This morning, one of the nation’s leading healthcare providers, Kaiser Permanente, released a study of marijuana use rates by its patients in Washington.
According to the new report, roughly one in seven adult primary care patients visiting Kaiser’s Washington medical offices reported having used marijuana at least once in the past year, according to data conducted by researchers ever since Washington state legalized nonmedical cannabis use in 2014.
Kaiser researchers in Washington analyzed information from medical visits while making sure any of the data that may help identify the 22,000 patients in the study was heavily protected. The report, “Frequency of Cannabis Use among Primary Care Patients in Washington State,” was published in the November-December 2017 issue of the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine. According to Kaiser, it is among the first U.S. studies to evaluate the population-based prevalence of patient-reported cannabis use among primary care patients, particularly in a state where non-medical use is legal. That essentially means that Kaiser is pretty sure they were the first to ask such a substantial number of their patients if they smoked pot.
“Routinely asking about cannabis use in primary care is part of whole-person care, and it’s the first step to starting a conversation between patients and their primary care providers,” says the study’s principal investigator, Katharine A. Bradley, MD, MPH, a senior investigator at Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute and internal medicine physician with Washington Permanente Medical Group.
According to Bradley, the findings highlight the need for primary care clinicians to be aware of the benefits and harms that patients may be experiencing due to their cannabis use — and “initiating a conversation is only the start in that process,” she said.
In young adults, the rates were shown to be even higher, with nearly two out of in five patients saying they consume cannabis. Young adults were also much more likely than others to use cannabis every day. This trend was especially noticeable to researchers in men aged 18 to 29 who had depression or used tobacco.
These findings raise concerns for the report’s lead author and KPWHRI researcher Gwen T. Lapham, PhD, MPH, MSW, “Much remains to be learned about marijuana use, while legalization is spreading,” she said.
Lapham also commented on those young male daily users, saying, “Widespread daily use in young men with depression is concerning, because using cannabis can worsen depression and anxiety.”
In general, the daily user in Kaiser’s study proved to be less of a phenomenon than expected. Among patients who reported using cannabis, about half used it at least monthly. But one in five of those consumers said that they used it every day. Lapham says roughly a quarter to half of the people who use cannabis daily are estimated to develop a cannabis use disorder, “where patients can’t cut down on their use despite accumulating use-related problems.”
We asked Morgan Fox of the Marijuana Policy Project to weigh in on the new data.
“It seems like these use rates by primary care patients are pretty close to overall use rates for the same demographics,” Fox told Cannabis Now. “However, I think it is a sign of social growth and development that an organization like Kaiser is starting to seriously look at this issue without the traditional heavy negative bias.”
Kaiser currently serves 11.7 million members in eight states and the District of Columbia. They’ll be able to continue their analysis in California when that adult use recreational market opens up in January.
These numbers are still skewed a bit by folks afraid of the repercussions of being outed as a cannabis user outside their immediate circle. Plenty of pro-cannabis folks, even in places that have decriminalization, medical, or full legal adult use, the idea of sharing that kind of personally incriminating information is a tough road to cross.
TELL US, would you tell your doctor about your smoking habits?