Cannabis and Mental Health: Talking Shop with Michelle S. Thiessen
The role of cannabis in mental health is a highly debated subject. In fact, one of the primary reasons cannabis was made illegal in the United States was due to a confabulated association to psychosis (which has sent been proven to be inaccurate). For an example, look no further than Reefer Madness to get an idea of what prohibitionists considered the risks of cannabis on mental health. Today, we speak with Michelle S. Thiessen, a student currently earning her Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology at the University of British Columbia who sits on the Board of Directors for Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy. We ask her about the psychology behind cannabis consumption, in addition to what her group is advocating for and why these matters are especially important in regards to mental health.
Author – Max Richardson-Davis
Edited by Noah Persin & Jon Russell
Maxwell Davis, GreenSea Distribution: Thank you for taking the time to sit down with me today, Michelle. For those who may be unaware of who you are and your background in relevance to the cannabis industry, would you kindly introduce yourself?
Michelle S. Thiessen, Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy:
I’m a graduate student at the University of British Columbia Okanagan campus where I’ve been researching substance use (primarily cannabis but I’ve done some research on psychedelics as well) and mental health for the past few years. I also sit on the Board of Directors for Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP) which is a grassroots network comprised of youth and students who are concerned about the negative impact our drug policies have on individuals and communities.
Maxwell Davis: What lead you to become a member of the Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy?
Michelle S. Thiessen: Shortly after I started researching therapeutic and recreational substance use, I discovered that the drug policies of the last few decades had caused huge barriers to scientific inquiry while also damaging a number of individuals lives because of criminal charges related to their substance use. I wanted to see these policies changed so I got involved with CSSDP to add my voice to the growing number of students concerned about the current drug policy landscape.
Maxwell Davis: Tell me about your involvement with the group.
Michelle S. Thiessen: I’m involved in two capacities. Along with sitting on the Board of Directors for the national organization, I also Chair the UBC Okanagan chapter. Sitting on the board has afforded me many opportunities but a big highlight was attending the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the World Drug Problem with 9 other students last April. CSSDP sent a youth delegation team to NYC to protest leading up to the meeting. Doing so gained us entry to the General Assembly and the side sessions that were put on by different member states and international drug policy reform organizations. The official Canadian delegation took time to meet with us after our Health Minister announced to the world that Canada would be introducing legislation this spring on cannabis legalization. This announcement coming on April 20 was too good to be true.
As chair of the UBC chapter, our group has partnered with Campus Health to run naloxone training for concerned students and staff. We’ve also organized a number of drug education lectures open to the public; most notably talks by Cannabis Historian Chris Bennet, Psychedelic Researcher Ken Tupper, and Cannabis Expert Zach Walsh.
Maxwell Davis: That’s quite the line-up of guest speakers. I’d love to hear Chris Bennet speak! UNGASS was also quite the event, I remember reporting on it last year. I hope it was a fantastic experience. Currently, you are studying for your Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology. Why risk associating yourself with the cannabis industry and the Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy?
Michelle S. Thiessen: I touched on it a bit earlier, but when there are barriers to objective scientific inquiry, we have to take a good look at why that is.
I grew up in the DARE era of prohibitionist drug education and as a result I used to be very against cannabis (my grandparents often remind me about the time I told them, at age 14, that “marijuana is a gateway drug”.) After educating myself, I wanted to raise awareness about the disconnect between what we were told as kids and what the science shows.
Further, youth are disproportionately affected by the War on Drugs. According to Statistics Canada, 24% of those accused of cannabis crimes are youth and the Prime Minister himself has stated that the laws are more harmful than the substance itself.
It was impossible for me to know all of this and not get involved.
Maxwell Davis: That’s a fair point. As a person familiar with psychology, do you believe cannabis has a positive or negative affect on the human mental state? Please elaborate.
Michelle S. Thiessen: We’ve have been using cannabis for thousands of years and it’s thought that cannabis was one of the first plants ever domesticated. It’s quite clear that cannabis has played an important role in our lives throughout history. With that being said, I do recognize that there are some individuals that react adversely to cannabis, so I don’t think we can say that cannabis is all good or all bad. However, I do believe that prohibition negatively affects us by infringing on our autonomy and human rights and I’d like to think that the last 70 years are going to be a blip on the radar in terms of our long history with cannabis.
Maxwell Davis: What role do you feel cannabis plays regarding mental health issues?
Michelle S. Thiessen: I’m glad you asked! Our team at UBC recently conducted the most comprehensive review of cannabis and mental health to date. After reviewing all the studies out there, we narrowed it down to 60 that met our criteria and were methodologically sound. The majority of studies examining anxiety and depression reported that cannabis was associated with improvements in mood and reductions in anxiety. Multiple studies showed that cannabis may be helpful for treating substance use problems – when you replace a harmful drug with a less harmful drug you see big gains for public health (referred to as the “substitution effect”). Other studies have also pointed to this effect, a 2016 study (Bradford & Bradford, 2016) found that the use of prescription drugs fell significantly in U.S states with medical cannabis laws that resulted in national reductions in Medicare spending to the tune of an estimated $165.2 million per year.
