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Teen's perspective on their use of marijuana is the focus of a B.C.- wide study - photo by Martin Dee
Teen's perspective on their use of marijuana is the focus of a B.C.- wide study - photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 51 | No. 10 | Oct. 6, 2005

Marijuana and Youth Culture

Ground-breaking study looks at teenage attitudes

By Hilary Thomson

Is it therapeutic, harmless or addictive? Adult opinions about marijuana vary widely, but what do teenagers think about using marijuana and how do their perceptions influence their use?

That’s what Nursing Prof. Joy Johnson wants to find out in a three-year study that begins this month and involves interviews with 30 male and 30 female youth aged 14-18 years who use marijuana several times per month or more. Interviews will be conducted in Vancouver, Port Alberni on Vancouver Island, and Nelson in southeastern B.C.

It is the first study in Canada to include adolescents who are frequent marijuana users.

There are still a lot of unanswered questions about the health effects of marijuana, says Johnson. New research is needed particularly since the drug is more potent and available than it was even 10 years ago.

“This study is a way to start a real conversation about marijuana,” says Johnson, who is an expert on tobacco use among youth. “We want youth and adults to be fully informed about the drug and how adolescents understand and experience it.”

Young researchers, who can establish rapport with students, will stay about three weeks at each research site. They will explain the project to parents, teachers and community members and collect data from them using focus groups. Researchers will then conduct confidential interviews in local schools and libraries. Personal interviews will be supplemented by using web logs where research participants can sign on and comment on posted research information and summaries of findings.

She and the research team want to examine the sub-culture and community norms that influence teens’ understanding of marijuana use. They also want to find out what teens know about the physiological effects of the drug, their understanding of drug dependency, and their attitudes about the health and social consequences of frequent use.

In addition, the team will investigate gender differences in how the drug is used, and how teens distinguish marijuana use from use of other mood-altering substances such as alcohol or crystal methamphetamine.

In 2004, Johnson completed a study that surveyed 8,000 teens about tobacco use. Many respondents referred to marijuana use.

A 17-year-old girl said that she started smoking marijuana at 14 and continues to smoke both tobacco and marijuana at least daily. A 16-year-old male who never smoked cigarettes reported smoking marijuana since 13. Many survey respondents stated that more teens smoke marijuana than tobacco. Often teens described using marijuana to combat feelings of depression, loneliness or social isolation.

Johnson is confident youth will share information with researchers.

“Our work so far suggests that young people welcome the opportunity to tell their stories to a non-judgmental listener.”

Participants will be asked about their attitudes toward marijuana, why and when they started using, what re-inforces their continued use and what concerns they may have about the drug.

The many subgroups of youth culture can produce different patterns of use, says Johnson. Boys often use marijuana in groups as a social activity whereas girls tend to smoke it alone. Asian youth in Vancouver use tobacco and marijuana less frequently than Caucasian youth.

Johnson expects some study participants may have parents who use the drug regularly or operate marijuana grow-ops.

She hopes the research will spark local action among students, parents and educators. Local initiatives could include buddy groups for students wanting to talk about drugs, or developing clear messages about marijuana use for parents and schools, or customized learning modules on marijuana use.

“People should be fully informed about using this drug, both its benefits and risks,” says Johnson. We need an integrated provincial policy that looks at the role of all recreational drugs with clear messaging that adults and kids find relevant and credible.”

Updates on the project will be posted to www.nahbr.nursing.ubc.ca.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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