SINGAPORE – After using cannabis almost every day for two years, Mikhail (not his real name) had paranoid thoughts, even when he was off his drug-induced high.
He thought the authorities were spying on him through his mobile phone and laptop.
The 33-year-old said he covered the camera on his computer with tape, and locked away his devices because he was sure someone was watching him.
He saw “ghost soldiers” in his room, and believed a microchip had been implanted in his heart.
“I somehow knew it was the cannabis. But I also felt that the authorities somehow knew that I was using a lot of cannabis. And they somehow had to get me,” he said.
Mikhail started using cannabis, also known as marijuana or weed, when he was 23 and in the second year of national service.
He continued using it when he worked as a freelance designer in Singapore. He was then living alone in a rental Housing Board flat.
Mikhai said he was often “high and manic”.
It was not just the hallucinations that haunted him afterwards. He had also first developed grandiose delusions, and announced on social media that he was the King Messiah.
Growing up, the youngest of five children in the family said he felt isolated and developed a saviour complex, a state of mind where one believes that he is destined to help those around them.
“Cannabis amplified it,” said Mikhail, who is now involved with social work.
He said he first tried cannabis when some new friends passed around a joint, which is a cannabis-stuffed cigarette.
“My friend told me it was a plant from the earth and God gave us plants to use,” he said.
Cannabis, from the Cannabis sativa plant, contains tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive compound that causes users to feel “high”.
In June 2022, Thailand decriminalised cannabis, with the aim of cultivating it for economic and medical uses. Since then, cannabis has appeared in soups, curries, cookies, gummies, drinks and other products.
Dr Melvyn Zhang, a consultant with the National Addictions Management Service at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), said that cannabis is addictive regardless of the method of intake, as long as THC is present.
He added that THC will be absorbed into the bloodstream and delivered to the brain.
“THC has the capacity to change the balance of neuro-transmitters in the brain which are in charge of our thoughts, mood and behaviour,” said Dr Zhang, who added that repetitive use of cannabis can also lead to mood disorder and psychosis.
In Singapore, cannabis and its derivatives are illegal. But cannabis abuse is on the rise.
On Feb 16, the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB), at the release of its annual statistics for 2022, reported a spike in the number of cannabis abusers nabbed – from 138 in 2021 to 236 in 2022.
Of the new abusers arrested in 2022, 70 per cent were below the age of 30, including a 14-year-old.
Mikhail said he stopped using cannabis some time after first trying it, but got hooked on it after breaking up with his girlfriend.
“Instead of me feeling lonely and miserable every night, I realised I could be happy and high,” he said.
Getting drugs was not difficult, he claimed, adding that a dealer would text him when there was supply. Mikhail said he spent about 25 per cent of his pay to get his fix, and often smoked alone at the stairwell of his Housing Board block.
When he finally stopped using it after two years, he battled severe irritability and uncontrollable bouts of crying.
He sought help for his paranoia and was referred to IMH, where he was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and prescribed antipsychotic medications. But he did not stick with the treatment programme.
“When you can feel such pleasure in your mind and body that is so strong, it feels like a roller-coaster ride that you want to keep taking and taking again,” he said.
”Once you don’t feel high any more, you will feel that something is wrong with you. That’s when you start to question yourself, you start going into depression, you start having withdrawal symptoms.”
Mikhail said he felt deep shame for saying hurtful things on social media while using cannabis, and developed self-loathing.
Suicidal thoughts set in, and in early 2017, his two brothers took him to hospital after he tried to end his life.
It was a wake-up call.
He resumed his treatment programme and felt more stable. He also started exercising again and regained his appetite.
When asked why he first used cannabis, he said the main reason was because he felt so far away from home when he was in national service.
“I felt a lack of connection with the people around me,” he said.
Dr Zhang said addiction is a complex brain disease, and many factors, including biological causes, genetic vulnerability, psychological and social aspects in general, are related to the onset of addiction. The psychological causes include depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, stresses and predisposing mental illnesses.
In general, teenagers and young people are much more vulnerable to getting addicted than adults as their brain is still in development, added Dr Zhang.
He said young people may lack the skills to deal with stresses, and once they have sensed the euphoric effects from cannabis, they may want to use it again when they are under stress.
Some people may have the false impression that cannabis is harmless, and then end up also taking other illicit drugs, he said.
Mikhail said his experience with cannabis has taught him how precious it is just to be sober.
“If you have problems in your life, don’t add more problems (for yourself) by taking drugs,” he said.
Sobriety is worth much more than the high you get from the drugs, he said.
Hear from persons in recovery, learn more about the different types of addictions and the various platforms to seek help during National Addictions Awareness Day. It will be held on March 4 at the National Library Building.