Cannabis Use Harms Teenagers

The use of cannabis can also have a harmful effect on teenagers who use it occasionally. The authors of a new study are concerned that many teenagers perceive cannabis to be less harmful than it actually is.

The study in question was published in the journal JAMA in May 2023 1. It has been covered by several other media, including Medscape 2 and Yahoo Life 3.

Teenagers who use cannabis regularly but do not feel addicted are two to three times more likely to be depressed and have thoughts of suicide than those who do not use cannabis. Teenagers who can’t stop using cannabis even though it causes them problems are four times more likely to have such thoughts and feelings.

The information was taken from a survey that was sent out to 68,000 American teenagers aged 12 to 17 between 2015 and 2019.

– Think it’s safe

– In recent years, young people have moved towards a view that cannabis is safe and harmless. That is wrong, says the lead author of the study in question, Ryan Sultan, in a statement to Yahoo Life. Sultan is an associate professor in clinical psychology. He was surprised that even those who used cannabis occasionally experienced such a great impact on mental health.

– We often think that such use is not cause for concern, he says.

The study does not explain the connection between cannabis use and mental health problems. 

– The more you use it, the more negatively it affects the way you think. It increases the risk of depression and suicidal thoughts, says Sultan.

He believes that parents should talk to their children about the use of cannabis, depression, and anxiety.

Mental challenges

The researchers found that 1,675 of the 68,000 teenagers used cannabis a lot, while 6,971 used it occasionally. Almost 60,000 never used cannabis.

But even those who used cannabis occasionally were two to four times more likely to experience mental health challenges such as depression, suicidal thoughts, slower thinking, difficulty concentrating, truancy, poorer school performance, being arrested, fighting, and aggression.

The problems were greatest in those who used a lot of cannabis.

The authors write that one possible explanation is that young people use cannabis in an attempt to self-medicate anxiety or other psychological symptoms. Recent studies have suggested that cannabis can alleviate such symptoms in the short term, but will worsen the symptoms in the longer term.

Critical time for brain development

In the introduction to the study, the authors write that adolescence is critical for brain development. The endocannabinoid system plays an important role in fundamental processes in brain development. It is important to understand how cannabis use can affect youth, as it is the most commonly used, illegal drug among youth in the United States.

Cannabis use is associated with impairment in cognitive and executive function, including processing speed, sustained attention, working memory, judgment, planning, problem-solving, decision-making, and self-regulation.

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Persistent use of cannabis over the years is associated with a lower volume of the brain structure hippocampus in mid-life. Neuroscientific studies have also found that the use of cannabis in young people is associated with reduced volume in areas of the brain that are linked to motivation, emotions, and mood.

Effects on mental health include increased rates of depression and suicidal thoughts. Long-term studies have found that cannabis use in adolescence is associated with a four times higher risk of psychosis in adulthood. Cannabis use among young people is also associated with poorer school performance and criminal behavior.

Be vigilant

Many young people do not see cannabis as harmful. Over the past decade, people’s perception of cannabis as a harmful substance has almost halved.

The current study has some limitations. Including the fact that it is a self-report study. This may mean that young people underreported how much cannabis they use.

The authors conclude that American teenagers who used cannabis occasionally, compared to those who never used cannabis, were at greater risk of psychosocial consequences. The risk did not differ significantly from those who used heavy cannabis. As cannabis use becomes increasingly accepted in the population, clinicians should be vigilant and screen for, evaluate, and treat adolescent cannabis use.

  1. Sultan RS, Zhang AW, Olfson M, et al.. Nondisordered Cannabis Use Among US Adolescents. JAMA 2023. 
  2. Medscape: Study Says Casual Pot Use Harmful to Teens Forfatter: Croft J
  3. Yahoo: Casual marijuana use in teens isn’t harmless. Here’s why experts say parents should be ‘very concerned. Forfatter: Miller K