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Network Matters
News and Information for the
Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Network

June 2017

Biological Effects of Cannabis and Detriments to Adolescent Development


With marijuana becoming legalized in more states for medical and recreational purposes, many patients have questions about the potential medicinal benefits of the drug, as well as the harmful effects it may have. While cannabis shows promise as an appetite stimulant in AIDS patients, and for the treatment of things like glaucoma, muscle spasticity, chronic pain, chemotherapy-induced nausea, epilepsy, and more, it has many potential associated health and biological risks — particularly in children and adolescents.

Increased unintended availability of marijuana to young people is a common concern associated with its legalization. There is much debate surrounding the legitimacy of many of the claims related to the harmful effects of cannabis, but research seems to point to the fact that frequent cannabis use during adolescence or early adulthood may lead to impaired brain development and a long-term drop in neuropsychological functioning. 

It is clear that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a chemical found in cannabis, can impair certain functions (e.g., attention, memory, learning, decision making) in the short term, and heavy cannabis use is often associated with things like poor school performance. But beyond its immediate effects, some studies have shown that persistent use during adolescence can continue to affect cognitive function and even IQ later in life. For people in their teens and even early or mid-20s, the brain is still developing, and may be more sensitive to repeated exposure to drugs like THC.

It is unclear whether impaired brain function from cannabis use beginning in adolescence can recover over time. There is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the long-term health and biological effects of cannabis use, but in any event, patients prescribed cannabis in any form should be careful to keep the drug out of the hands of their children, adolescents/teens, or young adults.

How Optum/UBH can help your patients — For complex clinical situations, Optum/UBH is available to provide consultative assistance. Practitioners can call the Optum/UBH Physicians Consultation Service at 800-292-2922. To refer a patient for behavioral health services and to facilitate the coordination of care, call Optum at 888-777-4742.

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