Marijuana and Mental Health: Policymakers Should Consider Impacts

The impact of legalization of marijuana is far more involved than we may anticipate, including the potential for long-term debilitating effects on personal health, and an impact on educational and health care systems.

JoEllen Tarallo, Ed.D., MCHES, FASHA, Director, CHL

Should we be concerned about increased use of marijuana, now commonly referred to as cannabis, as the discussion evolves nationally about legalization? Legalization is likely to cause increases in use by adults and youth (Rand, 2015).

Healthy YouthConsider for a moment the following data, which backs up the idea that cannabis is associated with significant health risks – especially among younger users. According to an article in a reputable medical journal, youth under the age of 17 who use marijuana daily are 60 percent LESS LIKELY to graduate from high school (compared with their peers who never use the drug), 18 times MORE LIKELY to become dependent on the drug, 7 times MORE LIKELY to attempt suicide, and 8 times MORE LIKELY to use other illicit drugs later in life (The Lancet Psychiatry, 2014). Mental health challenges are often compounded by substance use, including marijuana. You do not have to be addicted to a substance for it to interfere with your mental health, and consequently your relationships, school attendance, and work productivity.

Research has found that 1 in 10 cannabis users become addicted. That number rises to 1 in 6 if daily use begins in adolescence (NIH). Reputable researchers agree that even without data to demonstrate causation, the potential for long-term brain changes by regular cannabis exposure during adolescence is sufficient to warn the public (Neuropsychopharmacology, 2015).

Research has also demonstrated the effects of marijuana on the developing brain. A long-term study found that marijuana users who started during their early teens and continued to use persistently into adulthood, lost as much as 10 points off their IQ scores by the time they reached their late 30s (Meyer, 2012). During adolescence the brain rewires itself so the adolescent can function properly as an adult. The brain’s pleasure circuits are critically involved in this process, rewarding the adolescent for trying new activities, learning new skills, and taking the risks necessary to grow up. Substances that directly affect the pleasure circuits disrupt the maturation process. Thus, concentration and memory, and the development of critical social skills, emotional regulation and problem solving skills, can be disrupted and stalled as a result of adolescent use of cannabis and other substances.

Approximately 33% of adolescents who use cannabis daily, exhibit anxiety, depression, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Adolescent cannabis users often show clinically significant symptoms of anxiety, depression, PTSD, and ADHD, along with Conduct Disorders (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition).

While marijuana use among 8th, 10th, and 12th graders remained steady in the past five years across the U.S., the perception of risk of use is decreasing. Perception of risk across all ages is a predictive factor of substance use. Therefore, as perception of risk decreases, it is likely that substance use increases (NIDA, Monitoring the Future, 2016).

Other factors to consider include impact of cannabis use on driving and on employers. It is well documented that marijuana use contributes to motor vehicle crashes because it negatively impacts judgement, motor coordination and reaction time. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), cannabis use costs employers through increased absences from work, significant decrease in productivity, lost revenue and Worker’s Compensation claims related to substance abuse. It is estimated that drug use costs U.S. businesses upwards of $100 billion annually. Employees who test positive for marijuana use have 55% more industrial accidents and 85% more injuries.

Prevention is Crucial

There is no doubt that cannabis legalization will have profound impacts on society and future generations. In the best of circumstances, political candidates and communities think in advance about the impacts of any policy decision that has an effect on health and wellbeing. The health considerations of cannabis legalization will impact us all and needs to be addressed by proactive prevention strategies which include health education in schools and on campuses, public information for parents and professionals, workforce development for educators, health care and community service providers, and employee wellness promotion.

Prevention Strategies

  1. States who are considering legalization would be prudent to adjust their budgets and work with the health, mental health and substance abuse systems to respond to likely increases in psychiatric disorders intervention and treatment – including psychosis, and substance abuse.
  2. The scientific community and legal system will need to come up with a reliable test that can accurately determine impairment.
  3. School and college staff need to be educated about the impact of Cannabis, and the signs and symptoms of Cannabis use in order to refer for early intervention well before the warning signs of addiction set in. Once a teacher sees signs and symptoms, the addiction process is often underway. Addressing a pattern of use once well established is time consuming, expensive and sometimes comes too late.
  4. Parents need to understand the effects of Cannabis, that it can lead to lower motivation and IQ, and can put their children at risk for school failure. Parents need the skills and tools to communicate and set appropriate boundaries, monitor their children, and recognize, respond, and refer when there is concern.
  5. Continuous and sequential factual, science and evidence-based health education and public information is needed in order to counter the decreasing perception of risk among youth and adults as cannabis use is normalized. Sequential health education starts in early education, and continues through elementary, middle high school and into higher education.
  6. The Continuing Education of professionals across health care and community services needs to provide current knowledge, and cultivate the skills that will be required to promote healthful behaviors, prevent risk, and intervene and treat effectively.

Education is the first step in addressing the impacts of Cannabis use.

National Drug & Alcohol Week is coming up – January 23-29, 2017
Learn more about what that means, scheduled events, free materials & more!

National Drug and Alcohol Week

UPCOMING TRAININGS ON THIS TOPIC: Marijuana/Cannabis and Mental Health in the Year 2017


Our next newsletter will focus on the Continuum of Use and the methods of Cannabis Use and Dosing.

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