Common Reasons Why Young Adults Use Marijuana
Aron Janssen, MD is board certified in child, adolescent, and adult psychiatry and is the vice chair of child and adolescent psychiatry Northwestern University.
PhotoAlto / Sigrid Olsson / Getty Images
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 20% of young adults (between the ages of 18 and 25) used marijuana in 2016. This eye-opening statistic supports the importance of developing interventions that target people in young adulthood, which is the prime time when marijuana is being introduced and habits are forming. But in order for experts to develop effective interventions, they need to understand exactly why young adults use marijuana.
Reasons Why Young Adults Tend to Use Marijuana
Based on research, here are some possible reasons why a young adult may smoke or ingest marijuana:
Peer pressure is an obvious reason that young adults begin smoking marijuana. As a person adjusts to high school, college, or a new job or vocation, he or she is forming new friendships and sorting out personal identity and ways of socializing.
The bottom line here is that during a vulnerable time of transition, a person’s social environment can be particularly influential when it comes to experimenting with marijuana.
This does not mean that teens are using marijuana because they are pressured to do so by their friends. Instead, the normalization of drug use within their social group makes it more likely that they will use it as well.
That peer group, however, is not limited to their friends at school, but also to members of their own families. In other words, when a young adult witnesses older members of their family using marijuana, that can be a big influence.
Besides peers and family, pop culture is another means of peer pressure. Depictions of marijuana in movies, television, and social media also contribute to the normalization of marijuana use.
Belief That Marijuana Is Harmless
Due to the fact that there are few research studies examining the detrimental health effects of long-term marijuana use, some people perceive marijuana as “harmless,” potentially making it more appealing than tobacco or other illicit drugs.
However, there are both psychological and physical health effects of using marijuana. Short-term use of marijuana may lead to memory and thinking problems, loss of coordination, anxiety, and altered senses.
Long-term marijuana use has been found to increase a person’s heart rate, increase their risk for lung infections, weaken their immune system, and be associated with temporary hallucinations and paranoia.
In addition, compared to people who do not use marijuana, those who use it report poorer physical and mental health, more relationship problems, and lower life satisfaction.
Lastly, marijuana use can develop into a substance abuse disorder and, with severe use, can lead to addiction.
Relief From Mental Conditions
Teens may also use marijuana to self-treat mental health conditions such as anxiety and mood disorders. Teens report using marijuana to get relief from a variety of ailments including stress, sleep difficulties, trouble concentrating, physical pain, depression, and anxiety.
Studies have also found that marijuana use during adolescence is linked to a higher likelihood of being diagnosed with an anxiety or mood disorder during adulthood.
Talk to your child’s doctor or mental health professional if you suspect that your teen might have an undiagnosed mental health condition. Effective treatments are available.
Availability and Opportunity
Availability is a key factor when it comes to marijuana use in young adults.
Unfortunately for a growing number of today’s young adults, obtaining marijuana is becoming even easier, as more states make it legal for medical and recreational use.
Having the opportunity to smoke also contributes to the increased use of marijuana, especially in college-aged students where there are less adult supervision and more privacy.
In fact, according to the National College Health Assessment, nearly 40% of college students have tried marijuana, and marijuana use increases during the college years, with more college seniors using marijuana than college freshmen.
Other Potential Reasons
According to a study in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, besides the reasons mentioned above, young people may also use marijuana to feel good, ease boredom, relieve tension or frustration, seek deeper insights, escape problems, or to increase (or decrease) the effects of other drugs.
A Word From Verywell
A young adult’s motivation for using marijuana matters because it influences whether or not they may go on to have problems with marijuana, like a substance abuse disorder. For instance, a motive like experimentation is linked to less marijuana use and fewer future marijuana problems, whereas using marijuana to cope is a strong predictor of marijuana problems in the future.
In the end, gaining knowledge about young adults’ motivations to using marijuana is the first step to developing effective strategies for preventing marijuana use in the first place, and stopping use if a person has already begun.
Learn about the reasons why teens and young adults begin using marijuana, including peer pressure and the belief that it is harmless to their health.
Alcohol & Other Drugs
A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.
Why People Use Cannabis
Reprinted from “Cannabis” issue of Visions Journal, 2009, 5 (4), p. 9
“Lots of people know me, know I do pot, and they think that I’m a pothead. But really, the thing they don’t realize is that I have a reason for it.” 1
Cannabis users are often portrayed as unmotivated, lazy “stoners.” But research into why people use cannabis paints a different picture. It shows that most people use cannabis as a rational choice to enhance their quality of life. 1-2
Cannabis affects people in different ways. It depends on the person, the situation, the type and quality of cannabis, and the method of use. Research shows most people who use cannabis use it moderately. Since cannabis has a low risk for physical addiction, 3-5 most people are not compelled to continue to use it. Instead, people use cannabis when they perceive its effects are beneficial. People all over the world have used cannabis for thousands of years—for social, medical and spiritual reasons. Sometimes these reasons are distinct, but often they overlap.
