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Adolescents who view more advertising for medical marijuana are more likely to use marijuana, express intentions to use the drug and have more-positive expectations about the substance, according to a new RAND Corporation study.

Researchers say that future research should look more closely at the impact of different sources of marijuana advertising, such as billboards, magazine ads or signage at retail outlets.

About the RAND Corporation

Youth who were exposed to more medical marijuana advertising also were more likely to report negative consequences because of marijuana. This included missing school, having trouble concentrating on tasks, doing something they felt sorry for later or having gotten into trouble at school or home.

The findings—from a study that tracked adolescents’ viewing of medical marijuana ads over seven years—provides the best evidence to date that an increasing amount of advertising about marijuana may prompt young people to increase their use of the drug. The study was published by the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

Researchers say the issue is of increasing importance because 29 states and Washington D.C. have approved sales of medical marijuana, and nine states and Washington D.C. also have approved recreational sales of the drug. Both actions are likely to lead to more marijuana advertising that will be visible to adolescents, even if they are not the target of the ads.

Adolescents and young adults in the United States are constantly exposed to substance-related media and advertising content. The current study seeks to explore, developmentally, how exposure to substance-related media content influences both normative beliefs about peer alcohol use and individual alcohol use. Youth (N = 4‚840; 50.6% female) were followed for ten years from age 12 to 22. Auto-regressive latent trajectory with structured residual (ALT-SR) models were used to explore within-person reciprocal associations between substance-related media content, descriptive norms, and alcohol use. Results indicated that‚ across adolescence and young adulthood, exposure to substance-related media content was associated with increased alcohol use via perceived alcohol norms. The pathway from media exposure to alcohol use was mediated by increased perceived norms for adolescents only. With screen time increasing over the last decade, it is important to invest resources into real-time interventions that address substance-related social media content as it relates to misperceived norms and to begin these interventions in early adolescence.

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The RAND study followed 6,509 adolescents from 2010 until 2017 who were originally recruited from 16 middle schools in three school school districts in Southern California, and went on to more than 200 high schools in the region. Participants were periodically surveyed to assess their exposure to medical marijuana advertising, and asked about marijuana use and related topics.

The participants were ethnically diverse. and rates of marijuana use at the outset of the study were similar to national samples of adolescents.

Higher ad viewing also linked to positive views about cannabis

Researchers say that future research should look more closely at the impact of different sources of marijuana advertising, such as billboards, magazine ads or signage at retail outlets.

Adolescents who reported greater exposure to medical marijuana advertising were more likely to report having used marijuana over the previous 30 days, and were more likely to report that they expected to use marijuana during the next six months. Viewing more medical marijuana advertising also was associated with having more-positive views about the drug, such as agreeing that marijuana relaxes a person and helps a person get away from their problems.

The proportion of adolescents who reported viewing medical marijuana advertising increased sharply over the course of the study. In 2010, 25 percent of the participants reported seeing at least one medical marijuana advertisement during the previous three months — the exposure rate grew to 70 percent by 2017.