Stoned Nation? Rates of US Marijuana Use Double over a Decade

November 7, 2015
Medical ComplicationsIn 2001, about 4.1 percent of adults in the United States self-reported use of marijuana.
By 2013, that number was up to 9.5 percent, according to a study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry. The idea that almost 10 percent of the population uses marijuana is a source of consternation for some, but the fact that this number doubled over the course of a dozen years – and perhaps may be higher given the legislative changes that have occurred in different states since that time – is a greater issue for others.

Why did it happen? Will it continue? And what are the repercussions of living in a stoned nation?

Theories and Conjecture

  • Honesty: Some believe that part of the increase may not be an actual increase in use of marijuana at all but an increase in honesty. The theory is that marijuana is increasingly more accepted as a recreational and medicinal drug. While someone may have felt compelled to lie in answer to a question about their use of the drug 15 years ago, they feel less concerned about negative stigma now.
  • Shift in perspective: In 2002, less than 33 percent of Americans were supportive of the legalization of marijuana, says the Pew Research Center, but by 2013, a majority of Americans were on board with the idea of legalizing the drug for medicinal and/or recreational use. This shift in perspective may not have just increased the likelihood that someone would be honest about use when asked but may have contributed to the likelihood that someone would seek out the drug or try it when presented with an opportunity – especially young people – believing that it is a safe, even harmless, substance.
  • Increased access: As of 2012, marijuana was legalized in certain states for recreational use. Currently, the National Conference of State Legislatures reports that medical marijuana is legal in the District of Columbia and 23 states, and that recreational use of the drug is legal in four states. Legally available marijuana means greater access to the drug, which in turn likely influenced the rates of use.
  • Increased addiction: With more people using the drug, more people are developing a marijuana addiction. Addiction translates into greater rates of use, which can increase the impact of a drug on the community and potentially increase the likelihood that others will access or use the drug, and even develop marijuana abuse and addiction problems of their own.

Deborah Hasin was the lead author of the study and is a professor of epidemiology in psychiatry at Columbia University. She said: “We showed that it happened. Now, the thing that really needs to be researched is the why. You can speculate that Americans are increasingly viewing marijuana as a harmless substance… or laws are changing. But we don’t really know until you do good, empirical studies on what factors are really influencing it.”

Marijuana Abuse and Addiction

The study researchers also investigated rates of marijuana use disorders when they looked at the rates of use by looking at data from the 2001-2002 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions and comparing it to information from the 2012-2013 survey. They found that about three people out of every 10 who used marijuana were living with a marijuana use or addiction disorder – about 30 percent of people who used the drug and about 6.8 million people in the US.
The authors wrote in the study: “While many in the United States think prohibition of recreational marijuana should be ended, this study and others suggest caution and the need for public education about the potential harms in marijuana use, including the risk for addiction. As is the case with alcohol, many individuals can use marijuana without becoming addicted. However, the clear risk for marijuana use disorders among users (approximately 30 percent) suggests that as the number of US users grows, so will the numbers of those experiencing problems related to such use.”

Treatment, Not Jails

Heroin WithdrawalJust as those who develop an alcohol use disorder are not jailed as a result of the problem, so too do those who struggle with a marijuana use disorder need the support of a medical detox and addiction treatment program that is designed to help them find healthier ways to relax, manage stress, or deal with underlying mental health symptoms like depression or anxiety. Incarceration for behaviors or choices related to marijuana use and abuse does not address the underlying issue: the brain changes that occur due to chronic use of any mind-altering substance and the compulsion to get high that often informs all other decisions.

Treatment, on the other hand, does actively assist the person in not only stopping use of all addictive substances in a manner that is safe and effective but also empowers the person to assess what may have driven use and abuse of the drug. Treatment also encourages the person to actively seek out healthier ways of accomplishing goals. Additionally, if a co-occurring mental health disorder is part of the issue – a personality disorder, mood disorder, anxiety disorder, etc. – then treatment for that issue will help to decrease the impulse to get high on marijuana or any other substance and improve the functionality of people in every area of their lives.

What Do You Think?

In light of the findings of high rates of marijuana use and a 30 percent marijuana use disorder rate among users, what do you think should be the response of policymakers, the medical community, and the American people?

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