On April 8, 1988 a 16 year old young man walked the streets of Boston Massachusetts under the influence of alcohol and polysubstances with marijuana in his pocket. He was the youngest of nine children all living in a three bedroom apartment. He dropped out of school at age 14 and joined a gang. He had a record of repeated run-ins with the law, with over 20 offenses including drug dealing. On this night he attacked a shop owner attempting to steal two cases of alcohol from him. He hit the man on the head with a large wooden stick—5’ long and 2-3” in diameter, and then ran down the block to evade police. In the process he attacked another man by punching him in the face, resulting in that man losing his eye. When apprehended by the police the young man yelled racial slurs at his victims, and the police found the marijuana on his person. Originally tried for attempted murder the sentence was reduced to criminal contempt. In all the young man served 14 months in prison. This young man went on to become Marky Mark a famous rapper, a model for Calvin Klein underwear, and a movie actor, Mark Walberg. This year, 2014, Walberg has asked Massachusetts to remove his criminal record so that he can open a restaurant.
In 2009 a picture of Micheal Phelps, Olympic swimmer, with a marijuana pipe surfaced, and in 2014 he was arrested for going 85 and driving aggressively in a tunnel under the influence--the article mentioned a field sobriety test, but did not say if a THC test was taken at any time.
Also in the news this year is a young man from Missouri, Micheal Brown. Brown is now famous for his death during the commission of aggression toward a store owner in a robbery, assaulting a police officer while attempting to take his weapon away was also under the influence of marijuana.
Without question I am against the legalization of marijuana for recreational use. I see it as a great white flag on behalf of the United States government conceding we as a nation have lost at least a part of the war on drugs. In 1982 first lady Nancy Reagan began a campaign called, “Just Say No” to drugs. It seems that now, thirty years later, we are saying, “Just Say Yes,” to recreational use. As you may know marijuana is rumored to become decriminalized for recreational purposes in multiple states in the near future. It is already a reality in Colorado and Washington.
This article will focus on only one aspect of marijuana—does it have an effect on aggression? Marijuana is commonly associated with euphoric mood, demotivation, detachment and relaxation. This reputation is overly narrow and misses the differences experienced by persons who may have panic attacks or anxiety, depression, paranoia, and aggression. One researcher found that about 15% of the population he examined experienced psychotic symptoms such as hearing voices, unwarranted feelings of persecution, or thoughts they might be harmed by others.
You may argue, since most people experience euphoria or detachment why focus on the minority who have other adverse effects like paranoia and aggression or anxiety and depression? First, addressing a common and oversimplified reputation about marijuana emanating from the 1960s and 1970s when the THC content was much weaker than current marijuana. I’m not so certain that paranoia, aggression, anxiety and depression haven’t been under reported. Second, we as a society have to examine the risk factors involved with the prevalence of crime, domestic violence and the repeated incidences of domestic terrorism, school shootings, and mass murders. What about road rage and death or physical injury caused by automobile accidents? Is substance abuse a contributing factor? Are we as a society falling short of addressing contributing factors? Are we adding to the problem by legalizing a mood and perception altering drug like marijuana?
For each individual who uses marijuana there is a number of interacting factors that affect the outcome of the drug. Among them are such factors as current mood, stress, economic status, personality factors, mental health issues, history of violent behavior or conduct disorder, and polysubstance use. These factors are increased by the amount of time the person has used marijuana or combinations of alcohol, psychoactive medications, and street drugs.
How often has the person used the drug? The National Criminal Justice Reference Service reports research that shows that adolescents who use marijuana weekly are nearly four times more likely than non-users to report they engage in violent behavior. Another study found that young people who used marijuana in the past year were more likely than non-users to report aggressive behavior such as physically attacking people, stealing, and destroying property. Those incidences increased in proportion to the number of days marijuana was smoked in the past year. As I wrote about in my last article there is a disinhibition effect with marijuana that contributes to actions taken when having aggressive thoughts.
The Journal of Addictive Diseases states that the greater frequency of use of marijuana was found unexpectedly to be associated with greater likelihood to commit weapons offenses; and this association was not found for any of the other drugs, except for alcohol. Marijuana use was also found associated with commission of Attempted Homicide/Reckless Endangerment offenses.
In an article by Rob Hotakainen, the author notes that marijuana is the single-most identified drug linked to crime. He quotes a White House representative:
"Gil Kerlikowske, the White House director of national drug-control policy, said a study by his office showed a strong link between drug use and crime. Eighty percent of the adult males arrested for crimes in Sacramento, Calif., last year tested positive for at least one illegal drug. Marijuana was the most commonly detected drug, found in 54 percent of those arrested."
We cannot disentangle marijuana alone as the lone instigation of violent or aggressive behavior. We are not able to isolate sole marijuana use without considering individual personality, social economic status, mental health and poly substance use. Just as in the general population marijuana users have all the same variances prior to ever using marijuana.
Another factor is that marijuana—in some individuals— has a suppressant effect. That is, they may feel less aggressive when using marijuana—whereas other individuals may have more aggression. For those who experience a suppression of anger that can be temporary, and as the THC is processed out of their system they may experience exaggerated aggressive and defensive responses to provocation.
It’s time for us to get more education on individual differences in reaction to marijuana use and to pay attention to the correlation of aggression and marijuana use.