Cannabis & Indigenous Women:
A Series of Health Stories

Cannabis and Mental Health

The Canadian government legalized commercial cannabis for recreational usage on October 17, 2018. The spring of 2018 I conducted the survey with our Women Warriors group on Concurrent Use Commercial Tobacco & Cannabis Interventions and their most urgent questions pertained to the risk of addiction to cannabis (Cannabis Use Disorder), the risk of cannabis-induced psychosis, especially in youth, and the specific health effects of long-term chronic use.

Before you are gifted with our next guest writer, Heather Morigeau’s story about cannabis use disorder and cannabis-induced psychosis, I would like to share some evidence based statistics and links to information about these topics. I do not want Heather’s story taken out of context and used as a fear-based tool to teach about cannabis.

We are storytelling – an Indigenous methodology, and culturally appropriate way of sharing life experiences and heart wisdom – so that our audience may understand the risks and benefits of using cannabis. The natural world teaches us there must be balance in all things. It would be irresponsible for us to have a cannabis and Indigenous women health stories series that shares only the benefits. As well, Heather’s story is about a loss of balance and the consequences of excess, and in her own words, “not the experiences of the average person.”

Storytelling is reciprocal meaning the audience also has a responsibility to use this information in a good way. A good way means being informed on the topic and not spreading fear or misinformation about cannabis usage. Moreover, Heather deserves the utmost respect and appreciation for having the courage to share her personal journey. Please send your thanks, either through a personal thank you prayer or a short email: 523hlm@gmail.com. If you have any questions or comments please email me: Shelley@womenwarriors.club.

Cannabis & Addictions: Cannabis Use Disorder[1]
People can become addicted to cannabis. Continued, frequent and heavy cannabis use can cause physical dependency and addiction.

Some people can develop tolerance to the effects of cannabis. Tolerance is characterized by a need for larger doses of a drug to maintain the same effects. Tolerance can develop after a few doses. In some people, tolerance can eventually lead to physical dependence and/or addiction.

Addiction can develop at any age, but youth are especially vulnerable because their brains are still developing.

Some people are also more prone to becoming addicted than others. It’s estimated that 1 in 3 who use cannabis will develop a problem with their use. It’s also estimated that 1 in 11 (9%) of those who use cannabis will develop an addiction to it. This statistic rises to about 1 in 6 (17%) for people who started using cannabis as a teenager. If a person smokes cannabis daily, the risk of addiction is 25% to 50%.

Cannabis & Mental Health: Mental Health Effects[2]
In some people, cannabis use increases the risk of developing mental illnesses such as psychosis or schizophrenia, especially those who:

  • Start using cannabis at a young age
  • Use cannabis frequently (daily or almost every day)
  • Have a personal or family history of psychosis and/or schizophrenia

Frequent cannabis use has also been associated with an increased risk of:

  • Suicide
  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders

Cannabis & the Onset of Schizophrenia[3]

There is a possible association between heavy regular cannabis use and the onset of schizophrenia. It is not clear, however, whether cannabis use releases latent symptoms of schizophrenia, or whether people use cannabis to help them cope with the symptoms of an emerging psychosis. Evidence suggests that continued cannabis use in people with schizophrenia accentuates psychotic symptoms and worsens the course of the illness.

[1]Government of Canada (2020). Cannabis. Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/drugs-medication/cannabis/health-effects/mental-health.html#a1.
[2]Government of Canada (2020). Cannabis. Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/drugs-medication/cannabis/health-effects/mental-health.html#a1.
[3]Center for Addiction and Mental Health. (2010). Do you know…cannabis. Retrieved from https://www.camh.ca/-/media/files/guides-and-publications/dyk-cannabis.pdf.

Cannabis & Mental Health:
My Personal Health Story
By Heather Morigeau

My experiences with cannabis are not the experiences of the average person – they are unique, but not uncommon. The events I detail in this writing are not to be feared as a warning or to be used to shun others for their experiences. I am sharing my journey in hopes of reducing stigma and empowering others who have lived through similar events to be open and unashamed. It doesn’t have to be positive to be powerful.

I began smoking cannabis around age 14, at this age I noticed that my “high” was more intense than others, I seemed to experience more paranoia and I would experience auditory, tactile and visual hallucinations – which others claimed they did not. From age 14-16 I used cannabis nearly every day, certainly every week and at binged on the weekend. On one occasion I overdosed by smoking a large joint which was made entirely of the crystals which had fallen through the chop screen at a processing facility. I vomited continuously for nearly an hour. At age 15, I began advocating for legalization and medicinal use.

