A Historical and Scientific Overview of Cannabis Among Homo Sapiens

Cannabis, also known as marijuana, has a long and complex history. Its use dates back thousands of years, with the earliest evidence of cannabis use found in ancient China around 5000 BC. Initially, it was cultivated as a source of food and fiber. Over time, its psychoactive properties were discovered, and it began to be used for medicinal and spiritual purposes.

In ancient societies, cannabis was used in a variety of ways. In China, it was used as an anesthetic during surgery. In India, it was incorporated into religious rituals and used to treat a variety of ailments, from headaches to gastrointestinal disorders. In the Middle East, it was used recreationally, and its fibers were used to make textiles.

Over the centuries, the potency of cannabis has significantly increased. Early forms of cannabis contained relatively low levels of THC, the primary psychoactive compound in the plant. However, selective breeding and advanced cultivation techniques have led to the development of strains with much higher THC content.

The legal status of cannabis has fluctuated over time and varies greatly by country. In the United States, for example, cannabis was widely used for medicinal purposes in the 19th and early 20th centuries. However, concerns about its potential for abuse led to its criminalization in the mid-20th century. More recently, there has been a shift towards decriminalization and legalization, particularly for medicinal use.

The medical uses of cannabis are supported by a growing body of evidence. It has been found to be effective in treating chronic pain, reducing nausea and vomiting during chemotherapy, and improving appetite in people with HIV/AIDS. It's also used to treat severe forms of epilepsy.

However, cannabis use is not without potential negative effects. These include impaired short-term memory, altered judgment, and potential for addiction. Long-term use can lead to cognitive impairment and mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression. Furthermore, smoking cannabis can lead to respiratory problems, similar to those caused by smoking tobacco.

The impact of cannabis is particularly severe on adolescents, whose brains are in a critical phase of development. The risk of psychosis, already elevated with cannabis use, is significantly heightened in young users, a concern intensified by the increasing potency and accessibility of cannabis today. Additionally, as the legal status of cannabis relaxes, youth perceptions of cannabis as harmful also decrease. These decreasing negative perceptions predict greater rates of cannabis use. 

This demographic's heightened sensitivity to cannabis's effects, combined with the potential for long-lasting damage, increasing potency of cannabis, greater ease of access, and decreasing negative perceptions underscores the critical need for attention to cannabis use among adolescents in the context of its growing normalization and availability.

Insights on Cannabis From the Mental Health Informatics Lab

One of the primary missions of the Mental Health Informatics Lab is to understand how the rapidly changing cannabis landscape may affect young people. This being the case, the Mental Health Informatics Lab has been at the forefront of research into the effects of cannabis use in adolescents. Using data from the National Institute of Drug Abuse, the lab made significant contributions to our understanding of non-disorder cannabis use in teens, with their findings published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

The human brain continues to develop until around the age of 25, making adolescence a critical period. During this time, cannabis use can have detrimental effects on brain development. Despite this, US teens increasingly view cannabis as benign, and adults often overlook cannabis use in youth unless it becomes severe.

The lab's research revealed a surprising finding: non-disordered cannabis use (recreational use that doesn't meet the criteria for a substance use disorder) is linked to adverse outcomes similar to those associated with a cannabis substance use disorder. This is significant because the core purpose of labeling something as a mental health condition is its linkage to adverse impact on a person's life. These findings suggest that even recreational cannabis use can lead to adverse outcomes in youth, which is concerning in the context of an epidemic of depression and suicidality among youth.

The direction of causality between outcomes such as depression and suicidality likely goes both ways. A depressed youth might be more likely to use cannabis to alleviate their pain and suffering, but using cannabis could also worsen their depression.

The lab examined a range of outcomes, including depression, suicidality, cognitive slowing, concentration problems, low GPA, truancy, aggressive behavior, fighting episodes, and arrests. One of the findings was an elevated rate of arrests among cannabis users, which is noteworthy given that teen cannabis use remains illegal throughout the US, though enforcement varies by state and locality.

The clinical implications of these findings are significant. The perception among teens that cannabis is benign is grossly incorrect, particularly for their age group. While not everyone who uses cannabis will experience negative outcomes, cannabis use significantly raises the risks—between 2 and 4 times compared to non-users.

The lab's research underscores the need for vigilance among educators, parents, medical providers, and mental health professionals in screening for and treating cannabis use in youth. The presence of cannabis use in a teen is a marker for screening and intervention, including for depression, suicidality, truancy, and poor academic performance—all of which can have long-term negative effects on a young person's life trajectory.

Having published these findings on non-disordered cannabis use, the Mental Health Informatics Lab is undertaking work on assessing the ease of access to legal and illegal cannabis youth have in a major metropolitan city, and the quality of the product they may set out to buy.

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