Recreational Marijuana Use Significantly Increases Risk of Depression and Suicidality in Teenagers, Columbia Study Finds

by Hiroshi Tanaka
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Teenage cannabis use

New research shows that teenagers engaging in recreational cannabis use are two to four times more likely to experience mental health problems such as depression and suicidality. Even casual use of cannabis can lead to significant long-term negative impacts, influencing adolescents’ mental health, behavior, and overall development.

Teens who casually use cannabis are two to four times more susceptible to developing mental health disorders when compared to those who refrain from using the drug entirely. This revelation is part of a study conducted by Columbia University and was published in the JAMA Network Open journal.

The study further indicated that infrequent cannabis use can still expose teenagers to the risk of detrimental behaviors. These behaviors can include poor academic performance, increased absenteeism from school, and legal complications, all of which can potentially impede their long-term development and limit their future potential as adults.

Dr. Ryan Sultan, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University and the lead author of the study, expressed surprise at the strong correlation between casual cannabis use and adverse mental health and life outcomes in teens. “The belief that casual cannabis use is harmless exists among youth, parents, and educators,” said Dr. Sultan. “This study is the first to identify that even non-disordered cannabis use can have clear, negative impacts on adolescents.”

The study utilized data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an annual survey that collects data on the use of tobacco, alcohol, illicit drugs, and mental health. It included approximately 70,000 adolescents aged between 12 and 17. The results revealed that more than 2.5 million U.S. teens, or about one in ten, were casual cannabis users.

Studies have shown that cannabis use can affect the development of the cerebral cortex, responsible for reasoning and executive function, potentially endangering young people with still-maturing brains. “The exposure of developing brains to substances that can cause dependency may make them more prone to developing other forms of addiction later in life,” said Dr. Frances R Levin, the senior author of the study.

The findings of this study come at a critical time when several states have legalized recreational marijuana. As of April 2023, 22 states have legalized recreational marijuana, and 38 states allow medical marijuana use.

Dr. Sultan, who also serves as the medical director of Integrative Psych, a substance use disorder treatment center, raised questions about the criteria used to diagnose substance use disorder in youths. “While cannabis use among teenagers is illegal, even in states where cannabis has been legalized, there are little to no real safeguards in place for them,” he added.

The research team is planning to continue this work by exploring if the casual use of nicotine and alcohol in adolescents has similar adverse effects on brain function, mental health, and long-term addiction.

Reference: “Nondisordered Cannabis Use Among US Adolescents” by Ryan S. Sultan, Alexander W. Zhang, Mark Olfson, Muhire H. Kwizera and Frances R. Levin, 3 May 2023, JAMA Network Open.
DOI: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2023.11294

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Teenage cannabis use

What is the main finding of the Columbia University study on adolescent cannabis use?

The study reveals that even casual cannabis use in adolescents can significantly increase the risk of developing psychiatric disorders such as depression and suicidality. The risk is estimated to be two to four times higher compared to adolescents who do not use cannabis.

How does cannabis use impact adolescent behavior and academic performance?

According to the study, even infrequent cannabis use can lead to problematic behaviors in adolescents. These include poor academic performance, increased school absenteeism, and potential legal complications.

How prevalent is cannabis use among US teenagers?

The study utilized data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health and found that more than 2.5 million U.S. teenagers, or approximately one in ten, were casual cannabis users.

How does cannabis use affect the development of the brain in adolescents?

Cannabis use can affect the development of the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for reasoning and executive function. This poses potential risks to young people whose brains are still maturing and may lead to issues with thinking, problem-solving, and memory.

What is the current legal status of cannabis in the US?

As of April 2023, recreational marijuana is legal in 22 US states and medical marijuana is permitted in 38 states. The study raises concerns about the lack of protections for teenagers, particularly in states where cannabis use is legalized.

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