Marijuana and Identity Formation
Marijuana is rapidly being legalised for both personal and recreational use all around the world. As responsible adults, we cannot turn a blind eye to this and need to respond.
I do not dispute that there might be medical benefits to marijuana. This article is therefore not focused on the medical use of marijuana, nor the neurological science and effects on the brain. I will instead be exploring the long-term psychosocial cost, specifically with regards to identity formation in young people.
I was a frequent user of Marijuana from the age of 14 to 19 years old. When researching the topic, I was surprised at how accurately much of the research resonated with my own experience.
1. Distorted reality
The research and my own experience confirm that Marijuana distorts reality (Mc Donald et al. 2003; Grant et al. 2012; Fontes et al. 2011).
As Atikons says: “Regardless of the developmental stage, marijuana can disrupt some of our most valued human faculties—the abilities to test reality, reason, control our impulses, set priorities, relate to others, and reach our goals” (2016:11).
The use of marijuana has an intoxicating effect and distorts reality. Why else would it be used recreationally (Volkow et al. 2014a)?
Why would one want to distort reality? Either reality is too painful, or too boring. For me, it was too boring. I tried to turn the everyday routine into an adventure, combined with a euphoric feeling. What is so wrong with that? It is not reality! If I need a substance to alter my reality, then how will I cope with, or face reality when it is too boring or painful. Reality is not going to go away, no matter how much I try to avoid it. Once you start on the path of using a substance to alter your reality, you will rely on that substance to keep changing your reality.
2. Distorted social acceptance
Adolescence can be a difficult time for any young person. It is a crucial time of identity exploration, brain development, learning self-regulation, gathering useful experiences, acquiring knowledge for future productivity, and taking on adultlike social roles (Erikson 1968; Atikons 2016).
Integration and differentiation are often the primary focus of this time in a young person’s life. Adolescents want to fit into their peer groups (integration), but they also want to be different (differentiation) (Côté 2016).
Growing up in Durban as a surfer, the use of Marijuana gave me both. I was accepted into the social group and yet was ‘weird’ and different at the same time. The difference was found in my perceived ‘transcendent’ insights that I would have about life. I was perceived as wiser and having ‘deep insight’ into existential philosophies. Being seen somewhat as a ‘guru’ gave me the sense of identity fulfilment that any insecure adolescent craves.
3. Distorted identity
The downward spiral of marijuana use further gave me a distorted identity. By the time I was almost 19, I would go through periods of non-use of marijuana and yet still act and feel high. The altered state of mind had now become my embodied personality, my new identity, but was this who I was?
I had come to the point of Psychosis, a condition in which the affected individual loses touch with external reality (Compton 2016). Paranoia set in. I was convinced there was a wider conspiracy going on in the world and that I was ‘the chosen one’ who would expose it. This was the point when things started to get severe. Fortunately, my parents were alerted, and I was removed to a safe place for recovery.
The use of marijuana led me down a path of distorted reality, distorted social acceptance and distorted identity. Who was I if I was not using marijuana? After working with young adults for the past two decades, I have seen a similar pattern repeat itself for frequent marijuana users. After my period of recovery, which included an encounter with God, much spiritual guidance and counselling, I found myself back at what seemed like early teens. I had to start again learning how to re-engage reality.
I had to learn to deal with the typical stressors of life without escaping to my imaginary world. A world where I was the ‘enlightened one’, and where everyone else didn’t have a clue!
I want to urge you if you are a young person experimenting or thinking of experimenting with Marijuana, consider the long-term effects. Not only on your mind and physiology but also on your identity.
Start to ask yourself the question, who am I really? Face that reality, ask those hard questions now and become who you are, not what some substance makes you out to be!
Atikons DL 2016. Marijuana’s Effects on the Mind Intoxication, Effects on Cognition and Motivation, and Addiction. In Compton MT (ed) 2016. Marijuana and Mental Health (1st ed), 11-32. Arlington, Virginia: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Compton MT (ed) 2016. Marijuana and Mental Health (1st ed). Arlington, Virginia: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Côté JE and Levin CL 2016. Identity Formation, Youth, and Development: A Simplified Approach. New York, NY: Psychology Press, Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
Erikson EH 1968. Identity: Youth and crisis. New York, NY: Norton.
Fontes MA, Bolla KI, and Cunha PJ 2011: Cannabis use before age 15 and subsequent executive functioning. Br J Psychiatry 198(6):442–447.
Grant JE, Chamberlain SR and Schreiber L 2012: Neuropsychological deficits associated with cannabis use in young adults. Drug Alcohol Depend 121(1–2):159–162.
McDonald J, Schleifer L, and Richards JB 2003: Effects of THC on behavioral measures of impulsivity in humans. Neuropsychopharmacology 28(7):1356–1365.