Marijuana Use Can Derail Substance Treatment

Marijuana is one the most popular recreational substances in America, and users of the drug also commonly use at least one other substance. Experts in the field refer to this practice as polydrug use. In a significant number of cases, polydrug marijuana users who enter treatment for problems with other substances continue their marijuana intake. In a study scheduled for publication in 2014 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, a group of researchers affiliated with Boston University investigated the impact that ongoing marijuana use has on the chances for successful outcomes in substance treatment.

Marijuana and Polydrug Use

Partly due to the widespread popularity of marijuana, the drug and other forms of cannabis are the most common elements in a polydrug pattern of substance intake. As a rule, the combined use of two or more substances creates a greater health risk than the use of a single substance. Problems generally associated with polydrug use include a magnified negative impact on your cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) system and other organ systems, heightened chances of experiencing a substance overdose and an increase in the negative mental health consequences of substance use.

Polydrug use involving marijuana or other forms of cannabis is associated with increased chances of developing mental health problems that mirror the classic effects of psychosis, a highly destabilized state characterized by deeply held, delusional thoughts and hallucinations that affect one or more senses. In a study published in 2008 in the journal Human Psychopharmacology, researchers from the State University of New York at Albany linked cannabis-related polydrug use to increased odds of developing a psychosis-based mental illness called schizotypal personality disorder. These researchers concluded that cannabis/marijuana use remains the constant in cases of multiple substance intake that trigger the symptoms of this illness.

Marijuana and Substance Treatment

Marijuana/cannabis intake can substantially increase the likelihood that a polydrug user will develop problems serious enough to require treatment. Despite this fact, many treatment programs don’t directly address marijuana/cannabis use in people seeking help for other substance-related issues. In part, this oversight may stem from lack of an easy method for separately identifying the harms caused by marijuana intake. It may also stem, in part, from the desire of treatment programs to focus their efforts on their area of expertise, which doesn’t always include dealing with marijuana-related problems.

Impact on Treatment Success

In the study scheduled for publication in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, the Boston University researchers used information from a project called the Addiction Health Evaluation and Disease (AHEAD) study to determine if unaddressed marijuana use decreases the chances for successful outcomes in substance treatment. A total of 563 people took part in the investigation. All of these individuals had diagnosable problems with either drug addiction or alcoholism, as well as a recent history of active substance use. In addition, most of the participants had recently gone through substance detoxification in a hospital setting.

The researchers tracked each study participant over time to see whether he or she eventually received treatment and achieved abstinence from his or her primary source of substance problems. The vast majority of the participants had their abstinence success measured on two separate occasions. After completing their assessments, the researchers concluded that, among those individuals who continued to use marijuana while attempting to address their primary problems, the chances of achieving abstinence dropped by about 27 percent. This finding held true for people dealing with alcoholism, as well as for people dealing with some form of drug or medication addiction. The study’s authors note the significant decline in abstinence success in substance addicts whose marijuana intake goes unaddressed; they underscore the importance of this finding for doctors and the administrators of substance treatment programs.

Is Marijuana a ‘Gateway’ Drug?

Researchers have long debated whether marijuana/cannabis can increase the risks for polydrug use and diagnosable substance problems by functioning as a “gateway” drug that leads to further and more serious substance involvement. In some cases, marijuana use may heighten the chances that a person will go on to try other drugs. However, a number of other factors may also explain a deepening pattern of substance use and subsequent substance problems. These factors include the relative availability of other substances, the attitudes toward substance use maintained by one’s peers and individual tendencies toward unusually risky behavior.

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