Research from Harvard Medical School reveals that US teenagers suffering from chronic health conditions are using cannabis to relieve symptoms, including anxiety, pain and nausea.
Researchers analysed data from 451 participants between the age of 14 and 18 who were receiving treatment for chronic medical conditions.
The teens had all enrolled in a clinical trial testing an intervention to prevent the misuse of alcohol.
Focusing on seventy-three participants who had reported using cannabis in the last 12 months, the study involved several surveys looking at their behaviour and health beliefs.
Just under a third (30.1 percent) of cannabis consumers reported using the drug to treat symptoms or side effects associated with their condition; researchers refer to these as ‘instrumental users’.
The rest of the cohort (69.9 percent) used cannabis recreationally.
Anxiety, pain and appetite issues were amongst the most common symptoms that teenagers used cannabis to address. Of the 30 percent of teenagers identifying as ‘instrumental’ users, 68.2 percent used cannabis for anxiety, 50 percent for pain, 45.5 percent for appetite and 40.9 percent for nausea.
“In the short run, marijuana can offer temporary relief for a number of physical and mental health symptoms the youth might be struggling with, such as mood, anxiety, appetite and pain, especially if these symptoms aren’t being addressed via some other intervention, for example psychotherapy,” lead study author Joe Kossowsky told Medscape.
“On the flip side, it can cause short-term paranoia, panic, and sleep disturbances that can increase pain levels.”
Kossowsky, who is an assistant professor of anesthesiology at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital, said that teenagers often feel worse when they stop taking cannabis, potentially leading to frequent or heavier use.
This poses the risk of cannabis dependence. According to a 2008 study, people who begin using cannabis before the age of 18 are four to seven times more likely to develop a cannabis use disorder than those who start in adulthood.
There is also a risk of young people developing psychiatric disorders. Although cannabis alone will not cause mental illness or psychosis, it can be a contributing factor for those who are already at risk.
Several studies have linked cannabis use to psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia, depression and anxiety, however this association has yet to be proven.
For example, one research paper has shown that early cannabis use may lead to a quicker onset of psychosis and those with a history of psychosis in their family double their risk of developing the mental health issue if they consume the drug.
With an average age of 17.2 years old, participants of the study were too young to buy cannabis legally, however 70.8 percent reported buying the drug themselves of having it bought for them.
The majority said they got their cannabis from a friend or at a party, while others said they sourced the drug from a person at school.
A smaller number of participants reported that a sibling or relative gave them the drug and just over one percent said they got cannabis from a parent or guardian. Several participants said they took cannabis from their house without permission.
The authors recognised several factors that were associated with increased odds of ‘instrumental’ cannabis use.
Those who started using cannabis at a younger age, those who used cannabis more frequently and those who substituted cannabis for alcohol due to their condition were more likely to class themselves as instrumental cannabis users.
Acknowledging the small size of the study, the researcher also pointed out that data was sourced from just one institution and participants were predominantly white.
They recommended that larger, more diverse studies should be carried out to provide a better understanding of young people’s use of cannabis for managing chronic health conditions.
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