As of 2017, 29 states plus the District of Columbia have laws legalizing the use of marijuana in some form. Seven of these states and the District of Columbia allow recreational use of marijuana, and a number of other states are debating changes to how they regulate marijuana. In short, millions of Americans use marijuana legally, and millions more use it illegally.

Studying cannabis scientifically is difficult, because it is still classified as a Schedule 1 substance, and is illegal at the federal level. It is difficult to gain approval for studies of Schedule 1 substances, and yet, the absence of research makes it hard to get the Schedule 1 label overturned. However, detailed longitudinal study results have just been published concerning the problematic use of cannabis in early adulthood.

New Study of Risk Associated with Cannabis Use in Early Adulthood

The November 2017 edition of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry contains the results of a study by researchers from Duke University and the University of Zurich in Switzerland that attempted to delineate risk profiles associated with problematic marijuana use in early adulthood.

The study found that persistent cannabis use was associated with anxiety disorders, as well as family instability and dysfunction. People who developed problematic patterns of cannabis use later on in life were more likely to have had bullying, maltreatment, and externalizing disorders than non-problematic cannabis users.

Difficult Home Life May Not Predict Problems Later On

The study, which ran from 1993 through 2015 assessed subjects yearly between ages 9 and 16, and also at the ages of 19, 21, 26, and 30. Study participants’ mental health history, education, work history, and history of drug and alcohol consumption were monitored.

The positive news was that slightly more than three-quarters of participants did not develop problematic cannabis use during early adulthood. Study participants who did develop problematic use were divided into three categories:

  • Persistent users
  • Limited users
  • Delayed problematic users

The so-called limited users in adulthood may have had problems with marijuana before age 16 through their early 20s, but they tended to break the habit as they moved into their 30s. This same group reported higher levels of childhood family dysfunction and instability. It appeared that when these children grew up and left home, they did better, and went further with their education at ages 19 to 21 compared to those with persistent habits and delayed habits.

Substance abuse

In many cases, the simple act of moving away from a problematic household assuages anxiety.

Anxiety, Bullying, Mistreatment, and Cannabis Use

A small group of study participants had delayed problematic cannabis use. In other words, they had a marijuana-free adolescence and early adulthood but picked up the habit after age 26. Most of the users with this pattern of delayed cannabis use reported experiencing mistreatment and bullying as children. Why didn’t mistreatment and bullying prompt earlier problems with cannabis? Researchers do not know. One theory is that they may have had fewer peers during adolescence, and thus fewer peers using marijuana, but that is just conjecture at this point. Ultimately, problematic use patterns for marijuana during early adulthood showed distinctive risk profiles and were specifically associated with family instability and dysfunction.

What This May Mean for Cannabis Addiction Treatment 

Substance abuse takes many forms, and treatment of cannabis abuse differs in some ways from other types of substance abuse treatment. Marijuana is legal to some extent in over half of states, so it is not like alcohol, which is legal in all states, nor is it like other illicit substances (like heroin) which are illegal everywhere.

The good news is that researchers may be able to tease apart family patterns or history of anxiety among people with problematic cannabis use and leverage this information to develop more tailored approaches to treatment. Substance abuse treatment in general has to be individualized for maximum success, and the new findings about childhood family dysfunction and anxiety and their relationship to adult cannabis use may help with developing treatment plans for people addicted to marijuana.

Problematic cannabis use may not receive the headlines and the attention that alcohol addiction and opiate addiction do, but that does not mean people do not suffer from it. If you are concerned about the problematic use of cannabis, we encourage you to contact us at any time to learn more about treatment options.

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