40% of current cannabis users score positive for disorder

40% of current cannabis users score positive for disorder

The study, conducted by health experts in University College Cork and the Health Research Board, suggests that the findings should be considered in the ongoing debate about the liberalisation of cannabis laws. Picture: Getty

Four out of ten current users of cannabis score positive for a cannabis use disorder, new research has found.

The study, conducted by health experts in University College Cork (UCC) and the Health Research Board (HRB), suggests that the findings should be considered in the debate about the liberalisation of cannabis laws.

The study, reported in the European Journal of Public Health, said that being young, male, and of a lower level of education was “significantly related” to having cannabis-use disorder (CUD).

The research was authored by academics in both UCC and the HRB and was led by Dr Sean Millar, School of Public Health, UCC.

The study was based on a large sample, from national drug-prevalence surveys in 2010-2011 (5,134 people) and 2014-2015 (7,005 people).

It found that 18% of people aged over 15 had tried cannabis, with 3% taking it in the last year (recent use) and 3% in the past month (current use).

The study said cannabis-use disorder (CUD) is a new term, replacing terms such as cannabis addiction, cannabis dependence, or cannabis abuse.

The results showed:

  • Four out of ten (41.3%) of current users scored positive for a CUD — either cannabis abuse or dependence;

  • One in four (24%) of recent users also scored positive for a CUD. The study found that young people, those aged 15-24, were four times more likely to have a CUD among current users.

Those educated to just primary school level were almost four times more likely to have the disorder and males were twice as likely as females to be positive for it.

"Factors associated with both recent and current cannabis use included younger age, not having dependent children, and current use of tobacco or alcohol," said the report.

“Male sex, younger age, and lower educational attainment were significantly related to having a CUD.”

 The report said the findings on males and young people were consistent with research abroad.

It said the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction had found that nearly all member states had indicated that 75% or more of cannabis-treatment entrants were male.

"Importantly, early initiation and regular cannabis use in adolescence has been found to be associated with numerous negative health outcomes, including CUD, use of other illicit substances, and mental-health problems," the report said.

It said the high prevalence of CUD among current users was "concerning, but not unexpected" and said health professionals "should have a high level of suspicion" regarding the possibility of a CUD, where current use is reported.

In relation to young people with lower education and poorer employment levels, it said: "In situations where young people do not have the capacity to make transitions to higher status, they may become trapped in peer groups where cannabis use becomes a central focus." The study references the debate around liberalisation of cannabis and said further research on decriminalisation and legalisation was needed.

"In conclusion, the results from this study suggest that a high percentage of current cannabis users are at risk of cannabis abuse or dependence," the report said.

"Given the potential public-health implications of cannabis legalisation, it is imperative that valid and reliable information on cannabis use, CUD, and cannabis-related harm is collected in Ireland, and other countries, to ensure that the impact of any changes arising from cannabis legalisation can be accurately measured." 

Dr Bobby Smyth, one of the co-authors, said: "The results confirm the relatively high frequency of cannabis-use disorders amongst the largely young population of people who use cannabis. The patterns to emerge indicate higher risks for male users and this reflects what we see in addiction treatment services, where about 80% of people being treated for a cannabis-use disorder are males."

The consultant child  and adolescent psychiatrist, who works in adolescent addiction treatment services in Dublin, added: "In adolescent addiction treatment services across the country, cannabis is far and away the most common substance causing people to need treatment in the past three-to-four years." 

  • HSE helpline, 1800 459 459, and email helpline@hse.ie 

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