Many adolescents who smoke marijuana aren't trying to get high, but are instead using pot as a way to cope with their mental and physical health problems, Canadian researchers report.
Furthermore, teens who smoke pot to relieve their depression, anxiety, grief or stress, or help them sleep better or concentrate, often say they do so because they had no other option, Dr. Joan L. Bottorff of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and her colleagues found.
"We really need to pay attention to adolescents who are experiencing concerns about their health, who are having difficulties, and we need to work with them to find alternatives," the researcher told Reuters Health.
Bottorff and her team had initially set out to learn more about young marijuana users by conducting in-depth interviews with them. While the researchers had expected most would be using the drug recreationally, they were surprised to find that many were smoking pot as a way to manage their health problems.
To find out why, Bottorff and her colleagues interviewed 20 adolescents from Vancouver and two rural communities in British Columbia about their reasons for using marijuana in this "therapeutic" way. The province allows some medical marijuana use, the researchers note, and the drug is also fairly readily available illegally.
As the team reports in the online journal Substance Abuse, Treatment, Prevention and Policy, six of the study participants said they smoked pot to relieve depression, while 12 said they used the drug to ease stress and anxiety. Nine used marijuana to help them sleep better, three said pot helped them to concentrate, and five said they used the drug for pain relief. (The numbers add up to more than 20 because several subjects used pot for more than one reason.)
The participants often said legal drugs they'd been prescribed for these problems — including antidepressants, Ritalin, or sleeping pills — didn't work, or had unpleasant side effects. When they had sought help from medical professionals or other adults, the young people said their concerns weren't taken seriously or the treatments they were offered didn't help.
The teens also recognized the ill effects of pot smoking, such as making it harder to learn and concentrate, and many believed that they were addicted to the drug or dependent on it.
"We're certainly not advocating that youth resort to marijuana to deal with their health problems," Bottorff said. Pot carries many risks, she pointed out, including interfering with learning and memory and harming the lungs. Also, the researcher said, there is evidence that smoking pot can trigger psychotic symptoms and disorders in young people.
The findings make it clear that young people need help from adults to find other ways to cope with difficulties in their lives, the team says. Options include "counseling, stress management, social skills training, anger management, study skills, pain management, and sleep hygiene," they write, but "the youth in this study had minimal access to these types of resources."
Also, Bottorff said, adults need to find ways to have conversations with young people about marijuana use and its risks.
"The stories that the kids told us, some of the situations were kind of sad stories," Bottorff said. "Some of the kids that we interviewed didn't have really strong family support systems behind them."
One girl was grieving after the death of her closest friend, the researcher noted, but felt no one was paying attention to her, and that smoking pot was the best option she had for handling her emotional pain. "There's a situation where, you know, some counseling either by a parent or someone else, a teacher...might have made the world of difference for her."