THC from the cannabis plant is the most used of all addictive drugs. Because of the pot industry’s aggressive hybridization and more concentrated products, cannabis’ brain-active THC content has been increasing steadily. Since the 1960s, the content has risen from .5 percent to as much as 80 percent or more. THC can impact any and all of the brain neurotransmitters that regulate pleasure and mood: serotonin, endorphin, GABA, and dopamine, as well as the brain’s two natural cannabinoids. Cannabis farming almost always includes the use of herbicides and other contaminants that can also impact the brain (and body). This is a drug that the Alliance is particularly concerned about, as its addictive potential has not been widely recognized. That’s because of cannabis’ social and now legal and medical acceptability, and its reputation as simply a harmless recreational drug.
Both the development of and the recovery from cannabis addiction are longer and more complex processes than those associated with almost any other drug. This is due to the uniquely long-lasting lipophilic (fat storage) effects of THC on the brain. THC stores in the special fatty linings of brain cells. (The brain is 60 percent fat.) As a result, it cannot be quickly “washed out” of the brain as other drugs (most of which are water soluble) can be. Because of this fact, THC can adversely affect any or all of the neurotransmitters long term (even long after drug cessation!)
Nutritional therapy is particularly beneficial for THC addicts who often need to use all of the amino acid precursors detailed on the AMINO ACID THERAPY page. Other nutrients can be used to help expel the THC from deep storage in the brain’s cell walls. Phosphatidylserine (in supplements or in soy lecithin) and omega-3 supplements are particularly vital for this purpose.
Resources Re Nutritional Recovery from THC Addiction
Visit Marijuana Anonymous, which has online as well as live meetings and can be a great resource.
Scott Gillet, LCSW, Director of the Briarcliff Institute in New York, and active Alliance member is the author of Truer Bud (available through truerbud.com). His excellent seminar for the Alliance on cannabis contamination, addiction, and nutritional intervention, is available for members and to the public through this website’s archives.
See chapter on marijuana addiction (pp 215-225) in the excellent book End Your Addiction Now by Charles Gant, MD and Greg Lewis, PhD.
Julia Ross, MA, Alliance co-founder and pioneer in adolescent and adult marijuana addiction and nutritional recovery treatment produced a CD set titled Marijuana Education Series. See also the Nutritional Rehab Chapter in Ross’ book, The Mood Cure.
Where is Your Brain on the Pot-Use Progression?
Teens and The THC Build-up Syndrome
Some people can use cannabis, even use a lot of it over long periods, and not have obvious negative consequences. Some are able to stop easily if negatives do crop up. But those users who are more vulnerable, especially if they start using before their brains have fully developed (before age 25), often experience a set of progressive effects now well recognized by addiction professionals. This THC Build-up Syndrome is not just a concept, it is the predictable consequence of one of the unique and well-known properties of THC: its fat solubility. Unlike alcohol and most other brain-altering drugs, which are water soluble, THC can’t be rapidly “washed out” of the brain and body. Instead, it stores in the fatty tissues that line all of our cells. These fatty cell walls are particularly dense in the brain, 60 percent of which is composed of fat, as a result. THC moves readily into these sensitive nerve cell walls as it stimulates the “high.” But some of it remains there, its presence increasing over time, creating subtler, but ever-more-entrenched changes in mood, feeling, thought, and behavior. Unless the supply is completely stopped, the stored THC cannot be ejected and continues to increasingly interfere with the functioning of the cells that produce the brain’s neurotransmitters, our natural promoters of pleasure, energy, motivation, relaxation, and positive mood. The most influential of these neurotransmitters are serotonin, our natural anti-depressant; endorphin, our natural painkiller; GABA, our natural tranquilizer; and dopamine, which provides our mental energy and sense of reward. The brain’s natural cannabinoids (1 and 2) are also impacted by THC.
The progression starts with occasional highs. After each of these early highs is over, the brain can expel the THC and return to its normal function. But the stronger the THC content and the more frequently it’s ingested, the sooner its residues begin to build up. This often creates a false between-high persona, which eventually becomes a constant one as THC interferes more and more with the normal functioning of the brain.
