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Teen Marijuana Use And The Risks Of Psychosis

Doctors in Germany have noted an alarming rise in psychotic episodes linked to excessive marijuana use among young people, which follows other studies around the world raising alarms.

In Amsterdam
In Amsterdam
Freia Peters

BERLIN — Miklos has survived the worst of it. He doesn't hear voices anymore. And if he did, he'd know it's just an hallucination. "This isn't real," he would tell himself.

The 21-year-old can also interact with people again — even look them in the eye. As soon as his therapist enters the room he starts smiling. This would have seemed impossible just a few weeks ago.

Miklos was admitted a while back to the psychiatric ward of the Hamburg University Hospital, which diagnosed him as having suffered from an "extreme psychotic episode after abuse of cannabis."

Initially the help he received there seemed to have little effect. He suffered from paranoia, and even broke out of the hospital and caused a major traffic accident while on the run. He had frequent violent outbursts, refused to speak to anyone, and was fixated on just one thought: "I want to leave, just leave, leave, leave." But he eventually came to embrace his treatment.

Miklos had slid into addiction three years earlier. Nothing in his life seemed to be working at the time. A girl he liked laughed in his face when he confessed his love for her. His math teacher let it be known she thought he was a failure. He was in constant conflict with his parents. "Every time things went wrong, I would hide in my room and smoke weed," he recalls.

Miklos smoked with a bong, or water pipe, so the relaxing effect of marijuana would kick in faster. He'd take his first puffs as soon as he woke up in the morning. Smoking pot became his full-time job.

Miklos stopped going to school and ended up failing his final exams. He became indifferent, avoided his friends and ultimately had virtually no social connections. And then the voices appeared. "Oh good God, you are such a loser, you never do anything right," they would say. Finally, he turned to his parents for help and was admitted to the university hospital.

Playing with fire

The number of patients admitted with psychotic episodes after having consumed cannabis has more than tripled in Germany over the last 15 years, from 3,392 in 2000 to 11,708 in 2013. More than half of the patients are younger than 25.

The effects often show up later in life. Photo: Rafael Castillo

Andreas Bechdolf is the chief of medicine for psychiatry and psychotherapy at the Berlin Urban Hospital and heads a two-year-old facility called the Center for Early Intervention and Therapy, or FRITZ, which focuses specifically on adolescents. It is the country's only such project to date. "All major psychological disorders usually begin in adulthood,"

Bechdolf says. "But until now the welfare system has paid very little attention to young adults."

FRITZ employs psychologists, psychiatrists, care providers and social workers as well as young people who cannot, at first glance, be distinguished from patients. They don’t wear white clothing. Some have nose piercings or large rings inserted in their earlobes. And they are purposely informal in how they relate with the patients. Bechdolf calls this a "subcultural" strategy.

"The truly awful thing is that it often takes years before young adults with psychoses receive treatment, and many feel stigmatized," Bechdolf says. "It often takes another year from the point they start hearing voices before they finally take the step to open up to a doctor." This is something FRITZ aims to change.

The program works with several hundred patients between the ages of 18 to 25. Some spend several weeks in the hospital ward. Others are outpatients, and some are treated at home. The vast majority (between 80% and 90%) were smoking marijuana on a regular basis before their treatment began. "Not all of them are addicted, but many of them are," Bechdolf says.

Those who start smoking marijuana on a regular basis before the age of 15 are six times more likely to suffer from psychosis in later years. Adolescent cannabis consumers suffer from more anxiety and depression than their non-consuming counterparts. Cognitive performance is diminished and the loss of concentration is a common side effect. Quite often, these adolescents are unable to recall the content of a text they read only a few days before.

British scientists have established that people who smoked cannabis on a regular basis when young ended up, 10 years later, in a lower social standing, had worse academic results and a lower income than people who didn't smoke.

"Dramatic effects"

The active ingredient is cannabis is Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which has been shown to inhibit brain maturation. The connecting of nervous cells in the brain takes place until about 25 years of age. THC impedes certain connections and certain areas remain underdeveloped while others connections are made by mistake.

A University of Melbourne study has even shown that the amygdala area of the brain, responsible for regulating the feelings of anxiety and depression, shrinks with regular cannabis abuse.

Relaxation can turn into hallucinations. Photo: Rafael Castillo

The abuse of marijuana also causes an unusually large amount of the neurotransmitter dopamine to be distributed throughout the brain. This in turn causes the feeling of relaxation but can, if abused over a long period of time, lead to hallucinations. The THC content in artificially cultivated cannabis, the most common form of cannabis production nowadays, is often quite high, up to 20%.

"This cannot be compared to the joints that were smoked in the 1960s and 1970s," Bechdolf says. "The THC content of cannabis back then may have been only as high as 5%. But the cultivation of cannabis has become an industry that strives for optimization."

High TCH levels are less of a problem for older people. "Those who are in their late 40s and smoke the occasional joint on the weekends don't need to fear any repercussions," the FRITZ head explains. "But the regular consumption of cannabis can have very dramatic effects on a 14- or 15-year-old."

Bechdolf believes that nearly 20% of people who suffer from psychoses — extreme psychological disorders and loss of the concept of reality — could be healthy had they not smoked cannabis.

Trying to refocus

Psychoses often develop over several years. At first people have difficult concentrating and putting thoughts together. Things that used to be second nature become increasingly difficult. People are unable to understand the meaning of once-familiar words. Perceptions begin to change. Colors become more intense. A car that is 10 meters away might seem to be right in front of you.

"Those are the early symptoms," Bechdolf explains. "This stage develops at a very slow pace over three or four years." Then, when the psychosis manifests itself perceptively, acoustic hallucinations are added to the mix. Often the voices divulge secrets or utter a running commentary on the person’s shortcomings. People also feel they are being constantly followed or spied on.

The prognosis with a so-called substance-induced psychosis is usually relatively good. "Those who stop smoking pot have a very good chance of being healed," Bechdolf says. Continued outpatient therapy after being released from the hospital is part of this healing process. Instead of going back to thinking, "If I have a joint, everything will be fine," patients need to find a different approach to tackling their issues. "It is a huge challenge for those affected to re-learn how to deal with problems," he says.

For Miklos, that's meant nurturing a passion for longboarding. "It doesn’t give you the same kick as smoking pot, but it's still pretty cool," he says.

If his condition continues to be stable for the next two weeks, he will be discharged from the clinic and will have sessions with his therapist twice weekly. Miklos will not be moving back in with his parents when he's discharged. Instead, he'll be going to a supervised communal residence.

He even wants to try to repeat his final exams during the summer. Miklos says he's also now able to appreciate the help he's getting from the hospital's doctors and social workers. "I know that I never would have been able to get better without them."

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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