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Marijuana and Schizophrenia: The Latest Findings

By

Gina Garippo

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This content is created or selected by the Healthgrades editorial team and is funded by an advertising sponsor. The content is subject to the Healthgrades medical review process for accuracy, balance and objectivity. The content is not edited or otherwise influenced by the advertisers appearing on this page except with the possible suggestion of the broad topic area. For more information, read the HealthGrades advertising policy.

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After alcohol and nicotine, marijuana is the most commonly used drug in the world. And with recent marijuana legalization in some states, it’s expected that marijuana use in our country will only grow. But is it truly safe? If you have schizophrenia or have a loved one who’s at risk for the disease, you may want to take a look at what the experts have to say.

Although researchers don’t fully understand why, marijuana is closely linked to schizophrenia. Some experts estimate that up to 97% of people with schizophrenia are exposed to the drug in their lifetime, and close to 50% used it within the past year. Although some people with schizophrenia say that marijuana makes them feel better, recent research shows it’s doing much more harm than good.

Increased Symptoms, Greater Risk for Relapse

Studies show that using marijuana can negatively impact people with schizophrenia. The drug can trigger relapses, increase hospitalizations, and cause more severe and persistent symptoms.

For those who are currently experiencing psychotic symptoms, using marijuana can make the symptoms much worse. What’s more, the more someone uses the drug, the more severe their schizophrenia is likely to be.  

Early Use May Trigger Illness

New research findings show that using marijuana at a younger age, during adolescent or teen years, dramatically increases the likelihood of developing schizophrenia later in life. In fact, some researchers estimate that adolescents who begin using the drug before age 18 are six times more likely to develop schizophrenia than those who don’t. The risk is even greater in people with a family history of psychosis or with mild psychosis-like symptoms that may be the earliest warning signs.

Experts don’t know exactly why this happens. Of course, not everyone who uses marijuana develops the illness. However, it’s believed that some people are genetically predisposed to developing schizophrenia. This means that exposure to additional environmental factors, they are more likely to develop it than someone else. When these people use marijuana during adolescence—a sensitive period in neurodevelopment when the brain is more vulnerable—the drug can trigger or “turn on” the parts of the brain that lead to the illness.

The Bottom Line

Based on research, experts suggest that not using marijuana at all—or, at least, not using it until after the adolescent years—could delay or even prevent some cases of schizophrenia. If you have a young family member or friend and are concerned about their risk, make sure they understand the potential dangers of marijuana and help them avoid it.

If you have schizophrenia and use marijuana, quitting the drug can improve your outcome. Although it can be difficult to quit, there is help. For the most success, try to find a drug rehabilitation program designed specifically for people with mental illness. This type of program will be tailored to your needs and may be more effective than general drug rehabilitation programs.  

Key Takeaways:

  • Studies show that using marijuana can trigger relapses, increase hospitalizations, and cause more severe and persistent symptoms. The more someone uses the drug, the more severe their schizophrenia is likely to be. 

  • New research shows that using marijuana during adolescence dramatically increases the likelihood of developing schizophrenia later in life. The risk is even greater in people who have mild psychosis-like symptoms or a family history of psychosis.

  • Not using marijuana at all—or not using it until after the adolescent years—could delay or even prevent some cases of schizophrenia.

  • If you have schizophrenia and use marijuana, quitting the drug can improve your outcome. Look for a drug rehabilitation program designed for people with mental illness.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Apr 11, 2016

© 2016 Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the Healthgrades User Agreement.

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Medical References

  1. Dual Diagnosis Fact Sheet. National Alliance on Mental Illness. http://www2.nami.org/factsheets/dualdiagnosis_factsheet.pdf
  2. Schizophrenia Treatment. National Alliance on Mental Illness. http://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-Conditions/Schizophrenia/Treatment
  3. Marijuana and Mental Illness Fact Sheet. National Alliance on Mental Illness. http://www2.nami.org/factsheets/marijuana_factsheet.pdfSection=Smoking_Cessation&Template=%2FContentManagement%2FContentDi...;
  4. Castle DJ. Cannabis and Psychosis: What Causes What? F1000 Med Rep. 2013;5:1.
  5. Large M, et al. Cannabis use and earlier onset of psychosis: a systematic meta-analysis. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2011 Jun;68(6):555-61.
  6. Kuepper R, et al. Continued cannabis use and risk of incidence and persistence of psychotic symptoms: 10 year follow-up cohort study. BMJ. 2011;342:d738.
  7. Kuritzky, L. Marijuana and the Risk of Schizophrenia. Clinical Briefs in Primary Care. Hospital Medicine Alert. 2013;18(2):4.

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