Stanford admits that their research is not definitive proof that marijuana use causes self-harm. More research is needed before science can seal the gap on this connection.
Over the past several years, scientific minds have turned out heavy loads of anecdotal data showing that marijuana has therapeutic properties, capable of treating various conditions from anxiety to depression. The most dedicated cannabis advocates believe that the plant is the be-all, end-all for helping people combat mental illness. However, new research from Stanford Medicine suggests that cannabis could be what is driving a more fragile society over the edge. There is apparently a higher rate of attempted suicides in states where cannabis is sold like beer.
A study published in the JAMA Network Open finds more “suicide attempts” in states with fully legal recreational marijuana laws. This risk for self-harm, like cutting, was found exclusively in men between the ages of 21 and 39, the study shows. Researchers believe there could be a self-destructive component to selling marijuana to adults 21 and over. “States that legalize, but still constrain commercialization, may be better positioned to protect populations from unintended harms,” said lead study author Keith Humphreys, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.
The risk for self-harm seems to have more to do with how marijuana is sold than marijuana itself. Researchers did not uncover an increase in suicide attempts (or overly dramatic cries for help — my words, not theirs) when examining states with medical marijuana programs. “The medical cannabis laws showed no adverse effect on self-harm or assault in the study. But as you move into the more recreational, commercial uses, some results were worrying,” Humphreys said.
The Stanford crew mostly blames the potency of recreational marijuana products for the problem. The study directly points to “regular or heavy use” of high potency pot products for the increased risk of suicidal behaviors. Restricting potency is a hot topic of discussion right now in some legal states.
Researchers came to this conclusion by examining 75 million health insurance claims from 2003 to 2017. They found a significant increase in cases of self-harm in states where weed was legal, like alcohol. Men 21 and younger were at the most risk. Researchers uncovered nearly 50% more cases of self-harm, suicidal behavior among this demographic in states with recreational marijuana laws. “This is particularly disturbing because the human brain is much more plastic in adolescence,” Humphreys said. “Heavy use during adolescent years may do significant damage.”
Other studies published over the years have turned out similar results. For example, a 2019 study published in JAMA Psychiatry (comprised of 11 studies and almost 24,000 teens) found a higher rate of suicide attempts by cannabis users than non-users. In Colorado, government data shows that marijuana is the most common intoxicating substance found in teens (15-19) who commit suicide. The data shows it was present in around 37% of the cases in 2018 — up drastically from pre-legal times.
So, is the increased risk for suicidal behaviors really a concern for legal states? That’s something that nobody seems to fully understand.
We know that while some people don’t have any problems with cannabis whatsoever, others do. Several studies have connected marijuana to an increased risk of psychiatric disorders (psychosis, anxiety, and depression). Still, little is known about whether marijuana actually causes these conditions or just makes people more susceptible. What’s apparent is younger people who never touch cannabis seem to fare better with respect to their mental health than those that do.
With that said, Stanford admits that their research is not definitive proof that marijuana use causes self-harm. More research is needed before science can seal the gap on this connection.
Nevertheless, Humphreys believes the data is a warning for a nation focused on profits over public health. “The thing about cannabis is that, culturally, a lot of people believe it can only do good,” Humphreys said. “But it is addictive like alcohol, and it can affect people’s well-being and health negatively.”