Australian researchers have found that people who start smoking marijuana as adolescents may be at greater risk of developing depression and schizophrenia later. Their studies can't be explained by the theory that people with mental illness self-medicate with marijuana, as schizophrenics often do with cigarettes. This also means there's a greater risk in using marijuana to help the symptoms of diseases like muscular sclerosis.
Christopher Patton and Joseph Rey studied over 1600 Australian school students aged 14 to 15 for seven years. The kids who smoked marijuana daily were 5 times more likely to become depressed by the age of 20. Weekly use made them 2 times more vulnerable to depression. Regular marijuana users did not have more depression or anxiety at the start of the study, so they weren?t using the drug to ease their symptoms.
The reasons for the link are unclear. It could be that pot smokers tend to be more rebellious, leading to less educational and job success, which could lead to depression. "However, because the risk seems confined largely to daily users, the question about a direct pharmacological effect remains," says Patton.
A separate U.K. study by Stanley Zammit on 50,000 Swedish men shows a relationship between frequent marijuana use and schizophrenia. This was true in men who had no psychotic symptoms before they started smoking pot. Another U.K. study by Terrie Moffitt analyzed data on over 1,000 New Zealanders and found that people who used marijuana by age 15 were four times more likely to have schizophrenia at age 26 than non-users.
But when the people who had psychotic symptoms by age 11 were taken into account, there was almost no increased schizophrenia in pot smokers. This means these people already had a greater risk of developing mental health problems, which might be the reason they smoked more pot. They weren?t self-medicating, since they didn?t already have the disease, but they may have had subtle symptoms that were helped by the drug.
It?s known that schizophrenia and certain types of depression are genetic, and scientists don?t know if marijuana can cause these diseases in people who are not genetically predisposed to develop them. "The overall weight of evidence is that occasional use of cannabis has few harmful effects overall," says Zammit. "Nevertheless, our results indicate a potentially serious risk to the mental health of people who use cannabis. Such risks need to be considered in the current move to liberalize and possibly legalize the use of cannabis in the U.K. and other countries."
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