The use of marijuana has been a contentious issue for decades, with its legality attracting a lot of debate. Arguments have been made for marijuana’s medicinal properties. Still, as its use has become more prevalent, a new study by Washington State University suggests suicide rates associated with marijuana overdoses have steadily increased over the past decade.
The study, which analyzed data from the National Poison Data System, showed a 17% yearly increase in reports of suicidal people poisoned by using too much cannabis between 2009 and 2021. The researchers recorded nearly 18,700 cases of suicidal behavior associated with cannabis poisoning during the study period. The findings were recently published online in JAMA Network Open.
Co-researcher Tracy Klein, an associate professor of nursing at Washington State University College of Nursing in Vancouver, said, “[m]arijuana poisoning involves using cannabis in the quantity or of the potency to create symptoms distressing enough to require medical attention and/or a phone call to a poison center.”
The majority of these cases (96%) involved using cannabis along with another substance, like alcohol, benzodiazepines, or other drugs. Approximately 10% of these cases resulted in fatal outcomes or caused significant physical harm, disfigurement, or disability.
The data indicates an increase in suicidal behavior linked to marijuana overdoses across all ages. However, suicide attempts tied to marijuana poisonings doubled among children aged between five to thirteen years. In recent years, the data showed that these rates increased from 1.3% in 2019 to 3.1% in 2021.
Conversely, seniors aged 65 and above were most likely to die or experience adverse outcomes related to a marijuana-related suicide attempt.
While the underlying reasons for this increase remain unclear, some speculate that people could be misusing multiple substances simultaneously while having pre-existing conditions like depression and anxiety that could be exacerbated by substance abuse.
However, the study does counter previous research suggesting that suicide rates tend to decrease in states that legalize marijuana. Reports show that the legalization of medical or recreational marijuana reduces suicide rates. As the deputy director of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), Paul Armentano, points out, “it is well-established that some people suffering from mood disorders self-medicate with cannabis, with varying degrees of success. As a result, some suicidal people consume cannabis, but cannabis consumption doesn’t lead one to suicide.”
The Partnership to End Addiction suggests that marijuana use can exacerbate underlying mental health problems. Vice President of Consumer Clinical Content Development, Pat Aussem, states that the study builds upon previous research highlighting the relationship between cannabis use, depression, and suicidal ideation.
Cannabis provides immediate relief for depressive symptoms; however, these symptoms tend to worsen over time, says Aussem. Studies show that people with depression who continue to use cannabis throughout treatment show less improvement in mental health symptoms than individuals with depression who do not use cannabis during treatment.