Marijuana Usage and the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Laura Stack

In recent years, we’ve seen gradual increases in marijuana use among the younger segments of the population, including adolescents and tweens. This may be linked to the increased legalization and decriminalization of marijuana across the United States, and the associated perception that it’s not an especially dangerous drug. Initially, marijuana usage rates had been decreasing in the 1980s through the early 2000s but the drop began to reverse in the wake of legalization.

Grassroots efforts like Johnny’s Ambassadors and our alliance organizations are yelling loudly about the harms of adolescent marijuana use. Increased education, rising awareness about the dangers of modern “hard” marijuana, and perhaps a greater wariness on the part of our young people has started to take hold. In recent years, this may have helped to curtail at least some of the influence of the burgeoning Big Marijuana industry, leading to hopes that we can save more of our young people from the thrall of addiction and mental illness despite the onward march of legal federalized marijuana.

The events of the year 2020, however, have chopped us off at the knees a bit. Early in the year, the COVID-19 epidemic struck, trapping us in our homes. The political unrest of the last two months of the year may have worsened the already-high levels of stress in our nation, which resulted in more people seeking substances like marijuana as a way to self-medicate and relax. All indications are that by the time measures have been compiled for 2020’s annus horribilis, marijuana usage will have spiked to a point not seen in decades. We can only hope this is short-term change. I’ve often wondered how Johnny would have fared during COVID, and I can’t imagine it would be good. In a weird way, I’m glad he didn’t have to deal with it.

Nothing to do, nowhere to go

The emergence of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus has resulted in widespread public-area shutdowns, local and state lockdowns, quarantines, school closures, and job layoffs, forcing most Americans to stay at home for months at a time with few breaks. Vacations are a no-go. Not since the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919 and the polio outbreaks of the early and mid-20th century have Americans been forced to shelter in place for such long periods. Our recent lockdowns haven’t been as extreme as these historical ones, though; and unlike our forefathers, we have plenty of electronic distractions and technology that allows easy communication.

Sadly, another thing we have that they didn’t is easy access to marijuana.

Cannabis researchers have observed a marked increase in marijuana use since the onset of the pandemic. This is likely due to the “idle hands” effect and an increase in stress and anxiety. The latter arises from several factors, varying depending on the individual: enforced isolation, unemployment, and economic hardship, and political unrest.

As the year closed out, reports of an increase in mental illness and marijuana use began to appear in journals and the national media. There’s also been a poignant note, reported in November, that makes the news even more depressing:  Cannabis Use Disorder, which afflicts at least one in five long-term marijuana users, may increase the risk of COVID-19 hospitalization. The researchers who published this hypothesis argue that vulnerability to CUD and COVID may overlap in the human genome, indicating that the purported vulnerabilities share some of the same genes. However, this conclusion remains tentative, and the study has not yet been peer-reviewed.

The rise

Medical and recreational marijuana users alike have begun to use significantly more marijuana to cope with stress caused by the pandemic. As a medical marijuana research group noted, “Those with mental health conditions reported increased medicinal cannabis use by 91% since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic compared to those with no mental health conditions.” Most of the study group (N=1202) consisted of white, non-Hispanic middle-aged individuals, with a slight preponderance of men. About 16% of the users shifted to non-smoked products.

Several reports and polls have noted a rise in recreational marijuana sales. As reported in Forbes magazine, a poll of 850 people by marijuana retailer Ganja Goddess revealed that its doubling in business over the past year has been driven mostly by individuals using marijuana to manage sleep and anxiety issues caused by pandemic worries. On a more academic note, researchers at Dalhousie University in Canada have observed that self-isolation and loneliness since the beginning of the pandemic resulted in a 20% increase in marijuana use among a sample of 70 young adults. This study focused on people already using pre-pandemic.

Another study of 1,050 adolescents revealed that while the use of most illicit substances decreased in the sample group after the pandemic declaration, marijuana use increased significantly. Most of this was solitary use, though 32% used with peers via technology, and 24% still engaged in face-to-face usage.

The post-COVID cannabis legacy

It’s hard to say how the pandemic-fueled increase in cannabis use will affect our nation post-COVID. While some sources expect (or in the case of Ganja Goddess, want) the increase to be permanent, it may drop off as the strain caused by the pandemic eases. We’re certainly not going to cease in our efforts to blunt the growth of marijuana use; nor will our allies. Hopefully, 2020 will stand as an anomaly with its spike in usage.

It’s possible, however, that even a temporary spike will strain medical facilities post- COVID, and the effects will worsen if the increase becomes permanent. Long-term marijuana use causes or intensifies a host of physical and mental illnesses, especially in adolescent users, many of which require some level of medical care. These include anxiety and panic attacks; depression; paranoia; psychosis; increased risk of schizophrenia and suicidal thought and behavior; marijuana toxicity; chronic bronchitis symptoms; cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome (CHS); lung damage; heart disease;  cancer; and pregnancy complications. Furthermore, most cases of the newly defined disease called EVALI (e-cigarette or vaping product-use associated lung injury) have been found to be caused by contaminated THC vape solutions.

If we’re lucky, the new COVID vaccine will put a quick end to the current pandemic. But it pays to learn from what happened after the Spanish flu and polio outbreaks. Even after the illnesses were beaten, our nation took a while to recover—medically, socially, and spiritually. The rise of marijuana use will be just one aspect of our national recovery this time, but temporary or not, we can’t afford to let it fall between the cracks.

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