Even if cannabis ingestion ends, the brain can only gradually expel the THC. But this expulsion can be aided (and speeded) by the use of the nutrients that the brain’s cell walls are naturally made of: the phospholipids phosphatidylserine, choline, and ethanolamine, as well as the Omega-3 fats. Amino acid supplements can also be added to build up levels of any of the neurotransmitters that have become depleted. These nutritional helpers can quickly re-regulate mood, energy, feelings, thoughts, and behaviors - and stop the cravings for the THC. (For more on this see allianceforaddictionsolutions.com.)
The THC content of cannabis products increased from .5% in 1967 to over 25% by 2022.
What were frequent pot users like before their THC build-up started? Their true natures, their innate character, interests, abilities, and affections can be buried under the increasing load of THC. But it is all still there, and it can be fully resuscitated by the removal of THC. Hundreds of parents we’ve worked with over the years have used the same phrase to describe what this is like: “I’ve got my kid back!” Addicts themselves find that the gradual return of their natural abilities, feelings, interests, motivation, and dreams (literally) is like coming back to life. One 19-year-old who had been using THC since he was 12, was able to finish a quarter in the local junior college during his first three months off THC – a big advance (even though he got all Cs. But six months later, he was still at the) C and getting all As.
Distinguishing between THC Buildup and normal teen development is hard for parents and adolescents. Are these the inevitable hormonal changes and the healthy independence urges of normal development or are they the predictable set of behaviors brought on by THC buildup? It depends on how much, and how often they are using and the type and potency of the cannabis they are being exposed to. How vulnerable is their particular brain? If they were already anxious, depressed, oversensitive, sleepless, distracted, or hyperactive before using, they would be more vulnerable. For example, cannabis can have a special attraction for ADHD kids – especially those who’ve been on meds.
THC highs can be energizing, relaxing, sensual, or psychedelic; inner experiences that feel profound or creative; social experiences that often involve laughing, giggling, being sexual (often indiscriminately) or having what seem like deep, enlightening conversations or shared super-pleasure in music, food, TV, nature, video games, or almost anything else.
In contrast, the THC gradually stored in the brain between highs can have more subtle and negative effects. Users are typically blind to this because they can no longer remember what they used to be like.
Memory loss and lack of motivation are two of the most well-documented of the negative consequences of pot use.
The Progressive Effects of THC Buildup
Here are some of the most common steps in the progression, but every brain has its unique responses to the increasing presence of THC:
1. There are fewer fun family times; less humor and affection or involvement and interest in the non-cannabis users in the family.
2. Anger and contempt toward family members, especially parents, become commonplace.
3. Blow ups with parents become frequent. Later on, anger (e.g. with spouses) can also be a sign that withdrawal is setting in and a hit is needed.
4. It becomes hard to have pleasure without it or think of things to do besides getting high because the brain is no longer functioning normally. For example, the natural opioid neurotransmitter endorphin often becomes depleted in cannabis users, we’ve found, which makes natural experiences of pleasure harder to access.
5. Bloodshot eyes, paraphernalia evident.
6. Losing interest in former favorite activities in addition to school, e.g. sports, dance, scouts, hobbies, jobs…
7. “I don’t care…” becomes a common phrase. (We translate it as “I can’t care because the THC won’t let me.”)
8. Hanging out with user kids; dropping older, non-user, pals.
9. Poorer school work and grades; don’t keep up with, or turn in, homework.
10. Feeling superior to non-users and their experience and expectations of life.
11. Goals: Losing former dreams of the future not replaced by anything much but wanting to use more pot and, typically, other drugs.
12. Skipping school.
13. If use starts before the development of secondary sexual characteristics (facial hair, shoulder/pectoral muscles), they may not develop or development may be slow, as testosterone levels are often reduced. (Later, infertility can become a real problem, as is universally reported by fertility clinics.)
14. Loss of vital REM sleep and dreaming.
15. Transferring to schools for users.
16. Detained, arrested for dealing or using at school.
17. Kicked or drop out of school altogether.
18. Steal from family.
19. Becomes a loner-user.
20.Unable to get or keep a job, be independent, thrive.
This effect of THC on the brain is well-documented, worldwide, and can come on at any point, even if the problem is not hereditary. In one case, a 14-year-old became psychotic after one year of regular smoking. Medication did not help, but he recovered well and quickly by following the micronutrient protocols recommended by True Hope.
