Researchers D. Mark Anderson, Daniel I. Rees, and Joseph J. Sabia have updated their groundbreaking work from 2012 showing that the passage of medical marijuana laws reduces the incidence of suicide in those states. Their latest brief, “High on Life? Medical Marijuana Laws and Suicide” published by the Cato Institute, reveals some amazing statistics.
The researchers note that many foes of medical marijuana base their opposition on the notion that “marijuana use increases the likelihood of depression, anxiety, psychosis, and schizophrenia” and “that the negative effects of marijuana are long-lasting and that users are at risk of suffering from decreased psychological well-being later in life.” Data also show that among those who commit suicide, over 90% have a diagnosable mental illness or substance use disorder.
So the question for the researchers was whether increased access to marijuana leads to the factors of mental illness and substance abuse that should increase suicide rates.The answer, they found, was quite the opposite.
“When we examine the relationship between legalization and suicides by gender and age, we find evidence that [medical marijuana laws] are associated with decreased suicides among 20- through 29-year-old males and among 30- through 39-year-old males. This result is consistent with registry data from Arizona, Colorado, and Montana showing that most medical marijuana patients are male, and that roughly half are under the age of 40. Estimates of the relationship between legalization and suicides among females are less precise and sensitive to functional form.”
How marijuana access reduces young male suicide rates isn’t quite clear, however. The authors note that many people claim that marijuana use helps men cope with the anxiety and stress of difficult life events, but a confounder to that claim is the fact that alcohol consumption among these young males also decreases where states pass medical marijuana laws.
Unexamined by the research is whether access to medical marijuana is reducing or eliminating the use of commonly-prescribed anti-depressants, those selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) that carry the dreaded “black box warning” of the risk of suicidal thoughts as a side-effect. Another consideration might be the positive effect sufferers of post-traumatic stress, particularly young male military veterans, are gaining from medical marijuana use.
The authors point out that “the association between legalizing medical marijuana and suicides was not statistically significant” for the entire population, but among men aged 20-39, the risk dropped an astounding 10.8%. Exactly how this is happening will be the subject of future research.