In a new study, using marijuana to treat pain, anxiety, and depression doubled the risk of developing cannabis use disorder. In this Verywell Mind article, Mindpath Health’s Julian Lagoy, MD, discussed the importance of monitoring its use.

Medical marijuana use continues to be decriminalized across the country, as marijuana is now legal for medical use in 38 states. A new study published found that marijuana use to treat pain, anxiety, and depression doubled the risk of developing Cannabis Use Disorder (CUD).

This research found that individuals who used medical marijuana for anxiety and depressive symptoms were at the greatest risk of developing CUD, while it failed to treat those mental health conditions or pain.

Understanding the research

This randomized clinical trial provided immediate acquisition of a medical marijuana card (rather than waiting and assessing the client for fit over a 12-week period) increased the incidence and severity of CUD, with minimal improvement with pain, anxiety, or depression.

Researchers found that participants did report improved sleep, but recommend further investigation of medical marijuana regarding the risk of developing CUD.

Physician oversight can support beneficial medical marijuana use

Julian Lagoy, MD, a psychiatrist with Mindpath Health, says, “We should be more careful about distributing medical marijuana for those who are using it for depression, anxiety, and pain.”

“Cannabis has a very relaxing effect on the body which can be beneficial for anxiety,” Dr. Lagoy says. “Cannabis also increases dopamine in the brain which helps one feel pleasure, and this is why it is used to treat depression.”

To prevent CUD, Dr. Lagoy recommends more regulation and oversight from treating physicians.

“Cannabis, just like any medication, needs to be distributed safely in order to have maximum benefit,” Dr. Lagoy says. “If we let those who use cannabis choose their dose and strain, it is more likely to be misused.”

Dr. Lagoy notes that physicians need to think twice about recommending cannabis to treat anxiety, depression, and pain. Marijuana, like many medications, can be most beneficial when prescribed safely with physician oversight; however, they can be abused and lead to problems if they are not used correctly.

Having had patients benefit from marijuana, Dr. Lagoy emphasizes the need for physician oversight to minimize the risk of developing CUD.

Assessing whether cannabis treatment may be appropriate

Matt Glowiak, PhD, LCPC, a therapist and advanced addiction specialist who is an expert in addiction, substance and alcohol abuse, recovery and treatment, explains, “When administering cannabis to an individual, it is important to consider one’s physiology, the extent of the diagnosable condition for which it is being prescribed, one’s addiction potential/history of substance use, and what would prove an efficacious dose.”

If administered and taken as intended, the likelihood of positive outcomes increases, but if not, further problems can arise, especially when providing a medical marijuana card immediately.

Glowiak highlights that although cannabis is less dangerous than many other substances, it still poses risk, especially for those who seek a “high” and continue to use cannabis while integrating other drugs and/or alcohol.

Addiction may stem from avoiding pain

Hailey Shafir, LCMHCS, LPCS, LCAS, CCS, an addiction specialist who specializes in addiction, recovery, psychedelic therapy, and trauma, says, “This study is further proof that addiction is more about avoiding pain than it is about seeking pleasure.”

Shafir explains that most people who develop addictions have been using drugs or alcohol to escape some form of physical or psychological pain, instead of for social, recreational, or enjoyment purposes.

Prior research on addictive disorders confirms a heightened risk for addiction in people who use a substance to cope with physical or psychological pain, as opposed to recreational users.

Since both physical and emotional pain, as linked to chronic health or mental health issues, can cause additional stress, it can cause people to develop a physical or psychological dependence on a drug.

Shafir explains, “When people consider that addiction is more about avoiding or escaping pain than seeking pleasure, it helps to reduce some of the stigmas against ‘addicts’ in society, who are often people trying to cope with stress or symptoms of a physical or mental health disorder.”

Read the full Verywell Mind article with sources.


Julian Lagoy, M.D.

San Jose, CA

Julian Lagoy, M.D. is a board-certified psychiatrist. He received his bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his medical degree from St. George’s University. Dr. Lagoy completed his psychiatry residency at Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. Dr. Lagoy has published in multiple medical journals and has presented his research at the American Psychiatric Association National ... Read Full Bio »

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