A recent study published in the Journal Prevention Science found that the likelihood of young Americans trying cannabis before other intoxicants is increasing significantly. According to the researchers, between 2004 and 2014, the number of 12 to 21-year-olds who tried cannabis before other drugs like alcohol and cigarettes nearly doubled, from 4.8 to roughly 8%.
The researchers, who are from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), used data from the US National Survey on Drug Use and Health, in which youth self-reported their first instances of drug use. The researchers aggregated data from more than 275,000 young people.
In conducting the study, the researchers tried to discover if using cannabis first, as opposed to other drugs like alcohol, has any effect on future drug use (whether that be cannabis, alcohol, nicotine, or other drugs altogether). They found that using cannabis first is associated with a higher risk of future cannabis use disorders (CUD) or at least just a heavy use of cannabis.
This is true for other drugs studied as well. Those who use alcohol first, for example, are more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder. The same trend is observable for nicotine.
They also found that the mean age of these youth’s first cannabis use slightly increased from 14.7 in 2004 to 15.2 in 2014. A similar trend was found with tobacco, alcohol and other drug use.
Although instances of youth trying cannabis before other substances increased, the substance that youth reported using first most commonly remained alcohol, with 29.8% of respondents reporting that they had tried alcohol before any other drugs. Cigarettes were the second most prevalent, with 14.2% of respondents trying them before other drugs.
However, cigarette use also saw a drop-off in first use in 2014 compared to earlier years. In 2004, 21.4% of respondents reportedly tried cigarettes before any other drugs, but only 8.9% of respondents did the same in 2014.
According to the drug use study, early use of both alcohol and cannabis both have the potential to negatively affect an individual’s health. “Alcohol and marijuana may also have neurocognitive effects on adolescent brain development that impair behavioral control and lead to riskier decision-making, such as engaging in more serious drug use,” write the researchers.
Other recent studies on drug use have cast doubt on the hypothesis that early cannabis consumption can lead to future cognitive deficiencies. One meta-analysis of 69 studies found that the cognitive impacts of cannabis use after abstaining for 72 hours shrank to “a very small, nonsignificant effect size.”
The researchers from NICHD admit that the data used in this study has shortcomings. For one, the study was based on self-reported data, which is subject to biases. The researchers also lacked data on socioeconomic factors such as mental health, parental situations, and income.
Despite these limitations, the researchers were able to observe differences in the first drug of choice among demographic groups. According to the study, males and those from Native American, Black, Hispanic or multiracial backgrounds were more likely to try cannabis before other drugs. As a result, they suggest targeting drug prevention strategies according to different groups and the substances they’re more likely to try first.