A New Study Says More People Use Marijuana and Fewer People Think It's Risky

Medical marijuana is somewhat legal in 25 states so this isn't very surprising.

by Madison Margolin
Aug 31 2016, 11:00pm

Image: Flickr

It's not just here in Brooklyn that you can smell weed around every street corner. Throughout the United States, more people are using cannabis, according to a new study, and less people think it's bad for you.

Published Wednesday in The Lancet Psychiatry, a study of more than 500,000 American adults found that cannabis use increased from 10.4 percent to 13.3 percent between 2002 and 2014. The study also found that the prevalence of the perceived risk of smoking cannabis once or twice a week decreased from 50.4 percent to 33.3 percent.

Marijuana use disorders, like feeling addicted or misusing it, didn't increase with more use, hovering around 1.5 percent throughout the 12-year study. The authors believe this could be because many of the people who started using cannabis in the past year might be smoking up less frequently than those who have used it longer.

"I think that we can say that changes in marijuana laws are associated with a reported increase in use and reported decrease in perception of risk, but we cannot say that legalization directly caused these things to happen," said Amanda Reiman, manager of marijuana law and policy for the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit aimed at ending the Drug War. She said, however, that legalization might make more people openly seek and share information, which could account for the shift in perception of risk.

The benefits of more cannabis use include fewer people dying from opiate overdoses and from car accidents, noted psychiatrist Julie Holland, author of The Pot Book. However, the study's findings also have dubious consequences for adolescents.

While the study didn't look at teens, researchers said it was important that a decreased perception of risk does not accompany increased use among adolescents. Author Dr. Wilson Compton, deputy director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said clinicians should be concerned about marijuana use interfering with teens' brain development and growth.

"Sometimes adolescents want to do the opposite of what adults are doing [i.e. smoking marijuana], other times they mimic and copy the behaviors," he said.

Marijuana users should also be made aware of the correlation between schizophrenia and cannabis use, added Jerry Otero, founder of Cre8tive YouTh*ink, a creative-arts, social-justice, youth-development organization, and former youth policy manager at Drug Policy Alliance. "For a very small percentage of people who have what's called 'latent schizophrenia,' because they have a history of it in their family, [young adult cannabis use] could trigger that."

But people should also know how much safer marijuana is than alcohol, Otero said. There are more than 80,000 alcohol related deaths each year, but zero recorded deaths in history from marijuana. "With more people now using marijuana, maybe we can deal with the real underlying reasons of why it's prohibited in the first place—the racism, the hysteria—in terms of how to educate adults."

The authors recommended more overall public education to accompany the rise in marijuana use. "This will be a challenge. The history of exaggerated reporting of the risks of marijuana use have created distrust about any health messages about marijuana," said Wayne Hall, professor at the University of Queensland, Australia, and Director and Inaugural Chair of the Centre for Youth Substance Abuse Research. Hall prescribes more education to combat driving under the influence and developing a dependence on cannabis.

The study doesn't dive into how to educate people about marijuana. Nor does it measure if people are using weed instead of alcohol or painkillers. This information could signal the actual impact of marijuana use on public health.

But the increase in adult marijuana use might make it easier to pass more lenient laws, added Hall. And those laws, in turn, could help us understand and research marijuana to know exactly where it stands in our country.