Think Your Teen’s Pot Smoking Is No Biggie? Studies Show It Can Trigger Psychosis

Think Your Teen’s Pot Smoking Is No Biggie? Studies Show It Can Trigger Psychosis

With the expanding legalization of cannabis in the U.S., you may think it isn’t such a big deal if your tween or teen is smoking pot. Think again! A wealth of research shows that cannabis harms the teenage brain, but one of the more surprising—and alarming—findings is that regular use of marijuana is associated with a higher risk of psychosis. And the risk is even greater in people who start smoking at a young age.

Parents need to pay close attention considering that cannabis use is widespread among adolescents and teens. Approximately 1.8 million adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 were cannabis users in 2015. And an estimated 23% of 12th graders, 14% of 10th graders, and 5% of 8th graders use the drug at least once a month, according to the latest statistics.

The Marijuana-Psychosis Connection

A 2017 report on the health effects of cannabis cautions that pot use can have serious psychiatric consequences. Commissioned by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, the report points to research showing that using marijuana at an early age, as well as heavy and prolonged usage may increase the risk of triggering the first episode of psychosis.

Psychosis is characterized by losing touch with reality and may include symptoms, such as hallucinations or delusions. Each year, an estimated 100,000 adolescents and young adults experience their first psychotic episode, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. And research shows that cannabis is involved in close to 50% of all cases of psychosis and some types of schizophrenia. and When psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia, are already present in adolescents and young adults, marijuana use can worsen symptoms.

What’s making the connection even more distressing is that the cannabis being sold today isn’t the same as the weed from the peace and love era of the 1960s. Levels of THC (spell out) have been on the rise for decades, making the new cannabis products—from joints to edibles, tabs, and vaping systems—far more potent.

A 2019 study in The Lancet Psychiatry shows why this is so concerning. This research confirms previous evidence showing that daily cannabis use and exposure at an early age increase the risk of experiencing a psychotic episode. Compared with people who had never tried cannabis, daily pot users were 3 times more likely to experience a psychotic episode. And the risk was higher in adolescents who started using the substance at age 15 or earlier.

What makes this study different from previous findings is that it looked at how using high-potency cannabis affects the risk of developing psychosis. The disturbing results showed that when compared to people who have never used marijuana, using the kind with high levels of THC nearly doubles the chances of experiencing a psychotic episode. Even worse, using high-potency pot on a daily basis increased the odds of a psychotic disorder by nearly 5 times. The researchers suggest that if high-potency cannabis were not available, as many as half of all first-episode psychosis cases could be prevented. 

Healthy SPECT Surface Scan (Top Down)
Marijuana SPECT Surface Scan (Top Down)

How to Talk to Your Teen About Marijuana

Talking to your teen about drug use can be difficult. You don’t want to come off sounding like you’re preaching, and young people don’t respond well to scare tactics or threats. One of the best ways you can start a conversation and help your teen understand how damaging marijuana can be is to do it with pictures. Show them brain scans of a healthy brain versus the brain of someone who is a regular cannabis user. Seeing is believing.

By sharing the images in this blog (you can find more brain scans of people with drug addiction here), you may be able to help them break their belief that pot is harmless. When teens see what substances can do to their brain function, it helps them develop brain envy. When young people realize that with a better brain comes a better life, they are more likely to want to take care of their brain with healthy habits.

Don’t wait to start this important conversation with your teen. Their brain depends on it.

At Amen Clinics, we use brain SPECT imaging as part of a comprehensive evaluation to help our patients see and understand any underlying brain dysfunction. This is often a powerful first step to breaking the chains of substance use and addiction. We use an integrated brain-body approach to healing the brain and treating any co-occurring mental health problems.

If you want to help your teen join the thousands of people who have already enhanced their brain health and overcome their substance use and psychiatric symptoms at Amen Clinics, speak to a specialist today at 888-288-9834. If all our specialists are busy helping others, you can also schedule a time to talk.


  1. Pick and choose studies to support your point. Keep it up with the Reefer Madness scare tactics. The toothpaste is already out of the tube. Cannabis helps millions with pain, anxiety…many ailments.

