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Harsh European Cannabis Laws Don’t Deter Frequent Consumers, Study Finds

By Leo Bear-McGuinness

Published: Jun 03, 2021   
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Over the past few decades, cannabis supply and consumption rates have continued to rise worldwide. In Europe, it is now estimated that around 15 percent of young adults between the ages of 15 and 30 are cannabis users.

European countries have taken a wide array of different legislative approaches to address cannabis use within their borders. Some have implemented fairly liberal cannabis policy programs. The Netherlands, for example, has its own controlled cannabis supply chain experiment. Others, such as Hungary, have brought in multi-year jail terms for the possession of even minor amounts of cannabis as a way of deterring drug use.

But exactly how these policy changes actually impact the youth in these countries, compared to others which have made no legislative changes, is still relatively unclear.

A new paper, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, has examined for the first time the effects of these national policy changes on the different cannabis use patterns of young adults in these European countries.

The researchers found that while restrictive intervention does appear to decrease the share of adolescents initiating cannabis use, there was no evidence of policy changes impacting the share of frequent cannabis users. Since these consumers are presumably the most likely to be impacted by cannabis-related health concerns or develop problematic use behaviors, this signals that strict cannabis controls might only exert a very limited impact on public health measures.

Policy reform mainly impacts perceived stigma and drug availability

The researchers used data collected from the European school Survey Project on Alcohol and other Drugs (ESPAD) to evaluate cannabis use patterns and the perceived availability of cannabis in twenty European countries between 1999 and 2015. Of these twenty countries, thirteen had implemented cannabis policy changes within this time frame, leaving seven countries to act as a control group. The researchers used a difference-in-difference statistical model – a method designed to mimic an experimental research design using observational study data – to analyze data gathered from the ESPAD.

It was found that reforms reducing the penalties for cannabis possession were often associated with reductions in perceived stigma and risk among infrequent and experimental cannabis users. Countries which increased penalties also saw a perceived reduction in the availability of the drug, which the researchers put down to a possible effectiveness in stricter laws tackling black market supply, or as a response to increased prices imposed by illicit suppliers now assuming more risk.

Most notably, policy changes appeared to have different effects on infrequent and experimental cannabis consumers compared to frequent users. There were no significant changes in the share of frequent cannabis users associated with any type of policy change.

“One fundamental reason for increasing the level of prohibition is that positive social externalities should be larger than the social costs of repression and private benefits for users,” write the researchers in the paper. “In fact, the failure in achieving this objective has led several countries to move towards depenalisation and legalisation in recent years.”

“Our results confirm that some of these reforms (INPP) [the Increase of Non-Prison Penalties] are linked to a reduction in the share of students approaching this substance, which is in line with this objective. However, the fact that no reduction is observed in the share of frequent users, who are those at higher risk, signal a limited public health impact of this approach among adolescents at higher risk, which might in turn reduce its social externalities.”

In light of these findings, the researchers suggest that any cannabis control policy aimed at tackling adolescent use ought to be accompanied by other public health projects such as adolescent substance use prevention and education programs, in order to reach this higher risk demographic.

Trends in adolescent cannabis use

To date, the majority of studies into adolescent cannabis use have focused on youth in North America, possibly due to the legalization of recreational cannabis in Canada and some parts of the United States casting more attention on adolescent drug use.

In regions where medical and/or recreational cannabis use is legal it is crucial that the impact of other factors outside of possible penalties for underage cannabis use are also examined. This allows public health experts and lawmakers to better understand the factors affecting adolescent cannabis use and misuse and what policy decisions can be made to improve wider public health.

Recently, one such study in Washington State found that regular exposure to advertising, and to a lesser extent the proximity to cannabis stores, could increase the likelihood of a young person using cannabis in the future. While many states with legal cannabis laws do restrict adverts or retail stores appearing near schools, there is little regulation governing other areas where adolescents might spend their time, such as near parks or in the digital sphere on social media.

Researchers are also interested in trends affecting how adolescents consume cannabis. In recent years, the number of American teens using cannabis vapes and edibles has increased significantly, while rates of cannabis smoking have declined. Having data on consumption methods in youth is important as it makes researchers and policy makers more aware of specific safety risks that might be affecting this demographic, outside of the general interest in how cannabis can affect the adolescent brain and body.

Rob Thomas, principal consultant at Scientific Solutions, told Analytical Cannabis in an earlier interview: “I also teach in a local high school and I can tell you now the kids will vape anything they can get their hands on.”

“And we’re finding now that many of the cannabinoid delivery devices, particularly vaping sticks, are picking up heavy metals, not from the cannabis product, not from the liquid or the oil, but from the metallic components inside these vaping devices.”

“It’s a serious problem,” he continued. “There’s a good chance that [the students] are inhaling particles of heavy metals, such as lead, when they vape.”


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