Cannabis, Adolescence, and Identity: beyond the ‘stoner’
Closing the Grand Challenges’ Adolescent Lives series, this project examines what London-based adolescents think about cannabis use, identity and the pros and cons of cannabis use.
In the UK, 19% of 15-16 year olds have tried cannabis, and 50% of users globally try cannabis before age 18. Arguably, the last two decades have seen a ‘normalisation’ of adolescent drug use. Still, little is known about teenage cannabis users’ opinions on the different types of cannabis, the pros and cons of cannabis use, and how it affects their social identity, at a time when they are forming and perhaps changing their sense of identity.
Dr Claire Mokrysz and Dr Will Lawn from Clinical Psychophamacology, UCL Clinical Educational & Health Psychology, worked with Dr Georgia Black in UCL’s Applied Health Research unit and Katherine Petrilli to explore these questions. They formed to distinct focus groups, one comprised of regular cannabis users, and the other one of adolescents who had never tried cannabis.
Who is the typical cannabis user?
Both groups associated cannabis use with being relaxed and urban, though the non-user group commented that smokers tended to be less serious and achieve worse academic results than their peers. Non-users identified the act of smoking cannabis as a moment of separation between them and people who do use cannabis. While at most times teenagers who use and don’t use would mix, during parties and get-togethers there is a distinct segregation when users go to smoke.
Interestingly, cannabis users did not consider usage as being part of their identity, and even resisted the idea: “people probably would view me as that guy, because I do post it on my [snapchat] story. I just haven’t thought of it like that. I think of identity as things I’m interested in, things I’m passionate about, stuff that’s on my mind”. However, non-users thought that cannabis use was a strong part of the identities of people they know who use.
What are the perceived positives/negatives of use?
While therapeutic benefits were mentioned, the main positive aspect of cannabis use according to both groups was social interaction. Spending time and smoking together allowed teenagers to feel included in an almost ritualistic activity and create friendships. In terms of negatives, effects such as insomnia, paranoia, and memory problems were raised as a concern, particular in cases of heavy use.
Whilst adolescents are aware of the link between cannabis and mental health problems, cannabis users seems to prefer high potency cannabis (‘skunk’). The team suggests that some market regulation may be needed to limit the THC content in cannabis, and prevent young users from accessing it. Some education is also needed with regards to the perceived benefits of cannabis use on social anxiety and depression, which are not likely in the long term.
Will Lawn shares his experience of working on the project: “Claire and I have conducted exclusively quantitative research before this project, so being able to give a voice to the people we work with was enjoyable and exciting. It was fantastic to hear that the users had taken harm-reduction messages on board, for instance that smoking strong skunk is associated with more psychological harm than weaker hash or imported cannabis. However, despite having this knowledge, the participants still preferred to smoke the stronger cannabis; it is clearly difficult to convince teenagers to practice what is preached to them, even though they are aware of the message. It was also particularly interesting to hear the very divergent views from the non-users. Most non-users accepted their peers’ choices to use cannabis without judgment, although a minority expressed disdain and thought that smoking cannabis was ‘weak’.
Will and Claire are currently writing a systematic review on cannabis, identity and adolescence, which will hopefully be submitted later this year. Furthermore, Dr Georgia Black has taken on a masters student to conduct further focus groups to improve our sample size, with the aim of publishing these findings further down the line.