Teens overestimate marijuana use among peers

Nov. 16, 2016, 12:19 a.m.

Recent research by Stanford developmental psychologist Bonnie Halpern-Felsher suggests that most adolescents dramatically overestimate how many of their friends use marijuana. In addition, adolescents who use marijuana themselves treat it as a stress alleviator.

As Californians recently voted “yes” on Proposition 64, legalizing marijuana for recreational use, the study’s findings can help parents, educators and healthcare providers understand adolescent decision-making.

Weed, 420, ganja, pot, cannabis, Devil’s Lettuce — the 20 percent of high school seniors who use marijuana have adopted a diverse repertoire of terms. Halpern-Felsher, who previously studied tobacco use, decided to investigate how teens think about marijuana and blunts, which are marijuana rolled into tobacco leaves.

Her team conducted a survey of 786 students from 10 densely populated high schools across California. They surveyed teens about their beliefs regarding marijuana and their patterns of use.

Their study, featured in “Preventive Medicine,” revealed a stark disparity between teens’ estimates and the realities of marijuana use. While adolescents estimate that about half their friends use marijuana, only about 16 to 25 percent reported actually doing so.

The disparity not only suggests that peer pressure plays a role in a teen’s decision to smoke — teens with friends who use marijuana were 27 percent more likely to use it themselves — but the results also indicate that changing the perception that marijuana use is “normal” could be a first step to effective marijuana education.

Halpern-Felsher, however, is more concerned with the reason why many teens choose to smoke: Teens cite stress as the number one reason.

“To me, this is an outcry that we need to reduce stress levels for our youth,” she said, emphasizing alternative methods of stress relief, like exercise and healthy eating.

Equally surprising is the lack of education teens receive regarding blunts. While adolescents believe blunts are significantly less addictive than cigarettes, blunts contain nicotine, the substance that lends tobacco products their addictive properties.

According to Halpern-Felsher, adolescence is a period when individuals can form healthy relationships with several aspects of the “adult” world. However, she stresses that nicotine use presents risks to the developing adolescent brain. She hopes that schools and healthcare providers can design and implement better substance use education programs in light of these findings.

Halpern-Felsher views the passage of Proposition 64 with caution, warning that “simply legalizing marijuana without education and regulation will likely increase social normalization of marijuana, leading youth to feel that marijuana is okay to use.”

She notes that legalizing marijuana will only increase the perception that marijuana use is socially acceptable. As marijuana already plays a significant role in the lives of teens and young adults, and its use may grow with legalization, education should follow soon after.

“In addition to comprehensive marijuana education within the schools, parents and educators need to be better informed so that they can talk to young people,” Halpern-Felsher said to Stanford Medicine News. “And healthcare providers need to assess and discuss marijuana use with their adolescent patients.”


Contact Anjini Karthik at anjinik ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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