05 May Teens Would Up Pot Use If Legal, Survey Finds
Doctors, researchers and public health officials are well aware that a certain percentage of people who use cannabis (marijuana, hashish and hashish oil) either occasionally or on a regular basis will eventually develop diagnosable symptoms of cannabis-related addiction. In turn, the number of people who develop such an addiction depends largely on the sheer number of people who use cannabis products in their lifetime. In a study published in February 2014 in the International Journal of Drug Policy, researchers from New York University sought to determine if recent movements to legalize cannabis intake (typically, marijuana intake) will ultimately result in an increase in the overall number of lifetime cannabis users in the U.S.
American adults use marijuana more frequently than any other single illegal or illicit substance. Marijuana use rates are also fairly high for U.S. teenagers, who face legal restrictions on their access to the two most commonly used recreational substances, alcohol and nicotine. In stark contrast to its reputation among many adults and teenagers as a harmless or even beneficial activity, marijuana intake leads to diagnosable symptoms of substance addiction in roughly 9 percent of all users (a category which includes occasional and habitual users, as well as users of various ages). Figures maintained separately for teenagers show that, in this age group, the rate for addiction rises to 17 percent for the combined pool of occasional and habitual users. Conversely, habitual marijuana users of all ages develop diagnosable symptoms of addiction at a rate of 25 percent to 50 percent. Since addiction can occur in both occasional and habitual users, lifetime exposure (use at any point in time) plays an important role in the overall level of marijuana-related harm.
Decriminalization and Legalization
As of early 2014, decriminalization efforts have made the use of medical marijuana possible in 18 state jurisdictions, as well as within the boundaries of the federal District of Columbia. In addition, two states (Colorado and Washington) have gone beyond decriminalization and made it legal for adults to possess small amounts of marijuana for personal, purely recreational use. Despite the growing trends toward decriminalization and legalization on a state level, congressional legislation called the Controlled Substances Act still forbids the sale or use of marijuana (or any other form of cannabis) on a federal level.
An Increase in Lifetime Use Rates?
In the study published in the International Journal of Drug Policy, the New York University researchers used information from five years of an annual survey called Monitoring the Future (dating from 2007 to 2011) to determine if a widespread trend toward cannabis legalization would lead to an increased number of lifetime users (and therefore, by logical inference, lead to an increase in the number of people affected by cannabis addiction). Monitoring the Future uses information from tens of thousands of teenagers in three grades (8th, 10th and 12th) to project larger trends for substance use. Specifically, the researchers looked at survey data collected from 9,945 12th graders who were asked if they would use cannabis if or when the drug became legal in their area. More than half of these participants (6,116) had an established lifetime history of cannabis use; the remaining 3,829 participants had no such history.
The researchers found that roughly 10 percent of the surveyed teens who did not have a current history of lifetime cannabis intake would start using the drug if legalization made such use permissible. They also found that roughly 18 percent of the teens already identified as cannabis users would increase their level of cannabis intake if this activity became legal. Many of those individuals who would start using legalized cannabis already fell into at least one high-risk category for lifetime cannabis intake. However, a significant number of these individuals came from groups considered low-risk for lifetime cannabis intake.
Significance and Considerations
By their very nature, the findings reported in the International Journal on Drug Policy are speculative and not directly related to real-world outcomes. Despite this fact, the authors of the study feel confident that their conclusions reflect a likely rise in lifetime cannabis use if and when legalization of the drug spreads further across the U.S.
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