Category: Substance Use

Spike in Traffic Crashes and Fatalities from Marijuana Legalisation

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US States that legalised recreational marijuana saw a subsequent increase in traffic crashes and fatalities, researchers reported in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

“The legalisation of marijuana doesn’t come without cost,” stated lead researcher Charles M. Farmer, PhD, of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Dr Farmer and colleagues’ analysis of five states that allow the recreational use of marijuana for adults age 21 and older revealed a 5.8% increase in the rate of traffic crash injuries and a 4.1% increase in fatal crash rates after legalisation and the onset of retail sales. At the same time, there was no increase in a comparison group of states which did not legalise marijuana.

The injury crash rate jumped after legalisation but before retail sales began. Traffic crash injuries rose 6.5% after legalisation but decreased slightly (-0.7%) after retail sales commenced. However, fatal crash rates increased both after legalisation (+2.3%) and after retail sales were authorised (+1.8%).

“Legalisation removes the stigma of marijuana use, while the onset of retail sales merely increases access,” explained Dr Farmer. “But access to marijuana isn’t difficult, even in places without retail sales. Users who previously avoided driving high may feel that it’s okay after legalisation.”

Marijuana legalisation’s stronger relationship with traffic crash injuries, rather than fatalities, may be due to how some drivers compensate when impaired by marijuana. Often, drivers under the influence of marijuana slow down and maintain a larger distance between themselves and other vehicles. A crash may be harder to avoid while impaired, but the lower-speed crashes that occur may be less likely to be fatal.

The authors note that earlier studies involving driving simulators have shown marijuana use to affect reaction time, road tracking, lane keeping and attention. However, Farmer notes that the current study is correlational, and increased marijuana use itself is likely not the sole cause of the increases seen.

“Studies looking for a direct causal link between marijuana use and crash risk have been inconclusive,” he says. “Unlike alcohol, there is no good objective measure of just how impaired a marijuana user has become. Until we can accurately measure marijuana impairment, we won’t be able to link it to crash risk.”

The researchers collected data on traffic crashes and traffic volume for 2009–2019 from 11 states and from the Federal Highway Administration. During the study period, five states had legalised recreational marijuana while a comparison group of six states did not. The authors statistically adjusted for factors known to contribute to crashes and fatalities, including seat belt use and unemployment rate.

In the states that legalised cannabis, changes in injury crash rates varied: Colorado had the biggest jump (+17.8%) and California the smallest (+5.7%) after both legalisation and the onset of retail sales. Nevada’s rate decreased (-6.7%). For fatal crashes, increases occurred in Colorado (+1.4%) and Oregon (3.8%), but decreases were found in Washington (-1.9%), California (-7.6%) and Nevada (-9.8%).

Farmer points out that states considering marijuana legalisation should consider a few steps to help forestall a potential increase in crashes. “First, convince everyone that driving under the influence of marijuana is not okay,” he says. “Then, enact laws and sanctions penalising those who ignore the message. Finally, make sure you have the resources (ie, staffing and training) to enforce these laws and sanctions.”

Source: EurekAlert!

Greater Hospitalisation or ED Visit Risk for Cannabis Users

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Compared to non-users, cannabis users have 22% higher rates in emergency department (ED) visits and hospitalisations, according to new research findings. The study, published in BMJ Open Respiratory Research revealed that serious physical injury and respiratory-reasons were the two leading causes of ED visits and hospitalisations among cannabis users.

The findings suggest an association between cannabis use and negative health events, which the researchers say should underline the need to educate and remind the public of the harmful impacts of cannabis on health.

“Our research demonstrates that cannabis use in the general population is associated with heightened risk of clinically serious negative outcomes, specifically, needing to present to the ED or be admitted to hospital,” said Dr Nicholas Vozoris, lead author, a respirologist at St. Michael’s and an associate scientist at the hospital’s Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute.

“Unlike tobacco, there is some uncertainty or controversy regarding the adverse health impacts of cannabis. Some individuals may perceive that cannabis has some health benefits and is otherwise benign. Our research highlights to those using – or considering to use – cannabis, that this behaviour is associated with important negative health events.”

To compare health outcomes among cannabis users and individuals who don’t use cannabis, researchers used data collected in a survey of individuals who self-reported cannabis use and linked it with health administrative data for Ontario residents.

Using propensity score matching, researchers compared the health outcomes of nearly 4800 individuals who reported any cannabis use in the preceding 12 months with the health outcomes of over 10 000 individuals never-users, or having used cannabis only once and more than 12 months ago. Researchers incorporated 31 different variables while matching study participants to minimise an unfair comparison, including demographics, multiple physical and mental health diseases, and tobacco, alcohol and illicit drug use.

