Marijuana has long been labeled a “gateway drug” for teens, as well as a drug that could lead teens down a path toward delinquent behavior and addiction. With so many states heading toward the legalization of cannabis for medical and recreational use, it is reasonable that parents may be concerned that greater availability could increase the likelihood that their kids could develop habits that may cause behavior problems and negatively impact their futures.
However, a recent study has yielded results that suggest we may have to rethink our understanding of the relationship between teen marijuana use, conduct problems, and addiction.
Do conduct problems in teens lead to marijuana use?
The study, led by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, aimed to determine whether cannabis use during adolescence increased risk of cannabis use disorder as well as conduct problems. What researchers found was that, despite the common perception that marijuana use is a gateway to behavior problems, this relationship could actually be in the reverse.
In other words: rather than the marijuana use causing the poor behavior, the behavior issues appear to predict the marijuana use.
The study followed 364 adolescents from a socioeconomically diverse urban community for 8 years (2004-2012), from early adolescence to adulthood. Data was gathered via a questionnaire that allowed participants to report varying degrees of cannabis use, peer cannabis use, and conduct problems such as skipping class, cheating, and stealing.
Though self-reporting often raises questions about validity, researchers said that following the kids over many years reduced the probability of flawed conclusions. It gave them a measure of change over time rather than a single set of data points, enabling them to review causal relationships rather than simply observe associations.
Adolescents reporting conduct problems early on demonstrated “cascading links” wherein they were more likely to engage in cannabis use, hang around others who also used cannabis, and eventually develop cannabis use disorder.
The study also determined that participants affiliating with peers who used cannabis increased the likelihood that they themselves would use cannabis. A somewhat surprising finding regarding the relationship between cannabis use and peers who also use cannabis was that cannabis users did not tend to seek out other cannabis users.
Rather, use of cannabis by any in an existing peer group increased the probability that others in that same peer group would eventually become cannabis users themselves.
The study estimates that approximately one quarter of adolescents who use cannabis will develop a mild cannabis use disorder, which is about the same number of teens who drink alcohol and later develop an addiction to alcohol.
The study did not delve into the reasons why students who already had conduct problems were more likely to use marijuana, but researchers hypothesized it could be a way to self-medicate. This theory aligns with other studies that suggest a link between early adolescent depression and later development of cannabis use disorder.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, cannabis use disorder is said to affect nearly 6 million Americans, and is often unrecognized and untreated. The disorder causes a physical dependency and a lack of motivation that interferes with daily activities.
As states continue to relax regulation of cannabis and it becomes increasingly available and normalized, researchers suggest this could lead to increased risk of cannabis use and cannabis use disorder, especially for youth who already demonstrate conduct problems.
Given the link between conduct problems and later marijuana use and dependency, researchers recommend that students struggling with behavior problems be provided with “healthier coping strategies and support” in order to reduce the risk for later substance abuse and dependency.