Medical marijuana can land in the hands of adolescent users, study shows

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AURORA | Adolescents with access to medical marijuana that’s prescribed to someone else tend to start smoking at a younger age and are more susceptible to abuse, dependence and symptoms of conduct disorder.

That’s according to a new study conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, that looked at the use of medical marijuana by adolescents aged 14 to 18 years old. Stacy Salomonsen-Sautel, a postdoctoral fellow in the School of Medicine’s Department of Pharmacology, was the lead author of the study, which also involved input from the school’s Department of Psychiatry.

Conducted over a period of roughly 11 months, the study drew input from 164 adolescents, 121 of whom reported using medical marijuana that had been recommended or prescribed to someone else. The participants in the study came from two separate substance abuse programs in the metro area.

“Almost 74 percent of the patients had used somebody else’s medical marijuana,” Salomonsen-Sautel said, adding that the study referred to that phenomenon as “diverted” marijuana. “They used the diverted medical marijuana a median of 50 times. We had four patients who had tried to get a medical marijuana license. One patient did get a license.”

In comparing results from subjects who used diverted medical marijuana and those who used marijuana, but did not take it from another intended user, Salomonsen-Sautel said the researchers found trends that pointed to greater dependence. What’s more, those who used diverted marijuana showed a greater trend toward behavioral problems.

“What I found, after adjusting for gender, race and ethnicity, those who used medical marijuana were younger when they started to use marijuana on a regular basis,” Salomonsen-Sautel said, adding that a regular basis was defined as at least once a month. “They also had more conduct disorder symptoms. They also had more abuse or dependence symptoms.”

The study examines a relatively recent phenomenon in Colorado. With the recent rise of the medical marijuana industry in major Colorado cities like Denver, there’s a dearth of hard research regarding the impact on adolescents and other users, Salomonsen-Sautel said.

“I think it’s still a relatively new area. If you look at literature, there’s really not very much,” she said. “We said that one of the main points is that medical marijuana diversion is very common among adolescent patients. Our current system does not guard against it.”

Part of the reason may stem from a lack of regulation. Unlike other scheduled prescription medications, medical marijuana is not subject to a formal monitoring system under the FDA. Patients who receive a license can buy large amounts or grow marijuana in their homes.

A monitoring program similar to what’s in place for other controlled substances could help stem the impact of diverted medical marijuana on local adolescents, Salmonsen-Sautel said.

“We also mentioned best practice guidelines to recommend to physicians,” she said. “Recommended physicians could talk about possible risks of diversion.”

The study appeared in the July issue of the “Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry,” and was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, with supplemental support from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at [email protected] or 720-449-9707