The study’s main aim was to see if there was a link between cannabis use and respiratory-related hospitalisation or ED visits. No significant associations were found between cannabis use and respiratory-related ED visits, hospitalisations, or death from any cause. However, they did find that overall visits to the ED or hospitalisations for any reason was significantly higher among cannabis users.

In addition to having greater odds of ED visits or hospitalisation, the findings show that one of every 25 cannabis users will go to the emergency department (ED) or be admitted to hospital within a year of using cannabis.

Among the reasons for ED visits or hospitalisations of cannabis users, acute trauma was the most common, with 15% of cannabis users who got medical attention receiving it for this reason, and 14% receiving care for respiratory reasons.

“The results of our research support that health care professionals and government should discourage recreational cannabis consumption in the general population,” noted Dr Vozoris.

Source: EurekAlert!

Researchers Uncover ‘Copycat’ Cannabis Edibles

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NYU School of Global Public Health researchers have found that some cannabis edibles have a striking resemblance to popular snack foods such as Doritos, and may be easily confused for them, especially by young children, finds a new study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

These “copycat” edibles also have levels of the psychoactive ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol or THC that far exceed the limits set by cannabis regulations in US states.

“At first glance, most of the packages look almost exactly like familiar snacks. If these copycat cannabis products are not stored safely, there is the potential for accidental ingestion by children or adults,” said Associate Professor Danielle Ompad, lead author of the study.

Edibles are a popular and growing segment of the cannabis market. In states where cannabis use is legal, more than half (56%) of cannabis users consume edibles.

Some edibles that use similar branding and imagery to mimic popular snack foods have been highlighted by the media. These copycat cannabis products are a public health concern given that people – including children – could mistake them for snacks and accidentally consume them. From 2017 to 2019, US Poison Control Centers handled nearly 2000 cases of young children ages 0 to 9 consuming edibles.

To gain a deeper understanding of copycat edibles, the researchers collected hundreds of photos of cannabis products and analysed their packaging, including branding, names, imagery, and THC content. Looking at the photos for 267 edibles, they found that 8% (22 photos) closely resembled 13 different snack products.

Twelve of the products were candies or sweet snacks (fruit chews, fruit snacks, rice and marshmallow treats, and gummies) and one was a salty snack (chips). Eight of the 13 packages used the exact brand or product name of the original product; the remaining five used names that were similar (for instance, “Stoner Patch Dummies” instead of “Sour Patch Kids”). Seven of the packages used the same cartoon or brand character as the original product.

Most US states that have legalised cannabis limit the amount of THC in edibles, generally 5–10mg of THC per dose and 100mg per package. According to the packaging information, these edibles contained an average of 459mg of THC with a range of 300 to 600 mg per package, far exceeding the maximum limits.

“While each package is likely intended to include multiple doses, few packages indicate the serving size or number of servings,” said Dr Ompad. “Moreover, if we’re considering 10mg a standard dose, these products could contain an alarming 30 to 60 doses per package.”

The findings highlight the risk that these copycat products could be attractive to children, given the colourful packaging and use of familiar branding and characters.

“Policies to prevent cannabis packaging from appealing to children haven’t stopped copycat products from entering the market — nor have food brands taking legal action against cannabis companies for copyright infringement,” said Dr Ompad. “People who purchase edibles that look like snack foods should store them separately from regular snacks and out of reach of children.”

Source: New York University

Carrying Naloxone in EDs Could Save Lives

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In a study published in JAMA Network Open, researchers found that after a visit to the ED, many opioid overdose patients carried naloxone, which helps reverse opioid overdoses, which could save their lives in the event of a future overdose.

About 70% of current overdose deaths in the US involve opioids, which means that many of them could be prevented with naloxone. Naloxone is an opioid antagonist, blocking the effect of opioids in overdoses and able to save lives when used in time. It is easy to carry and use, and studies have demonstrated that laypeople can administer it safely and effectively to reverse overdoses.

However the people most likely to witness an overdose, including opioid users and their friends and relatives, may not be able to easily obtain naloxone. Strategies are needed to increase uptake, carrying, and administration of naloxone, especially among at-risk individuals in the community who may not be engaged in routine health care or with community naloxone distribution efforts.