From age 16 to 25, I rarely used any cannabis. Sometimes I would go years without using it, then I would smoke at a special event. From age 18 to 25, I increased my alcohol intake and likely would have qualified for a diagnosis of “pre-alcoholic”.

In 2007, I moved to Toronto and lived with a lover who was a daily and multiple times a day cannabis user. I followed her lead and it did not take long for a state of psychosis to set in – this state was constant and ongoing for 5 years. During this time I experienced mood swings, paranoia, delusional thinking, and impulsive behavior. Over the 5-year period, I experienced a progressively worsening state of constant hallucinations which were tactile, auditory, and visual. From June to August 2009 I refrained from smoking cannabis, however, the symptoms continued.

In 2011, I was living in Vancouver, primarily using medicinal sources of cannabis, and my behaviour became increasingly erratic, high-risk and a threat to myself. I admitted to myself that my lifestyle was problematic and that I had an addiction to alcohol, cannabis, and nicotine. I returned to my hometown and attempted to seek medical treatment for my issues, however, at this time I was not able to articulate the degree of instability in my mental state. I began attending meetings at the Alberta Alcohol & Drug Abuse Commission (AADAC), in addition to a 12 Step peer support group, and a women’s healing drum circle.

I attended a “Table Meeting” at a private addiction treatment center in central Alberta. They proposed that attendants could work through the first 8 steps of the 12-step program in one day. We sat at tables with paper and a red pen, while the facilitators at a table at the front shared their experiences and ordered attendees to write down their personal inventory. This inventory is a list of everything we have done wrong in our lives. My state of my mind convinced me the facilitators were angels and demons battling over the souls of the people in the room. Although the people in the room were strangers to me, I believed they were actually my friends and family wearing a different skin. The voices I heard told me that if I was to save their lives I had to leave and never look back. I left the event and walked 10Km in a snowstorm along the side of a highway in the dark. Fortunately, I was picked up by a friend who contacted my parents. I was taken to the hospital and committed for 66 days to the Ponoka Centennial Centre for Mental Heath and Brain Injury.

During this time I was stabilized, given mental health treatment, given addiction recovery treatment and my mental health was re-assessed. Previously, at age 18 I had been diagnosed with depression, general anxiety disorder, mild OCD, and later given an additional diagnosis of PTSD.

During the stay at the hospital, following brain scans and psychiatric assessments, one psychiatrist claimed my mental heal issues were a result of “drug induced psychosis”, which would be stabilized and pose no further mental health issues if I refrained from cannabis use. Another psychiatrist diagnosed me with schizophrenia, which was a genetic predisposition onset by the use of cannabis. I was prescribed anti-psychotic medication and told that if I began using cannabis again there is a chance that my brain might not ever be able to re-stabilize from the psychosis. I would risk living in a permanent state of psychosis for the rest of my life.

Following the sixty-six day hospital stay, I was accepted into Aventa Addiction Treatment for Women. During treatment I learned that nearly any substance or behaviour can become addictive if it releases dopamine into the brain. Due to my adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) my brain was already pre-disposed to overreacting to dopamine. I stayed in residential addiction treatment for over seven months learning how to live life without substances.

After leaving the treatment centre, I attended counseling at Alberta Mental Health, where I was given the additional diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). For this diagnosis, I attended two years of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). I attempted to come off my medication and experienced a relapse in the symptoms. While attending the DBT program, my psychiatrist questioned my diagnosis of schizophrenia and suggested my hallucinations were a symptom of my BPD.

I have continued to attend 12 step recovery groups; however, I have re-focused towards Indigenous programing known as Wellbriety – 12 Steps and the Medicine Wheel. I have found the community, treatment approach and spirituality to be empowering in a way which my attempts to attend Christian focused 12 step and recovery programing was not able to provide me. “Our Culture is prevention” is a motto regularly used in Wellbriety. As I write this today, I am 8 years without use of alcohol or cannabis, or further hospitalizations for my mental health.

Heart Wisdom

Many traditional communities throughout the world have a process of becoming a healer, seer, spiritual guide, shaman or enlightened practitioner begins with psychologically distressing experience regarded as “an awakening”. When a person has been identified as having these “gifts” they are often chosen to apprentice with an Elder who gives them training, confidence and support in honing these skills to a practical application in service to the community. 

I have very clear memories of the experiences I had during the psychosis; I recall in detail the altered state of reality I experienced and some of the synchronicities with reality, which indicated this was not exclusively a result of my mind being destabilized by substances.

