26 Jun Marijuana Decriminalization Leads to Reduced Perception of Harm
Marijuana is a form of cannabis known for its ability to trigger diagnosable problems with drug abuse and drug addiction in substantial numbers of casual and everyday users. Despite marijuana’s potential for abuse and addiction, more than a third of all U.S. states have decriminalized medical use of the drug as of 2014; in addition, two states (Colorado and Washington) have taken a further step by legalizing the drug for non-medical use in adults. In a study published in April 2014 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from three U.S. institutions sought to determine if the perceived risk of harm from marijuana use goes down when the drug is decriminalized.
Marijuana contains a substance called THC, which (among other things) triggers feelings of euphoria by altering the chemical environment inside the brain’s pleasure center. Some users of the drug try to repeatedly trigger this euphoric effect by smoking or otherwise ingesting marijuana/THC again and again over time. As is true with other substances of abuse, the brain can get used to the presence of THC and start to treat marijuana intake as part of its “normal” operating conditions. In turn, this physically dependent state can lead to symptoms of addiction, such as loss of control over marijuana intake, recurring cravings for marijuana use and the appearance of a withdrawal syndrome when any given user does not ingest the amount of marijuana his or her brain has come to expect.
When marijuana users of all ages and levels of intake are grouped together, the addiction rate for the drug is roughly 9 percent. Viewed separately, teen casual and habitual marijuana users have an addiction rate of about 17 percent. In addition, when viewed separately, habitual (daily or near-daily) users of all ages have an addiction rate that can range from a low of 25 percent to a high of 50 percent. The American Psychiatric Association uses a category of illness called cannabis use disorder to diagnose people affected by serious marijuana abuse or marijuana addiction (or any other form of cannabis abuse or addiction).
Risk vs. Perceived Risk
Researchers use detailed statistical analyses to determine the risks associated with drug use or any other common (or uncommon) types of behavior in society as a whole or in a particular segment of society. They also use the same statistical processes to determine any given person’s chances of experiencing the risks associated with a particular behavior. However, the public perception of risk does not necessarily reflect the actual levels of risk linked to a practice or activity. In the U.S., a federally sponsored project called the National Survey on Drug Use and Health is used to help researchers and public health officials understand how U.S. teens and adults perceive the risks of using marijuana or other substances of abuse. Generally speaking, the likelihood that an average person will use one of these substances goes up when the perceived level of risk linked with that use goes down.
Influence of Marijuana Decriminalization
In the study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, the Washington University School of Medicine and the Denver Health and Hospital Authority used information gathered from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health to determine if marijuana decriminalization leads to a reduction in the level of perceived risk that teenagers and adults associate with marijuana intake. The time period under consideration was 2003 to 2011. The researchers compared changes in the perceived level of marijuana-related risk in Colorado, which decriminalized medically sanctioned use of the drug during this timeframe, to the changes in perceived risk in 34 states that did not decriminalize marijuana.
The baseline for comparison was the percentage of people who perceived using marijuana once or twice weekly as a “great risk.” The researchers found that this percentage declined significantly across the board in all Colorado residents age 12 and older between the years 2007-2008 and 2010-2011. Crucially, they also found that, in comparison to the 34 states that did not decriminalize medical marijuana, the rate of marijuana dependence and addiction in the state was substantially higher among both preteens and teens between the ages of 12 and 17, and teens and young adults between the ages of 18 and 25. In addition, the researchers concluded that, compared to the states that did not decriminalize medical marijuana, the general availability of the drug rose significantly in Colorado between 2009 and 2011.
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