With the legalization of marijuana for adult use in four United States states and the District of Columbia since 2012, it seems that there has been a shift in the general attitude towards marijuana use in America.
Public polls support this conclusion, estimating that more than half the country’s population is in favor of legalizing marijuana. This is a far cry from the anti-marijuana campaign spearheaded by Harry Anslinger, who helped draft the first anti-marijuana legislation, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. During the Nixon Administration, the term “war on drugs” was coined, and marijuana was even briefly put in Schedule One, the most controlled category of drugs that was meant to include the most abusive of known substances. Marijuana was also targeted by Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign.
Current research and changing public perception have cut down on many anti-drug measures, reducing marijuana-related incarceration. Alcohol is now known to be far more dangerous to the individual and to society than marijuana. A comparative assessment finds alcohol to be a whopping 114 times more deadly than cannabis. Nevertheless, marijuana is still a psychoactive drug with clear physical effects on its users. Due to marijuana’s increasing acceptance, researchers around the nation are working to bring the health effects of marijuana to light.
A 2016 paper published in the American Journal of Psychiatry warns that the general public attitude towards marijuana may have become too relaxed. Despite its numerous therapeutic uses that are still being researched and discovered, the chronic use of marijuana can cause a subset of users to develop cognitive and physical disabilities.
Recently redefined in the latest version of the bible for psychiatric diagnosis, the fifth edition of the hefty Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), this disorder combined what was previously known as “marijuana abuse” and “marijuana tolerance” into one condition termed “marijuana use disorder.” When looking at the general population, about 2.5 percent of adults, or almost 6 million people, reported experiencing this disorder in the past year. Additionally, 6.3 percent of adults reported meeting the criteria for the disease at least once in their lifetime.
This study found that between 2001 and 2002 and between 2012 and 2013, the prevalence of marijuana use disorder more than doubled. Data from the largest-ever survey on the connection between alcohol use, drug use and psychiatric conditions, which involved over 36,000 U.S. adults, revealed some important trends about the disease. First, it was twice as common in men as in women. It was also far more common among young, poor and unmarried people and Native Americans. Early lifetime use of marijuana, or before the age of 16, has been associated with a greater likelihood of developing future brain disorders. Furthermore, disability and frequency of marijuana use were directly related to increasing disease severity.
Dr. Deborah Hasin, lead author and Professor of Epidemiology at Columbia University, has studied the epidemiology of substance disorders for many years. In a 2015 paper looking at marijuana users, she communicated her findings that three out of 10 marijuana users developed marijuana use disorder in the 2012-2013 data set. This demonstrated the commonality of the disorder among marijuana users.
Hasin and her team not only gauged the prevalence of marijuana use disorder in the population, but they also associated the disorder with a significant possibility of disability, frequent coexistence with other diseases and a low likelihood of receiving treatment.
While the legalization of marijuana is still an ongoing debate, to many, its growing use in the U.S. seems to be inevitable. In this case, the ability to diagnose, treat and prevent marijuana use disorder will likely become more important.