What’s more is that cannabis may be effective for people who aren’t finding relief from traditional therapies for difficult to treat conditions like pain and post-traumatic stress disorder. I encourage your readers to check out our article if they want a more detailed picture.
Maxwell Davis: That is phenomenal! What a team to be a part of. From what I’ve now read on the issue, it seems that study has had some profound effects. I’ve heard recently there is greater risk associated with cannabis use in developing minds than compared to adults. From what I’ve read, those under the age of 17 should be especially cautious when it comes to cannabis use. If you had it your way, what would be the legal age to consume cannabis and why?
Michelle S. Thiessen: In a perfect world, adolescents wouldn’t be using any drugs. But, we have to face the reality that they are. I think it’s important to evaluate the risks of cannabis against other known risks to adolescents. When we compare to another substance like alcohol, we see that cannabis may actually be less harmful to young people than alcohol.
The discussion should be based on whether people are able to make a choice for themselves – which is likely in their late teen years. This demographic makes up the largest majority of cannabis users so to leave them out of the legal market would be a huge mistake, forcing them to continue accessing the black market and potentially less safe cannabis.
Maxwell Davis: That makes sense. There’s a point to be made on both sides of that fence, I’d say. Who, in your opinion, is the leading psychologist when it comes to cannabis research?
Michelle S. Thiessen: I would have to say Dr. Zach Walsh. He conducted the Cannabis Access for Medical Purposes Survey (CAMPS), the largest Canadian survey of medical cannabis patients to date. This was a particularly important study because it highlighted the barriers many medical cannabis patients in Canada were facing in terms of accessibility and affordability. He’s also done some work on the ‘substitution effect’, finding that cannabis may be an exit drug rather than a gateway drug because of how many people replace more harmful substances (i.e., benzodiazepine, opioids, alcohol) with cannabis. Zach is also Principal Investigator for a clinical trial of cannabis for PTSD. And recently recognized as one of the DOPEst people of 2017 by Dope Magazine.
Maxwell Davis: That’s where his name sounds familiar! I was just reading the Dope Awards the other day. Now, tell me about some of the most interesting things you have learned while representing the Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy group.
Michelle S. Thiessen: The first time I heard “nothing about us without us” was when CSSDP and SSDP (our American counterpart) were protesting outside of the UN. I suddenly realized officials were making decisions that had a direct impact on me and my peers without actually consulting us. I’ve realized the importance of making the youth voice heard at every level of the discussion. We have to speak up for ourselves because we’re going to be the ones living with the policy decisions.
Maxwell Davis: What is the group’s mission? How can people help or get involved if they are interested?
Michelle S. Thiessen: We work on local, national and international levels to promote sensible drug policy, increase harm reduction awareness and disseminate evidence-based educational resources. We’re active on Facebook and Twitter. Youth can start or join a chapter – visit our website cssdp.org for more info… and please donate to our cause!
Maxwell Davis: I am glad to hear the group is open to public support. Readers, please donate! Now, in Canada, Prime Minister Trudeau campaigned under the promise to legalize cannabis recreationally through a strict regulated market. What is your opinion on the Prime Minister’s stance towards cannabis legalization? Do you believe he will follow through with legalization given the recent choice of the government not to decriminalize cannabis nationally?
Michelle S. Thiessen: The Liberal party was pretty clear throughout the election cycle, and since taking power, that they were not interested in decriminalizing cannabis. I’m not surprised they haven’t changed this stance. Prime Minister Trudeau has been open about his own cannabis use and the government appears to be following the steps to legalization. I think the most encouraging thing was the development of the Task Force on Cannabis Legalization and Regulation – it includes some great cannabis and drug policy researchers (Mark Ware and Susan Boyd, in particular). I think the fact that the government included these individuals signals they want to get it right. I can appreciate what a huge task this is given the fact there is no existing model for the government to base their opinions, yet other countries are likely to base their opinions based off of ours cannabis industry. The regulatory framework has the potential to impact global cannabis legalization, so it’s important they get it right the first time.
Maxwell Davis: Is there anything you would like to say to students, like you, curious about cannabis consumption and policy?
Michelle S. Thiessen: There has probably never been a better or more important time to get into cannabis and drug policy research and advocacy.
Maxwell Davis: Well, thank you for taking the time to speak with me today, Michelle. You have certainly been an insightful addition to our Talking Shop series. I wish you the best with your budding career and look forward to reading more of your work. Thanks again, Michelle.
Michelle S. Thiessen: Thanks for inviting me! It was great to reflect on the important work CSSDP is doing and I’m feeling excited to continue tackling outdated and harmful drug policies.