review of English literature… he suddenly burst into an uncontrollable fit of laughter. This, I understand, could be attributed to the use of marijuana. It causes errors in time and space.”

Image: POSTERWIRE

Today Reefer Madness has earned cult status with those who see the humor in the film’s over-the-top condemnation of the “devil’s weed,” but audiences at the time weren’t laughing. With authority figures spreading the message that cannabis could push you into insanity, the resulting stigma became nearly impossible to dislodge. Even now, as cannabis legalization increasingly gathers momentum, efforts from within the industry to change public perception frequently meet with serious systemic obstacles. 

Though medical cannabis has by now long been understood to address mental as well as physical ailments, the sea change is still not reflected by federal organizations like the CDC. Their webpage, “Marijuana and Public Health” warns of the dangers of “marijuana use disorder”—especially with those who “start using marijuana during youth or adolescence”—along with the adverse effects of cannabis on brain development and heart function, and its serious risks to mental health. According to the CDC, “People who use marijuana are more likely to develop temporary psychosis (not knowing what is real, hallucinations, and paranoia) and long-lasting mental disorders, including schizophrenia (a type of mental illness where people might see or hear things that are not really there).” In other words, the federal organization continues to suggest that consuming cannabis means risking “reefer madness.”

Of course, as cannabis users have known since the 1930s, the internal logic of the federal government’s demonization of the plant only makes sense if you’ve never actually touched the stuff. For legions of contemporary out-and-proud cannabis users, the idea that cannabis will cause ordinarily law-abiding citizens to suddenly become criminally insane is patently absurd. On the contrary, for many, denying cannabis access represents one of the many ways the American healthcare system fails to serve a population in crisis. According to recent numbers from the National Alliance on Mental Health, over twelve million people in the United States had thoughts of suicide in 2020, and 4.9 million were unable to access needed care. Though there is a conspicuous paucity of research on the mental health uses of cannabis, a privately funded 2014 study has shown cannabis to actually improve brain cognition, alleviate symptoms of anxiety, and potentially reduce dependency on mood stabilizers and antidepressants.

If you ask any grower, budtender, or distributor—in the illicit or regulated market—this study will come as no surprise. “I have come to see all cannabis as medicine,” says Rabbi James Kahn of Holistic Industries. “I mean that in the sense that people turn to cannabis—even with recreational—to feel better.” He tells the story of a patient he knew who felt guilty because he joined the medical cannabis program for relief from cancer, but when he went into remission he continued to consume cannabis. “He told me before he started consuming cannabis he’d be stressed, his stomach in knots. He slept terribly, then woke up the next morning and did it all again.” After the patient started consuming cannabis, everything changed. He would come home and play with his kids, then laugh with his wife over dinner—his mental health had never been better. “Is that not a medical need?” asks Kahn.

This story neatly illustrates how difficult it is for people in this country to admit they are suffering mentally. The patient was unashamed to seek cannabis treatment for his life-threatening physical illness, but when his mental health issues were making his life less worth living, he felt he was doing something wrong by continuing treatment with cannabis. Without the guidance of a respected spiritual leader who helped him see that he shouldn’t feel guilty for attempting to be happy, he might have denied himself the care he needed.

Fighting the dual stigmas of mental health and cannabis is a daunting task, but for Karla Anaguano and Alia Reichert of Nature’s Grace and Wellness Cannabis, the first step is open dialogue. Considering how often budtenders interface with a mentally struggling public seeking to self-medicate, they both see an urgent need for dispensaries to have frank conversations about the connection between cannabis and mental health. 

“As of 2020, right after recreational cannabis became legal [in Illinois], we started a mental health initiative called Spark the Conversation, an educational workshop for cannabis industry professionals and adult use consumers,” says Anaguano. “Participants usually leave understanding how to provide self-care and how to provide care to others, in spite of the stigma around mental health.” Spark the Conversation offers common sense solutions to the mental health problems that come up in any workplace, especially those where employees are having to dispense medicine that may be legal, but still hasn’t been embraced by the psychiatric establishment. 

Alia Reichert, who developed the program, first saw the need when she was working in a dispensary. “It was a very toxic environment, and there was nowhere for people to talk about it at the end of the day,” she says. “People assume working in cannabis is all fun and games, but it’s stressful dealing with other people’s ailments all day long. That’s where the catalyst came from.” Reichert knows cannabis can be an important tool to help with mental issues firsthand; she both consumes and grows cannabis to help her manage chronic anxiety. But she also believes that the plant medicine is most effective when combined with community support; peer-to-peer conversation is a key part of the program. “We know that cannabis isn’t a cure-all. It doesn’t work for everybody,” she says. “We just want to initiate people into talking about things which have been taboo for so long.”