Interview with Scott Gillette
As a social worker and family therapist at Briarcliff Institute for Recovery and Development (BIRD) who had just gotten certified as a nutrient therapy coach, I began to look at cases in my treatment program differently. I saw some of the problems were brain chemistry related and wouldn’t respond to psychotherapy. I particularly began looking at half a dozen or so chronic weed users who ranged in age from 17 to 25. All were exposed to marijuana in various forms 3 to 5 times a day from using edibles, joints, pipes, bongs, and new forms called oil dabs and wax. Oil dabs and wax are 98% pure THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in weed) but often made with solvents and chemicals and consumed with a butane tank with copper tubing.
Many of these kids presented with the same symptoms: Failure to launch, anger, lots of difficulty with parents, low self-esteem, feeling separated from other kids, respiratory issues, gastrointestinal issues, headaches, and unusually severe memory loss and cognitive impairment. They were dropping out of school and generally had little follow-through with anything going on in their lives.
To research what I named Toxic Marijuana Syndrome, I designed a study around these particular clients. I called them The BIRD Six. I suspected that the cause of the Syndrome was chemical exposures in the rigs and dabs, through glass pipes made of sand, or from the gangs lacing the weed with a variety of pollutants to have stronger effects and compete with the medical marijuana now legal in our state.
I know that the gangs began to lace weed with pollutants 3 to 4 years ago because I went to Harlem and interviewed gang members who admitted doing it. The kids didn’t believe what was in their systems when we tested them: Crystal meth, opiates, ecstasy, K2. We’re talking about pollutants in supposedly “natural weed” (synthetic marijuana is a separate entity all-together).
We decided which laboratory tests to use with the help of both Alliance Advisory Board member Hyla Cass, MD and Jack Tips, ND of Systemic Formulas, and paid for the tests through a generous donation so The BIRD Six families wouldn’t have to pay for the testing and assessment. As a result, I found substantial evidence for Toxic Marijuana Syndrome, came up with a model and symptom list, and a nutritional detox treatment plan.
Toxic Marijuana Syndrome Pollutants
We found metal toxicity causing impaired neurotransmitter receptor site activity. When THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive chemical in marijuana) enters the body it is an oily dusty substance that sits on nerve receptor sites in the brain and on the myelin sheath surrounding nerves. When a signal has to go through the nerve, the THC impairs the signal. That’s why studies show that heavy THC users don’t respond to antidepressants as well as others who don’t use THC. Since medications are only 50% effective for weed users, the weed users are being put on higher doses than normal to have any response.
We used hair analysis to test for metal levels and found that all the BIRD Six had high copper and low zinc. They also all had high aluminum, cadmium, magnesium, and, most surprisingly, mercury. The BIRD Six also had abnormal neurotransmitter levels: low serotonin. Low GABA. High norepinephrine. Dopamine was either low or high. No one had normal neurotransmitters.
I tested other clients who were the same age but who used different drugs or no drugs. They had some toxicity but nothing like our BIRD Six. Certainly, the adolescent diet plays a part, but epigenetics plays a larger part in marijuana use compared to any other drug use because of the length of time the THC remains in the fat cells of the brain. A fairly newly using client can test positive for 8 weeks after he stops using. Those who’ve been using much longer may test positive for even longer, though the levels do slowly drop if they can stay clean.
Besides testing for metals and neurotransmitters we tested for several genetic conditions that influence mental health, cravings, and wellbeing. We found out half of the BIRD Six had a genetic condition called pyroluria. This is a defect in red blood cell metabolism that causes certain residues of metabolism to pull excessive amounts of B6 and zinc from the bloodstream, creating severe deficiencies. Adequate B6 and zinc is needed to create the neurotransmitters that can stop anxiety, depression, poor dream recall, isolation, explosive irritability, and low tolerance for stress, among other symptoms. People with pyroluria must take large doses of B6 and zinc daily to be well emotionally and physically and lose the need for weed to temporarily soothe these negative feelings. A coenzymatic form of B6 called P5P (pyridoxal-5-phosphate) may also be needed for pyrolurics.
Some of the Six had a different genetic issue: a problem with methylation. Methylation is a biochemical process that removes metals, rebuilds the adrenal system, and helps with withdrawal from weed (among other things). A person with defective methylation can’t use the folic acid that is added to foods and found in most supplemental vitamins. They must be given a methylated form of folate, instead.