Many at-risk individuals find themselves in the emergency departments (ED), either because of an overdose or other complications of substance use. The Perelman School of Medicine’s Anish Agarwal, an assistant professor of emergency medicine, and Margaret Lowenstein, an assistant professor of medicine, recently examined the potential for ED visits as a critical, reachable moment to engage high-risk individuals in overdose prevention. The team reached out to at-risk patients prescribed naloxone in the ED to understand whether they had obtained their naloxone during or after their ED visit, whether they were carrying it, and their plans to carry it in the future.

The survey asked patients about their experiences and perceptions following the ED encounter related to accessing, using, and carrying naloxone. Most of the patients did not carry naloxone prior to their ED, yet over a third reported having a personal history of an overdose requiring naloxone, and more than a quarter had used naloxone to reverse an overdose for another person in the past. Approximately half of the patients said that they were carrying naloxone after their ED visit, and two-thirds planned to continue carrying. And of patients not carrying naloxone prior to their ED visit, 54% reported a plan to continue carrying it in the future.

Source: University of Pennsylvania

Access to Medical Marijuana Increases Risks for Abuse

Cannabis plants
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A study found that access to medical marijuana to treat pain, anxiety, or depression symptoms led to cannabis use disorder (CUD) in a significant minority of individuals while failing to improve their symptoms. The Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) study was published in JAMA Network Open. 

In the US, individuals are able to gain access to cannabis products using medical marijuana cards (MMCs), usually issued by a doctor. Researchers found the greatest risk of developing the addictive symptoms of CUD was in those seeking relief from anxiety and depression. This finding indicates the need for stronger safeguards over the dispensing, use, and professional follow-up of people who legally obtain cannabis through MMCs.

“There have been many claims about the benefits of medical marijuana for treating pain, insomnia, anxiety and depression, without sound scientific evidence to support them,” said lead author Jodi Gilman, PhD, with the Center for Addiction Medicine at MGH. “In this first study of patients randomised to obtain medical marijuana cards, we learned there can be negative consequences to using cannabis for medical purposes. People with pain, anxiety or depression symptoms failed to report any improvements, though those with insomnia experienced improved sleep.”

Dr Gilman was particularly disturbed by the fact that individuals with symptoms of anxiety or depression – the most common conditions which people seek medical cannabis for – were the ones most vulnerable to developing cannabis use disorder. CUD symptoms include a vicious circle of needing more cannabis because of growing tolerance, and seeking out cannabis to treat the psychological problems it causes.

“Medical” cannabis has surged in popularity in the US, as so far 36 of its 50 states have commercialised its use for myriad health conditions through medical marijuana cards. These cards require written approval of a licensed physician who, under the current system, is often not the patient’s primary care provider but rather a ‘cannabis doctor’ who may provide authorisation to patients with only a cursory examination, no recommendations for alternative treatments, and no follow-up. The medical marijuana industry effectively functions outside the regulations that apply to most fields of medicine.

The researchers started their trial in 2017 with 269 adults (average age of 37) who were interested in obtaining a medical marijuana card. One group was allowed to get MMCs immediately, while the second group, designed to serve as a control, was asked to wait 12 weeks before obtaining a card. Both groups were tracked over 12 weeks. The team found that the odds of developing CUD were nearly two times higher in the MMC cohort than in the wait list control group, and that by week 12, 10% of the MMC group had developed a CUD diagnosis, with the number rising to 20% in those seeking a card for anxiety or depression.

“Our study underscores the need for better decision-making about whether to begin to use cannabis for specific medical complaints, particularly mood and anxiety disorders, which are associated with an increased risk of cannabis use disorder,” said Dr Gilman. Regulation and distribution of cannabis to people with medical marijuana cards needs to be greatly improved, no matter the specific condition they are issued for. “There needs to be better guidance to patients around a system that currently allows them to choose their own products, decide their own dosing, and often receive no professional follow-up care.”

Source: Massachusetts General Hospital

LSD Microdosing Study Shows no Benefit

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Published in Addiction Biology, a study into the effects of LSD “microdosing” found no evidence to back up proponents’ claims that it can improve mood and cognitive function. 

The study’s lead author, Chicago University Professor Harriet de Wit, noted that the study doesn’t disprove microdosing’s possible benefits, and that more investigation is needed. The study does show that taking small doses of LSD is safe. Prof De Wit said the findings demonstrate the important role clinicians can play when it comes to therapeutics claims about recreational drugs.

“These drugs are already being used out in the world, and it’s important for us to test them under controlled conditions, ensure their safety and see whether there’s some validity to the benefits people claim,” she said. “That’s something that has been missing from the conversation.”

