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"Could Smoking Pot Change My Friend's Personality?"

Cannabis, brain chemistry, and concern for a loved one.

My best friend Maggie, from childhood, moved to the Midwest. Still, we’re close. I visited her and she said I stole her lipstick. She eavesdropped on her husband’s calls. When I gave her a medium-sized jacket as a present, she said I was calling her fat. A mutual friend told me Maggie lashed out at her, accusing her of things and she had to ask her to leave the house. Maggie told me another mom was after her daughter. It took me off-guard, I didn’t know what to make of it. She looks and sounds normal and seems totally convinced that these things are true.

I just read that chronic pot-smoking causes brain damage, even schizophrenia, in pre-disposed people. She smoked weed daily for 30 years. Could this be the cause of a personality change? She is so paranoid now. She still works, cares for her three kids. She was always smart so maybe she has neurons in reserve. It is easy to just brush off her suspicions. And I want to. But I am worried. I see a pattern. Crazy statements burst out here and there, not all the time, but consistently. It breaks my heart. I know other people who smoked just as much, but nothing happened to them.”

Research shows that brain abnormalities are linked with chronic pot smoking. Scientists from Harvard and Northwestern observed an altered amygdala and nucleus accumbens (associated with fear, aggression, paranoia, and addiction) in study participants. Their findings were published in the Journal of Neuroscience in April. Hans Breiter, one of the researchers was quoted in The Washington Post: "People think a little recreational use shouldn’t cause a problem, if someone is doing OK with work or school,” he said. “Our data directly says this is not the case.” While more research needs to be done, evidence suggests that those who smoke regularly may be at risk. Whether a pre-condition is at play, a trauma or life event had an impact or the pot truly caused brain/personality changes in Maggie and others, paranoia (which can be considered a psychotic disorder) is a painful condition.

Clinically speaking, if one is unable to function either in a work or interpersonal setting, treatment may be warranted. Paranoid people may not appear disturbed or chaotic to others, but they suffer inwardly from fears and suspicions. Often, they do not experience themselves as paranoid, but rather as astute. They believe that they see what others cannot. If they can be helped to feel less anxious and more safe, many benefit. A sense of omnipotence in this case is not empowering but terrifying. Even if the data is not conclusive, it helps to be aware of options for maintaining health. Just as with alcohol and tobacco, there are side effects and health risks, so it is wise to practice responsible use and to be aware of possible sequelae.

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