You may know that smoking marijuana can pose risks for a person’s physical health and brain development, especially for teens. But did you know that, for some people, it carries risks for their mental health, too?
We don’t just mean short-term memory problems or poor judgment—those can happen for anybody who smokes marijuana. We’re talking about serious mental illness.
Researchers have found that some marijuana users have an increased risk for psychosis, a serious mental disorder where people have false thoughts (delusions) or see or hear things that aren’t there (hallucinations). But there is still a lot to learn about whether marijuana use may lead to this loss of touch with reality, or if having a mental illness makes people more likely to use marijuana. And as with other drugs, things like the age of users, how early they started smoking pot, the amount of the drug they used, and their genetics all could make a difference in whether or not long-term problems develop.
It’s not your jeans that matter—it’s your genes
Regular marijuana users with a specific version of a particular gene, AKT1, are at a greater risk of developing psychosis than those who smoke it less often or not at all. How much greater? For people who smoke marijuana daily, the risk is up to seven times greater.
The reason is that the AKT1 gene affects how much dopamine is released in your brain. Dopamine is one of our brain’s “feel-good” chemicals; it affects important brain functions such as behavior, motivation, and reward. When your brain releases dopamine (for example, after a beautiful bike ride or when you eat a delicious piece of chocolate), the release “teaches” your brain to seek out the same experience (reward) again. Some researchers believe that changes in dopamine levels are linked to psychosis.
Another study found that adults who used marijuana when they were teenagers and who carried a specific form of another gene for the enzyme COMT (which also impacts dopamine signaling) were at a higher risk of becoming psychotic.
Are you at risk?
Right now, unless you’ve had your DNA tested for those specific genes, you don’t know. Many health professionals believe that in the future most of us will know much more about our genetic makeup, but for now and for regular marijuana users, it’s an unknown risk—and you won’t know until you've developed an addiction.
Even if you don’t have those specific genes, there’s still a risk
A psychotic event can even happen to pot smokers without these specific genes that put them at risk for long-term serious mental illness. Although rare, marijuana-induced psychosis is becoming more common as people use higher potency forms, including edibles and oil extracts.
The bottom line? It’s important to know all the risks that can come with using marijuana.