    Please get off of your politically-driven soapbox, discouraging people from what might help them.

    It’s too late baby, now it’s to late.

    Maybe write about alcohol, tobacco, opioids…

    Comment by FW — May 27, 2020 @ 2:33 AM

  2. Good article. It is my opinion that pot use may also contribute to so many being diagnosed as bipolar. I realize that their are many mental illnesses that keep individuals prisoner. Finding help is a challenge in itself. So many lives are limited because of lack of proper diagnosis and professionals not giving proper assistance. Very frustrating to see so many suffering from mental issues and individuals self medicating to deal with demons they are unable to deal with I am sure if they were able to get help They need their lives would be so much better. That truly would be wonderful to see.

    Comment by Rosalie — May 27, 2020 @ 2:50 AM

  3. This should come as no surprise. During our ‘fear’ fraught pandemic, many governments made sure marijuana, CBD, mushroom stores remained open for consumption for the ill-informed, dupes who believe ingesting anything to alleviate their own stupidly for poor choices is a remedy for happiness…

    One should also look at scientific evidence on the use of marijuana on pregnancy. The scientific facts are telling…Many woman, again seeking short-term solutions to life’s difficulty will ingest pills, marijuana, CBD (which we really haven’t studied enough to know the true results on humans), will run to something that removes them from reality.

    Unfortunately, too many children are in one parent situations, strange conglomerations of partnerships called families, no parent families, or parents who believe medicating children is a solution…What is needed…A strong family unit…a mother, father, respected elderly family members home to help model good behavior, and a supportive spiritual foundation…Less involvement by government agencies who have repeatedly informed us that letting childcare facilities raise your children are the best places…Also, government agencies who have repeatedly informed us that warehousing your elderly family members in senior citizen homes (death traps) is the best place…What dummy believes if we destroy the family unit the children will thrive…All of today’s ‘modern’ parents do!…Mommy and daddy can’t run around attempting to self-actualize their personal life and believe the child will turn out healthy…

    Taking a picture of your kids brain after the injury may be good medical information but how about a mother and father taking responsibility for the child at birth…

    Comment by Dr. Henry Sinopoli — May 27, 2020 @ 5:55 AM

  4. Amen to Dr. Henry Sinopoli! You hit the nail directly on the head, couldn’t agree more.

    Comment by Susan Cook — May 27, 2020 @ 6:16 AM

  5. Thank you for this! I have been watching this unfold for years while working as a school counselor. The family denial around “it’s just Pot” in parents of adolescents is astounding. I cannot count the number of parents I have counseled as they have watched their once “A student athlete” slip away into some alternate lifestyle. The denial story of ” I used and I am okay” just is a myth. Their own denial prevents them from acknowledging that this new drug is so very different from anything they experienced. The need to allow the substance to remain blameless is powerful in our culture! In the meantime, I watch young people with unlimited potential slip into what seems to be permanent mental illness that never had to happen. Thank you for continuing to point out what happens in developing brains! When children begin the downward spiral I always ask them to get their child tested, the need to remain in denial overpowers the need for an answer. Heartbreaking!

    Comment by Gail Jacobs — May 27, 2020 @ 7:52 AM

  6. I find this article confusing because it uses cannabis and marijuana interchangeably. They are two different plants – same genus, different species. And then it goes on to talk about the dangers of THC, which marijuana is high in. Cannabis is low in THC and high in CBD, and many CBD products actually contain no THC. I want to know about safety and efficacy of these products – I already know THC is bad. And I’d like to hear Dr. Amen talk about the endocannabinoid system and its influence on mental health.

