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Many Americans Are Using Marijuana to Manage Health Issues
  • Posted June 6, 2024

Many Americans Are Using Marijuana to Manage Health Issues

One in six patients serviced by a major California health care system said they used marijuana regularly, with many citing health reasons for doing so, a new study finds.

In most cases, doctors may not know that weed is part of a patient's daily life.

“Patients may not tell their primary care providers about their cannabis use, and their doctors may not ask about it,” said study author Dr. Lillian Gelberg, a professor of health policy and management at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

“Not asking patients about their cannabis use results in a missed opportunity for opening up doctor-patient communication regarding use of cannabis generally and for management of their symptoms," Gelberg added in a UCLA news release.

Relaxed laws around marijuana have greatly boosted Americans' access to the drug. In total, 38 states, three U.S. territories and the District of Columbia now allow cannabis for medical use, and 24 of these states also permit recreational use.

At the same time, the potency of all this cannabis has greatly increased, the researchers noted. Numerous studies have linked cannabis overuse to conditions such as new-onset psychosis.

Concerned, a leading independent advisory board known as the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended in 2022 that physicians routinely screen patients for cannabis use.

In the study, Gelberg's team looked at the medical records of almost 176,000 patients enrolled in the UCLA Health system. The system asks members to complete surveys during pre-appointment check-ins, which include questions about cannabis use.

The researchers found that about 30,000 (17%) of the patients said they had used marijuana at least once over the prior three months.

Among this group, more than a third had what the researchers gauged to be moderate- to high-risk cannabis use disorder.

Among cannabis users, 40% used cannabis once or twice in the previous three months, 17% used it monthly, 25% used it weekly and 19% used it daily or almost daily, the team reported.

Marijuana was commonly inhaled (65% of users) or taken as edibles (64.7%).

When asked why they used the drug, a large majority (76%) said they used it to help manage health issues. These included mental health symptoms or stress (56%), to help with sleep (56%) and to ease pain (37%).

Most people who said they used marijuana recreationally say they also used it sometimes to manage a health symptom.

The findings were published June 5 in the journal JAMA Network Open.

Gelberg's team noted that the findings are only from California, where cannabis has long been legal, so it's possible that the numbers might not be replicated in other regions. Much of the survey was also conducted during the pandemic, when it's thought cannabis use might have been higher than usual.

"Still, given the high rates of cannabis use and medical cannabis use that we found in this large urban healthcare system, it is essential that healthcare systems implement routine screening of all primary care patients,” Gelberg's team wrote.

More information

Find out more about the potential dangers of cannabis overuse at Yale Medicine.

SOURCE: University of California, Los Angeles, news release, June 5, 2024

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