A recent study has shed light on a concerning trend among adolescents in the United States. The research, which analyzed data collected from 1976 to 2022, suggest that an increasing number of high school seniors are turning to cannabis to cope with the challenges of daily life. The findings have been published in the journal Addictive Behaviors.
Cannabis has been a subject of increasing interest among researchers due to its evolving legal status and potential health consequences. Over the past few decades, various states in the United States have legalized cannabis for medicinal and recreational use, contributing to changing perceptions of the drug among adolescents.
The study aimed to explore the reasons why adolescents use cannabis and how these reasons have evolved over time. Researchers were particularly interested in understanding whether adolescents were using cannabis to cope with stress and, if so, how prevalent this coping mechanism had become.
The researchers used data collected as part of the Monitoring the Future (MTF) study, which has been ongoing since 1976. The MTF study conducts annual surveys of nationally representative samples of 12th-grade students in the United States. These surveys initially used paper questionnaires but transitioned to tablets and web surveys in recent years.
For this study, data from 1976 to 2022 were analyzed, including responses from a total of 124,959 students. It’s crucial to note that the researchers carefully selected their sample, ensuring it represents a diverse cross-section of American 12th graders.
Students who reported cannabis use in the past 12 months were asked to indicate the reasons behind their usage. Four primary coping reasons were explored:
- Using cannabis to relax.
- Using cannabis to escape from problems or troubles.
- Using cannabis due to anger or frustration.
- Using cannabis to get through the day.
Relaxation emerged as the most common motive, with 52.9% of past 12-month cannabis users reporting that they used cannabis to relax. This suggests that many adolescents turn to cannabis as a means of unwinding and reducing stress.
“Over half of 12th graders who used cannabis in the past 12 months did so to relax,” said lead author Megan E. Patrick, a research professor at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.
Another significant reason for cannabis use among adolescents was to “escape problems.” Approximately 25% of the surveyed students reported using cannabis for this purpose. This indicates that some adolescents use cannabis as a way to temporarily avoid or numb their issues and challenges.
The study found that 17.9% of adolescents reported using cannabis due to feelings of anger or frustration. This suggests that for some, cannabis serves as a way to cope with emotional distress.
Lastly, 10.7% of adolescents reported using cannabis to “get through the day.” This implies that a subset of high school seniors relies on cannabis to help them manage their daily tasks and responsibilities.
Interestingly, the prevalence of using cannabis to relax increased significantly over the years, rising from 40.8% in 1976/1977 to 73.1% in 2021/2022. While there were fluctuations in trends, the most recent slope (from 2017/2018 to 2021/2022) indicated a substantial increase in the proportion of users endorsing relaxation.
The use of cannabis to escape problems also saw a notable increase, with the percentage of students reporting this reason rising from 18.0% in 1976/1977 to 43.2% in 2021/2022.
The prevalence of using cannabis to cope with anger or frustration increased from 12.4% in 1976/1977 to 28.4% in 2021/2022, while using cannabis to “get through the day” increased from 6.0% in 1976/1977 to 25.9% in 2021/2022.
These trends suggest that, over the years, more and more high school seniors have turned to cannabis as a coping mechanism for various stressors. “Coping-related reasons for use have been increasing over time,” Patrick summarized.
The researchers also explored how different factors, such as gender, race/ethnicity, parental education, and frequency of cannabis use, were associated with coping reasons.
“Some groups show particularly high levels of coping-related reasons for use,” Patrick told PsyPost. “For example, females were more likely to use to escape their problems and get through the day than males. Black adolescents were more likely to use to get through the day than White adolescents. Adolescents from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were more likely to use to deal with anger or frustration, and to escape their problems.”
“We know that coping-related reasons for use predict later problems, so these increasing levels of using cannabis to cope are concerning and highlight an area where we need greater prevention and intervention resources.”
While this study provides valuable insights into adolescent cannabis use, it has some limitations. For instance, the data relied on self-reports, which can be influenced by recall bias or social desirability bias. Additionally, the study focused on 12th-grade students, which may not fully represent the entire adolescent population. Future research could explore coping reasons among different age groups and those who dropped out of high school.
“These data are from nationally-representative samples of students in their last year of high school. Those who have dropped out before their senior year are not included,” Patrick noted.
The study, “Trends in coping reasons for marijuana use among U.S. adolescents from 2016 to 2022“, was authored by Megan E. Patrick, Sarah J. Peterson, Yvonne M. Terry-McElrath, Shanna Elaine B. Rogan, and Marvin A. Solberg.