I believe that if I had been part of a traditional Indigenous community, my experiences may have been recognized as “an awakening”, as spiritual gifts which may have been celebrated as unique and rare. Perhaps
I would have begun training under someone who understands these experiences and how to use them in an effective manner. Had I been part of a traditional Indigenous community, I may not have used prescriptions and substances to mediate my emotional and spiritual pain from an adverse childhood experience. Perhaps healing in community would have allowed me to explore several healing ceremonies, both with and without psychoactive substances, and having the support of those who cared about my wellbeing during ceremony,

The western medical field assumes I am somehow “broken” due to my experiences with substances and mental health; I have been labeled with a highly stigmatizing diagnosis. My mental health diagnosis, defined in biomedical western terms as “debilitating” and “incurable”, are labels I feel do not apply to me or my present life. These labels and the stigma surrounding mental health diagnosis can be used as a weapon by those who seek to discredit, devalue, or abuse me for my activism or my art. It is a tactic well documented in political sabotage. (Link to articles Sluggish Schizophrenia and Schizophrenia as Political Weapon). I feel my life, health and spirituality are enriched for having gone through these experiences and the psychosis I experienced from cannabis.

I am a vocal advocate for medicinal cannabis and recreational use; I support the decriminalization of all substances. I assert that rather than funding the police to enforce prohibition, we would be better off using tax-payer dollars to increase funding for addiction treatment options, harm reduction, and a focus on alternative treatments for addiction, trauma, and mental health issues. I believe micro-dosing of psychoactive substances such as psilocybin mushrooms could replace dependence on anti-depressant medication for some people. I believe the use of psychedelics in a safe ceremonial state can support recovery from trauma, PTSD, psychosis, and other debilitating mental states. I believe the ways in which modern medicine attempts to disconnect humans from Earth, from traditional community, from plant medicines and from Indigenous wisdom and ways of knowing is far more harmful to humanity than any substance(s).

Thoughts about the closure of cannabis retail outlets due to Covid-19:

  1. Cannabis is a plant medicine – whether cannabis is being prescribed by a doctor or being accessed through over-the-counter personal treatment, it is a recognized medical treatment option in Canada. Closing cannabis stores limits access to medicine for many vulnerable population including: people that may be treating addiction(s) to other substance(s) (harm reduction); people that may be using cannabis as a pain treatment option instead of opioids; populations that have an irregularly occurring medical issue which doesn’t qualify for a medical card; peoples who do not have access to online ordering; vulnerable populations that may be denied a medical prescription due to racial discrimination on behalf of medical professionals.
  2. Alcohol stores remain open – alcoholism is a chronic and deadly illness which often requires medical intervention for detox. Many people depend on alchohol because they are self-medicating for undiagnosed mental and/or physical issues, however this choice of treatment is often exacerbating other issues. People in recovery from alcohol dependency may use cannabis to treat their symptoms or assist in their recovery. Due to the closure of cannabis stores and alcohol stores remaining open there is a high risk that alcohol dependent people will relapse because alcohol is more accessible.
  3. All Cannabis stores should remain open – I believe cannabis stores provide an essential service. We must ensure supplies are not interrupted for vulnerable populations that do not have access to online supplies. There is no reason cannabis stores should be closed, while alcohol stores remain open.

Heather Morigeau self-identifies as mixed-Metis and a queer woman living on the traditional lands of the Blackfoot Confederacy (Treaty 7) Calgary, Alberta. She is a professional artist and designer, a social entrepreneur and an activist who has run as a political candidate during provincial elections in Alberta. Heather is currently serving as Board Chair of Freedom’s Path Recovery Society, a charity which offers addiction treatment options free of cost. Please contact Heather through email: 523hlm@gmail.com.

I am honoured to be the recipient, for the second year in a row, of the Alberta Indigenous Mentorship in Health Innovation (AIM-HI) Undergrad Summer Student Stipend. I’ll be continuing our digital storytelling research with my co-creators, Maxine, Beatrice, Sheryl, Dorothy and Tanya. Please view their health stories on the front page of the website. The publication of my academic article from this research has been postponed due to the covid-19 pandemic, but I will share the link as soon as possible. Decolonizing Health Care: Indigenous Digital Storytelling as Pedagogical Tool for Cultural Safety in Health Care Settings, Northern Public Affairs Magazine (2020).

I came across your pertinent work while researching transformative learning for the College of Medicine. I am writing a proposal on what is needed to help transform their curriculum for postgraduates to ensure they become more liberal, inclusive and socially responsible...your website will be a good resource to draw on for transformative learning modules. Thank you for your dedication and passion for this needed education for all.

Marie Stradeski