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Psychological sciences professor developing intervention to reduce stress, harm for individuals with cannabis use disorder


For individuals experiencing distress, cannabis is an increasingly accessible and culturally acceptable substance to use. However, despite its popularity, individuals who turn to cannabis in times of stress are susceptible to developing cannabis use disorder.

Psychological Sciences Assistant Professor Richard Macatee investigates the role emotional distress plays in cannabis use disorder. His latest project will test an intervention model that delivers just-in-time text messages with therapy content to reduce negative feelings and harm in individuals with cannabis use disorder.

“Cannabis use disorder, relative to other substance use disorders, is very understudied compared to something like alcohol use disorder, for instance, which has been studied for a while,” Macatee said. “Cannabis use is a fertile new area and it's increasingly relevant to public health because of the clear trend toward legalization that's going on across the country.”

In the first phase of the project, Macatee’s team will collect a small group of participants to test a brief, evidence-based behavioral intervention delivered via a computer and smartphone. The research team will then conduct a focus group to refine the intervention.

Then, Macatee will test the intervention against a control group in a clinical trial to determine its effect on distress intolerance, cannabis use and psychosocial functioning.

Macatee said the project is innovative because it measures how distress contributes to cannabis use disorder, while intervening at that intersection by delivering therapeutic content via text message in people’s real-world environments when they need it the most.

“Typically, physiological stress responding is only measured in lab-based settings,” Macatee said. “We're using cutting-edge, wrist-worn wearable technology during the smartphone phase that will allow us to bring those measurements into individual's real-world environments with the ultimate aim of testing the intervention’s impact on objective indicators of stress, as well as the feasibility of using the wearable device to detect high distress states without requiring participants to frequently report on their emotional state.”

By delivering therapy through wearable technology and smartphones, Macatee hopes the intervention will provide a model to move therapeutic learning from the clinic into a person’s everyday life.

“Many individuals with cannabis use disorder don't desire to quit or even necessarily cut down; and the changing cultural landscape has an untrue notion baked in that it isn't even an addictive drug to begin with,” Macatee said. “So, the hope for this intervention is that we can target something that we know is relevant to developing problems with cannabis use without actually requiring people coming in already wanting to quit.”

Because the intervention materials are based on best practices in cognitive behavioral therapy, which is applied across emotional disorders, Macatee said the treatment could potentially apply to individuals with psychological challenges other than cannabis use disorder.

“The nice thing about targeting something like distress intolerance is it's trans-diagnostic, which means it's relevant to multiple disorders, including things like depression and anxiety, which commonly co-occur with cannabis use disorder,” Macatee said. “There are real efficiency advantages to an intervention like this, both because you're reaching more people that ordinarily wouldn't seek cannabis-specific treatment and you're targeting something that shouldn't only benefit cannabis use disorder, but also common co-occurring conditions like depression and anxiety.”

Macatee’s work is supported by a $450,000 grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Tags: Faculty Research Psychological Sciences

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