What If Face-Eater Rudy Eugene Only Smoked Pot? Weed Can Trigger Psychotic Reactions, Studies Say

Soon after Rudy Eugene gnawed off Ronald Poppo's face near the MacArthur Causeway in May, the media ran wild speculating he was high on "bath salts." Later, commentators suspected LSD, coke, Ecstasy, or PCP. Eugene's girlfriend even insisted a voodoo curse was to blame.

Yet when Eugene's autopsy came back last month, only one drug was found in his system: good old-fashioned marijuana. Most people shrugged off the result. But what if Eugene did only smoke pot? Weed advocates don't like to talk about it, but there's actually a strong library of medical research suggesting that -- among those already suffering from schizophrenia -- plain old Mary Jane can trigger strong reactions.

"If you have a history of psychotic illnesses, including schizophrenia, you're probably at greater risk if you smoke pot of suffering a new episode," says Dr. Roger Roffman, a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Washington who has spent decades studying marijuana dependence.

Roffman's research doesn't come from the back catalogues of Reefer Madness anti-pot hysterics. Rather, a number of controlled studies around the world -- from Canada to the UK to the Netherlands -- have shown a strong link between psychotic conditions and pot.

The research doesn't offer much evidence that weed causes psychotic conditions. But it does suggest that smoking pot while you already have such a condition, such as schizophrenia, can be a dangerous proposition.

Take this conclusion from the UK's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which studied incidences of the mental illness after 1996: "[There's] unequivocal evidence that the use of cannabis by people with schizophrenia increases the likelihood of relapse."

Applying such research to Eugene's specific case is a dicey proposition, of course. Friends and family say they saw no evidence that he'd suffered psychotic episodes before his face-eating meltdown.

But the bulk of research also suggests keeping an open mind about the toxicology results.

Oh, and lest you suspect that Roffman is a scare-tactic DEA agent in disguise: He's actually one of ten cosponsors of Washington's new push to legalize pot. He hopes the effort will lead to a more honest discussion of the drug's effect on public health.

"We do an abysmally bad job of educating the public about pot," he says. "People get caught in the hyperbole, with one side describing it as toxic... and the other saying it's simply an herb and the safest plant on Earth. The truth, of course, is more complex."

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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink