Cannabis health risks higher in adolescents

The health risks of using cannabis are higher in adolescents than in adults, according to a new study led by the University of Bath – irrespective of the strength of the drug or frequency of use.

young people smoke cannabis
Using cannabis on a regular basis may be ‘significantly’ more dangerous for adolescents than adults

The study is the first to show that quantity and strength does not account for the ‘increased vulnerability’ to cannabis use disorder seen in young people, the researchers state. Using cannabis on a regular basis may be ‘significantly’ more dangerous for adolescents than adults, with young people showing higher levels of cannabis use disorder and reporting more negative impacts on daily functioning.

Cannabis use disorder is a recognised psychiatric disorder with symptoms including worsening mental or physical health, unsuccessful attempts to reduce or quit, craving and withdrawal symptoms, and using the drug in physically hazardous situations. Young people may be more susceptible to the effects of cannabis as their brains are still developing and exhibit higher neuroplasticity, say researchers.

The study saw 70 adults and 76 adolescents who were all frequent cannabis users assessed over the course of a year, tracking the types and THC content of the drugs used. A WHO-commissioned report from the University of Glasgow published last month found that one in five 15-year-olds in the UK had tried cannabis at least once. According to OHID figures, cannabis remains the most common substance that young people enter treatment for.

Cannabis most common substance young people enter treatment for
Cannabis remains the most common substance that young people enter treatment for

Most young people who use the drug will have received little information about its links with poorer mental health and addiction issues says the report, which is a collaboration between the University of Bath, Kings College London and University College London, and published in the European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience.

‘Our analysis shows that adolescents scored consistently higher on a measure of cannabis use disorder symptoms over a 12-month period, compared to adults,’ said lead author Dr Rachel Lees. ‘We already knew, from earlier research, that adolescents have higher rates of cannabis use disorder than adults, but until now we didn’t know if this was because younger people were simply using more or stronger cannabis than adults. We now know this isn’t the case.

‘We found that 70 per cent of the adolescents reported having failed to do what was normally expected of them because of using cannabis, whereas only 20 per cent of the adults reported having experienced this,’ she continued. ‘Also, 80 per cent of the adolescents reported devoting a great deal of time to getting, using or recovering from cannabis use, compared to 50 per cent of the adults. This is concerning as this group may not be aware of the symptoms of cannabis use disorder and may perceive cannabis to be associated with a low level of risk for harm.’

The report is available here

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