On social use
“Just about any activity is enhanced while under the influence of cannabis. I like hiking, cycling and dancing when I’m stoned or high and. I enjoy art, music, philosophy and meditation while intoxicated. Going to a museum is one of my favourite activities under [the] influence.” 1
“In my humble opinion, weed is not a drug; it’s a seasoning. like salt for your life. So, just the same as a person would use salt to enhance a bland soup or what have you, smoking weed can make things more intense and enjoyable. ” 1
The social use of cannabis includes its use for recreation, socializing and generally improving quality of life. Most people who use cannabis today do so for these reasons.
Historical records also point to the social uses of cannabis. Ancient Hindus in India were against the use of alcohol, but accepted social cannabis use. In ancient Rome, wealthy people finished banquets with a cannabis-seed dessert that was known for the good feeling it caused. At ancient Indian weddings, cannabis (bhang) was served for good luck and as a sign of hospitality. 6
Today, people often use cannabis for specific activities and occasions. When used properly, it helps some to relax and concentrate, making many activities more enjoyable. Eating, listening to music, socializing, watching movies, playing sports, having sex and being creative are some things people say cannabis helps them to enjoy more. Sometimes people also use it to make mundane tasks like chores more fun. 1
Cannabis, used socially, often becomes part of a person’s daily routine without negative health, social, legal or economic consequences. 7 Most people use it responsibly to improve the quality of their lives, similar to the way others use alcohol or coffee. 1
The World Health Organization Constitution defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” 13 Therefore, the social uses of cannabis sometimes coincide with, or complement, its medical uses.
On medical use
“Those persons in our lives that we met that think it’s all about getting high often misunderstand that that high often relieves us of the tears, of hurt, of stress, of living with a terminal illness and a lot of other things in our daily lives.”16 “It relieves the nausea from the meds and allows me to have an appetite and to stick to the regimen of taking pills. And certain strains work better for the pain.” 16
Like people who use cannabis for social reasons, people who use cannabis for medical reasons also use it to improve their quality of life. Medical use is linked to managing physical and mental problems and to preserving health.
Cannabis has been used medically for thousands of years. In 2700 BCE, Shen Neng, Chinese Emperor and father of Chinese medicine, used cannabis as a remedy. The Ebers Papyrus, an ancient Egyptian medical text, also mentions cannabis. It was written in 1500 BCE and is one of the oldest pharmaceutical works known. 6,8
In Canada, cannabis was used as a medicine until it was added to a list of controlled substances in 1923.9 In 2000, patients won the right to again use cannabis legally as a medicine. The court ruled that people should not have to choose between their liberty and their health because both are protected in the constitution. In July 2001, in response to the court’s decision, Health Canada introduced the Marihuana Medical Access Regulations (MMAR). 10 Under the MMAR program, people can apply for a licence to legally possess and grow cannabis for medical use.
Currently, there are many barriers to the Health Canada program. For example, some physicians don’t want to participate. Also, the options for a legal supply of cannabis are limited. As a result, only about 3,000 people have licences at this time. However, about 4% of Canadians (1.2 million people) use cannabis medicinally. 11 In BC, about 200,000 people report using cannabis as medicine. 12
Cannabis is used to treat many medical conditions and symptoms. It is effective in treating nausea, loss of appetite, pain, anxiety, insomnia, inflammation and muscle spasms. These symptoms are often part of physical or mental conditions. Arthritis, cancer, HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, ADHD and post-traumatic stress disorder are some conditions cannabis can help treat.
Sometimes cannabis is more effective than pharmaceutical drugs and has fewer negative side effects. Some people use cannabis to help them cope with the side effects of, or to replace, these medications. Others use cannabis to deal with withdrawal symptoms from other legal or illegal drugs.
On spiritual use
“Marijuana actually, what it does to me beyond all other social aspects of it, it actually really combines me with nature. A lot of my religious experiences have actually come through marijuana. It is just that connection, an awareness of yourself, I think, and that you are part of nature. ” 1
“When you ingest plants that have psychoactive effects, it’s sort of like the consciousness of the plant expresses itself vicariously through your body and your mind. I like to use it for learning and to gain knowledge on how to treat people and how to live. ” 14
Spiritual well-being is widely accepted as an important part of overall health. Spiritual use of cannabis relates to seeking a sense of meaning, enlightenment and connection.
