Scott Gillet, THE BIRD
Scott Gillet, LCSW, Founder/Director
Briarcliff Institute for Recovery and Development (BIRD)
1133 Pleasantville Rd, Briarcliff Manor, NY 10510
(914) 762-8538, briarcliffinstitute.net
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. (SCOTT I CANNOT FIND THE REFERENCE FOR THIS. PLEASE SEND IT TO ME TO USE AS A FOOTNOTE.) 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.