Too Much Legal Marijuana Is Falling Into the Wrong Hands

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Law enforcement repeated it like a mantra as medicinal marijuana became chic (and legal) now in more than half of the United States: If you make pot legal for medicinal use, it’s going to fall into the wrong hands.

Now, it appears, the cops have been proven correct. But the “wrong hands” may not be the ones you think.

Credit: Neeta Lind/Flickr

A report published in JAMA Psychiatry shows illegal pot use increased from 1991-1992 to 2012-2013 significantly more in states with medical marijuana laws than those without. Only a third of states had marijuana laws during that span.

While it only was about 1.4 percentage points more, the number of people with cannabis use disorders – so called “pot addicts” – went up almost a percentage point in states with medical pot.

And while most news reports focus on how legal pot will “harm the children,” the authors of this study and accompanying editorial say that’s not where the problem is brewing.

Related: More Pregnant Women Are Using Marijuana

“To our knowledge, research to date has not documented an increase in cannabis use by adolescents in the United States overall or in those states that enacted new marijuana laws,” the authors of an editorial accompanying the research wrote.

“However, the issue of whether changes to marijuana laws and policies affect use of cannabis by adults also is a concern.”

In reaching its conclusions, the paper offers data from three, cross-sectional U.S. adult surveys, including the National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiologic Survey, the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions, and others.

The Marijuana Mental Health Dilemma

The editorial authors, Drs. Wilson M. Compton and Nora Volkow of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and colleagues stress that marijuana poses a Pandora’s Box of hazards to psychiatrists.

“To start with, individual with mental illness are more likely to use marijuana, and both acute intoxication and chronic use can exacerbate psychiatric problems,” they wrote.

Credit: Mark/Flickr

And yet in many states, marijuana is now legal for mental disorders such as PTSD.

A common prescription for people suffering from PTSD is a benzodiazepine, known as Xanax or Ativan (which are highly addictive).

Many people suffering from PTSD say the side effects of the benzodiazepines are harsh. Many believe these pharmacological medications are not any better – and in fact, could be making things worse – especially for people with a co-occurring substance use disorder.

People with PTSD, for example, frequently suffer from alcoholism. Benzodiazepines are like alcohol in a pill.

‘Dangerous Dichotomy’ Endangers Mentally Ill

Research shows that at least half of all people with a substance abuse problem also suffer from mental illness. This is known as dual diagnosis, which can be a very dangerous dichotomy: While mental health stigma goes up, acceptance of illicit drug use such as marijuana is growing. In fact, most Americans believe that pot should be legal.  

That dichotomy is dangerous because it suggests that some people with mental illnesses, instead of seeking professional help, are turning to marijuana and other ways to self-medicate, which typically aren’t as effective and might even make their illnesses worse.

The authors of the editorial published in JAMA Psychiatry call on the scientific community to build on the knowledge of what we know about the brain and cannabinoid receptors to begin doing research that may identify specific harms from cannabis for people with different conditions.

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A professional journalist nearly 30 years, David Heitz started his career at the Quad-City Times in Davenport, Iowa before moving to Los Angeles. He led the Glendale News-Press to best small daily newspaper in the state (CNPA) as managing editor and also worked as executive news editor of the Press-Telegram. He worked briefly as deputy news editor of the Detroit News before returning to the Quad-Cities, where he has worked as a freelance medical writer since 2012 for several national websites. He recently purchased his childhood home and says he truly is “living the dream.”