Study examines differences between marijuana and alcohol use in teens

A new study compared the risks associated with teen alcohol use and teen marijuana use. With the controversial concept of marijuana legalization looming overhead, many are discussing exactly how dangerous the substance is. In January, President Obama stated that he believed marijuana was not more harmful than alcohol. More people are beginning to view marijuana in a positive light, yet there is little knowledge of the harm of the drug.

A rise in marijuana use

The National Institute on Drug Abuse stated that marijuana use has spiked in the past few years, despite fewer teens using in the 1990s. Daily use has also increased among adolescents, from 5 percent in the mid-2000s to 6.5 percent in 2013. The perception of the drug has also changed. With the introduction of medical marijuana, fewer young people disapprove of the drug and more are viewing it as a “safe drug.”

So, researchers from New York University’s Center for Drug Use and HIV Research decided to investigate. Their findings were published in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse.

The study authors examined data from a national sample of high school seniors who had participated in a Monitoring the Future study. Monitoring the Future, or MTF, is an ongoing annual study of the values, attitudes and behaviors of American secondary school students. The students were asked about the psychosocial effects of various substances. The researchers examined data from 7,437 students who noted using marijuana or alcohol between 2007 and 2011. Marijuana and alcohol are the most common substances for adolescents to use. The study noted that approximately two-thirds of teens have used alcohol and about half have used marijuana in their lifetime. However, this is the first study to compare the two substances side by side.

The risks of unsafe driving

The study revealed that teens reported unsafe driving while under the influence of alcohol, especially in those who drank often.

“Compared to non-drinkers, frequent drinkers were over 13 times more likely to report that their alcohol use has led to unsafe driving,” said Joseph Palamar, Ph.D., M.P.H., an assistant professor of population health at NYU Langone Medical Center. “Marijuana users, compared to non-users, were three times more likely to report unsafe driving as a direct result of use.”

Alcohol also carried greater risk of compromising relationships and causing feelings of regret, especially among females. Males also stated feeling less emotionally stable and unable to think clearly. Conversely, marijuana users did not report any poor outcomes with use. Overall, females reported more poor outcomes than males.

The researchers noted that the more often adolescents used, the greater risk for poor outcomes. However, the relationship between alcohol and regret was much stronger than the relationship between marijuana use and regret.

Despite the lack of poor outcomes, marijuana users are viewed more negatively by authoritative figures. Marijuana users are more often seen as “bad” most likely because the substance is still illegal. The study revealed that marijuana users are 23 times more likely to get in trouble with the police.

“As a controlled substance, mere possession of marijuana may increase the risk of significant legal consequences compared to an age-restricted legal substance such as alcohol, so this was not unexpected,” said Palamar. “Smoking marijuana also tends to leave a strong odor, which can easily draw attention to authorities.”

The study authors concluded that marijuana and alcohol have individualized and adverse effects. Many variables such as sex and gender influence the outcomes. They believe that public health education may be a good way to prevent high risks. They hope that their findings will encourage further research on the two substances and the policies that surround them.

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