As a rising number of states move to legalize cannabis for adult use, they are also debating how best to prevent youth use.
In New York, for example, which is on track to become state number 16 (along with D.C.) to legalize cannabis, lawmakers plan to direct millions in cannabis tax revenue toward youth prevention and education campaigns, following in the footsteps of states that legalized it in years past.
Amid this push, researchers at the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), including NIDA director Nora Volkow, have released findings from a study that looked at the age of first cannabis use and the development of a cannabis use disorder. Their findings suggest that younger people are more vulnerable to misuse.
For the study, which is published in JAMA Pediatrics, they examined data from participants in the 2015 to 2018 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Surveys on Drug Use and Health. Specifically, the researchers looked at two age groups — adolescents (12-17) and young adults (18-25) — across intervals of time.
They found that a higher percentage of adolescents developed a cannabis use disorder when compared with young adults. And, they found that, following first cannabis use, adolescents more quickly developed a cannabis use disorder. For example, looking at 12 months from first use, 10.7% of those ages 12-17 reported a cannabis use disorder, compared to 6.4% of those ages 18-25.
“You get the same percentage of cannabis use disorder within one year for young people of what it takes three years for a young adult,” Volkow told Cannabis Wire. “By three years, 20% of teenagers 12 to 17, one in five, will have a cannabis disorder. And it’s basically double the amount that will end up having a cannabis use disorder among young adults.”
One explanation for the cannabis data is that adolescents are generally more vulnerable to developing substance use disorders due to biological factors. But the study did not find a more rapid development of substance use disorder among adolescents compared to young adults when it came to alcohol and tobacco.
This, Volkow said, was not what she predicted, which means that the findings may also have to do with “the likelihood of them accessing this drug,” she said, referencing cannabis.
“It is not so much having to do with differences in the pharmacology of the two drugs, between nicotine and cannabis, as it has to do with the attitudes of adolescents and the access to these drugs,” Volkow continued, adding that along with the “very dramatic liberalization of access to cannabis” over the past decade, “the perception of marijuana use risk has gone down significantly” while “the perception among adolescents that tobacco is an unhealthy behavior, it’s actually been high.”
This raises the question: could robust regulation, coupled with prevention and education campaigns, in fact reduce youth use amid legalization, considering tobacco is legal?
“I don’t see why we couldn’t do it like we did it with tobacco. There’s nothing that says it’s inherently impossible for this drug as opposed to the other. No, the issue is its implementation,” Volkow said. “You need to pay attention, you need to do a very aggressive prevention campaign to protect adolescents from getting exposed to cannabis as your main goal, like: What do we need to do? How do we regulate and test and evaluate?”