Study Finds Increased Risk of Substance Use and Misuse Among Children of Marijuana Users

November 22, 2019

A study by McLean Hospital’s Bertha K. Madras, PhD, and her colleagues found a direct correlation between parental marijuana use and tobacco and alcohol use and opioid misuse by their children. Given these findings, the researchers suggest that screening household members for substance use and counseling parents on the risks posed by their marijuana use could curb multigenerational substance use.

The study, “Associations of Parental Marijuana Use With Offspring Marijuana, Tobacco, and Alcohol Use and Opioid Misuse,” was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Network Open. Dr. Madras’ co-authors include Beth Han, MD, PhD, MPH, Wilson M. Compton, MD, MPE, Christopher M. Jones, PharmD, DrPH, MPH, Elizabeth I. Lopez, PhD, and Elinore F. McCance-Katz, MD, PhD.

Madras, director of McLean’s Laboratory of Addiction Neurobiology, said the study fills a gap in research. “In general, living with a parent using substances or having substance use disorders is an explicit risk for use of substances among young offspring.” However, she stated, “few studies have directly examined whether parental marijuana use elevates the risk for opioid misuse among adolescent and young adults living in the same household with parents.”

Moreover, Madras said, “To the best of our knowledge, none of the existing research simultaneously explored frequency of parental marijuana use and whether it related to adolescent and young adult offspring’s marijuana, tobacco, and alcohol use, and opioid misuse.”

Hands holding tablet with graph on it, two researchers in background
Researchers have found an increased risk of substance use and misuse among children of marijuana users

To explore these areas, the researchers examined survey data from the 2015-2018 National Surveys on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). The NSDUH study contained representative data on adolescents or young adults living with a parent in the U.S. After reviewing information on 24,900 father-offspring or mother-offspring pairings, the researchers concluded that parental marijuana use was associated with increased risk of marijuana and tobacco use. The analysis also found an association between opioid misuse by both adolescent and young adult offspring and alcohol use by adolescent offspring.

Specifically, the research team found substantial marijuana use among U.S. parents living with offspring aged 12-30 years. Past-year marijuana use among mothers (7.6%) or fathers (9.6%) was high as was at least approximately weekly use (3.5% among mothers and 5.4% of fathers).

In addition, the study discovered that even if a parent reported lifetime marijuana use but had not used marijuana in the past year, substance use among their offspring was generally higher than among children whose parents had never used marijuana. Moreover, the study uncovered that an adolescent offspring’s substance use appeared to be associated with whether a mother used marijuana in the past or continues to use.

Given the study’s findings, Madras urged parents, clinicians, and public agencies to discourage substance use. “Our findings should be incorporated into a general prevention campaign, educating parents on their potential and pivotal role in transmitting the risk for generalized substance use in their offspring,” she said. “As marijuana use among youth confers a high risk of other substance use, including opioids, it is important for parents to become aware that use of any one substance by offspring can be associated with use of other substances.” Madras also called on clinicians “to use this information to discuss parental substance use in the home and its potential role in fostering transgenerational substance use.”

Building on the study, Madras said that further studies in several related areas are warranted. For example, she reported, “we do not know whether parents used in front of their children or normalized use, whether parents shared marijuana with their children, whether ‘lifetime use’ began during parents’ teen years, whether parental use of other illicit drugs, including opioids, conferred even a higher risk for offspring.” Equally important, she said, are whether the consequences to offspring extend beyond use to mental health, behavioral, social, and educational consequences.

This study was jointly sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health, within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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