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How cannabis use impacted mental health during COVID



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A leading study on drug-using behaviours during COVID has found cannabis to be less harmful and ‘potentially more useful’ as a coping strategy than alcohol.

A special edition of the Global Drug Survey (GDS) was published this week revealing how Britons have responded to the coronavirus pandemic.

Almost 60,000 people took part in the survey which ran for seven weeks throughout May and June 2020 to try and better understand the impact of the pandemic on people’s lives, with a specific focus on alcohol, drugs, mental health and relationships.

Almost half (48 percent) of British respondents disclosed that they were drinking more alcohol than before the coronavirus outbreak, while 44 percent of cannabis users also reported increased use of the drug.

Stress, anxiety, depression and loneliness were common factors in both cases.

Those who increased their drinking and reported having a pre-existing mental health condition were at least twice as likely to say they felt more depressed or lonely.

But the outcomes for cannabis use were mixed.

More than a quarter (26 percent) of respondents with a mental health condition who increased their cannabis use reported improved mental health, with 24 percent saying it made things worse and 49 percent saying  it stayed the same.

In addition, 19 percent of those who decreased their cannabis use actually saw their mental health worsen.

In that same group, 36 percent of those who increased their alcohol consumption said it made their mental health worse, with only eight percent reporting an improvement.

Professor Adam Winstock, chief executive of the GDS and a consultant psychiatrist and addiction medicine specialist, said the self-reported benefits of cannabis on mental health ‘could not be dismissed’.

“As a coping strategy, even for people with mental health, cannabis came out as being less harmful and potentially more useful than increasing alcohol use,” he commented.

“For me what that says is that you can’t jump to the assumption that increased use is always associated with harm.

“That’s not me saying that cannabis is a good way of dealing with mental health problems, but I cannot dismiss patients who report that an increase in cannabis use for a period of time was actually beneficial to their overall mental health.”

“We have to take the self-reported benefits of cannabis on mental health more seriously.”

However, neither alcohol or cannabis should be seen as an effective way to manage stress, when compared to more positive tools such as exercise and social interaction.

“If you ask what is the best way of coping with stress during COVID is it weed or alcohol? The answer is neither,” said Professor Winstock, who is an honorary clinical professor at the Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care, University College London.

“In the middle of a pandemic a good diet, interests, exercise, social contact and love will do a better job, it’s just for many people these are less accessible than alcohol or cannabis.”

He continued: “However, if you do a head to head comparison of those two drugs, alcohol more consistently leads to poorer outcomes than cannabis.

“There’s no two ways about it, at a time of crisis for most people alcohol will more predictably make things worse. Twice as many people with mental health problems who drank more reported worse mental health, it was very clear cut, whereas for cannabis it’s a mixed picture.”

Now he feels we need to open up the conversation about cannabis use to help people to do so in a safe way.

“For those people who say it made things better it’s about supporting them to make sure they are not consuming cannabis in a way that is harmful to their health,” Professor Winstock added.

“For me, the single biggest public health gain in the role of cannabis would be to get people to stop using tobacco.”