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Posted on: November 15, 2019 at 5:18 pm

On Tuesday, October 29, American psychologist/TV personality, Dr. Phil released a rather disputable teaser for an upcoming episode on his YouTube channel, Dr. Phil [1].  As usual, he stirred up certain controversies that have attracted the attention of medical experts and actually licensed practitioners from around the world. Remember, Dr. Phil has a Ph.D. in clinical phycology but he’s doesn’t have a practicing license.

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The Dr. Phil show discusses mental health issues with real-life people and situations. This episode was about an uncontrollable and extremely violent 11-year-old who’d been smoking marijuana since he was 10. The kid, JJ, would get so angry that he would destroy furniture and thrash his home, regularly assaulting his mom. A time came when he ran away and his mother found a Snap Chat photo of him holding a gun and smoking something (of course, Dr. Phil said it was weed).

What was right and wrong about this episode?

“Your brain grows until you’re 25 at least and it’s constantly changing,” Dr. Phil said. “When you get to be 18, 19, 20, it’s actually pruning itself back. When you smoke marijuana it’s like opening your computer up and pouring water inside, a lot of things short out and it connects where it’s not supposed to and really creates problems.”

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Dr. Phil then went ahead to attribute marijuana use to significant losses in IQ points.

“Even occasional marijuana smokers will look at a multi-point drop in IQ, even with just occasional use like once a week or two or three times a month. You’ll see IQ drop and motivation will drop across time.”

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He was right about a person’s brain developing continually into adulthood [2]. Several studies have reported that the most critical parts of the brain involved in decision making (especially the prefrontal cortex) do not develop until age 25 or possibly later.

However, the computer analogy was an off-track assessment. 

According to Dr. Michael Verbora of the Aleafia Total Health Network, pouring water into a computer does not initiate a rewiring of any sort.

Pouring water into a computer would destroy the computer and kill all the connections,” Verbora said to Vice [3]. People who have a family history of schizophrenia or some mental health issue may use cannabis while dealing with hallucinations and blackouts. Attributing these symptoms to cannabis use would be a wrong assessment of the situation, according got Dr. Verbora.

Dr. David Juurlink of the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center says that while cannabis may possibly have some physiological side effects, Dr. Phil’s analogy couldn’t have made a bigger mess of the topic.

“It’s ludicrous to equate smoking cannabis with pouring water on a computer. Maybe Dr. Phil should redirect hyperbole to alcohol, tobacco, opioids, and benzos, all of which are considerably more harmful, as is exploiting your troubled preteen on national television,” Juurlink said. 

His IQ statement wasn’t let off the hook either.

Dr. Phil’s management sent a reply across to Vice, stating that he referenced a debunked 2012 study as back-up for their claims. The study which claimed that “Persistent cannabis users show neuropsychological decline from childhood to midlife”, did not have a control group for socioeconomic status and was ultimately unacceptable [4].

Dr. Verbora cited a 2016 study which reported that cannabis ceases to impair a person’s cognitive function if they abstain for 72 hours after the first ingestion [5]. Another study he referenced reported that “Short-term cannabis use in adolescence does not appear to cause IQ decline or impair executive functions, even when cannabis use reaches the level of dependence. Family background factors explain why adolescent cannabis users perform worse on IQ and executive function tests.”

On Violence

Dr. Phil indirectly but certainly attributed the boy’s gun-wielding and violent tendencies to his use of cannabis. With the discussions of violence and the photo of the boy holding a gun up while smoking something, he surely had to be implying that cannabis was the ultimate cause of his aggression.

Several studies in the past have linked marijuana to an increased risk of psychotic behavior and violence. However, a comprehensive 2013 review of the topic reported that while marijuana and generally all narcotic drugs may drive violent behavior, there is no evidence to prove that these substances are the underlying causes of aggression [6].

According to Dr. Verbora who also attested to finding no evidence to back this up, alcohol and other stimulants are more likely to cause aggression than cannabis.

“I’ve treated 5,000 patients and 5,000 out of my 5,000 say cannabis makes them feel relaxed and calm,” he said.

Damage control

JJ’s extreme behavior at just 11 is Dr. Phil’s cause for a warning—a warning based on research provided to him from various credible studies,” said the show’s management. They also claimed that the episode was focused on analyzing the boy’s violent tendencies and not his marijuana use. 

A public health expert, Rebecca Haines-Saah says that although a 10-year-old should not have access to cannabis, Dr. Phil’s attribution of its use to violent behavior was misplaced. It shifts public focus away from other conditions and situations that may trigger and drive such behavior. 

“Kids with complex problems drop out or don’t succeed in school because those problems are not addressed. Occasional cannabis use is not the risk here,” she said. She also said there may be other uninvestigated factors in JJ’s family history that could be the cause of his emotional dysfunction. 

Despite the arguments, Dr. Verbora and Haines-Saah are in support of the involvement of the authorities in the matter. According to Dr. Phil, JJ’s mother has refused to get him the treatment he needs. 

While Dr. Phil may have wrongly assessed the case, persons below the age of 18 (or 19 and 21 in some places) should be restricted from the use of cannabis and other narcotic drugs. The focus here should be to help a child who obviously needs it, not spread misinformation. 

  1. Dr. Phil. unPHILtered: How Marijuana Affects The Brain. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g-FBO7hFqA8. Retrieved 14-11-19
  2. Johnson et al. Adolescent Maturity and the Brain: The Promise and Pitfalls of Neuroscience Research in Adolescent Health Policy. PMC. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2892678/. Retrieved 14-11-19
  3. Manisha Krishnan. Dr. Phil Thinks Smoking Weed Makes You Violent and Lowers IQ. Vice. https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/zmj7n3/dr-phil-thinks-smoking-weed-makes-you-violent-and-lowers-iq?utm_source=vicefbus. Retrieved 14-11-19
  4. Meier et al. Persistent cannabis users show neuropsychological decline from childhood to midlife. PNAS. https://www.pnas.org/content/109/40/E2657. Retrieved 14-11-19
  5. Morkrysz et al. Are IQ and educational outcomes in teenagers related to their cannabis use? A prospective cohort study. PMC. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4724860/. Retrieved 14-11-19
  6. Witt et al. Risk Factors for Violence in Psychosis: Systematic Review and Meta-Regression Analysis of 110 Studies. PLOS ONE. PMC. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3572179/. Retrieved 14-11-19

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Penelope Wilson
Team Writer
Penelope is a writer and health enthusiast with a B.Arts in Language Studies. She is a deeply spiritual person, a relationship expert, a nutrition freak, and a skin-care maverick.

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