Marijuana and Mental Health: Some Advice for Young Adults and their Parents

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Marijuana and Mental Health: Some Advice for Young Adults and their Parents

Here is some information I always find to be helpful when talking with teens and young adults about marijuana. Most importantly, make sure to know your facts and how to navigate these tricky conversations.

Cannabis is now ubiquitous, and potency has increased dramatically as it is now legal in many states. Along with legalization, more research has come out about its effects, and I would like to share and summarize some of the key findings. We are seeing more and more dispensaries popping up with easier access to marijuana. In 2022, nearly 1/3 of 12th graders reported using cannabis in the past year, and 6% reported daily use in the past 30 days. Second to alcohol, it is the most widely used substance among teens.

Weed sellers make all kinds of claims about their products, including that it has good medical and psychiatric benefits. Many sites claim that particular strains help with PTSD, anxiety, or elevate your mood.  This is not true. There are some medical indications for the use of marijuana. Cannabis can be useful for muscle spasms in patients with multiple sclerosis, or for cancer patients who are receiving chemotherapy with associated nausea.  There is some evidence for HIV/AIDS related-wasting illness to help with appetite, and CBD specifically can be beneficial for seizure disorders. However, cannabis has no therapeutic value for mental health, can lead to addiction, and ultimately interferes with one’s motivation and ability to succeed.

Marijuana and Mental Health: Some Advice for Young Adults and their Parents

Despite legalization, cannabis is not a benign substance, particularly for the developing brain. The brain continues to develop until age 25 – 30. Cannabis interferes with both the developing structure and function of the brain.  Studies have shown changes and disruption to the structure and fibers of brain tissue. Functionally, we see decreases in processing speed, working memory, learning, and attention. On average, IQ drops 8 points over the course of several years of use. With increasing marijuana consumption, academic performance diminishes – we see lower GPAs as classroom attendance drops. Any amount of cannabis consumption can impair driving by decreasing reaction speed and coordination, doubling the risk of getting into a car accident. While CBD may have some indication for improving pain, sleep, and recovery in athletes, THC and cannabis in general can worsen athletic performance. Athletes may face decreased coordination, power, and judgment.

Cannabis use has even been associated with increased risks for mental illness. This includes depression, anxiety, and even schizophrenia. In our practice, we have seen cases of THC triggering or unmasking psychotic and/or manic episodes, even when it was not laced with any other substances. Daily use, particularly of higher potency edibles, has been linked to psychosis. Even if it does not produce these effects, regular use disrupts REM sleep, interferes with motivation, and leads to decreased executive functioning.

A lot of people think of weed as relatively harmless because it is a natural plant associated with “The Sixties” and peace and love. But, the cannabis that was smoked in the 1970s is very different than what teenagers are consuming today. THC is the psychoactive component that “gets you high” and the ingredient that can be addictive. Marijuana of the 1960’s to 1980’s had a THC content of less than 2%. Now, many of the average popular strains are ranging 17-28%.  The THC in dab pens and oils can go up to THC 95%.

There is no evidence that cannabis is beneficial for any mental health condition. In many cases, it likely worsens the underlying disorder. Many patients come to us with underlying ADHD, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or a first-break psychosis, and it is common to see co-occurring cannabis use.

Furthermore, marijuana can lead to addiction, and we see that 1 out of 6 people who start using as adolescents will become addicted. Dependency makes it very hard to quit which can result in significant withdrawal symptoms – irritability, anxiety, sleep disturbance, abdominal pain, and sweating. Being hooked on weed leads to a costly expensive habit, not uncommonly seeing individuals spend hundreds to thousands of dollars on it each year.

There may be no escaping marijuana exposure if you live in the USA today, but we must remain cautious of the claims that weed sellers make. The latest medical research suggests there are many more risks than benefits.

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