An important new study published in this month’s issue of “Drug and Alcohol Dependence” reveals a surprising trend in the age of legalization: fewer young people are developing cannabis use disorders. More specifically, among individuals aged 12-25 who report daily or almost daily cannabis use, instances of behaviors defined as cannabis abuse or dependance have decreased significantly. In short, the young people who smoke cannabis the most aren’t having a problem with it.
The results stunned the study’s authors, who expected to observe the opposite trend among regular cannabis users, especially in such “high risk” groups as teens. The study, which surveyed 22,651 individuals who used cannabis more than 300 days in the past year, complicates our understanding of the dynamics between cannabis legalization and use among young people. It also provides important insights into the relationship between regular cannabis consumption and the negative behaviors associated with substance dependence and abuse.
Young People Who Get High the Most Aren’t Developing Dependency
The DSM-IV, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual used by mental health professionals, defines drug and alcohol abuse and dependence with several specific criteria. Abuse, for example, is identified by behaviors like failing to fulfill important obligations at work, school or home, putting yourself at risk when you obtain or use a substance, legal problems, and the inability to quit despite all that. Dependence, according to the DSM, involves things like needing to consume more of a substance due to high tolerance, withdrawal symptoms and an inability to control persistent desires to consume a substance.
It was exactly those characteristics that researchers looked for in young people who reported using cannabis 300-plus days a year. Using data spanning 2002-2016 from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the study’s authors analyzed 22,651 individuals for “cannabis use disorder” or CUD, defined using the DSM-IV criteria for dependence and abuse. The study looked at three age groups: 12-17, 18-25 and 26 and above.
Across each age group and for each abuse item, the prevalence of DSM-IV cannabis use decreased. The results for dependency items were more varied. Researchers observed the most significant decrease in the 12-17 group. Among adolescents, the study’s results indicate that CUD behaviors decreased by 43.9 percent. For young adults, the 18-25 age group, dependency behaviors decreased by 26.8 percent.
Among the adults aged 26 and over, however, the patterns of dependence were more mixed. Researchers say that from 2002 to 2016, CUD dependencies remained constant for adults 26 and older while dropping significantly for young adults and adolescents.
Does Normalizing Marijuana Lead to Fewer Use Disorders
Many of the legalization measures past in states across the U.S. set aside public funds to support cannabis research. Much of that research involves studying medical cannabis and developing new treatments. But to respond to the public health concerns raised by legalization opponents, skeptics and supporters alike, a significant portion of cannabis research investigates how legalization impacts use habits across the population.
Most of those concerns involve the impact of legalization on young people, especially with their cognitive development and behavioral habits. Lawmakers, doctors and health professionals across the country have all sounded the alarm about legalization potentially increasing teen cannabis consumption.
So far, researchers haven’t seen the dramatic uptick in cannabis use among young people in the wake of legalization. In fact, older adults like Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers are spending the most cash on legal cannabis, whereas cannabis use among young people appears to be holding steady or even declining in some states.
But what this study shows is that even among young people, regular, almost daily cannabis use isn’t leading to the ills of dependency and abuse that some feared. In fact, for young people, the opposite appears to be the case. Put otherwise, the study’s results help to highlight the relative safety of cannabis as a mood-altering substance. Unlike other popular and legal substances, regular cannabis consumption isn’t inevitably leading to dependency and abuse.