Study of Medical Cannabis Use in Young Adults to Begin with NIH Grant to Drexel

Drexel University, a comprehensive global research university and one of America’s 15 largest private universities, has recently been awarded an NIH grant for a five-year study of medical cannabis. The purpose of the study is to track its impact on drug use and physical and psychological health among young adults in Los Angeles.

This is the first large-scale NIH-funded project to directly investigate medical cannabis use among young adults aged 18 to 26.

Led by Dr. Stephen Lankenau, the study will get its first installment this month, receiving a total of $3.3 million over a five year period.

The study hopes to provide data that will guide medical cannabis policies at local, state and national levels in order to establish the most positive health outcomes for young adults and communities.

The study, “Medical Marijuana, Emerging Adults & Community: Connecting Health and Policy,” will have a core focus on understanding the significance and influence of dispensaries – storefronts that sell medical cannabis – on health.

Since medical cannabis dispensaries are a relatively new and unfamiliar institution and haven’t been studied much, this particular study will provide valuable information. One theory is that dispensaries, which often provide social support to their clients, may well provide the basis for better physical and psychological outcomes for medical users, compared to non-medical users who purchase the cannabis on the black market.

This study stems from an earlier NIH-funded project that observed non-medical prescription drug use among high-risk young adults in two cities. Also led by Lankenau, the study among Los Angeles participants examined key differences in patterns of drug use and health between those who had a physician recommendation for medical marijuana, and those who used marijuana without a recommendation.

Guided by these earlier findings, his new study has three specific objectives:

  1. Determine the basis for medical marijuana patient status and its impact on trajectories of physical and psychological health among emerging adults.
  2. Determine the impact of medical marijuana patient status on patterns of drug use among emerging adults, including intensity of marijuana use and misuse of alcohol, prescription drugs and illicit drugs.
  3. Describe the natural history of marijuana use in Los Angeles among medical marijuana patients and non-medical users.

Since Lankenau is recruiting young adults for the study, the participants will have many years of their lives ahead to experience the consequences, whether positive or negative, of policies that allow for medical marijuana use.

In 1996 when medical cannabis became legal in California, the typical patients who qualified for a physical recommendation were older adults suffering with chronic conditions.

Young adult patients were not the norm when medical marijuana first became legal in California in 1996. At that time, most patients who qualified for a physician recommendation for the drug were older adults with chronic conditions or seeking analgesic care.

Since the list of health conditions eligible to receive a medical recommendation for marijuana in California has since grown to over 200, including conditions such as anxiety and insomnia, an increasing number of younger people are now receiving access to the drug with a medical recommendation.

Large studies like this one have been minimal for several reasons. Federal funding has been lacking because the federal law still classifies cannabis as a Schedule 1 controlled substance.

Most existing studies have been smaller in scale, or involve secondary analysis of survey data without directly recruiting medical marijuana-users.

Some of the relevant outcomes of the study include: how the “gateway” concept applies to young medical cannabis patients; the basis for medical cannabis recommendations among young adults in Los Angeles, including the role of criminal justice issues; and the influence of medical marijuana on patterns of use among young non-medical users, including the problem of drug diversion.

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