The researchers studied the effects of four repeated low doses of LSD, administered under lab conditions every three to four days. One group of participants received 13 micrograms of the drug, a second group received 26 micrograms, and the third received a placebo. To put these low doses into context, the doses of LSD that are used to “trip” or to get high are typically 100–200 micrograms, she said.

LSD was chosen for the study because it’s the most commonly used psychedelic drug in microdosing.

Participants received the drugs during five-hour, supervised laboratory sessions. They also attended a drug-free follow-up session three to four days after the last dose. Participants were not told what kind of drug was being tested in the study – whether it was a stimulant, a tranquiliser or a hallucinogen – or that the study was about microdosing.

“We removed any expectations that this was a psychedelic drug,” Prof de Wit explained. “Because in the real world, people’s expectations can strongly influence their responses.”

To assess their mood and mental performance, the participants completed cognitive and emotional tasks both during the drug administration sessions and at the drug-free follow-up session. Some participants who received the higher dose reported feeling a modest “high” during the drug sessions, but the effects were mild.

The drug did not improve mood or affect participants’ performance on cognitive tests, either during the drug sessions or at the follow-up session.

Prof De Wit said the results came as a disappointing surprise. “Because so many people claim to have experienced benefits from microdosing, we expected to document some kind of beneficial effect under laboratory conditions,” she said.

Neurobiological reasons had also suggested that LSD might improve mood, because LSD acts through serotonin receptors, where traditional antidepressants are known to act.

“We can’t say necessarily that microdosing doesn’t work,” Prof de Wit said. “All we can say is that, under these controlled circumstances, with this kind of participant, these doses, and these intervals, we didn’t see a robust effect.”

People who microdose often have strong expectations of beneficial effects. “It is possible that these expectations contribute to the apparent benefits, or they may interact with the pharmacological effect of the drug,” she said.

LSD was confirmed to be safe, an unsurprising find which is in line with previous human and animal studies.

In fact, de Wit noted, participants appeared to build a tolerance to LSD over the course of the study, with the strongest “high” reported at the first session, and the perception of a drug effect diminishing at each subsequent session. That’s a good sign because it confirms the drug does not stay in the body or accumulate over time, she said.

Getting authorisation to use a controlled substance made the experiment challenging, as did the participants’ necessary time commitment. However, Prof de Wit emphasised the importance of such research, especially as practices like microdosing become commercialised.

“There are a lot of companies getting into the drug business, either with psychedelic drugs, or drugs like cannabidiol,” she noted. “And really there’s not very much empirical support to back up their claims. So, I think we have a responsibility to investigate and validate the claims.”

Source: University of Chicago

Illicit Use of Amphetamines Magnifies Psychosis Risk

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The illicit use of amphetamines (aka ‘speed’) is linked to a 5-fold heightened risk of psychosis, according to the results of a decade-long study published in the journal Evidence-Based Mental Health.

This increased risk was seen across all age groups, but was especially noticeable among women and those who had been arrested several times for possession of the drug, the findings show.

The estimated global prevalence of amphetamine use is less than 1%, but around 1 in 10 users become addicted.

The drug affects neurotransmitter signalling in the brain and often causes psychosis, the symptoms of which mimic those of schizophrenia, with paranoia, voices, and hallucinations. Though these psychotic episodes usually subside after a few days, in up to 15% of users they may last for years.

While the link between amphetamine misuse and psychosis has been known for many decades, it’s not clear exactly what the magnitude is of this risk or how effective rehab is at successfully weaning users off the drug.

To try and find out, the researchers drew on information supplied to the Taiwan Illicit Drug Issue Database (TIDID) and the National Health Insurance Research Database (NHIRD) between 2007 and 2016.

The TDID contains anonymised data on date of birth, sex, arrest records and deferred prosecution for rehabilitation treatment for illicit drug users, while the NHIRD contains anonymised data on mental and physical health issues for the population of Taiwan.

The researchers identified 74 601 illicit amphetamine users and 298 404 age- and sex-matched comparisons. Their average age was 33 and most (84%) were men.

Compared with those who weren’t using, illicit amphetamine users had poorer health: depression (2% vs 0.4%); anxiety (0.9% vs 0.3%); ischaemic heart disease (1.3% vs 0.8%); cardiovascular disease (0.8% vs 0.45%); and stroke (1.3% vs 0.7%).

