The Los Angeles Times published an article last week that was a latter day incarnation of 1930s-style reefer madness.
The headline was “Marijuana: A potent disruptor for young users, whose brains are still developing.”
The writer is a veteran Times staffer named Robin Abcarian. She writes a weekly column about California culture and politics for the print edition of the paper and has covered three presidential campaigns. She’s been with the Times since 1990.
In other words, she’s old enough and experienced enough to know better.
Ms. Abcarian begins her yarn by telling us the sad story of 23-year-old Devan Fuentes, who four years ago, “was hospitalized with psychotic symptoms after months of heavy marijuana use.”
There it is, right in the lead: reefer madness.
According to Ms. Abcarian, Mr. Fuentes “made it all the way through San Clemente High School without drinking or using drugs.”
She says he “vividly” remembers the first time he smoked pot. He was visiting a friend at Occidental College and decided “the moment had come.”
“They brought out a giant 3-foot bong,” he recalled. “I heard a lot of people don’t get high their first time, so I held it in for a long time, one large hit. Immediately, I couldn’t feel my legs.”
This was not an entirely unpleasant sensation for Fuentes, Abcarian says.
Fuentes describes his younger self as quiet, prone to depression and “sort of an outcast.”
Marijuana made him feel more extroverted, “and that,” he said, “kind of opened the door.”
Less than a year later, Abcarian says, “he crashed.”
He “vividly” remembers the moment he was in “full-blown psychosis:”
“I was thinking so hard, my mind started traveling so fast, until I experienced a big, bright light flashing in front of my eyes, like being shot from the base of the Earth into the universe, to outer space, and then coming to a final epiphany. And then I am back inside my body, and I start running around my room to find pieces of paper to write on.”
Terrified, he called 911. “I feel schizophrenic,” he told the dispatcher. “I am afraid I am going to hurt myself.”
Fuentes was hospitalized for nearly two weeks.
At this point in the narrative Ms. Abcarian asks the provocative question: “Could pot have triggered Fuentes’ psychosis? Or could it have exacerbated an underlying predisposition to mental illness?”
Fuentes doesn’t completely blame pot for his crack-up, but says “pot definitely played a part.”
And what else might have played a part? The psychoactive plant salvia and psilocybin mushrooms, it turns out. Both produce hallucinations (seeing and hearing things that aren’t there) and delusions (which are false, fixed beliefs that are held regardless of contradictory evidence). Hallucinations and delusions are major symptoms of psychotic behavior.
Toward the end of her piece Abcarian tells us almost in passing that Fuentes was using both for a couple of months before his crack-up.
Abcarian also interviewed Mark De Antonio, director of the Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital’s Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Service, for her story — who ever so gently tromped on her reefer madness narrative.
De Antonio said he often sees young patients who are having what he called “a brief psychotic reaction” to pot.
“They are intoxicated, and may be hallucinating,” De Antonio said. “They become anxious, and incredibly confused. It’s not life-threatening. We don’t see that many kids that require hospitalization just because they are stoned out of their minds.
“The conservative, safe answer is that kids should avoid marijuana,” he added. “The realistic answer is probably that intermittent use of marijuana — and I mean intermittent, like monthly — is not going to be harmful. But if you ‘wake and bake’ — use it when you wake up and all day till you go to sleep — I don’t think good things come from that.”
Added Tom Strouse, the hospital’s director, “It’s clear that acute [marijuana] intoxication impairs learning and memory, and if you are stoned every day as a high school student, you will be less good as a student.”
Fair enough. But exactly the same thing can be said word for word about alcohol. I’ve been writing about the drug war for more than 30 years. My experience has been that most people who are held up as examples of marijuana abusers are alcohol abusers as well. There were 1,130 words in Ms. Abcarian’s descent into reefer madness. The word “alcohol” wasn’t one of them.