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Conservative States Have Higher Rates of Cannabis Abuse

By Leo Bear-McGuinness

Published: Jan 28, 2019   
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Adolescents living in more conservative states are more likely to abuse cannabis than their peers living in liberal states, according to a new study from a team at Columbia University. 

The research found that while liberal US states had higher rates of cannabis use overall, conservative states had higher rates of abusive use. 

The results were unrelated to whether the states had legalized medicinal use or not. Instead, responsible drug use was found to be in correlation with more liberal policies, such as those affecting gun control and abortion access. 

A landmark in US cannabis research, the study is one of the first to assess the relationship between policy liberalism and the health outcomes of cannabis use. The research was published in the International Journal of Drug Policy.

The kids are all high 

With cannabis legally available in over 30 states, there is now a plentiful supply of US users to provide useful data for research. As suspected by many, such studies have shown that cannabis use does increase among young adults following the introduction of state medicinal and recreational cannabis laws. 

But a state’s laws aren’t the only factor that can influence the drug habits of its youth, according to Morgan Philbin, PhD, assistant professor of sociomedical sciences and lead author of the Columbia University study. 

“The majority of existing work has explored the relationship between medical cannabis laws and cannabis outcomes, whereas our results identified important relationships between the state-level policy context as a whole, and cannabis use outcomes,” explains Philbin

Philbin and her team sourced their data from the State Rank on Policy Liberalism Index, a sociopolitical scale developed by political scientist Virginia Gray. By ranking policies affecting issues like labor rights and abortion, the scale places states such as California, Connecticut and Hawaii at the liberal end, and those such as Alabama, Louisiana and Texas at the conservative edge. These data were then correlated against statistics from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health from 2004-2006 and 2010-2012 concerning drug users aged 12-26 and older. 

Overall, young people aged 12-25 in liberal states used the drug significantly more than their counterparts living in conservative regions. For instance, average drug use among adults aged 18-25 increased from 33 percent to 37 percent in liberal states, while conservative states only saw a jump from 25 percent to 26 percent for the same age group. Those aged over 26 also reported using cannabis the least. And there was no significant change in the drug use of children aged 12-17 in any state, conservative or liberal. 

But perhaps the most salient finding was the disparity between levels of cannabis use disorder (CUD). The illness, which is recognized by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, is associated with dependence. If separated from their regular supply, users with CUD will feel withdrawal symptoms like mood and sleep problems, which can negatively impact on their life. In both conservative and liberal states, the study noted a drop in the number of young people with CUD. According to the statistics from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the rates of CUD among young people aged 18-25 in liberal states fell from 20 to 17 percent. In contrast, conservative states’ rates dropped from 22 to 18 percent, despite having fewer young people using the drug to begin with. 

Of course, the study was only looking into associations. Any findings, no matter how significant, don’t prove that living in a liberal state will lead to any young person using more cannabis. But the findings do highlight the subtle effects political policies may have on local drug use. 

Putting the research into context, Philbin commented “While this research does not suggest that being in a liberal state causes people to use cannabis, or have lower rates of cannabis use disorder, it does highlight how states may differ beyond substance use policies, and how these differences also merit attention.”

Ultimately, more research into how local policies affect cannabis use will be needed before any strong conclusions about their effects can be made. 

Leo Bear-McGuinness

Science Writer & Editor

Leo joined Analytical Cannabis in 2019. From research to regulations and analysis to agriculture, his writing covers all the need-to-know news for the cannabis industry. He holds a Bachelor's in Biology from Newcastle University and a Master's in Science Communication from the University of Edinburgh.


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