Gregory Stuart, UT psychology professor, co-authored a study on the relationship between depression symptoms and teenage alcohol and marijuana use, linking it to eventual use of synthetic marijuana.

The study was published in Pediatrics, a medical journal. Its publication was significant because there have been very few studies researching the risk factors associated with later synthetic marijuana use.

“Synthetic cannabinoids (SCs) are available to adolescents at convenience stores and smoke shops and on the internet,” the study said. “Little is known about the risk factors that contribute to eventual use of SCs in adolescents, and no research has examined the psychiatric, personality and substance-use risk factors that prospectively predict SC use.”

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, SCs can be any, “man-made, mind-altering chemicals that are either sprayed on dried, shredded plant material so they can be smoked ... or sold as liquids to be vaporized and inhaled in e-cigarettes and other devices.”

While SCs are often marketed as safe, legal alternatives to marijuana, in comparison, SCs are significantly stronger. However, there is still little known about its toxicological effects in humans. Emergency room visits are common when using synthetic cannabinoids, with significant negative short-term and long-term effects.

“Synthetic cannabinoids are a potent group of chemicals with a variety of negative health effects, including death,” Stuart said.

The study was led by Jeff Temple, associate professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and other contributors, including researchers from the University of Maryland and the University of Missouri.

964 high school students attending various public schools in southeast Texas participated in the study. The survey students were administered gathered data on various drug and alcohol use, symptoms of anxiety and depression and level of impulsiveness and demographic information. The longitudinal survey, a survey that follows people over time, was conducted again one year later.

“Most important, we wanted to conduct a study that was longitudinal,” Stuart said. “Too much research on adolescents is cross sectional and to begin to consider possible causal mechanisms, longitudinal work needs to be conducted.”

Research didn’t begin as an exploration of risks related to SC use. Instead, the study began as an examination of risk factors for dangerous relationships and the victim in those relationships. One of those risk factors for partner violence was drug use and alcohol, which would eventually become important components of the research.

“Substance use is one of the risk factors that we were particularly interested in studying, and of course, we think alcohol, drug use and other mental health outcomes are important to examine in their own right,” Stuart said. “Over time, we became aware of synthetic cannabinoid use in adolescents and decided that it was critical to add that variable to our research as well.”

The results indicated that depressive symptoms, but not impulsiveness and anxiety, may increase the likeliness of the use of synthetic marijuana.

“Depressive symptoms, marijuana use, alcohol use and synthetic cannabinoid use at baseline were predictive of synthetic cannabinoid use at the one year follow-up,” Stuart said. “Synthetic cannabinoid use at baseline was not predictive of marijuana use at one year follow-up.”

Stuart said that preventive programming for synthetic cannabinoid should take into consideration the dangers and risks of using the product. Currently, most preventive programming does not mention, or only mentions in passing, the after-effects of synthetic cannabinoid use.

“Synthetic cannabinoid use prevention programming should consider depressive symptoms, marijuana use and alcohol use as risk factors for synthetic cannabinoid use,” Stuart said.

Stuart hopes this lights the way for more research of this kind and sparks interest in informing youth of the dangerous outcomes of synthetic cannabinoid use.

“Synthetic cannabinoids are available to adolescents with increasing ease,” Stuart said. “I hope that this publication grabs the attention of parents, teachers, mental health professionals and other researchers to intervene on this public health problem.”

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