By the end of the 10 year monitoring period, amphetamine users were more than 5 times as likely to experience psychosis than those who weren’t using after accounting for age, sex, and coexisting health issues. The annual cumulative incidence rates for psychosis among the comparison group and amphetamine users were 77 and 468 per 100 000 people, respectively.

The number of new cases of psychosis was similar across all age brackets, but was more common in the amphetamine users among those aged 45 and above.

While psychosis risk increased with comorbidities, overall, it was higher among illicit amphetamine users without coexisting conditions, suggesting a direct impact of amphetamine on inducing psychotic symptoms, the researchers said. Psychosis risk rose in tandem with the number of arrests, and fell when patients received psychotherapy for their addiction (rehab).

Those who had been arrested 5 or more times were more than 6 times as likely to experience psychosis, while users who went to rehab during deferred prosecution were 26% less likely to experience psychosis than those who didn’t. This suggests that rehab may help to stave off the risk of subsequent psychosis, say the researchers.

In common with previous research, illicit amphetamine use was linked to greater levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms as well as cardiovascular complications.

“Because persistent psychotic symptoms could represent a risk for cognitive decline in amphetamine users, identifying [those] with psychosis and providing treatment early might prevent subsequent damage of cognitive functions,” write the researchers. But rehab is voluntary, and only offered to around 1 in 10 users, they point out.

By way of an explanation for the gender discrepancy observed, the researchers suggest that the detrimental impact of amphetamines on behaviour might be enhanced by the presence of oestrogen.

“Another possibility is that women arrested for illicit amphetamine use were particularly disadvantaged in comparison with men, with higher levels of trauma, lack of psychosocial support and stigma,” they noted.

As an observational study, it cannot establish cause, and addiction could not be quantified. Illicit amphetamine use could also precipitate and aggravate schizophrenic symptoms, so it’s possible that amphetamine induces rather than causes the psychotic symptoms seen in amphetamine users.

The researchers concluded: “The relation of an induced paranoid psychosis with amphetamine abuse has been known for many decades. None the less, our findings are from a detailed and comparative analysis using a comprehensive and large population dataset.

“Furthermore, it would be worthwhile to investigate the health benefits and cost effectiveness of deferred prosecution for drug crime offenders by providing appropriate therapy for drug addiction.”

Source: The BMJ

Effects of Fathers’ Prenatal Alcohol Exposure Manifests in Offspring

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Researchers have discovered that males exposed to alcohol in utero later pass on those effects to their offspring during foetal development, through reduced placental efficiency. The study appears in FASEB Journal.

Dr Michael Golding, an associate professor at Texas A&M University has spent years investigating the father’s role, with regard to drugs and alcohol, in foetal development. Studies have shown that males pass down more than just their genetics, Dr Golding said, but exactly how that process works and the its consequences are still largely unknown.

“When you look at the data from throughout human history, there’s clear evidence that there’s something beyond just genetics being inherited from the male,” Dr Golding said. “So, if that data is solid, we’ve got to start looking more at male behaviour.

“Say you had a parent who was exposed to starvation – they could pass on what you might call a ‘thriftiness,’ where their kids can derive more nutrition from less food,” he said. “That could be a positive if they grow up in a similar environment, or they could grow up in a time when starvation isn’t an issue and they might be more prone to obesity or metabolic syndromes. That kind of data is clearly present in clinical data from humans.”

Epigenetics, which is Dr Golding’s area of study of how things beyond genes, such as behaviour and environment, affect development is called. One of the big questions in the search for answers on how male prenatal behaviour can impact foetal growth has been the way these epigenetic factors manifest.

The team has shown that prenatal exposure to alcohol in males can manifest in the placenta: in mice, offspring of fathers exposed to alcohol have a number of placenta-related difficulties, including increased foetal growth restriction, enlarged placentas, and decreased placental efficiency.

“The placenta supplies nutrients to the growing foetus, so foetal growth restriction can be attributed to a less efficient placenta. This is why placental efficiency is such an important metric; it tells us how many grams of foetus are produced per gram of placenta,” said Thomas, a graduate student at Texas A&M. “With paternal alcohol exposure, placentas become overgrown as they try to compensate for their inefficiency in delivering nutrients to the foetus.”

However,while these increases happened frequently in male offspring, the frequency varied greatly based on the mother; however, the same increases were far less frequent in female offspring. Dr Golding thinks that although information is passed from the father, the mother’s genetics and the offspring’s sex are also involved.

“This is a novel observation because it says that there’s some complexity here,” Dr Golding said. “Yes, men can pass things on to their offspring beyond just genetics, but the mom’s genetics can interpret those epigenetic factors differently, and that ultimately changes the way that the placenta behaves.”

