Update: This post has been updated to include a response from Dr. Phil's team.
America’s favourite unlicensed psychologist thinks smoking weed will completely fry your brain.
Phil McGraw, who hosts the show Dr. Phil where he gives advice to guests struggling with personal issues, is not a licensed psychologist, though he has a doctorate in clinical psychology. Recently, his advice was aimed at a 11-year-old boy named JJ whose mother describes him as violent and out of control. JJ also allegedly smokes weed.
A screen cap on Dr. Phil’s website shows JJ holding a gun with (presumably?) weed smoke blowing out of his mouth. His mom told Dr. Phil he has threatened to kill her with a steak knife.
As a teaser for the episode, which aired last week, Dr. Phil released a misleading clip in which he discusses the horrors of cannabis.
Here’s a fact check of the biggest claims he made:
Claim: “Your brain grows until you’re 25 at least and it’s constantly changing. 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.”
Reality: There is evidence that says brains continue to develop into a person’s 20s. But that’s about the most positive thing we can say about this statement. Dr. Phil’s computer analogy is out of touch with the evidence.
“Pouring water into a computer would destroy the computer and kill all the connections,” said Michael Verbora, a doctor with Aleafia Total Health Network, which helps Canadians access medical cannabis.
Verbora said while weed relaxes some of the chemicals secreted by the brain that cause anxiety or pain, “there is no evidence that any type of rewiring is taking place.”
He said small pockets of youth who use cannabis frequently, come from a lower socio-economic background, and have a family history of mental illness are at higher risk of things like disassociation and hallucinations. There are also potential links between cannabis use and schizophrenia for people with a family history.
A spokesman for Dr. Phil told VICE the computer comment is a metaphor about how weed “impairs cognitive efficiency especially at young ages. Disagreeing with a metaphor should not prompt you or VICE to essentially suggest marijuana use for an 11 year old should be condoned.” (Editor’s note: we didn’t.)
David Juurlink, head of clinical pharmacology and toxicology at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, said “it’s ludicrous to equate smoking cannabis with pouring water on a computer.”
Juurlink said cannabis use can have potential risks, but the idea that it causes serious permanent damage is sensational.
“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.”
Claim: “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.”
Reality: There is no evidence to back up this claim, according to Verbora, who referenced three separate studies that showed cannabis use had little impact on cognitive function or IQ decline in adolescents. One study showed that the small impact in cognitive function went away after the person abstained from consuming weed for 72 hours.
A spokesman for Dr. Phil said that information came from a 2012 study, however that study did not control for socioeconomic status.
“That’s been debunked,” Verbora said.
Claim: “For a 10-year-old child to be smoking dope, he’s self-medicating his anxiety. So you understand why I said this child can’t go home.” (Dr. Phil goes on to say if JJ’s mom refuses to send him for treatment, “I have to report it within 24 hours and the child will be removed.”)
Reality: Verbora said often young people who use cannabis are self-medicating anxiety with cannabis, and that it could be better addressed with other treatment options, such as therapy, meditation, and exercise. However, he also said Dr. Phil’s messaging, including the use of the word “dope” only further stigmatizes cannabis consumers.
“No intelligent physician or doctor would ever use the word ‘dope’ to describe cannabis.”
Rebecca Haines-Saah, a public health policy expert and professor at the University of Calgary, said it appears that JJ and his family have a lot of complex emotional and behavioural issues aside from cannabis use.
“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.
Both Haines-Saah and Verbora said the situation could be grounds for child protective services to get involved, but it depends on factors we don’t know.
“We don’t really have those pieces to the story. We don’t know if this is causal use, episodic use or whether it’s actually causing harm,” said Verbora.
Claim: Cannabis causes violence. While Dr. Phil didn’t outright say this, the framing of JJ as a “gun toting, pot smoking” kid, along with the photo of him smoking weed and holding a gun seem to imply that cannabis is tied to his violent tendencies.
Reality: Unfounded. Verbora said he hasn’t seen any data that cannabis consumption causes aggressive behaviour.
“I’ve treated 5,000 patients and 5,000 out of my 5,000 say cannabis makes them feel relaxed and calm,” he said. However, he pointed out that people often use more than one substance, and alcohol or stimulants would be much more likely to cause aggression.
Haines-Saah said it’s concerning that Dr. Phil is linking violence in teens to weed when there seems to be a lot more going on in JJ’s case.
The Dr. Phil spokesman said most of the online teaser for the show focused on JJ’s violent behaviour, not his weed smoking. The clip posted online was called unPHILtered: How Marijuana Affects The Brain.
“JJ’s extreme behaviour at just 11 is Dr. Phil’s cause for a warning—a warning based on research provided to him from various credible studies.” The problem is the show conflated—or at least did not clearly distinguish between—JJ’s violent behaviour and his cannabis consumption.