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In early 2017, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) released a comprehensive review of the available human studies on cannabis consumption. Much of the research presented discussed the physical and mental health impacts of cannabis. This article focuses on the mental health effects discussed in the report. The report, however, comes with a few caveats. Here’s what NASEM’s research suggests about the effects of cannabis on mental health.

Cannabis for mental health conditions

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There’s a lot of debate on whether or not cannabis has a positive or negative impact on mental health. On one hand, many cannabis consumers find that the herb helps them ease depression, stress, anxiety, and other ailments.

However, the evidence on whether or not cannabis improves mental health long-term is inconclusive.

Based on their research, human studies show a “substantial association” between cannabis and an increased risk for psychotic disorders like schizophrenia. Though, in this case, whether or not the herb was the cause of the condition cannot be determined.

An association simply means that something in the cannabis environment may be contributing to the condition, though exactly what it has yet to be firmly concluded. According to the report, those with psychotic disorders face the highest risks with cannabis.

Additionally, the report also suggested that there was moderate evidence supporting the idea that daily cannabis use may worsen symptoms of mania and hypomania in bipolar disorder.

There were a few other suggested connections as well, though these suggestions were based on moderate evidence. These findings include:

  • Heavy cannabis consumers more likely to report thoughts of suicide
  • Cannabis consumers are more likely to complete suicide
  • Regular cannabis use is associated with an increased risk of developing social anxiety

As you may have noticed, none of these observations can determine the cause of the condition. For example, are patients using cannabis heavily to manage feelings of suicidal depression, or is it the other way around?

By this research, there is no way to tell. At this point, they are simply observations that warrant further research with higher quality, reliable evidence.

To make the cannabis and mental health picture a little more confusing, the report found that cannabis consumption was not correlated with an increased risk of developing depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

While some evidence suggests that the herb can worsen the manic side of manic depression, there was little evidence that the herb was associated with an increased risk of developing the condition.

Learning, memory, and attention

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The second major mental health arena evaluated is psychosocial health. In this section, NASEM looked into available research on the short and long-term cognitive impacts of cannabis.

There is no doubt that cannabis can have an impact on memory and attention. While some find that the right strain can improve focus and promote creativity, many strains out there can make you feel forgetful and hazy for a short period of time.

This drowsiness is especially true of indica varieties like Kush, which have higher levels of sedative terpenes, myrcene. Terpenes are aroma molecules found in the resin glands of plants, including cannabis. Some research suggests that terpenes and cannabinoids work together to produce synergistic effects.

The NASEM report supports findings that many consumers have known for years, cannabis can have an impact on learning, memory, and attention short-term. They found that recent cannabis consumption can cause changes in these areas for up to 24 hours post-consumption.

So, if you’re studying and you want to stay fresh on the details, it’s probably best to save the herb for another time.

Interestingly, the report also cites moderate quality evidence that adult, cannabis-consuming patients with psychotic disorders performed better in learning and memory tasks than non-consuming controls.

Long-term effects

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Unfortunately, though, the report states that a limited number of studies suggest that there is a correlation between chronic cannabis consumption and cognitive decline.

Long-term cognitive changes caused by cannabis use is debated within the literature on the subject.  Recent research has suggested that the connection between learning, IQ, and cannabis consumption may be fuzzier than is often thought. Two 2016 studies of identical twins found no connection between cognitive changes and cannabis consumption.

The twin studies found that while cannabis consumers were more likely to show a greater decline IQ scores, though their non-consuming identical twins showed the same decline over the two decades. So, the study authors concluded that additional environmental factors, such as family life, may contribute to the changes.

With all cannabis research, positive and negative, it’s important to keep in mind that scientists battle with harsh legal restrictions when trying to study the plant. The herb’s status as an internationally illegal drug means that getting firm answers about the plant is impossible at the present moment.

If you live in the United States and want to express support for cannabis reform and give more scientists the right to research, call your local representatives. You can find their contact information at House.gov.

Searching for more information on what cannabis does to your body? Take a look at the article here.

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Delilah Butterfield

Delilah Butterfield is a Pacific Northwest native with a passion for cannabis and natural health. Contact her on Twitter @delilahbfield.
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