Photo: Harvard Health Publishing
A new study found that people who medicate with medical marijuana for pain, anxiety, or depression may overuse the drug in a short amount of time without improving their symptoms, leading to cannabis use disorder.
Cannabis use disorder, also known as marijuana use disorder, is defined as a dependence on the use of weed. According to the National Institue on Drug Abuse, people are regarded as dependent on marijuana when they feel intense food cravings or lack appetite, are irritable, restless, and have mood and sleep difficulties after quitting.
Heavy marijuana use by teens and young adults diagnosed with mood disorders was linked to an increased risk of self-harm, suicide attempts, and death, a 2021 study says.
Providing medical marijuana cards requires only a written approval by a licensed physician, but 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,” reads a statement released with the study.
“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
The study was published in the journal JAMA Network Open. It followed 269 adults from Boston, average age 37, who wanted to obtain medical marijuana cards. The study participants were divided into two groups: One was allowed to get cards immediately and begin us, and the other group waited 12 weeks before obtaining 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 were able to 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.
Results showed that the people who obtained cards immediately were twice as likely to develop cannabis use disorder. Ten percent of the group had developed the disorder by the 12th week. Moreover, this figure rose to 20% if they used marijuana for anxiety or depression.
Respondents who immediately obtained cards saw “no significant changes in pain severity or anxiety or depressive symptoms.” However, they reported improvements in insomnia and greater well-being. The study’s proponents said that the benefits of marijuana for sleep and well-being might need further study.
The study also added that there is a possibility 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 in a statement.
“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.