Aim To examine the evidence on the association between cannabis and depression and evaluate competing explanations of the association.
Methods A search of Medline, Psychinfo and EMBASE databases was conducted. All references in which the terms ‘cannabis’, ‘marijuana’ or ‘cannabinoid’, and in which the words ‘depression/depressive disorder/depressed’, ‘mood’, ‘mood disorder’ or ‘dysthymia’ were collected. Only research studies were reviewed. Case reports are not discussed.
Results There was a modest association between heavy or problematic cannabis use and depression in cohort studies and well-designed cross-sectional studies in the general population. Little evidence was found for an association between depression and infrequent cannabis use. A number of studies found a modest association between early-onset, regular cannabis use and later depression, which persisted after controlling for potential confounding variables. There was little evidence of an increased risk of later cannabis use among people with depression and hence little support for the self-medication hypothesis. There have been a limited number of studies that have controlled for potential confounding variables in the association between heavy cannabis use and depression. These have found that the risk is much reduced by statistical control but a modest relationship remains.
Conclusions Heavy cannabis use and depression are associated and evidence from longitudinal studies suggests that heavy cannabis use may increase depressive symptoms among some users. It is still too early, however, to rule out the hypothesis that the association is due to common social, family and contextual factors that increase risks of both heavy cannabis use and depression. Longitudinal studies and studies of twins discordant for heavy cannabis use and depression are needed to rule out common causes. If the relationship is causal, then on current patterns of cannabis use in the most developed societies cannabis use makes, at most, a modest contribution to the population prevalence of depression.