Portland News

New Risks to Using Marijuana for People with Anxiety and Depression, Study Says

Photo: Harvard Health Publishing

A new study says that people who medicate with medical marijuana for pain, anxiety, or depression may develop cannabis use disorder. They may overuse the drug in a short amount of time with no improvement to their symptoms.

Cannabis use disorder or marijuana use disorder is described as a dependence on the use of weed. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says that people are considered dependent on weed when they feel intense food cravings or lack appetite, are irritable, restless, and have mood and sleep difficulties after quitting.

A 2021 study showed that heavy marijuana use by teens and young adults with mood disorders, like anxiety and depression, were likely to have an increased risk of self-harm, suicide attempts, and death.

Written approval from a licensed physician is required to acquire a medical marijuana card, but a statement released with the study said that often, that doctor “is not the patient’s primary care provider but a ‘cannabis doctor’ who may provide authorization to patients with only a cursory examination, no recommendations for alternative treatments, and no follow-up.”

“Indeed, the medical marijuana industry functions outside regulatory standards that apply to most fields of medicine,” the statement said.

No changes in depression, anxiety or pain symptoms

Published in the journal JAMA Network Open, the study followed 269 adults (average age 37) from the Boston area who wanted to obtain medical marijuana cards. They were divided into two groups: One was allowed to get cards immediately and begin use while the other waited 12 weeks before obtaining their cards.

“The waitlist group was our comparison group, like a placebo group, but we couldn’t do ‘placebo’ cannabis,” said Jodi Gilman, lead author and an associate professor at Harvard Medical School/Massachusetts General Hospital with the Center for Addiction Medicine.

“The waitlist group continued their usual treatment, whether it was counseling, medication, etc.,” she added.

All participants could choose their choice and dose of cannabis products from a dispensary and frequency of use. They could also continue their usual medical or psychiatric care.

The research found that the people who obtained cards immediately were two times more likely to develop cannabis use disorder. Ten percent of the group had developed the disorder by the 12th week, which rose to 20% if they medicated with marijuana for anxiety or depression.

Participants who immediately obtained cards saw “no significant changes in pain severity or anxiety or depressive symptoms.” On the positive side, they reported improvements in insomnia and greater well-being. However, the study’s researchers said that the benefits of marijuana for sleep and well-being need further study.

The study also added that it is possible that medical marijuana use may “pose a high risk or may even be contraindicated for people with affective disorders. This finding is important to replicate because depression has been reported as the third most common reason that people seek a medical marijuana card.”

“Our study underscores the need for better decision-making about whether to begin to use cannabis for specific medical complaints, particularly mood and anxiety disorders, which are associated with an increased risk of cannabis use disorder,” Gilman said.

“There needs to be better guidance to patients around a system that currently allows them to choose their own products, decide their own dosing, and often receive no professional follow-up care,” Gilman added.

Opinions expressed by Portland News contributors are their own.