The BIRD Six went on nutrient supplementation and showed improvement right away. I gave them the amino acid GABA in high doses in the sublingual form. They just sucked on a GABA lozenge as the day wore on, and they reported it reduced their cravings for marijuana, relaxed them, and made them more attentive.
Since all the Six had insomnia when coming off weed, I put them capsules of the amino acid l-tryptophan in addition to the GABA lozenge. When needed, I added melatonin and a tincture of California poppy available at some natural foods stores or online.
Other supplements we found helpful for our young weed users were for improving their brain function: Omega 3 fish oil, alpha GPC (a form of choline that helps produce acetylcholine which is linked to cognition and learning), a combination product to enhance cognition called Neurosyn from Systemic Formulas, and, for several months, a specialized protein shake from True Hope. a company out of Canada that focuses on mental health nutrition. Then we had to transition to a less expensive protein powder from an American company which wasn’t formulated so directly on improving mental health.
I was happy to receive positive feedback from parents and see, myself, lots of positive changes in their drug abuse behavior. Because it was outpatient we couldn’t force everyone to take all the supplements or make the full dietary changes we recommended. Our goal was to get them to stop smoking weed and get together in a group, to also receive individual, group, and family therapy, to figure out the right nutrient supplement protocol and to improve their diets. They also checked out 12 Step meetings though Marijuana Anonymous meetings were hard to find (except online).
They all loved the GABA. They were less enthused about the methylated vitamins, which caused them headaches for a few days. However, after two years of working together they were not using drugs and they had stayed on the nutrients for a long time. Then they graduated, went to college or took a job or moved all over the country and I couldn’t do final follow-up tests as I would have liked. What I know is, this group ended up clean before they dispersed, while among the comparison group that wasn’t on nutrients there were many on antidepressants and opiate replacement therapy who hadn’t done nearly as well.
As a result of my work with the BIRD Six and other clients going through marijuana withdrawal these past few years I wrote a book called True Bud to show how dangerous weed is when used chronically by young people in a developing brain that needs optimal neurotransmitter levels to work properly. Toxic Marijuana Syndrome is underappreciated and undertreated. I hope my book and my work at BIRD will help change that.
Elizabeth Stuyt Testimonial
Elizabeth “Libby” Stuyt, MD
Medical Director, Circle Program at Colorado Mental Health Institute, Pueblo, CO 90-day inpatient treatment program funded by the state of Colorado for persons with severe co-occurring mental illness and substance abuse who have failed other levels of treatment. Stuyt is a board- certified Addiction Psychiatrist and Senior Instructor for University of Colorado HSC Department of Psychiatry. She has published several abstracts and articles on tobacco cessation in mental health and addiction treatment settings and the benefit of auricular acupuncture in tobacco-free inpatient dual diagnosis treatment. She is the current President of the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association (NADA).
I am Libby Stuyt, MD, I am an addiction psychiatrist. I have been treating people with drug and alcohol problems for the past 26 years. I am not a prohibitionist. In fact, I used to think there was no real difference between alcohol and marijuana. But that was the marijuana of the ‘60s and ‘70s. I didn’t vote for the legalization of medical marijuana but at the time I wasn’t that concerned about it because I do believe there are some benefits of marijuana medically. We don’t know what they are but I think they potentially are. However, I must say that my thinking has changed.
I believe the industry has been totally irresponsible and our elected officials have been irresponsible not keeping the industry in check. Because what they have done is they have worked really hard at increasing the levels of THC to
astronomical proportions. I am not aware of any medical condition that has benefited from high dose THC. And I would love to have someone tell me one that is. All high dose THC does, other than getting people high, is it increases the risk of addiction and mental health problems. Any time you increase the strength of a drug you increase its addictive potential. This is why heroin was really never made available once it was developed. They very quickly recognized the powerful addictive potential of that drug. We’ve seen this with OxyContin, we’ve seen this with the long-acting higher dose drugs. They are more addicting.
So, we have this data that says 10% of the population, at most, become addicted to marijuana. However, that was based on the ‘60s and ‘70s dose of THC. Back then it was 3%, 4%, maybe up to 10%. We are seeing the average THC in our marijuana of 17% but you can get it as hash oil, shatter, you can get THC up to 90+%! This is what we have available.
