Teens and young adults who smoke marijuana regularly may be using it to treat depression and other negative mood states, a new study shows.
Researchers found a correlation between negative moods – depression, anxiety – and cannabis use by young people. That suggests these youths are consuming the drug to relieve their turbulent emotions.
There’s already some research that suggests pot can help with depression, manic depression, and other mood disorders, but it’s scattered, and the medical community hasn’t yet endorsed weed as a treatment for most forms of mental illness.
Lydia Shrier was the lead author on the study, which was conducted at Boston Children’s Hospital and published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. Shrier said it’s likely negative emotions lead directly to marijuana use.
“Young people who use marijuana frequently experience an increase in negative affect in the 24 hours leading up to a use event,” she said. “One of the challenges is that people often may use marijuana to feel better but may feel worse afterward.”
The study, which struck a decidedly anti-cannabis tone, didn’t actually examine the effects of marijuana on teens and young adults, so Shrier’s comment is strictly speculative. Weed is known to aggravate anxiety in some people, but no research suggests that it causes depression or makes it worse.
“Marijuana use can be associated with anxiety and other negative states,” Shrier said. “People feel bad, they use, and they might momentarily feel better, but then they feel worse. They don’t necessarily link feeling bad after using with the use itself, so it can become a vicious circle.”
Many heavy pot users would say different. If weed can treat depression and anxiety, it holds out great hope. After all, what’s worse, a crippling episode of depression or the mild aggravation some people may feel after toking?
The researchers studied 40 regular pot smokers between 15 and 24 years old, all of whom lit up at least twice a week. They were given handheld computers that emitted an alarm at random intervals every few hours. The study lasted two weeks.
Each time the alarm rang, subjects would report on their mood, companionship, recent marijuana use, and perceived availability of marijuana. The participants were also told to report before and after any cannabis use.
The study found that negative emotions increase substantially in the 24 hours before use. Positive affect, on the other hand, didn’t change in the period before subjects smoked.
Shrier’s research has plenty of flaws. It fails to explain how weed effects depression and other negative mood states over the long term. Scientists found that negative emotions clear up soon after marijuana use but then return. That still doesn’t mean the marijuana is making depression or anxiety any worse over time.
“We weren’t asking people to predict anything or to recall anything,” Shrier said. “We were just asking them to give us reports about how they were feeling right now. We were able to put under a microscope the association between those feelings and subsequent marijuana use.”