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The past decade has witnessed a transformative shift in the perception and availability of cannabis, thanks to widespread reform and the legalization of adult-use. Despite concerns raised by opponents regarding increased access among minors, numerous studies have debunked the notion that legalizing cannabis automatically leads to higher usage among young adults and minors. A recent study conducted by the University of Oklahoma takes a broader view on this issue.
The researchers focused on tracking substance use patterns among more than 8,000 young adults aged 18 to 24 over a period of six years to determine the order in which they typically experiment with various substances. Surprisingly, the study reveals that young people tend to try alcohol and tobacco before experimenting with cannabis.
This study, titled "First use of cannabis compared to first use of alcohol and tobacco: Associations with single and poly-substance use behavior," was published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence. The authors highlight that around 145 million Americans lived in a state with some form of legalized recreational or medical cannabis use in 2022, accounting for 45% of the U.S. population. They also note that legal cannabis markets are particularly relevant to young adults aged 18 to 24, as they exhibit the highest rates of past-year and past 30-day cannabis use (23.2%) compared to younger individuals (6.3%) and adults over 25 (10.4%).
Previous research has consistently pointed to alcohol as a catalyst for subsequent substance use. Therefore, the study poses the question: has the legalization of cannabis altered this pattern? The authors highlight that no previous studies have examined whether initiating cannabis use before alcohol and tobacco, compared to using them at the same age, increases the risk of engaging in current poly-substance use and other drug use.
The researchers utilized data from Waves 1 through 5 of the Population Assessment of Tobacco and Health (PATH) study restricted use files, spanning from September 2013 to November 2019.
The results of the study indicate that only a small percentage (6%) of young individuals initiated substance use with cannabis. Interestingly, those who did were less likely to consume alcohol later in life and were also less likely to report substance abuse or mental health issues. Among those who exclusively initiated cannabis, the majority were male (62.3%), over a third were non-Hispanic white (38.3%), and most had a high school diploma or GED (65%), while 34.9% had some college experience.
Furthermore, the study found that individuals who initiated cannabis use concurrently with alcohol and tobacco (22%) were more prone to later use multiple drugs. The study suggests that alcohol remains the most common substance of initiation, with 52% of respondents consuming alcohol before trying any other controlled substances.
In conclusion, the authors state that "alcohol is overwhelmingly tried before either tobacco or cannabis." They also note that initiating cannabis use at an earlier age than alcohol and tobacco is relatively rare. Those who initiated cannabis before alcohol and tobacco exhibited fewer vulnerabilities to substance use and mental health issues compared to individuals who tried cannabis at the same age as another substance.
The study's findings align with previous research and challenge the stereotype of cannabis being a "gateway drug." One study from 2016, which evaluated drug use patterns among 2,835 high school seniors, similarly found that alcohol was the first substance consumed by those who later engaged in polydrug use. The researchers emphasized that the earlier one initiates alcohol use, the higher the likelihood of future illicit substance use.
Numerous studies have attempted to investigate the long-standing claim that cannabis acts as a gateway drug, leading to the use of other substances. However, these studies consistently find little evidence to support this assertion.