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Medical marijuana may increase the risk of cannabis use disorder, study finds

Experts say those using cannabis to treat anxiety or depression may be at the highest risk of misusing the drug

Medical marijuana concept
Photo (c) LPETTET - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital explored some of the risks associated with medical marijuana. Their findings showed that consumers may be prone to developing cannabis use disorder once they start using the drug for medical purposes. 

“There have been many claims about the benefits of medical marijuana for treating pain, insomnia, anxiety, and depression, without sound scientific evidence to support them,” said researcher Jodi Gilman, Ph.D.

“In this first study of patients randomized to obtain medical marijuana cards, we learned there can be negative consequences to using cannabis for medical purposes. People with pain, anxiety, or depression symptoms failed to report any improvements, though those with insomnia experienced improved sleep. 

Risks of cannabis use 

For the study, the researchers analyzed data from 2017 that tracked nearly 270 adults in Boston who were trying to get medical marijuana cards. While one study group had to wait 12 weeks to get the cards, the other group was given medical marijuana cards immediately. The team followed the participants’ health outcomes over the course of 12 weeks to understand how access to medical marijuana affected them. 

Ultimately, the researchers learned that immediate access to a medical marijuana card posed some risks to the consumers’ health. The study showed that cannabis use disorder was twice as likely in those who had access to the medical marijuana cards immediately when compared to those who had to wait the 12 weeks. 

The team learned that the risk of cannabis use disorder was also higher in those using the treatment for mental health concerns. Participants struggling with depression or anxiety were 20% more likely to develop cannabis use disorder.

The researchers also found that many of the participants didn’t report any benefits of using cannabis to treat their medical symptoms. While the drugs were effective at improving insomnia symptoms, those struggling with chronic pain or mental health concerns didn’t experience any notable improvements. 

“Our study underscores the need for better decision-making about whether to begin to use cannabis for specific medical complaints, particularly mood and anxiety disorders, which are associated with an increased risk of cannabis use disorder,” Dr. Gilman said. “There needs to be better guidance to patients around a system that currently allows them to choose their own products, decide their own dosing, and often receive no professional care or follow-up.” 

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