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RAND Study Says Cannabis Ads May Increase Underage Use

In a study that could affect the future of cannabis advertising and ad regulations, researchers with the RAND Corporation have found that medical marijuana advertising may contribute to increased cannabis use among adolescents. The study was published early Wednesday in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

Adolescents who reported higher than average exposure to medical marijuana ads also tended to report greater marijuana use, the study found.

The study, led by Elizabeth D’Amico, followed a cohort of nearly 2,500 young students in Southern California from 2008 through 2017. D’Amico and her colleagues surveyed sixth and seventh graders (ages 11-12) in 2008 and followed them through high school (age 19). Of about 5,000 students who originally answered questions, about 2,500 completed the entire eight-year study. (Many of the others moved away, did not respond, or scattered to disparate high schools.)

Students were asked to estimate how often they had seen medical marijuana ads in the past three months. In 2010, 25% of adolescents tested reported being exposed to at least one ad. By 2017, 70% reported seeing at least one medical cannabis ad over the previous three months.

D’Amico’s main takeaways were:

  • “Adolescents that reported higher than average exposure to MM [medical marijuana] ads also tended to report greater marijuana use, stronger intentions to use marijuana in the future, stronger positive expectancies about marijuana use, and more negative consequences from use.”
  • “Overall, results suggest that exposure to MM advertising may not only play a significant role in shaping attitudes about marijuana, but may also contribute to increased marijuana use and related negative consequences throughout adolescence.”
  • “Our findings mirror those from the alcohol and tobacco fields, which have shown that increased exposure to advertising for these products is associated with increased use among adolescents. This highlights the importance of beginning to think about regulations for marijuana advertising, similar to regulations that are in place for tobacco and alcohol.”

The Thinking Has Already Begun

As with many studies dealing with cannabis, the published results here run behind the reality on the ground. The RAND study looked at the impact of advertising during California’s wild-west medical marijuana era, when production, sales, and marketing of medical cannabis were entirely unregulated by the state.

Since Jan. 1, 2018, cannabis advertising in California has been strictly regulated by the California Cannabis Control Board, which takes pains to make sure ads aren’t targeting kids.

Cannabis advertising is also heavily regulated in the seven other adult-use states.

In Canada, advertising regulations are still being worked out by each individual province. Federal legalization legislation introduced last year included a ban on advertising that “appeals to young persons” or connects cannabis to a way of life that includes “glamour, recreation, excitement, vitality, risk or daring.”

Ads Themselves, Not Aimed at Kids

The RAND study seems to suggest, however, that it’s not so much ads targeting teens that are changing their attitudes toward cannabis as it is advertising in general. The researchers suggest that the mere presence of cannabis marketing of any kind acts to normalize the use of cannabis, whether for health or social purposes. Exposure to such ads, the researchers say, tends to build “stronger positive expectancies about marijuana use.”

“For example,” write the study’s authors, “more than 50% of 10th and 12th graders across the United States now endorse the belief that smoking marijuana regularly does not carry great risk.”

That’s a tricky question, because cannabis use can carry risk to the developing teen brain, and can contain an especially high risk for teens with a family history of schizophrenia. But for adults, studies have shown that smoking cannabis carries far fewer health risks than consuming alcohol or smoking tobacco. https://www.leafly.com/news/health/heres-national-academys-medical-cannabis-report-actually-says

The RAND study will certainly inject new life into the debate over the appropriate tone, style, and place of cannabis marketing—and may spark more interest in science-based cannabis education for adolescents.

Bruce Barcott's Bio Image
Bruce Barcott

Leafly Senior Editor Bruce Barcott oversees news, investigations, and feature projects. He is a Guggenheim Fellow and author of Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America.

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