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SAMHSA reports increased cannabis use among most age groups: Americans assume more risks with marijuana

By Brandon A. Dorfman
Sep 15, 2018

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration released the results of the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health on Friday, highlighting trends in both drug use and mental health disorders among different populations across the United States. Of note was the diverging trends in marijuana use between younger and older generations, with youth under the age of 17 showing a decline in use in recent years, while those over the age of 18 becoming more likely to pick up the habit.

“There are significant increases in marijuana use in all adults,” representatives from the organization noted in a presentation outlining the data. “18-25 years, 26 and older, you’ll see solid numbers in 12-17-year-olds. When you look at marijuana use in 18-25-year-olds in past month use, 22 percent of 18-25-year-olds are using marijuana, and 7.6 percent or 2.6 million 18-25-year-olds are daily or almost daily users.”

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Overall, 22 percent of those surveyed, or 7.6 million people reported using marijuana in the past month, up from 20 percent in 2016. Women made up the largest increase in users over that period, with 19.2 percent of female respondents saying the used cannabis in the past month, which was equivalent to 3.3 million people. That number was up from 17.5 percent, or 3 million the year before.

Instances of marijuana use disorder or addiction to the drug appear to remain steady over the past few years, even falling among those under the age of 17. Roughly 1.8 million adults surveyed reported as having marijuana use disorder, or 5.2 percent of respondents.


2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health/SAMHSA

A changing attitude towards cannabis

Below the surface, the data appears to show a shifting attitude towards cannabis among the populace. While the specific effects of legalized cannabis have yet to be determined in regards to the data, it is generally accepted that Americans see marijuana as less dangerous than other street drugs such as heroin or cocaine.

“Specific state-by-state estimates [on legalized cannabis] are not yet available but will be within a few months,” an administration official told PotNetwork via email. “Nationally, the data do show that people do not see marijuana as a large risk.”

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Relative to other, more common vices, recent studies show a general preference towards cannabis as a safer alternative. According to one such study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine earlier this year, most adults in the U.S. believe the more significant risks associated with marijuana are legal rather than medical. The study titled "Risks and Benefits of Marijuana Use: A National Survey of U.S. Adults" went on to show American’s misconceptions about marijuana; how many rattle off the benefits of the drug that science has yet to prove.

“I don’t think ruminating on whether marijuana is less harmful than alcohol or other drugs is the correct way to think about it from a health perspective nor do I think we have good data to reach an objective conclusion about that comparison based on evidence,” Dr. Salomeh Keyhani, a professor of general internal medicine at the University of California, San Francisco and lead author of the study told PotNetwork. “The argument that marijuana might be safer than alcohol is an interesting one from a legalization/decriminalization standpoint but has nothing to do with the effects of marijuana use on health.”


2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health/SAMHSA

Cannabis not the opioid cure-all

Opioids continue to dominate the public conversation on substance abuse, although this year’s National Survey did show some bright spots on the subject. According to the results presented on Friday, the number of first-time heroin user dropped significantly as compared to the previous year. However, opioid users, as well as heavy drinkers and those suffering from depression did tend to use cannabis more often.

It’s not that one drug leads to another —the so-called “gateway drug” theory still pervasive in some circles, though widely debunked. Instead, it’s that more users seem not to have one particular drug of choice.

“On the opioid question, we do know that most opioid users are polysubstance users,” a SAMHSA spokesperson told PotNetwork.

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While this in itself may not be news, it does complicate the growing narrative that cannabis may be the answer to all-things opioid-related. Those in the industry with a stake in this narrative blindly promote studies that validate their point of view while ignoring the data that doesn’t. And the truth is, there isn’t enough data to make an informed decision at this moment in time.

“How you use marijuana and at what dose and frequency will influence how it affects health,” Dr. Keyhani continued. “At this point, we have very little data to understand the full spectrum of potential harms. I do think that the public may be getting mixed messages and might be  conflating the public policy discussion around the benefits of decriminalization with the notion that it’s harmless.”


2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health/SAMHSA

An issue of note

All of this is not to say that cannabis legalization is not a net positive for large numbers of stakeholders, both groups and individuals. As a finance issue, as a social justice issue, as a free market issue, and even in many ways as a medical issue, marijuana legalization continues to transform the cultural landscape and the dialogues that accompany it.

But the unknowns are far greater than the knowns. “Americans' view of marijuana use is more favorable than existing evidence supports,” Dr. Keyhani’s team concluded.

Meanwhile, marijuana use is rising in almost every adult age group according to SAMHSA, and use itself is now an issue of note.

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