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More Young People Are Using Weed to Cope With Social Isolation and Anxiety

A young man smoking marijuana

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This story is part of a series that explores growing health trends that were shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic. Will these trends stay or go away in the post-pandemic era?

Key Takeaways

  • A national survey found that college-age students have been consuming more cannabis and drinking less alcohol.
  • The record high of cannabis use may be attributed to social isolation and distress during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • While people use cannabis for therapeutic or medicinal purposes, health experts warn that the substance is not entirely risk-free.

Marijuana use is at a historic high among teenagers and young adults. In the early months of the pandemic, college-age people consumed more marijuana than alcohol, according to a new national survey.

The survey, sponsored by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), has monitored drug use among college students and adults since 1975. Disruptions to work and school, as well as an increase in alone time in the last year, may have driven substance use.

“You can see a lot of young people just doing marijuana by themselves. It’s both a social but also solitary pattern of drug consumption,” NIDA Director Nora Volkow, MD, tells Verywell, noting that the lack of social gatherings last year may explain the pattern.

Some college students, who may have previously drunk alcohol in social contexts, may have become more comfortable using marijuana, or cannabis, during the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, Volkow adds.

Aside from smoking, other cannabis consumption methods such as vaping and edibles have gained popularity among adolescents.

Volkow warns that ignorance about the side effects of cannabis may lead to the misconception that the substance is entirely risk-free. Cannabis is currently permitted in many states to various extents but remains illegal under federal law.

Many people use cannabis for its psychoactive effects or therapeutic benefits like relieving stress or pain. But medical experts are concerned by recent studies that associate cannabis with various health risks.

Risks Associated With Cannabis Use

Studies have linked cannabis use to risks like psychosis, suicidality, cyclic vomiting syndrome, and heart attacks.

Psychosis is one of the first risks to have been detected with cannabis, Volkow says. Daily cannabis use, especially with high-potency cannabis, is associated with high risks of developing a psychotic disorder.

Other risks, like cyclic vomiting syndrome, a condition in which a person cannot stop vomiting, are rare but growing in prevalence, Volkow says.

What Is Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome?

Cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, a potential subset of cyclic vomiting syndrome, is rare and only occurs in long-term daily cannabis users. Currently, there’s not enough research on whether cannabis makes this condition better or worse.

For people who have underlying heart problems, smoking or vaporizing cannabis may impair the oxygen-carrying capacity of blood and increase the risk of heart attacks. Cannabis smoke contains many of the same toxins and carcinogens in cigarette smoke, which can contribute to heart disease and cancer. However, there is limited information on the correlation between cannabis use and cancer.

Volkow adds that THC, the active ingredient of cannabis, can cause “vascular constriction,” the narrowing of blood vessels, whether it’s smoked, vaped or swallowed as an edible. “And when you produce vascular constriction, you interfere with circulation to the heart,” she says.

When evaluating the association between cannabis use and suicidality, however, it’s difficult to determine the cause and effect, Volkow says. Someone may have already had suicidal thoughts and used cannabis as a way to self medicate. More research is needed to understand the relationship, she adds.

How Do Doctors Use Cannabis?

Benjamin Caplan, MD, founder of CED Clinic, a medical cannabis clinic for both adult and pediatric patients in Massachusetts, says there’s no lack of public information on cannabis. 

“There's this grand misnomer in the world, which is there isn't enough research about cannabis or we don't know enough,” Caplan says. “The problem is actually that nobody's reading it.”

Naming different cannabis strains like “Gorilla Glue” and “Lemon Haze” also distracts people from seeing marijuana as a medicinal substance, Caplan adds. “These are words that are laughable to a scientific mind,” he says. 

Caplan uses cannabis to treat patients for conditions like chronic pain, insomnia, and depression, and always provides a library of research on the substance. His youngest patient was a 6-month-old who struggled with developmental delay and seizure disorder, and his oldest was a 104-year-old who had insomnia and chronic pain.

Studies say the potential for cannabis to be used as therapeutic agent in children must be evaluated carefully due to its potential harmful effects and limited data.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is conducting research on the efficacy and safety of cannabis in pediatric patients. It has previously acknowledged that medical marijuana may be an option for some children with “life-limiting or severely debilitating conditions.

“Most people who come to cannabis wish they'd done so years and years before,” Caplan says. “The vast majority of people feel tremendous relief. They feel control and agency over their own illnesses in a way that they didn't understand was possible.”

Caplan considers cannabis beneficial in recreational and medicinal use. This is similar to how exercise can be prescribed to a person in physical therapy or used as recreational fitness, he says.

“A better understanding of cannabis is that it’s a wellness agent. Whether they think they're medicating or not, there is medicinal value,” Caplan says.

He notes that cannabis is not completely risk-free, and that people who have underlying conditions such as heart problems may be more likely to experience negative side effects from the substance.

“Cannabis tends to be one of the safer choices. But realistically, if someone were drinking gallons of water, they could also hurt themselves,” Caplan says.

“There's really no substance that's completely inert,” Caplan adds. “Relative to its competitors, cannabis is safe. Is it completely safe? No.”

Will Cannabis Remain a Trend After the Pandemic?

The cannabis market thrived during the pandemic, with legal cannabis sales rising by $17.6 billion from 2019 to 2020, a 46% increase, according to a report by the cannabinoid analytics firm BDSA.

But the demand for cannabis was climbing even before the pandemic, and more states have legalized cannabis for medicinal or recreational use. BDSA predicts a $28.6 billion market growth between 2021 and 2026 and potential federal legalization in 2022. 

Caplan agrees the cannabis market has yet to reach its peak. “In terms of the grand trajectory of where cannabis is, I think we’ve barely begun," he says.

While the growth is expected to continue post-pandemic, an extreme resurgence of COVID-19 cases may accelerate cannabis use even further. The more stress the pandemic places on individuals, the more internal pressure they may feel to use drugs, Volkow says.

“Stress is going to be manifested by increasing in substance use, and one of the most frequently used substances other than alcohol is marijuana,” she says.

She remains optimistic that vaccinations can mitigate the coronavirus, and that the public will be resilient in navigating the pandemic in the months to come.

“We will also learn to live with it,” Volkow says. “We will learn to live with a certain level of uncertainty without having so much anxiety.”

What This Means For You

The NIDA warns that excessive cannabis use can lead to rare and serious side effects. Doctors say that while cannabis has medicinal benefits, it's not completely risk-free.

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