While the need for cannabis-related mental health treatment is widespread, nowhere is it more critical than among veteran populations. Suicide rates among veterans are currently the highest they’ve ever been; an average of 6,000 veterans take their own lives each year. The many veterans dealing with PTSD after coming home from war often also face a number of associated psychiatric complications, from substance abuse to depressive disorders. As Samba Jarju, a U.S. Navy Veteran and founder of Tucson House of Cannabis, puts it, “There’s this rough transition period where your self-worth is absolutely dashed. A lot of veterans who fall by the wayside have mental issues that never got identified. It’s a slow slide, but it’s hard to stop it once it gets to a certain point.” 

samba jarju
2011: William Lovett, Benjamin Siekert and Samba Jarju render honors to the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Normandy 

For Jarju, cannabis is unique in its ability to soothe veterans by meeting them where they’re at. As he explains, the heightened state that allows an individual to survive in a war zone is not something that can be easily turned off. “There are things you get attuned to overseas, senses you turn up, and when you come back you realize you have dial some of that stuff down,” Jarju says. “Cannabis can help.” From his experience, cannabis heightens the senses in a way that is compatible with the vigilant mind of a soldier, but brings a feeling of calm instead of an adrenaline-fueled state of fear. “It allows you to consciously observe without engaging with the emotions around it,” he says. 

Beyond addressing the needs of a nervous system in constant crisis, the plant goes a long way toward healing the psychological conflict that often comes with participation in war. “A lot of people are dealing with moral injury,” says Jarju. “A lot of us in the service go into it because we want to help people, but there are times when you can’t help people. You have to respond to a situation—things don’t go as planned.” Consuming cannabis helps veterans process the memories of war without getting stuck in them; for Jarju the most extraordinary aspect of cannabis is the opportunity it offers to transcend even the most horrific traumas. 

Jarju believes this experience of transcendence is best processed in community with others, a belief he has carried into his business model. In addition to purveying homegrown cannabis products, Tucson House of Cannabis also connects a large network of people dedicated to using cannabis to heal. As a self-described plant medicine collective, they host live events, sponsor grows, and support nonprofits, all in the name of combining plant medicine with community support to repair the social fabric. Their network includes organizations with an environmental focus, organic cannabis growers, and veteran support groups. As Kelly Davis, the Chief Operating Officer for Tucson House of Cannabis, puts it, “If we all stay true to this path, we’re going to be able to help the greater collective of people.”

Unlike Jarju, Davis may not have been to war, but she’s faced plenty of hardships on the domestic front. “I didn’t love myself for a long time, due to the different forms of abuse I’ve dealt with, but I always knew that cannabis was a tool to help me get through scary times,” she says, noting its role in helping her break cycles of generational trauma that her parents and grandparents never had the time and space to process. Working through her mental issues gave her the freedom to be present with her family and maintain a successful small business. “Plant medicine has helped me be a productive member of society,” she says. 

This revelation came in direct conflict with the messages she learned in public school as an adolescent. “I took part in the D.A.R.E program, where they taught us that pot is a gateway drug.” Davis knew even then that something in their story was missing. When she finally tried cannabis for herself she was appalled by the discrepancy between the reality of cannabis consumption and the official narrative, which suddenly seemed to her to be more about social control than anything else. “When you’re high you see right through everything. You see the mind warping that’s going on—all of it becomes very apparent,” she says. She understands why the plant might scare people in power—the consciousness it facilitates grants immediate access to the vast cosmos outside of state control. “If it’s a gateway drug,” says Davis, “the gateway is to the universe, to your ancestors and all the ancestral planes.”

Consuming cannabis helps you see the bigger picture—a world beyond hyper militarization, political infighting, and the daily grind—and afterward there can follow a certain disconnect from the logic of the status quo. This perspective may not be well received by those with the power to draw the line between sanity and madness; as Ken Kesey writes in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, “Society is what decides who’s sane and who isn’t, and you’ve got to measure up.” If you don’t, the consequences can be severe. In the United States, the supposed deterrent of mass incarceration has been the main defense against “reefer madness” since Harry Anslinger declared war on cannabis in the 1930s.

Now, as that war winds down, those who fought to provide access to cannabis through even the darkest days of prohibition believe that it can now fulfill its potential to heal the mental schisms produced by the logic of the status quo. “As divisive as things are getting right now,” says Jarju, “we need communities where—regardless of race, ethnicity, sexuality, political standing—if you’re a person and you care you can come join the community.” From his perspective, cannabis is the ideal foundation for such a community, because it shows us the road to our higher selves. “Cannabis connects you to love, not just with ourselves, but that deeper love with the universe,” he says. “Love is the answer. It will see you through. It heals all, from traumas to differences. It’s the bond that connects.“

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  1. Pingback: Menace or Medicine: The Long Strange Story of Cannabis and Mental Health | Tucson House Of Cannabis

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