Marijuana's Role in the Arizona Shooting

There has been plenty of media attention to the weak gun laws, but there has been no mention of the potential of marijuana to spark latent psychosis.
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With President Barack Obama's eloquent speech at the Tucson memorial, Speaker John Boehner's emotional reminder to his Democratic and Republican colleagues and all Americans that "an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us," and the thousands of pundits, left and right, arguing about the meaning of the tragedy in Arizona, it might seem that there is nothing more to say or learn about the horrific incident that killed six, wounded 13, and put a bullet through the brain of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

But there is -- and it is as important as any other lesson to come out of this tragedy.

It's about the relationship of marijuana use to psychotic illnesses.

There has been plenty of media and talking head attention to the weak gun laws that allow purchase of automatic weapons and super size ammunition clips. There has been story upon story, and comment upon comment, bemoaning how easy it was for this mentally deranged young man to buy such a gun and ammunition clip. And the reporting about the twisted mind of Jared Lee Loughner and his erratic behavior has been extensive.

But I haven't seen press reports or talking heads discuss their concern about how easy it has been for this mentally ill young man to get marijuana. And there has been no mention of the potential of marijuana to spark latent psychosis and exacerbate schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.

In 2007, the British Medical Journal Lancet concluded that an exhaustive review of cannabis use and mental health "leads us now to conclude that cannabis use could increase the risk of psychotic illness." Since then, there has been more research on the relationship of marijuana use and psychosis.

Scientists at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City conducted a study of individuals who suffered from schizophrenia, half of whom used marijuana. They found that among marijuana users, three fourths had begun smoking pot before the onset of their mental illness and their schizophrenia appeared two years earlier than it did in those who did not smoke pot.

Marie-Odile Krebs, a psychiatrist at the National Institute of Health and Medical Research in France, found that among a group of 121 patients who used cannabis, 44 either developed schizophrenia within a month of beginning to smoke pot or significantly intensified their existing psychosis with each successive use of the drug. Schizophrenia appeared some three years earlier in these 44 than in the other marijuana users.

From CNN and other press reports, we know that Loughner was turned down by the Army because of his admitted regular marijuana use. His childhood friend Kylie Smith tells us that after Loughner's sophomore year in high school, "he got involved with marijuana, and he was really into psychedelics." Smith described how Loughner got more and more involved with marijuana and alcohol during his high school years and how he began hanging out with potheads. In his short stay at Pima Community College, one professor described Loughner's "hysterical kind of laugh, laughing to himself, and his bright red complexion, and his kind of shaking and trembling, as if he was under the influence of drugs."

The question that not enough people are asking -- and the one that should be answered -- is this: Was Loughner under the influence of drugs at the time of the shooting?

If the police have any of the hair shaved from Loughner's head, they can easily find out if marijuana was in his system at the time of the shooting. They may even be able to do so from hair that grows back in.

So as we continue to think about this killer and his deranged mind, we should be asking this question: Is Jared Loughner an individual whose psychosis was prompted or exacerbated by the use of marijuana?

Whether or not he is, it is important for the press and parents to see this horrendous incident not only as a teaching moment about the easy availability and dangerous potential of automatic weapons, but also as a teaching moment about the easy availability and dangerous potential of marijuana to spark and exacerbate psychosis and schizophrenia in individuals with latent mental illnesses.

The missing story line in existing news reports and television chatter shows is about the terrible trinity of easy availability of guns, easy availability of marijuana and mental illness.

The question for all of us, especially parents of teenagers, to ask is this: Is the media's failure to acknowledge this tragic trinity due to its tendency to overlook or underplay the dangers of marijuana use?

Joseph A. Califano, Jr., Founder and Chair of The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, was Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in the Carter Administration, and served from 1965 to 1969 as chief domestic affairs assistant to president Lyndon B. Johnson.

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