Lower-Risk Cannabis Use Guidelines: A Comprehensive Update of Evidence and Recommendations | AJPH | Vol. 107 Issue 8
Background. Cannabis use is common in North America, especially among young people, and is associated with a risk of various acute and chronic adverse health outcomes. Cannabis control regimes are evolving, for example toward a national legalization policy in Canada, with the aim to improve public health, and thus require evidence-based interventions. As cannabis-related health outcomes may be influenced by behaviors that are modifiable by the user, evidence-based Lower-Risk Cannabis Use Guidelines (LRCUG)—akin to similar guidelines in other health fields—offer a valuable, targeted prevention tool to improve public health outcomes.
Objectives. To systematically review, update, and quality-grade evidence on behavioral factors determining adverse health outcomes from cannabis that may be modifiable by the user, and translate this evidence into revised LRCUG as a public health intervention tool based on an expert consensus process.
Search methods. We used pertinent medical search terms and structured search strategies, to search MEDLINE, EMBASE, PsycINFO, Cochrane Library databases, and reference lists primarily for systematic reviews and meta-analyses, and additional evidence on modifiable risk factors for adverse health outcomes from cannabis use.
Selection criteria. We included studies if they focused on potentially modifiable behavior-based factors for risks or harms for health from cannabis use, and excluded studies if cannabis use was assessed for therapeutic purposes.
Data collection and analysis. We screened the titles and abstracts of all studies identified by the search strategy and assessed the full texts of all potentially eligible studies for inclusion; 2 of the authors independently extracted the data of all studies included in this review. We created Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses flow-charts for each of the topical searches. Subsequently, we summarized the evidence by behavioral factor topic, quality-graded it by following standard (Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development, and Evaluation; GRADE) criteria, and translated it into the LRCUG recommendations by the author expert collective on the basis of an iterative consensus process.
Main results. For most recommendations, there was at least “substantial” (i.e., good-quality) evidence. We developed 10 major recommendations for lower-risk use: (1) the most effective way to avoid cannabis use–related health risks is abstinence, (2) avoid early age initiation of cannabis use (i.e., definitively before the age of 16 years), (3) choose low-potency tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) or balanced THC-to-cannabidiol (CBD)–ratio cannabis products, (4) abstain from using synthetic cannabinoids, (5) avoid combusted cannabis inhalation and give preference to nonsmoking use methods, (6) avoid deep or other risky inhalation practices, (7) avoid high-frequency (e.g., daily or near-daily) cannabis use, (8) abstain from cannabis-impaired driving, (9) populations at higher risk for cannabis use–related health problems should avoid use altogether, and (10) avoid combining previously mentioned risk behaviors (e.g., early initiation and high-frequency use).
Authors’ conclusions. Evidence indicates that a substantial extent of the risk of adverse health outcomes from cannabis use may be reduced by informed behavioral choices among users. The evidence-based LRCUG serve as a population-level education and intervention tool to inform such user choices toward improved public health outcomes. However, the LRCUG ought to be systematically communicated and supported by key regulation measures (e.g., cannabis product labeling, content regulation) to be effective. All of these measures are concretely possible under emerging legalization regimes, and should be actively implemented by regulatory authorities. The population-level impact of the LRCUG toward reducing cannabis use–related health risks should be evaluated.
Public health implications. Cannabis control regimes are evolving, including legalization in North America, with uncertain impacts on public health. Evidence-based LRCUG offer a potentially valuable population-level tool to reduce the risk of adverse health outcomes from cannabis use among (especially young) users in legalization contexts, and hence to contribute to improved public health outcomes.