New Study Shows Increased Cannabis Use During Covid-19 Isn’t Great For Young Adults’ Mental Health
The Covid-19 pandemic has taken a massive toll on our collective mental health, with rates of depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses rising dramatically across the board. But new research raises the alarm for a specific group of people: increased cannabis use during Covid-19 may make young adults more susceptible to the negative mental health effects of the pandemic.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Erin E. Bonar and her team at the University of Michigan Addiction Center conducted a study with 141 participants aged 18 to 25 who reported using cannabis on a weekly basis. The study, part of an ongoing randomized controlled trial, screened participants for depression and anxiety, and asked them about their perceived emotions and frequency of cannabis use since the onset of widespread stay-at-home orders.
During the pandemic, young adults aged 18 to 25 have arguably experienced some of the greatest instability of any age group. Many of the participants in the study lost wages or jobs and experienced changes in school and/or residence. Stress coupled with economic uncertainty and isolation from friends and support networks contributed to deterioration in mental health of the study participants, with nearly half identified as symptomatic for depression and anxiety.
Cannabis Use During Covid-19
One third to half (depending on consumption method) of all participants increased their cannabis use in the span of the first two months of being forced to quarantine. The biggest increase was observed in smoking, and the smallest in eating cannabis.
These numbers alone might not be particularly concerning, considering other research has shown that cannabis may help some people manage stress, anxiety, and depression, the primary mental health conditions screened for in the study. But many of the participants who reported this increase in cannabis use felt that it was due to the pandemic. Of the 86 percent of participants who reported experiencing isolation, over two thirds reported that their cannabis use increased during that period.
The authors found that “individuals who reported that their cannabis smoking increased were significantly more likely to report increases in depression (70.2 percent), anxiety (80.6 percent), and stress (83.6 percent).”
These findings warrant our attention—especially because the mean age of the study participants was 21, the most common age of onset for cannabis use disorder (CUD). CUD has been closely associated with a higher risk for developing major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. Although this study didn’t screen participants for a diagnosis of cannabis use disorder, the authors report that “the clinical features of the sample (over 40 percent with possible depression, greater than 6.4 percent annual prevalence of major depression for young adults) and the large proportions reporting increased depressive feelings raise alarm given the association between mood disorders and escalation of cannabis use disorder severity.”
These findings about CUD also support previous research that has shown an association between mental illness and heavy cannabis use. While these data offer insight into possible links between cannabis use and mental illness, they only tell part of the story. They also strongly suggest that we need better systems of support to protect people from harm in the first place.
Creating Better Policy
As more states move to legalize recreational use while the Covid-19 pandemic continues to be linked to worsening mental health, some have argued that cannabis is too accessible, posing an increased risk to those who might already be susceptible to mental illness and substance use disorders.
But recreational legalization isn’t the primary problem. Rather, it’s the structure of the recreational cannabis industry, and the massive gap in support and resources for people who might be struggling.
Most states that have legalized cannabis operate under a for-profit model where companies produce, sell, and market their products. Under this framework, commercial companies tailor their marketing to their most lucrative customers: those who already use a lot of cannabis.
A 2014 study conducted by the Marijuana Policy Group for the Colorado Department of Revenue found that the heaviest cannabis users, the top 29.9 percent, accounted for the vast majority of cannabis demand, at 87.1 percent. A cannabis industry driven by commercial interests leaves the people who are most at risk for cannabis use disorder and mental illness the least protected.
The far-reaching public health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic extend well beyond disease transmission, and higher rates of mental illness and heavy substance use are some of the most prominent. The pandemic has also spotlighted the ways in which our society fails to support the most vulnerable among us.
As the cannabis industry is only just emerging, we have an opportunity to restructure and create policy to de-incentivize commercial interests that increase the risk of harm.
Researchers Chelsea Shover and Keith Humphreys suggest a number of policy changes that could be applied to the cannabis industry to prioritize the health of cannabis consumers. Their suggestions include regulating medical marijuana like medicine or integrating the recreational market with the medicinal market, capping the potency of cannabis to reduce risk of addiction, implementing pricing policies to promote public health, and protecting science and public health interests from corporate interests, such as those spearheaded by the tobacco and soda lobbies to undercut scientific research and fund public health organizations to represent their products more favourably.
Shover and Humphreys also emphasize that more research is needed, as we are only beginning to understand the ways mental health, cannabis, and the Covid-19 pandemic are related. If we hope to prioritize the health of all cannabis consumers, we need to target our research and policy efforts accordingly.
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