    Comment by J — May 27, 2020 @ 8:12 AM

  7. This article is directed at adolescent brains. You wouldn’t let your child with size 10 feet wear size 5 shoes because they are still growing! Brains are continuing to grow and use of ANY psychoactive substance can inhibit healthy development. As a school therapist working in K-12 schools I have watched this unfold for years! Your opinion doesn’t refute evidence. Not all drunk drivers kill other people, however does that mean we stop talking about it? The nature of adolescent brains leads them to think they are bombproof, evidence would refute that! Just spend a week in a middle school and then tell me how capable they are at making wise choices……Yes, most substances have medicinal value that can help with ailments, however there is a cost benefit analysis that one must weigh. If you ruin your brain you have nothing to live in, why take the chance? Pot as a cure for the emotional pain of puberty is a disaster!

    Comment by Gail Jacobs — May 27, 2020 @ 8:18 AM

  8. I dint think this article was targeting those who use this for pain and anxiety properly. However, studied have. shown that CBD oils and other protects ducts without much THC are just as effective in reducing pain and anxiety as other products containing high levels of THC.

    Comment by Mary Gwin — May 27, 2020 @ 8:43 AM

  9. Thank you for this comment. I agree with many of your points on this.

    Comment by PETER — May 27, 2020 @ 9:17 AM

  10. Canabis and marijuana are the exact same thing.

    Comment by Carl Chalmers — May 27, 2020 @ 11:17 AM

  11. It is always important, when considering the validity of such studies, to check the sources for the information, and correlate the data and conclusions of the sources with the conclusion of the article. This article warns about a use case that is strictly confined to the daily use of high-potency marijuana. This can, quite generously, be described as regular use, in which case it creates a biased evaluation on the side of the reader.

    After admittedly only reading the summary of the 2017 study referenced in this article (which I would highly recommend to anyone reading this; pages 13-25 contain the statistical conclusions, while the first 12 pages offer an overview of the study itself and it’s legitimacy. For the purpose of saving some people some time, I will mention that the mental health section begins on page 19 of the report, though I highly recommend reading the other sections in the summary too.) I unsurprisingly found that the negative effects were generally contained to daily and/or problematic use. The section that I needed more clarification on was what was meant by the wording, ie that the risk of psychosis was dependent on dosage. I checked chapter 12 (page 191 and on) and what did I find? People who had ever used marijuana were 1.41 times more likely to have a psychotic outcome than those who never used it. This number is a pooled analysis, including all levels of usage (correct me if I am misunderstanding the wording). When only accounting for frequent cannabis use, the chance of a psychotic outcome was 2.09 times higher. I recommend reading at least the first part of the section. What these numbers mean, is that there IS a link between cannabis use and psychosis, but it is heavily dependent on dosage and frequency of use. If your child or any adolescent falls into the category of “frequent use”, then there are probably much greater concerns than eventual psychosis. As with many drug addiction cases, drug use is often a symptom of a more complex problem, not the problem itself. Discussing drug dependency with adolescents, and making them feel cared about and engaged with may not only solve the problem of frequent drug use but may also be of much greater benefit than only preventing the drug use, i.e. treating the symptom and ignoring the problem. So as with any other drug, marijuana carries its risks, but the severity of those risks may not be high enough to elicit the response to the topic.
    Note that I am generalizing the findings of the study on cannabis (either smoked or orally taken) with the term marijuana.

    Comment by Alexander — May 27, 2020 @ 12:40 PM

  12. That being said, It is still much less dangerous than, for example, drinking vodka every day, or smoking every day. It is also easily argued that it is less dangerous than sugar. Since no accessible comparison is given, this article is misleading in its results and effect. I would suggest seeing the issue this way: Why is marijuana illegal, when alcohol is not? Is it really that bad? Is it even AS bad? This is the real question here. Sugar causes obesity at a much higher rate than marijuana causes psychosis, to the extent where it is not even comparable. Contextualize findings, please.

    Comment by Alexander — May 27, 2020 @ 1:04 PM

  13. I totally agree with every word Dr. Sinopoli said. My son started smoking marijuana at age 12. At age 15 he was diagnosed with marijuana induced psychosis. Although he stopped smoking it and started taking medication, still a lot of struggles and pain for him and me. Here in Toronto Canada I ask his Dr. if they do SPECT, he told me they do it only for the patient with Dementia and that imaging of brain cannot show much…I still hope and pray that I will one day find a way (money) to take him Dr. Amen’s clinic.

