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RAND Study Says Cannabis Ads May Increase Underage Use

May 16, 2018
(Kristen Wyatt/AP)
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.”

I’m a Cannabis-Using Mom. How Should I Talk to My Kids About Legalization?

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.”


Less Moral Outrage, More Harm Reduction: Revamping Cannabis Education for the Age of Legalization

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.

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.

View Bruce Barcott's articles

  • kelley davis

    so all the beer ads need to come down too right? oh and pharmaceuticals? all things teens abuse.

    • kelley davis

      “The researchers suggest that the mere presence of beer marketing of any kind acts to normalize the use of beer”

      • malcolmkyle

        So remove them first and then we’ll talk about further.

  • malcolmkyle

    Here’s the real science:

    Study: Cannabis/Marijuana Use Not Predictive Of Lower IQ, Poorer Educational Performance

    “… to test the relationships between cumulative cannabis use and IQ at the age of 15 and educational performance at the age of 16. After full adjustment, those who had used cannabis more than 50 times did not differ from never-users on either IQ or educational performance. Adjusting for group differences in cigarette smoking dramatically attenuated the associations between cannabis use and both outcomes, and further analyses demonstrated robust associations between cigarette use and educational outcomes, even with cannabis users excluded. These findings suggest that adolescent cannabis use is not associated with IQ or educational performance once adjustment is made for potential confounds, in particular adolescent cigarette use.”

    Source: C Mokrysz, et al. Clinical Psychopharmacology Unit, University College London. Published January 6, 2016 in Journal of Psychopharmacology.

  • Nathan

    Children are terrible people anyway. A lot of them grow up to be killers, rapists and government workers. I blow my smoke in their direction as much as possible to calm them down. Also make those germ bags wash their f’n hands! I’m tired of getting their sicknesses.
    Seriously, f the children they’re just as worthless as the adults.

  • lovingc

    The evidence does not support their claim.