Research & Studies

Adult cannabis use rises slightly, but number of heavy users shoots up

The latest federal survey data shows that while teen marijuana use continues to decline in the era of legal pot, adult use is rising. The percent of people over the age of 18 who smoke it in a given year has risen from 10.4 percent in 2002 to 14.1 percent in 2016. In other words, 46 million people got high last year.

In and of itself, the increase in adult marijuana use isn’t particularly alarming. Public-health researchers are typically more worried about adolescent drug use, which can derail a young person’s life. If more adults are smoking marijuana once or twice a year – even once or twice a month – it’s not really a huge concern.

More concerning, though, is the number of people who are getting high all the time – heavy users who smoke on a daily or near-daily basis. The federal data shows that those numbers are increasingly precipitously.

In 2016, nearly 19 percent of people who used marijuana that year used it at least 300 days out of the year. That figure’s up by roughly 50 percent from 2002, when 12 percent of marijuana users consumed the drug daily or near-daily.

Again, this on its own is not necessarily cause for concern. It’s possible to smoke marijuana moderately on a daily basis – half a joint to wind down after a day of work, akin to the ubiquitous glass of wine with dinner, for instance.

But the comparison with alcohol is instructive here. According to the federal survey data, marijuana users are far more likely to use daily than drinkers are to drink daily.

In a given year, lots of people drink – but relatively few of them drink every day. That’s not true for marijuana. Marijuana users are nearly three times as likely as drinkers to consume their drug of choice daily.

Some of that daily marijuana use is probably inherently moderate and nothing to be concerned about. But public health researchers worry that much of it is a result of problematic use – drug dependency.

“While alcohol is more dangerous in terms of acute overdose risk, and also in terms of promoting violence and chronic organ failure, marijuana-at least as now used in the United States-creates higher rates of behavioral problems, including dependence, among all its users,” as Carnegie Mellon University researcher Jonathan Caulkins wrote for the magazine National Affairs earlier this year.

The question, then, becomes how best to address the risks of chronic, heavy marijuana use. Keeping pot illegal is not likely to solve things – after all, daily marijuana use was rising well before the first states legalized the drug in 2014.

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Legalization advocates say that bringing the drug out in the open and regulating it is the best way to go. They point to tobacco as an example: Tobacco use, including heavy use, has fallen precipitously in the past two decades as a result of public health campaigns and greater stigma around use of the drug – all of which was accomplished without throwing people in jail for using it.

Public-health experts, meanwhile, are increasingly calling for a balance between the extremes of prohibition and commercialization — “grudging toleration,” as New York University professor Mark Kleiman puts it. As a Rand Corp. report outlined last year, there are a whole host of options for dealing with the marijuana market, from allowing people to grow marijuana but not sell it, to giving the government a monopoly in marijuana sales, to more esoteric options like allowing nonprofit co-ops to control the supply of the drug.

The good news is that as laws relax around marijuana use, we’re running real-world experiments in how some of those options actually work. In the United States, we have a handful of fully commercial markets, like the ones in Colorado and Washington. We also have noncommercial legalization for homegrown marijuana in the District of Columbia.

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In Canada, meanwhile, it appears that the province of Ontario will experiment with implementing a government monopoly on the drug starting in July of next year.

One thing that’s increasingly clear is that more people than ever – 61 percent, at least – are unhappy with our traditional prohibitive approach to marijuana use and are ready to try something new.