So, the problem is, people only make a drug more addicting in order to make money out of it. And that is what is happening here. The more people you addict the more money you can make. I see this as no different than the Big Tobacco. Before we mass produced tobacco, there wasn’t anywhere near the tobacco addiction. But, the companies began mass-producing cigarettes and adding all these additives including ammonia to increase the absorption of nicotine, making it more addicting. This is what big companies do in order to make big money. Most people in my field recognize that addiction is a trauma-based illness. People start using a substance for a variety of reasons but people continue using a substance because they find it works for them. And what it works for is trauma. People who have had bad life experiences. It numbs them. They do not have to think about it. They don’t have to feel about it. And, they don’t care about it. Marijuana does this.
However, I think it is really misguided to think that marijuana treats post-traumatic stress disorder. And I mean “treat.” This is no different than benzodiazepines. They do not treat PTSD. Opiates do not treat chronic pain. All addictive drugs do is mask the symptoms. They make it so you don’t care. And it works. People who have PTSD, it is very traumatizing. They cannot function, sometimes. And they find that they can function when they are doing the drug.
However, they have to take it every single day. If they miss it, the symptoms come back. It is very clear it isn’t treated because they still have the PTSD. They still can’t do the thing that caused the trauma. They still can’t go where the trauma happened. They have to avoid that place but they can deal with the symptoms. And that is setting the person up for addiction. Because, when you use a substance every single day you are more likely to become addicted to it and then you have to have it because you have withdrawal.
Marijuana has a very distinct withdrawal syndrome. And so, it happens to people. They get very uncomfortable and they have to use the substance. And you set yourself up for increased mental health problems.
There was an excellent observational study done through the Veterans Administration, published in 2015. The VA isn’t giving the vets marijuana. But, what they are doing is “treating” their PTSD. And so, they followed 2,276 veterans
over a nine-year period. These people are in treatment for PTSD and then they are following them four months later after treatment, evaluating their symptoms of PTSD based on their marijuana use. They found that the people who never used marijuana and the people who quit using marijuana in treatment had the most reduced symptoms of PTSD. They did the best.
The people who continued to use marijuana during treatment and after didn’t have as good an outcome. The people who started using marijuana after treatment for PTSD had the worst outcome and had the most violence. Most
people attribute marijuana to chilling and calming down. I think that’s probably with the very low-level THC and the low-level CBD. But, we don’t know. The research hasn’t been done. But it is guaranteed not with the high-level THC. We are seeing a lot of violence with the high dose THC.
I get troubled when I hear veterans say that marijuana is the only option they have for the PTSD. That is so sad. Because in Pueblo we actually have a lot of options for “treatment.” But, what these people are saying is if Pueblo actually
voted to get rid of recreational marijuana they would have no other options. That is horrible. Because it doesn’t “treat” it.
Treatment for PTSD basically involved therapy. What has to happen is the person has to resolve the trauma. It has to be digested in the brain. What PTSD is, is the trauma is stuck in the brain and it needs to be processed and digested. And how this happens is through therapy. And there are many different effective therapies. Some of them don’t even require the person to talk. They don’t even have to relive their trauma over and over again. This is what EMDR (eye movement
desensitization reprocessing) is, and there is another method called brain synchronization therapy. These are treatments that actually help people resolve trauma without having to relive it over and over and over again.
There are several requirements for the treatment to be effective:
1. The person has to be clear-minded. That means the person has to not be under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
2. The person has to be calm enough to be able to handle the emotions that come up when you are processing the trauma.
Now these therapists that we have in town, and we have many, both in the public sector and the private sector and the VA, who are well trained and know how to help people to calm down. They have a toolbox and they can take things out of their toolbox and help people.
One of the things that we have increasingly available in town is a tool called the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association 5-point ear protocol. It is not a stand-alone treatment but it is very helpful in calming people down. And we are getting more and more people trained in this because we had a law change where we can train licensed professionals in the behavioral health care field to do this. Acupuncturists also do this.
We actually have several acupuncturists in town who offer free NADA clinics – it sounds like nothing but it’s the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association –they offer free clinics for veterans and their families on a regular basis. So,
treatment is available and we do not have to subject people to this treatment that isn’t really a treatment and which actually prolongs and makes things worse. I am into educating and I want people to understand. There is a whole lot that people don’t understand about trauma and how it affects the brain. But, people can learn and understand that PTSD is actually curable. You do not have to have PTSD the rest of your life. But you can choose to use a drug that will mask the symptoms that will guarantee that you will have it for the rest of your life.