Medical Marijuana Often Diverted for Illegal Use, Study Finds

Medical Marijuana Often Diverted for Illegal Use, Study FindsData gathered from a team of Colorado-based researchers indicate that medical marijuana is frequently diverted from its intended use and consumed by people without a doctor’s prescription.

Despite federal laws to the contrary, marijuana is sanctioned for medical use in 23 U.S. states, as well as in the District of Columbia. In a study published in March 2015 in The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, researchers from several Colorado-based institutions sought to determine how often marijuana prescribed for medical use is diverted to people who have no legal access to this plant-based, addictive drug. The researchers also looked at the typical demographic and mental health characteristics of people who receive medical marijuana prescriptions from their doctors.

Medical Marijuana

Medical marijuana is broadly defined as marijuana prescribed by a doctor and consumed for medical purposes. As a rule, it does not differ in any significant way from the forms of marijuana sold and consumed for recreational purposes. This means that all medical marijuana contains THC (tetrahydrocannabinol)—the mind-altering main ingredient in all cannabis plants—as well as cannabidiol, a substance that doesn’t produce mind alteration. Both THC and cannabidiol belong to a large group of chemicals known as cannabinoids. The National Institute on Drug Abuse lists medical uses of THC that include nausea relief, appetite promotion and (possibly) the reduction of pain and inflammation. Potential medical uses of cannabidiol include inflammation and pain reduction and convulsion control.

Despite legalization efforts at the state level, the federal government forbids the sale and possession of marijuana and all other forms of cannabis. Reasons for a lack of federal approval for medical marijuana include the highly varying THC and cannabidiol content of various strains of marijuana (which makes it difficult or impossible to prescribe consistent doses to patients), as well as the scientifically verified array of harms associated with marijuana consumption. Two medications containing standardized doses of THC, nabilone and dronabinol, are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as treatments for conditions that include AIDS-related weight loss and chemotherapy-related nausea.

Marijuana-Related Harm

One-quarter to one-half of all people who habitually consume marijuana will eventually qualify for a diagnosis of cannabis use disorder, a mental health condition officially recognized by the American Psychiatric Association (the organization responsible for creating the mental health guidelines used by doctors throughout the country). The cannabis use disorder diagnosis includes all cases of cannabis addiction, as well as all cases of dysfunctional, non-addicted cannabis abuse. Other harms associated with the use of marijuana and other forms of cannabis include altered brain development in teenagers, potentially permanent reductions in memory and critical thinking skills, short-term psychosis (hallucinations and/or delusional thinking) and increased risks of developing any one of a group of diagnosable mental illnesses that include persistent or recurring psychosis as a primary symptom.

How Often Does Diversion Occur?

In the study published in The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, researchers from the Denver Health and Hospital Authority and several branches of the University of Colorado used anonymous information gathered from 623 Colorado adults to help estimate how often medical marijuana is diverted from its sanctioned users. The researchers used information from the same group of adults to develop demographic and psychiatric risk profiles of people who receive medical marijuana prescriptions. All of the study participants received inpatient treatment for some sort of psychiatric condition and were subsequently released from hospitalization. Sixty of the participants had been issued a prescription medical marijuana card. Almost 48 percent of the participants consumed marijuana in the year prior to their study enrollment.

The researchers concluded that 41.4 percent of the study participants with a medical marijuana card had sold or provided free access to the marijuana they received for medical purposes. They also concluded that 24 percent of the participants had purchased or received free access to the marijuana that others had received through use of a medical marijuana card. In addition, the researchers concluded that people who require emergency care for mental health problems have a substantially higher chance of consuming medical marijuana than the adult population as a whole. Other factors associated with the receipt of a marijuana prescription include being male, consuming marijuana at least two out of every three days and beginning a pattern of marijuana intake at age 24 or younger.

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