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Study sheds new light on risks of marijuana

For a long time, mood disorders like paranoia, anxiety and bipolar depression were thought to be a side effect of marijuana use. Previous research seemed to bear out those assumptions. However, a new study published in the April 2016 edition of JAMA Psychiatry is challenging those results.

Researchers from the Columbia University Medical Center and the New York State Psychiatric Institute looked at the records of almost 35,000 adults who participated in the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. Initially, the researchers looked for the prevalence of marijuana use among the study’s respondents. Then, they examined the participants’ rates of mental health problems three years later.

The researchers found no link between adult marijuana use and an increased risk of mood and/or anxiety disorders. However, they did discover marijuana use was associated with an increased risk of alcohol and other substance disorders, including nicotine dependence, a finding in line with other studies. Additionally, the researchers caution a longer follow-up period might have revealed different patterns altogether.

The “gateway drug” theory

One of the longstanding assumptions about marijuana was that it acted as a gateway drug for other illicit substances. It’s an assumption that seems to be reflected in other studies. For example, a study published in the International Journal of Drug Policy in 2014 using the same survey data as the Columbia study found nearly 45 percent of people with lifetime cannabis use went on to use other drugs. An additional study published in the journal of Drug and Alcohol Dependence found links between cannabis use and an increased occurrence of alcohol use disorders.

Although these findings seem to validate marijuana’s reputation as a link to harder drugs, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) cautions that most people who use marijuana do not advance to stronger illicit substances, and there are many other factors involved in whether or not an individual becomes a drug user. According to Mayo Clinic, some of the additional risk factors for drug addiction include:

  • A family history of addiction
  • Having another mental health disorder, such as depression or ADHD
  • Peer pressure
  • Difficult family situations

Anxiety and marijuana

Marijuana works because THC, its active ingredient, mimics naturally-occurring chemicals in the body. THC is able to bind to areas in the brain called cannabinoid receptors and activate them, which creates the euphoric effects of marijuana. Researchers at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee recently discovered cannabinoid receptors in the amygdalas of mice brains – an area of the brain associated with the fight-or-flight response – suggesting in some cases, marijuana may actually help with anxiety.

The Vanderbilt researchers used high-affinity antibodies to highlight the cannabinoid receptors, allowing them to be seen using microscopes. Senior study author Sachin Patel, M.D., said in a Vanderbilt press release, “We know where the receptors are, we know their function, we know how these neurons make their own cannabinoids. Now can we see how that system is affected by … stress and chronic (marijuana) use? It might fundamentally change our understanding of cellular communication in the amygdala.”

Marijuana’s still worthy of caution

There are still risks involved with marijuana use. Although it’s very rare – NIDA estimates the rate at around 9 percent – marijuana addiction is a real disorder.

Any substance can turn from occasional use to unwanted compulsion, something Sovereign Health of Texas understands. For more information on our effective addiction treatment programs, please call our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Brian Moore is a staff writer and graphic designer for the Sovereign Health Group. A 20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, he writes articles and creates graphics across Sovereign’s portfolio of marketing and content products. Brian enjoys music, bicycling and playing the tuba, which’s he’s done with varying degrees of success for over 25 years. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author and designer at

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