Youth living in counties with a higher share of Catholics are less likely to use cannabis

New research has found evidence that the religious makeup of a county can influence cannabis use among youth. The new findings appear in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

“We became interested in this topic for a couple of reasons. To start with, marijuana use has long been a hotly debated issue in our society. This is especially the case in recent years when more states have legalized recreational marijuana use despite rising oppositions from the administration,” said study author Fanhao Nie, an assistant professor of sociology at Valdosta State University.

“Secondly, in the field of the sociology of religion, most studies are conducted to understand how religion, as an individual characteristic, may influence marijuana use. However, as sociologists, we believe that religion is also a social, group phenomenon. Therefore, to better understand the relationship between religion and marijuana use, we should use a multilevel perspective to examine how contextual religion, in conjunction with personal religiosity, may play a role in one’s marijuana use behaviors.”

The researchers analyzed data from the National Study of Youth and Religion, the 2000 U.S. Census, and the Religious Congregations and Membership Study. After controlling for a number of socioeconomic variables, they found that youth living in counties with a higher share of Catholics were less likely to use cannabis.

The share of conservative Protestants, on the other hand, did not appear to significantly affect youths’ likelihood of using cannabis. The findings are somewhat surprising, since conservative Protestants tend to oppose cannabis use while Catholics tend to have a more tolerant stance.

“One of our key findings is that youth who are not Catholics but live in a more Catholic area are also subject to the Catholic contextual effect on marijuana use,” Nie told PsyPost.

“This result may indicate that religious influence is quite diffusive, piercing through the individual identity boundary. Therefore, religion is far from being a personal thing. Rather, it is a shared, community property whose impact is above and beyond personal characteristics.”

The study — like all research — includes some caveats.

“As we have pointed out in the article, due to limitations in data, we are yet to fully grasp the mechanism leading to the Catholic contextual effect on marijuana use. One of our speculations based on prior research is that areas with higher population share of Catholics might have relatively safer environment or more social control resources, which translates into lower likelihood of using marijuana at an early age,” Nie explained.

“Another question that interests us is how non-Judeo-Christian religious context might influence youth marijuana use behaviors. As we know many non-Judeo-Christian religions also have specific teachings regarding substance use. We hope that future research with relevant data may help us better understand the contextual influence of religion on marijuana use across national and cultural boundaries.”

“Both religion and drug use are sensitive topics worth lots of attention. Although we do not espouse any specific religious institution, studies including our own do show that the organization of a religion may have beneficial or harmful effects on our health,” Nie added.

“The Catholic church of the 20th and 21st centuries is known for its many social justice programs spearheaded by the essence of Rerum Novarum. Such effects may be divergent though, our other study in the Review of Religious Research shows that Catholic population share increases the risk of underage drinking.”

The study, “The Moral Community Divide: Underage Marijuana Use Across Religious Contexts“, was authored by Fanhao Nie and Xiaozhao Y. Yang.