As medical marijuana becomes increasingly accepted and accessible, it’s crucial to understand its potential impacts on mental health. A recent study conducted by the Mental Health Services in the Capital Region of Denmark and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) at the National Institutes of Health has shed light on a significant association between cannabis use disorder and schizophrenia, particularly in young males. This information is vital for medical marijuana patients, as it can help inform their decisions about cannabis use.
What is Schizophrenia?
Before we delve into the study, let’s define some terms.
Schizophrenia is a chronic and severe mental disorder that affects a person’s ability to think, feel, and behave clearly. It’s characterized by a range of psychological symptoms that can be categorized into three main areas: positive, negative, and cognitive.
Positive symptoms are psychotic behaviors not generally seen in healthy individuals and include hallucinations, delusions, and thought disorders. Negative symptoms are associated with disruptions to normal emotions and behaviors, such as reduced feelings of pleasure, difficulty beginning and sustaining activities, and diminished speaking. Cognitive symptoms pertain to cognitive dysfunction and can be subtle or severe, encompassing poor executive functioning, trouble focusing, and problems with working memory.
The exact cause of schizophrenia is unknown, but a combination of genetics, environment, and altered brain chemistry and structure may play a role. Despite its complexity, schizophrenia is treatable, and many people with the disorder can lead rewarding and meaningful lives with the proper treatment and support.
Cannabis Use Disorder vs. Medical Cannabis Use
Cannabis use disorder, as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), is a problematic pattern of cannabis use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress. This condition is characterized by a compulsive need to consume cannabis, despite the negative repercussions it may have on one’s personal, social, or occupational life. It’s akin to an individual being unable to resist eating an entire cake, even when they’re aware of the detrimental effects on their health and well-being.
On the other hand, responsible medical cannabis use is a therapeutic approach guided by healthcare professionals, like CannaMD, to alleviate specific symptoms or treat certain medical conditions. Medical cannabis is akin to a prescribed medication, utilized under the supervision of a healthcare provider, and tailored to the patient’s specific needs. Conditions such as chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, and epilepsy have been shown to respond positively to medical cannabis treatment. This form of cannabis use is not driven by compulsion or desire, but by the necessity of managing a health condition.
The distinction between these two forms of cannabis use is crucial. Cannabis use disorder represents a harmful, uncontrolled consumption pattern that can lead to significant health and social problems. In contrast, responsible medical cannabis use is a controlled, therapeutic application that can provide relief for many patients when other treatments have failed.
It’s important to underscore that medical marijuana, when used responsibly, has been shown to be a safe and effective treatment for a variety of conditions. However, like any medication, it must be used judiciously and under the guidance of a healthcare provider to ensure its benefits outweigh any potential risks. The key to its safe and effective use lies in education and a strong patient-provider relationship. Just as one wouldn’t consume an entire bottle of aspirin at once, medical marijuana should be used responsibly, adhering to the prescribed dosage and frequency.
Marijuana & Schizophrenia Study
The present study analyzed health records data from more than six million people in Denmark, spanning five decades. Researchers found a strong association between cannabis use disorder and schizophrenia among both men and women. However, this association was much stronger among young men. The study authors estimated that as many as 30% of cases of schizophrenia among men aged 21-30 might have been prevented by averting cannabis use disorder.
As NIDA Director and study coauthor Nora Volkow, M.D., puts it:
The entanglement of substance use disorders and mental illnesses is a major public health issue, requiring urgent action and support for people who need it.
The researchers estimated that 15% of cases of schizophrenia among men aged 16-49 could have been avoided in 2021 by preventing cannabis use disorder, compared to 4% among women of the same age group. As mentioned, for young men aged 21-30, the proportion of preventable cases of schizophrenia related to cannabis use disorder may be as high as 30%.
The Future of Marijuana & Schizophrenia Research
This study is a significant step in understanding the complex relationship between marijuana and mental health. It highlights the importance of proactive screening, prevention, and treatment for cannabis use disorder (which, again: is different from responsible medical use), especially among young people. The findings also suggest that cannabis use disorder is a major modifiable risk factor for schizophrenia, particularly among young men.
As we continue to explore the benefits and risks of marijuana, studies like this one will play a crucial role in shaping public health guidelines, policies on cannabis sales and access, and efforts to prevent, screen for, and treat cannabis use disorder and schizophrenia. The more we learn, the better we can protect and support those who choose to use marijuana, whether for medical or recreational purposes.