These results don’t draw a clear line in how drinking in human males prior to conception impacts foetal development, but they continue to at least point to it being a question that needs to be explored. 

Dr Golding is hoping that more questions will be asked about male prenatal behaviour so that there’s more data from which to work.

“The thing that I want to ultimately change is this stigma surrounding the development of birth defects,” Dr Golding said. “There’s information coming through in sperm that is going to impact the offspring but is not tied to the genetic code; it’s in your epigenetic code, and this is highly susceptible to environmental exposures, so the birth defects that we see might not be the mother’s fault; they might be the father’s or both, equally.”

Source: Texas A&M University

Long-term Marijuana Use Could Impact Male Fertility

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Chronic use of marijuana could greatly impact male fertility and reproductive outcomes, according to a new study appearing in Fertility & Sterility. This is the first study to assess the impacts of typical substance use on testicular function via a mode of delivery, and dosage.

Robust research in animal models has shown that cannabis negatively impacts male fertility. Researchers monitored the reproductive systems of healthy male nonhuman primates following exposure to THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

The nonhuman primates in the study received a THC edible once daily over the course of seven months. Their THC dose was based on published medical marijuana acclimation recommendations for humans, and was increased every 70 days in alignment with the animals’ sperm development cycle. Dose adjustments were made until it reached the equivalent of a heavy medical marijuana dose in humans. Semen samples were collected at baseline before initiation of THC, and again at the end of each THC dosing timepoint.

The study found that THC use was linked to significant adverse impacts to the animals’ reproductive hormones, including decreased levels of testosterone and severe testicular shrinkage. “Specifically, we observed a greater than 50% decrease in testicular size,” said senior author Jamie Lo, MD, MCR. “Unfortunately, these effects appeared to worsen as the THC dose was increased, suggesting a possible dose-dependent effect.”

These results align with Dr Lo’s previous studies indicating similar THC-associated impacts to female reproductive hormones and the menstrual cycle.

“These early findings are concerning from a clinical standpoint,” said study lead author Jason Hedges, MD, PhD. “Even moderate doses could have a profound impact on fertility outcomes. While family planning may not be top of mind for those in their late teens and early 20s, the longer-term effects of THC on male reproductive health are not well-defined; it is possible that THC could cause lasting impacts that may alter family planning later in life.”

The researchers will continue to explore the relationship between THC and reproductive health in both male and female nonhuman primates, examining longer term THC exposure impacts, including changes to sperm count and motility, and whether discontinuing use of THC products could reverse adverse effects.

Source: Ohio Health & Science University

Many Youths with Substance Use Disorder Also Have Autism Traits

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One in five teens and young adults seeking treatment for substance use may have traits characteristic of a previously unrecognised autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to a study by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH).

The study, published in The American Journal on Addictions, found that among patients with an average age of 18.7 years being treated in an outpatient substance use disorder (SUD) clinic, 20% had elevated scores on the Social Responsiveness Scale-2 (SRS-2), a parent- or teacher-reported measure that has been shown to reliably identify the presence and severity of social impairment among individuals along the autism spectrum, and to distinguish autism from other disorders.

Lead author James McKowen, PhD, said this is the first study examining the prevalence of autistic traits among young people with SUD.

“Usually studies of substance use disorder in autism are done in those with an autism diagnosis already,” he said. “We have looked at this question from the other side, asking how many people with substance use disorder have autism.”

The researchers asked parents of 69 youths reporting for the first time to a specialty outpatient psychiatric SUD clinic to fill out the SRS-2 form. The form is designed to measure an individual’s social awareness, cognition, communication and motivation, and restricted interests and repetitive behaviours.

Though few differences were found between those with elevated autistic trait scores and those with lower, non-autistic scores in terms of demographic or psychiatric factors, adolescents with higher SRS-2 scores had a nearly eightfold higher likelihood of stimulant use disorder, and a fivefold higher risk for opioid use disorder.

According to the researchers, the findings highlight the importance of assessing patients in a SUD treatment setting for autistic traits.

“For clinicians, the big takeaway point from this study is that we need to get better at screening and certainly training in the presence of autism spectrum disorder,” said Dr McKown. Clinicians treat the SUD “but don’t have specialty developmental training, particularly for issues around autism.”

The researchers are developing a free clinical therapy protocol that can help clinicians better address the issues of autistic traits in patients with SUD.

Source: Massachusetts General Hospital