Research: Blowing Minds

Detangling the highs and lows of cannabis for brain health

Paralleling the worldwide changes towards more lenient cannabis policies, many researchers like us have tried to gain a better understanding of the health impact of cannabis. Our initial studies showed the resemblance in the neurobiology underlying cannabis use disorders (CUD) compared to other substance use disorders and the importance of culture-specific factors in shaping CUD.
Despite these significant findings, CUD is still often ignored as a true addiction. There are currently no treatments specifically developed for CUD and there are no prevention programs specifically directed towards cannabis use in the Netherlands.  This sharply contrasts with the treatment demands, as CUD is the most requested treatment within substance use disorders for both youths and young adults globally.
We strongly believe that the black and white societal and scientific debate between cannabis harms or benefits poses a public health risk, significantly hindering scientific progress. We advocate a paradigm shift that moves beyond seeing cannabis as either good or bad. Embracing the mixed effects of cannabis on brain health, with support of the NWO-VIDI, we are conducting a milestone cross-cultural project to guide the calibration and interpretation of the existing evidence base. The overarching goal is to disentangle the objective and subjective interplay between cannabis use, mental wellbeing, and (neuro)cognition, and to delineate the role of user characteristics, including method and product of use, reasons for use, and cultural context. At its core is a two-year longitudinal smartphone study in medical and recreational users across opposing cannabis jurisdictions that will identify central determinants of cannabis’ short-term daily-life and long-term positive and negative reciprocal associations with mental wellbeing and cognition. Moreover, perceptions of cannabis’ positive and negative effects will be compared between users, the general public, cannabis scientists, and health professionals. All data from this project will be openly available for other scientists and we will develop a tool for users to visualize their expected effects from cannabis use based on key user characteristics and data from the project. Ultimately, this project will uncover i) long sought knowledge about the positive and negative interplay between cannabis use and brain health, and ii) key discrepancies between subjective and objective effects that will iii) guide cannabis users, researchers, healthcare professionals, and policy makers on a national and international level.