    For now SPECT will remain the privilege for those they can afford the price, unless Dr. Amen, as a man of God, Christian finds a way to lower the price.

    Comment by Rada — May 27, 2020 @ 2:02 PM

  14. I have seen the damaging effects of Marijuana. The symptoms and diagnosis given by Dr Amen is real.

    Medicinal use of Marijuana is different from recreational, it is controlled and harmful substances have been removed.

    Comment by Deborah — May 27, 2020 @ 8:31 PM

  15. Well said.

    Comment by Deborah — May 27, 2020 @ 8:36 PM

  16. “for the ill-informed, dupes who believe ingesting anything to alleviate their own stupidly for poor choices is a remedy for happiness…”

    Hey there “Doc”…

    Your judgmemtal, abrasive, rude and hurtful “bedside manner” must be a real joy for any patients you subject to your verbal abuse.

    Right or wrong on your facts, your words are daggers designed to hurt. What’s the first ryle of the Hippocratic Oath again?

    I’m thankful to God you aren’t around me at all – much less in a professional setting.

    Comment by Rob — May 27, 2020 @ 10:43 PM

  17. I too have two children, now adults, who definitely affected by pot . As teens they smoked it on and off and I’m convinced it’s altered their lives . One has addiction issues and the other has bi Polar disorder …..

    Comment by Mindy Greenleaf — May 28, 2020 @ 5:46 AM

  18. The biggest problem is the legalization of marijuana!!!! Why else would these kids think it is OK to smoke? The politicians who are just looking to line their pockets do not realize this push is hurting the younger generation!! The government is pushing socialism and trying to dumb down society for their own benefit. When will everyone see this is the real issue at hand?

    Comment by M.Carnevale — May 28, 2020 @ 6:47 AM

  19. I have a 29 year old son who is living proof that marijuana can cause Schizophrenia and we all live with it everyday. He was a very smart kid who was in band and honor classes, before he turned 14. At 14 he started getting in trouble and moved to California with his father. While there he became a regular marijuana user. By 19 he was diagnosed with Schizophrenia and it has completely changed his life. Marijuana has many medical benefits and I believe in it for pain and certain diseases, but it is not a drug that should ever be in the hands of adolescents whether done legally or illegally. Please educate your children when they are younger of the dangers. I wouldn’t wish this mental health disorder on anyone. No drug is worth the lifetime of disability that schizophrenia causes.

    Comment by Lisa Lane — May 28, 2020 @ 9:54 AM

  20. Thank you for confirming my thoughts about my son who smoked MJ. I am convinced it triggered schizophrenia. Within four years my scholar athlete with several college scholarships was a homeless man living under bridges and hopping boxcars across the country.
    He’s been missing for years.

    Comment by Beth — May 28, 2020 @ 1:42 PM

  21. Thank you so much Dr Amen for speaking up and telling the truth about marijuana. Marijuana may help some people with extreme pain, but it just doesnt’t help everyone. With today’s advances there are now many paths of relief that one can take/use to relieve their pain like( exercises. Massage, conversion tanled etc) instead of glamourising this drug as harmless. Marijuana is not harmless.

    Comment by LANISE — May 28, 2020 @ 7:53 PM

  22. Like alcohol, opioids, and sugar, when MJ (with THC)J causes a problem, then it is a problem. It can and does in some young people, so we must tell that truth.

    Having seen more than my share of teen and young adult brains in psychosis directly form their MJ use, I can tell you it is not pretty.

    Having said that, addiction and mental health are complex and often intertwined. For many younger persons, self-medicating evolves, so we cannot always figure out which came first: mental illness or addition?

    Just learn and be aware. There are risks, just as there are benefits to almost everything. Thanks.

    Comment by Jeff Archambeault — May 28, 2020 @ 8:37 PM

  23. Didn’t Dr. M and just say that marijuana was bad for the brain no are we talking about smoking it or eating it

    Comment by Cathylynn lynch — June 17, 2020 @ 1:04 PM

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