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Research: Youths risk mental health with pot use

From Paul Courson

Ten years of research points to marijuana use and mental health risks.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The earlier a young person uses marijuana the greater the risk for mental health problems later in life, the director of National Drug Control Policy said Tuesday, basing his conclusion on a survey of medical research.

"We're trying to get out the word that the last 10 years of research have helped to alert us to the use of marijuana in particular is a very dangerous risk for the mental health of our young people," John Walters said at a news conference.

He said the conclusion runs against popular culture that often considers marijuana a low-risk recreational drug.

Walters cited a government study that found a base rate of mental illness at between 8 percent and 9 percent among Americans 18 and older. For those who use marijuana, he said, "That increases to 12-and-a-half percent."

And, he added, "For those who have used marijuana prior to age 12, the rate of mental illness jumps to 21 percent."

The rate was half that, or 10.5 percent, for adults who first used marijuana at age 18 or older.

Those were the findings of the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an annual survey sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Walters did not directly address the possibility of confusing cause and effect -- that is, that people with mental problems might be more inclined to use drugs.

One study he cited was published last year in the Archives of General Psychiatry. It involved 600 pairs of same-sex twins, one of whom was dependent on marijuana and one of whom was not. The twin who was dependent was almost three times as likely to think about suicide and attempt suicide than his brother or sister, the study found.

Neil McKeganey, who heads the University of Glasgow's Center for Drug Misuse Research, was at the press conference in support of Walters.

"It is leading us to look again at this so-called recreational drug," he said. "Kids who start to use marijuana at a young age are much more likely to suffer serious, long-term mental health problems."

The parents of a teenager who committed suicide last year were also at the news conference, and they linked their son's death to his marijuana use.

Tanya Skaggs, of Colorado Springs, Colorado, said, "He had a severe lack of judgment that was because of the marijuana, this destructive behavior was continuing," in the months leading up to his death.

The parents were unable to break his marijuana use, Skaggs said, despite counseling, searching his room for pot and random drug tests.

"We just never thought that something like this could happen to us. But it does, and it did," she said. "We wish we could have helped."

Agenda 'detrimental to your children'

Walters downplayed whether the medical use of marijuana undercuts the impact of warnings to young people against pot use.

The question was tied to a decision by Canada last month to approve the prescription drug Sativex, an oral spray that contains the active ingredient of marijuana, to treat the symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

He responded, "We believe that there's a clear distinction" between validated medical benefits and what he said could be "a bunch of ads where people testify that their mother, dying, smoked a joint and was saved, and that means marijuana is medicine."

"Your children are being educated," he said of such advertising. "But they're being told lies. And they're being told things that are designed to push a particular agenda which is detrimental to your children, and detrimental to the country."

Group calls for national discussion

Meanwhile, a Washington-based nonprofit group released a report recommending changes in the way authorities handle drug offenses, citing a "disproportionate" focus on "low-level marijuana users."

"The 'war on drugs' in the 1990s was, essentially, a 'war on marijuana,'" said the report by the Sentencing Project, which was founded in 1986 to promote alternative sentencing programs.

A national analysis covering 1990 to 2002 found that, of a 450,000 rise in drug arrests during that period, 82 percent of the increase was for marijuana, and 79 percent was for marijuana possession alone.

Marijuana arrests now make up 45 percent of the nation's 1.5 million drug arrests annually, the report said, and an estimated $4 billion is spent each year on marijuana offenders.

"The growth in marijuana arrests over the 1990s has not led to a decrease in use or availability, nor an increase in cost," the group said. "Meanwhile, billions are being spent nationally."

The report calls for "a national discussion regarding the zealous prosecution of marijuana use and its consequences for allocation of criminal justice resources and public safety."

"Law enforcement has focused disproportionately on low-level possession charges as a result of the nation's lack of a thoughtful strategy," it said.

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