People at Risk of Developing Problems with Marijuana

Young adults at risk

Attitudes towards marijuana are becoming more favorable. Support for marijuana legalization in the U.S. is at an all-time high. More than 60% of Americans say that marijuana should be legalized, (1,2) double the support for legalization found in 2000.(1,3) Recent National polls indicate 65% of Americans consider marijuana use morally acceptable and 42% not too harmful or not at all harmful.(4,5)

Despite more favorable attitudes towards marijuana, marijuana is not harmless. Marijuana can interact with other drugs and medications. In the short term, it has the potential and to cause adverse effects, such as anxiety and panic attacks, temporary psychosis, and severe nausea and vomiting.  It can make people more prone to accidents and injuries. In the long-term, it has been associated with negative consequences, low motivation, and substance dependence.

Certainly, not everyone develops problems when using marijuana, but everyone who uses marijuana should be aware of the potential for problems. Certain groups of people may be at elevated risk of developing problems from marijuana use. Members of these groups should consider the risks of marijuana use:

People at Risk of Schizophrenia and Related Disorders
There is much debate over whether marijuana can cause schizophrenia or related disorders, like schizoaffective disorder or bipolar disorder. As a group, these disorders are called schizophrenia spectrum disorders (SSDs). The vast majority of people who use marijuana do not develop SSDs.  However, an unusually high number of people who have SSDs used marijuana before they first experienced psychosis.  One study showed that people who have more genetic risk for SSDs also tend to use marijuana more frequently.(6) People at risk of SSDs might use marijuana to self-medicate early symptoms of their disorders. 

We don’t know if marijuana can cause SSDs in just anyone, but it looks like marijuana use might bring about SSDs earlier than they otherwise would have occurred in susceptible people.  In many cases, marijuana also appears to make existing SSDs worse.(7)  Therefore, people who have SSDs or who have a family history of SSDs would be well advised to avoid using marijuana.  If they do use marijuana, it would be wise to talk to their health care providers about their marijuana use.

For more information, see our factsheet on Mental Health and Marijuana.

People with Social Anxiety
Social anxiety disorder is more strongly associated with marijuana dependence than any other anxiety disorder.(8) Even after taking other factors into consideration, having social anxiety disorder appears to be a risk factor for developing a cannabis use disorder as well as other substance use disorders. Marijuana use may alleviate anxiety in the short-term but also present increased risk of harm in the long term from substance use disorders.(9)

For more information, see our factsheet on Marijuana and Anxiety Disorders.

People With Certain Marijuana Use Motives

People report using marijuana for a variety of reasons. Some use marijuana to address state-sanctioned medical conditions. Non-medical users may use marijuana to socialize (for social motives), to enhance their experience (for enhancement motives), to forget their worries (for coping motives), or for other reasons. Research shows that those who use for coping motives are more likely than those who use for other reasons to have marijuana-related problems related to relationships, work, health, finances, legal issues, and emotional wellbeing.(10) For example, veterans with PTSD who used marijuana to cope with negative affect or sleep difficulties were more likely to have marijuana problems and cannabis use disorders.

During adolescence, the brain is still developing in important ways. Animal research suggests the brain is vulnerable to marijuana use in adolescence. Using marijuana during this critical time could disrupt normal brain development.(11) People who start smoking marijuana regularly in adolescence are at elevated risk of developing problems with thinking and memory, mental health disorders, and drug dependence in adulthood.(12) Certain groups of adolescents may be more vulnerable to developing problems from marijuana use.(13)  These include:

For more information, see our factsheet on Adolescents and Marijuana.

Older Adults
As people age, their bodies change.  They may develop hearing impairment, vision changes, slowed reactions, risk of falls, and cognitive decline.  Older adults often develop health problems, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis, and cancer.  They often take multiple prescription medications. Marijuana can interact with prescription medications, increasing the risk of adverse effects.(14)  Marijuana can cause people to feel dizzy upon standing and affects vision in ways that could further increase older adults’ risk of falls and accidents.(15,16)

For more information, see our factsheet on Marijuana Use by Older Adults.

Pregnant and Parenting Women

Although it does not appear that pregnant or parenting women are themselves at higher risk of marijuana problems, there is clearly a risk to their children.(17) Using marijuana during pregnancy can disrupt fetal growth, increase the likelihood of premature delivery, and affect neurophysiological function in newborns. In utero marijuana exposure may impair long-term growth and neurodevelopment.  Individuals exposed to marijuana in the womb may have an increased likelihood of problems with tasks requiring visual memory, analysis, and integration. Marijuana can be passed to nursing infants through breast milk and have ongoing effects on their development.

For more information, see our factsheet on Marijuana’s Impact on Pregnant Women and Their Children.


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  11. Volkow ND, Swanson JM, Evins AE, DeLisi LE, Meier MH, Gonzalez R, Bloomfield MA, Curran HV, Baler R. Effects of cannabis use on human behavior, including cognition, motivation, and psychosis: a review. JAMA Psychiatry. 2016 Mar 1;73(3):292-7.
  12. Levine A, Clemenza K, Rynn M, Lieberman J. Evidence for the risks and consequences of adolescent cannabis exposure. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 2017 Mar 1;56(3):214-25.
  13. Al Iede M, Nunn K, Milne B, Fitzgerald DA. The consequences of chronic cannabis smoking in vulnerable adolescents. Paediatric respiratory reviews. 2017 Sep 1;24:44-53.
  15. Malinowska B, Baranowska-Kuczko M, Schlicker E. Triphasic blood pressure responses to cannabinoids: do we understand the mechanism? British Journal of Pharmacology. Apr 2012;165(7):2073-2088.
  16. Adams AJ, Brown B, Flom MC, Jones RT, Jampolsky A. Alcohol and marijuana effects on static visual acuity. American Journal of Optometry and Physiological Optics. 1975 Nov;52(11):729-35.
  17. Jaques SC, Kingsbury A, Henshcke P, Chomchai C, Clews S, Falconer J, Abdel-Latif ME, Feller JM, Oei JL. Cannabis, the pregnant woman and her child: weeding out the myths. Journal of Perinatology. 2014 Jun;34(6):417.

Citation: Stoner SA. People at Risk of Developing Problems with Marijuana.  Alcohol & Drug Abuse Institute, University of Washington, June 2019.  URL:

This report was produced with support from the Washington State Dedicated Marijuana Fund .