Government Relations Update

APA and Friends of NIDA hold congressional briefing on marijuana research

Researchers report on progress in understanding and treating marijuana dependence.

By Christine Jamieson

The Science Government Relations Office of the American Psychological Association (APA) organized a briefing on March 8 for members of Congress and their staffs on “Marijuana Use Disorders: Dependence and Treatment Research.”  The briefing was sponsored by Friends of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), a coalition of more than forty organizations, including APA, that support research and education on drug abuse, particularly through advocacy for NIDA.  The Congressional Addiction, Treatment, and Recovery Caucus, composed of members of Congress with a special interest in addiction issues, also helped to arrange and host the briefing.  Speakers were Nora Volkow, Director of NIDA, and Alan Budney, professor at the Center for Addiction Research at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.   

Nora Volkow, PhD, Director of NIDAAccording to NIDA, 4.3 million Americans were dependent on or abused marijuana in 2009, and current trends show a decline in perceived risk of marijuana use among American teenagers.  Behavioral interventions for marijuana use and dependence have shown similar efficacy as treatments used for other drugs of abuse. Recent discoveries about the cannabinoid system also offer promise for the development of treatment medications, which could block effects of marijuana, treat withdrawal symptoms, and decrease the likelihood of further use.

NIDA Director Volkow presented an overview (PDF, 2.63 MB) of research on the neural bases of marijuana dependence, the effects of long-term marijuana use on the brain and psychosocial well-being, and the development of marijuana dependence in adolescents.  Among the findings she presented was evidence that marijuana use during adolescence increases risk for psychosis in adulthood for those with a particular genetic variant (of the COMT gene).  She also discussed the prevalence of marijuana use, changes in public attitudes toward marijuana use and their relations with actual use, the recent increase in emergency department visits involving marijuana, and the greater than threefold increase in potency of marijuana over the last two decades.

Alan Budney, PhD, professor at the Center for Addiction Research at the University of Arkansas for Medical SciencesDr. Budney’s presentation (PDF, 947 KB) reviewed findings from his and other scientists’ NIDA-funded research on behavioral treatments for marijuana dependence and emerging neuroscience-based approaches.  Behavioral treatments that enhance coping skills, motivation, and social support have been shown to be effective in reducing marijuana use.   Current research is examining interventions that aim to strengthen executive function skills and reduce impulsivity.  Pharmacotherapies targeting cannabinoid receptors are being developed and could eventually be combined with behavioral therapies.  Eventually, genomic analyses might indicate which treatments will be most effective for which people.   Researchers are also examining the relations between marijuana and tobacco dependence, as they frequently co-occur and may require a joint treatment approach. 

Both speakers emphasized a need for further neuroscience and behavioral science research aimed at better understanding the specific mechanisms and effects of marijuana dependence and at developing new treatment approaches that are targeted to specific subpopulations.

The briefing was the fifteenth in a series of luncheon briefings sponsored by the Friends of NIDA since 2005 to educate Congress about the value of addiction research.   The series was recently named the Charles R. Schuster Congressional Briefing Series, in memory of Charles R. (Bob) Schuster, Director of NIDA from 1986 to 1992.


Christine Jamieson is Science Policy Associate in the APA Science Government Relations Office.