Scott E. Hadland, MD, MPH,1,2 John R. Knight, MD,1,3 and Sion K. Harris, PhD1,2,3
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The publisher's final edited version of this article is available at J Dev Behav Pediatr
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Marijuana policy is rapidly evolving in the United States and elsewhere, with cannabis sales fully legalized and regulated in some jurisdictions and use of the drug for medicinal purposes permitted in many others. Amidst this political change, patients and families are increasingly asking whether cannabis and its derivatives may have therapeutic utility for a number of conditions, including developmental and behavioral disorders in children and adolescents. This review examines the epidemiology of cannabis use among children and adolescents, including those with developmental and behavioral diagnoses. It then outlines the increasingly well-recognized neurocognitive changes shown to occur in adolescents who use cannabis regularly, highlighting the unique susceptibility of the developing adolescent brain and describing the role of the endocannabinoid system in normal neurodevelopment. The review then discusses some of the proposed uses of cannabis in developmental and behavioral conditions, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Throughout, the review outlines gaps in current knowledge and highlights directions for future research, especially in light of a dearth of studies specifically examining neurocognitive and psychiatric outcomes among children and adolescents with developmental and behavioral concerns exposed to cannabis
Given the current scarcity of data, cannabis cannot be safely recommended for the treatment of developmental or behavioral disorders at this time. At best, some might consider its use as a last-line therapy when all other conventional therapies have failed.92,93 As marijuana policy evolves and as the drug becomes more readily available, it is important that practicing clinicians recognize the long-term health and neuropsychiatric consequences of regular use. Although a decades-long public health campaign has showcased the harms of cigarette smoking, similar movements to illustrate the hazards of cannabis use have not been as rigorous or successful. As a result, accurate information on regular cannabis use remains poorly disseminated to patients, families and physicians. Further, there are especially few studies examining neurocognitive and psychiatric outcomes among children and adolescents with developmental or behavioral concerns who are exposed to cannabis, and this remains a critical area for future study. In coming to the decision to use marijuana for medicinal purposes, all parties should be fully aware of the long-term hazards of regular cannabis use, recognize the lack of evidence on its efficacy in developmental and behavioral conditions, and incorporate this information into a careful risk-benefit analysis.
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