Conference Coverage

Legal marijuana may complicate SUD treatment in adolescents



– The legalization of marijuana almost certainly will complicate the treatment of substance use disorder in adolescents, particularly when SUD occurs as a comorbidity of bipolar disorder or other psychiatric diseases, according to an expert review at a pediatric psychopharmacology update held by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Timothy E. Wilens

The full effects of marijuana legalization on SUD have not yet been comprehensively studied in children or adults, but the consequences of easier access, diminished stigma, and potential for a diminished sense of harm are widely considered to be an important obstacle to successful therapy in children, said Timothy E. Wilens, MD, chief of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston.

Comorbid substance use in children with mood disorders or ADHD has long been understood as a form of self-medication. However, use of marijuana, alcohol, or other mood-altering drugs also are known to interfere with treatment, Dr. Wilens said.

The problem is common among adults as well, but adolescents pose a greater challenge.

“Youths are more vulnerable to developing a substance use disorder because reward pathways develop before control pathways,” Dr. Wilens said. He cited data showing that about half of individuals who develop SUD, many of whom have other psychiatric diagnoses, do so by age 18 years, and 80% do so by age 26 years.

“Substance use disorder is a pediatric issue,” he emphasized.

The problem with legalization of marijuana is that adolescents are likely to conclude that what is safe for adults is safe for children. Citing a study that associated increased use of marijuana with reduced perception of harm (and the opposite), Dr. Wilens predicted that adolescents with comorbid SUD would resist treatment.

Because of those concerns, Massachusetts General Hospital, which is based in a state where recreational marijuana use is permitted, has issued a position statement. The statement endorses the study of marijuana for benefit and for harm but expresses specific concern about “the recreational use of marijuana at any age because of the potential downstream effects on children.”

Dr. Wilens expressed particular concern about parental use of marijuana in front of children because of the implication that it is safe and acceptable. For children at risk of comorbid substance use because of a mood disorder, he cautioned parents against even concealed use of marijuana because of the low likelihood that it will go unnoticed.

“Substance use disorders are associated with a more pernicious and longer course in adolescents than children,” said Dr. Wilens, paraphrasing one of the bullet points from the Massachusetts General position statement, which outlines the potential harms for children. Another of the bullet points maintains, “there are known structural and functional brain changes” that have been documented when marijuana use begins in childhood.

Citing a correlation between parental and adolescent marijuana use, Dr. Wilens said the legalization of marijuana appears destined to exacerbate the already considerable challenge of substance use in children. He noted that a very high proportion of adolescents with or without mood disorders experiment with marijuana at some point in high school, so there already is resistance to a characterization that it is harmful.

A realistic approach is therefore required in helping adolescents with comorbid substance use to curb this form of self-medication. It is essential to set priorities, he said, when treating adolescents with SUD and comorbid psychiatric disorders. “Don’t even think about treating substance use disorder until you treat the bipolar disease,” he said.

As the symptoms are relieved, the need for self-medication is likely to diminish, but Dr. Wilens cautioned against being too rigid when helping adolescents move away from marijuana and alcohol. He believes a zero tolerance approach can be counterproductive. Rather, he advocates a “harm reduction” approach in which adolescents agree to reasonable reductions, like avoiding marijuana during the week, while they eliminate dependence.

In an overview of pharmacotherapy to reduce cravings for drugs, he cited evidence, as well as personal experience, that over-the-counter N-acetylcysteine can be a useful tool. However, adolescents in particular should be warned about the pungent smell, which has been a barrier to adherence. He also suggested that psychotherapy, with or without pharmacotherapy, is helpful.

Treatment of comorbid SUD is a critical part of achieving control of accompanying psychiatric diseases, but this task might be complicated by legalized recreational marijuana, Dr. Wilens concluded. He encouraged clinicians to recognize that challenge.

Dr. Wilens reported financial relationships with Ironshore Pharmaceuticals, Janssen, KemPharm, and Otsuka Pharmaceutical.

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