Cannabis has a rich history of spiritual use. It is listed as one of the five holy plants in the Atharvaveda, a sacred Indian text from the second millennium BCE. The Scythians, who lived in what is now Eastern Europe, used cannabis at funerals to pay respect to departed leaders. Ancient Chinese texts say that cannabis can lighten a person’s body and allow them to communicate with spirits. The Persian prophet Zoroaster (7 BCE) relied on the intoxicating effects of bhanga, a cannabis drink, to bridge heaven and earth. Some researchers believe that kannabosm, a plant mentioned in the Old Testament as an ingredient in the sacred anointing oil, was an ancient name for cannabis. 6
Today, some people use cannabis in their spiritual practice. Rastafarians and some Hindus and Sikhs use cannabis in religious ceremonies. Other people use it in ways they consider spiritual, such as for reflection, contemplation or personal growth. The relaxing effects of cannabis help some people gain a different perspective when trying to understand difficult life situations. 1 Some believe that cannabis, as a plant, has something to teach them. 14
Cannabis is used by some to increase an appreciation for and connection with nature. 1,14 People also use cannabis to bond with each other. These feelings of connectedness contribute to an overall sense of “oneness.” 1
Despite the criminal laws in Canada surrounding cannabis, about 50% of Canadians have tried cannabis at some point in their lives. About 14% of Canadians are current users. 11 People who don’t use cannabis may not understand why others do use it. The same is true for those who have tried it and didn’t see any benefit. However, with a better understanding of the reasons people use cannabis, we can look past the stigma and assumptions. From here, it will be easier to find ways to enhance the benefits and reduce potential harms to individual cannabis users and the wider population.
About the author
Osborne, G.B. and Fogel, C. (2008). Understanding the motivations for recreational marijuana use among adult Canadians. Substance Use & Misuse, 43(3), 539-572.
Hathaway, A. (2003). Cannabis effects and dependency concerns in long-term frequent users: A missing piece of the public health puzzle. Addictions Research and Theory, 11(6): 441-458.
Looby, A. & Earlywine, M. (2007). Negative consequences associated with dependence in daily cannabis users. Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy, 2(3).
Melamede, R. (2005). Harm reduction—The cannabis paradox. Harm Reduction Journal, 2(17). www.harmreductionjournal.com/content/2/1/17.
Nutt, D., King, L.A., Saulsbury, W. et al. (2007). Development of a rational scale to assess the harm of drugs of potential misuse. The Lancet, 369(9566): 1047-1053.
Russo, E.B. (2007). History of cannabis and its preparations in saga, science, and sobriquet. Chemistry and Biodiversity, 4(8), 1614-1648.
Thomas, G., Flight., J., Richard, K. et al. (2006). Toward a policy-relevant typology of cannabis use for Canada: Analysis drawn from the 2004 Canadian Addiction Survey. Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse. www.ccsa.ca/2006%20CCSA%20Documents/ccsa-011334-2006.pdf.
Hanus, L.O. (2008). Pharmacological and therapeutic secrets of plant and brain (endo)cannabinoids. Medicinal Research Reviews, 29(2), 213-271.
Le Dain Commission. (1972). Cannabis: A report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs. Ottawa: Information Canada.
Government of Canada. (2001, July). Marihuana Medical Access Regulations. Canada Gazette (Part II), 135(14). www.gazette.gc.ca/archives/p2/2001/2001-07-04/pdf/g2-13514.pdf.
Stockwell, T., Sturge, J., Jones, W. et al. (2007). Cannabis use in British Columbia: Patterns of use, perceptions and public opinion as assessed in the 2004 Canadian Addictions Survey. Centre for Addictions Research of BC, University of Victoria, and Centre for Applied Research on Mental Health and Addictions, Simon Fraser University. carbc.ca.
Preamble to the Constitution of the World Health Organization as adopted by the International Health Conference, New York, 19-22 June 1946; signed on 22 July 1946 by the representatives of 61 states (Official Records of the World Health Organization, no. 2, p. 100) and entered into force on 7 April 1948. www.who.int/governance/eb/who_constitution_en.pdf.
Moffat, B.M. et al. (2009). A gateway to nature: Teenagers’ narratives on smoking marijuana outdoors. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 29(1), 86-94.
Bottorff, J. et al. (2009, April 23). Relief-oriented use of marijuana by teens. Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy, 4(7).
Cannabis users are often portrayed as unmotivated, lazy “stoners.” But research into why people use cannabis paints a different picture. It shows that most people use cannabis as a rational choice to enhance their quality of life.1-2