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Medical Cannabis and Its Ties to Suicide Prevention

In the immediate aftermath of Robin Williams' death in August, many people asked why a person so successful and who brought happiness to so many would take his own life. Revelations that he was struggling with Parkinson’s partially answered some of those questions, while also highlighting how much a difference appropriate treatment may make.

Medical cannabis may not have averted Robin William’s death, but increasing access to medical cannabis and enhanced understanding of the breadth of its potential efficacy as a treatment for numerous diseases or conditions – including Parkinson’s – has helped many people carry on who might otherwise have done as he did.

A comprehensive study of state-by-state statistics on suicide over the 17-year span from 1990 to 2007 found that in the three years following the passage of medical cannabis legislation, the suicide rate for men in their 20s and 30s dropped by roughly 10 percent. The team of economists who conducted the analysis suggested that “marijuana can be used to cope with stressful life events,” but that’s only part of the possible explanation.

Depression is a common symptom of not just Parkinson’s but many other serious medical conditions, particularly those that entail chronic pain. SSRIs and other conventional antidepressants have a mixed record in treating depression. Many people living with mood disorders report achieving better results with medical cannabis, or “green Prozac,” as it is sometimes called. The mild euphoria and anti-anxiety effects of cannabis can soften symptoms for some people with an immediacy other medications lack.

People living with chronic pain, depression, or both are more likely than others to use alcohol, opiate drugs, or a combination to manage their symptoms. Use of alcohol or opiates is linked to a substantially increased risk of suicide; 90 percent of people who commit suicide are battling depression, substance abuse, or both.

On average, states with medical cannabis laws have seen a 25% decrease in overdose deaths from opiate drugs, with a consistent trend line showing fewer deaths the longer the laws are in effect. The reduction in fatal overdoses is immediate at about 20 percent and hits one-third after five years. Many of those overdoses were unintentional, but it is a blurry continuum from unintentional to acting with reckless disregard for the potential risks to outright suicide.

Similarly, alcohol use correlates with an increased risk of suicide, with several studies showing that policies that limit availability of alcohol or increase the severity of DUI penalties reduce the suicide rate. Medical cannabis is an effective substitute for alcohol for many people, with far fewer serious side effects. After states pass medical marijuana laws, there is typically a sharp reduction in alcohol-related traffic fatalities, self-reported alcohol use, and per-capita beer sales. The Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System has found a 25 percent decrease in alcohol use for men 20-29 years of age.

All that adds up to yet more reasons why medical cannabis should be available as a legal medication everywhere in the country. Far from being a dangerous drug, it’s one that can save lives.


This post from Americans for Safe Access was written by William Dolphin, who has written extensively about the medical use of cannabis and has contributed to the work of Americans for Safe Access for more than a decade. He is on the faculty at University of Redlands and has taught at the University of California Berkeley and other schools.