The use of recreational drugs is seen at much higher rates in populations with mental health problems than in the general population, and this is true for both legal substances such as alcohol and tobacco, as well as prohibited substances like cannabis.
But understanding what these associations mean is problematic:
- Do the substances cause psychiatric problems?
- Do people use recreational drugs to self-medicate?
- Or, is there some other factor earlier in life that can lead to both risk of substance use and mental health problems?
The impact of cannabis (Hamilton, 2016) on mental health (Kennedy, 2015) is of particular interest in the USA, where cannabis is now legal in some states, and decriminalized in a number of others. There is a fear that cannabis use will increase, and therefore there is a pressing need to understand the nature of its association with psychiatric problems.
Blanco and colleagues state that this is their particular motivation for undertaking the research they have just published, to try and understand whether cannabis use predicts later substance use disorders, and also mood and anxiety disorders.
This study used a very large sample of adults in the USA, measured at 2 time-points, 3 years apart. Cannabis use in the past year was assessed at wave one, and a variety of outcomes were assessed at wave 2. These were cannabis use disorder, alcohol use disorder, nicotine dependence, other drug use disorder, mood disorder (including depressive disorder, bipolar I or II and dysthymia), and anxiety disorder (including panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, specific phobia, and generalized anxiety disorder). These were all assessed using the Alcohol Use Disorder and Associated Disabilities Interview Schedule DSM-IV.
Regression analyses were used to look at the associations between cannabis and these disorders, before and after adjustment for a variety of other factors that might influence both cannabis use and mental health, and therefore could be confounding the relationship. These were socio-demographic characteristics, family history of substance use disorder, disturbed family environment, childhood parental loss, low self-esteem, social deviance, education, recent trauma, past and present psychiatric disorder, past substance use disorder and history of divorce.
The authors also used propensity score matching to try and further account for these confounders. This is a technique where cannabis users and non-users are matched by their values for the confounding variables, then compared. If confounding is the same between cannabis users and non-users, it cannot therefore drive the associations seen, meaning they’re more likely to be causal, rather than due to other factors (although confounding has to have been known about and measured for this to be the case). The sample size is a lot smaller for these analyses, with 1,254 people in each group.
Of the 34,653 participants in the study, only 1,279 (roughly 3.5%) reported having used cannabis in the past 12 months at wave one. Before taking confounders in to consideration, cannabis use at wave one was associated with substance use disorders and mood and anxiety disorders. However, this changed after accounting for the factors the authors believed might confound the relationships.
Across the regressions and the propensity matched analyses, adjustment for confounders attenuated the associations between cannabis use and later mood and anxiety disorders, suggesting that these might be due to confounding. Conversely, associations remained between cannabis use and later substance abuse and dependence. This was particularly strong for cannabis abuse, as might be expected.
- Cannabis use at wave one was associated with around a 7x increased risk of cannabis abuse or dependence at wave 2
- Cannabis users also had 2-3x increased risk of alcohol use disorder or any other drug use disorder
- Cannabis users also had around 1.5x increased risk of nicotine dependence.
The study found evidence that cannabis use predicts substance use disorder, even after adjustment for confounding. However, they also found that associations between cannabis use and later mood and anxiety disorders seemed to be due to confounding, rather than there being a causal association.
The authors concluded:
These adverse psychiatric outcomes [substance use disorders] should be taken under careful consideration in clinical care and policy planning.
Strengths and limitations
A strength of this study is the use of a nationwide sample, assessed at two different time points, and that they had a really big sample size. The authors also took steps to try and keep the sample representative, even after drop-out between wave one and wave two. The consideration of confounders is also a strength, although of course causation cannot be ascertained from observational data; a limitation that the authors themselves acknowledge.
When studies are very large, as this one is, it can be hard to get really accurate measures, because of the amount of time it takes to interview 35,000 people! It is particularly impressive that the outcome measures are all according to DSM-IV criteria. However, as all these measures were taken from an Alcohol Use Disorder interview, the measures of mood and anxiety may be less good (the interview has weaker test-retest reliability for mood and anxiety disorders than for substance use disorders).
The rate of cannabis use in this study (roughly 3.5%) seems very low; the UN’s World Drug Report in 2011 (UNODC, 2011) put previous-year cannabis use in the USA at 13.7%. The data used in the Blanco study were collected in 2001, so perhaps cannabis rates have increased since then. It is notoriously hard to monitor rates of illicit drug use as people may not be keen to honestly report their use; indeed, this may be a problem in this study too, meaning people might be misclassified.
The use of other substances at wave one isn’t necessarily adequately controlled for; pre-existing substance use disorders are controlled for, but less extreme use of a substance isn’t. So these participants that are using cannabis might also be smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, or using other illicit drugs. There’s no way to know from this study which came first, and this makes it difficult to know whether cannabis is causing the associations seen, or whether it could be another substance, for example.
While the use of propensity score matching is perhaps a stronger method to assess causation than simply adjusting for confounders, the technique cannot take in to account confounders that vary over time, as these could vary differently between cannabis users and non-users, and still be confounding the association despite being the same at one time point.
Although the authors rightly highlight that associations of cannabis use with later substance use disorders are robust to confounding, their conclusions don’t highlight that adjustment actually reduced the association between cannabis use and later mood and anxiety disorders to the null. I think this is a really interesting finding, and maybe should have been made more of.
This is a well designed study on a really large sample, and provides useful information about associations between cannabis use and later substance use disorders, as well as suggesting that perhaps associations between cannabis use and mood and anxiety disorders might be due to other factors, rather than due to cannabis causing these outcomes. It still doesn’t really tell us why cannabis use might increase the risk of substance use disorders, and doesn’t tell us that cannabis is causing this increase of risk.
Blanco C, Hasin DS, Wall MM, et al. (2016) Cannabis Use and Risk of Psychiatric Disorders: Prospective Evidence From a US National Longitudinal Study. JAMA Psychiatry.Published online February 17, 2016. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2015.3229. [PubMed abstract]
Hamilton I. (2016) Cannabis: what do we know and what do we need to know? The Mental Elf, 17 Mar 2016.
Kennedy E. (2015) High potency cannabis and the risk of psychosis. The Mental Elf, 24 Mar 2015.
UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) (2011) UN World Drug report 2011. United Nations.