Americans’ views on marijuana have rapidly evolved in recent years, with a strong majority now in favor of legalization. But what’s really been behind the attitude shift?
A recent study published in the journal Social Science Research used data from national opinion polls such as the General Social Survey to test a series of hypotheses on the topic. Ultimately, many factors that are commonly attributed to shifting attitudes on social issues—such as race, gender and education—do not seem to apply to cannabis, the study found.
Rather, the post-1980 evolution of views on the issue appear to be related to changes in religious identity, a decrease in perceptions of risk toward marijuana use and changing attitudes about the criminal justice system. Here are the main findings:
—While shifting attitudes toward various issues can often be interpreted as generational shifts—with younger people replacing older ones and having their views more strongly represented—that’s not the case with marijuana. The study found that “changes in cannabis legalization support since the 1980s are largely the result of intra-cohort changes in attitudes as opposed to cohort succession,” meaning that views shifted across generations at roughly the same time.
—It does appear that an increase in the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated since 1991 has contributed to the increased support for legalization. The researchers estimated that the evolution of religious identity accounted for 12 percent of the attitude change.
(Related: A separate study recently found that religiosity accounts for some of the difference in marijuana legalization support between men and women.)
—The way that news outlets portray marijuana and its effects seems to have coincided with shifting views on legalization. “One influence that seems most plausible in contributing to changes in attitudes is an increase in the news media’s framing of cannabis as a medical issue,” the paper concluded. “[A] relatively high proportion of the change in views about the disapproval of cannabis are associated with a decrease in the percentage of people who see it as harmful.”
—Increased rates of cannabis consumption didn’t seem to have had a significant impact on how people viewed the issue, but changes in how people perceive the risk of occasional or regular marijuana use “accounted for 38 percent of the decrease in disapproving attitudes [toward legalization] over the period 2002-2014,” according to the study.
—Opposition to marijuana reform was especially strong during the Reagan era, as anti-drug rhetoric ramped up. But in the decades that followed, more Americans came to the opinion that the drug war created an excessively punitive criminal justice system. The researchers found that attitudes toward cannabis legalization started shifting “before Americans began to feel that the criminal justice system was too harsh.” But in the years since, “there could have been reciprocal effects whereby changing views in one area (e.g., criminal justice system) reinforced changing views in the other (e.g., cannabis).” All told, evolving views toward the criminal justice system accounted for 14 percent of the change in pro-legalization attitudes.
—Finally, one interesting result of the survey analysis showed that policy changes at the state level did not influence attitudes toward cannabis legalization. That is, simply residing in a state where marijuana has been legalized was not a statistically significant factor in the attitude shift. Similarly, living in a state that neighbors a legal state was not a factor either.
“This study advances our understanding of why attitudes changed through an empirical examination of a range of plausible explanations,” the study authors wrote. “As cannabis becomes legal in more places, it is likely to remain an important topic, and Americans’ views are likely to liberalize further.”
Psychedelics May Help If You Have A Drinking Problem, Study Suggests
On the heels of Denver becoming the first city in the country to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms, new research suggests that using psychedelic substances may help some people with alcohol use disorder (AUD).
“Findings indicate that, in some cases, naturalistic psychedelic use outside of treatment settings is followed by pronounced and enduring reductions in alcohol misuse,” states the study, which suggests that the substances have “the potential for dramatic change.”
The findings, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology last week, support past studies that link psychedelic use in clinical and religious settings with a decrease in unhealthy alcohol consumption.
Researchers from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine were interested in getting a better understanding of people’s experiences with using psilocybin, LSD and other mind-altering substances in a non-clinical, natural environment (at home, for example). They utilized an anonymous online survey (which remained accessible from October 2015 to August 2017) to ultimately capture the perspectives of 343 adults.
Aside from demographic information, the survey asked participants to take several standard psychiatric assessments regarding alcohol use. They were also asked to explain what their psychedelic experience was like, including what substances they consumed, how intense of a reaction they felt after consumption and what kind of long-term effects they endured.
Most participants, it turns out, were pretty heavy drinkers prior to their psychedelic experience: About 72 percent reported symptoms that classified them as having severe AUD. They consumed an average of 25.5 drinks per week, and reported having this problem for approximately seven years.
As for their individual mystical experiences, 36 percent reported using psilocybin and 38 percent reported using LSD. Other substances surfaced in the survey responses included ayahuasca and DMT. Most participants said they consumed the drugs for psychological or spiritual exploration.
According to the study, however, the effects lasted well beyond their individual psychedelic journeys.
“Almost all respondents reported that they had greatly reduced or quit drinking alcohol since their reference psychedelic experience as evidenced by a current self-reported mean of 4.3 drinks per week, down from a mean of 25.5 drinks per week before the reference psychedelic experience,” the study’s authors wrote. Only 10 percent stated they had hoped using substance of choice would help them drink less.
At the time they responded to the survey, a majority of participants no longer met the criteria for an AUD. While at least half of the sample experienced some alcohol withdrawal symptoms, including cravings, depression and irritability, many said their symptoms appeared to be “much less severe” compared to previous efforts to reduce their alcohol use. For most of them, the psychedelic experience happened a year or more prior to participating in the study.
“Although such benefits cannot be wholly separated from accompanying reductions in unhealthy alcohol use,” the study’s authors write, “they are consistent with reports of persisting positive effects of psychedelics lasting well beyond the period of acute drug action.”
There are a number of reasons why psychedelic substances may help reduce alcohol misuse, but a key factor that stands out, according to the study, is the spiritual and mystical-like effects the drugs seem to have for some people.
“Spirituality has long been thought to play an important role in recovery from alcohol dependence, and has been posited as a protective factor against alcohol misuse,” the study states. “Spirituality and spiritual practice have also been found to correlate with abstinence in alcohol dependence recovery. Though a major focus of research on spirituality and alcohol misuse has been on Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and 12-step programs, psychedelics may represent an alternative path to spiritual or otherwise highly meaningful experiences that can help reframe life priorities and values, enhance self-efficacy, and increase motivation to change.”
Continued research into the potential benefits of psychedelics could be profound, especially considering the sheer number of people who struggle with heavy alcohol use. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, AUD affects more than 15 million Americans a year.
“When you talk to someone who has managed to overcome addiction, they often talk about how they had to answer big picture questions that connect to what’s important in life,” Matthew Johnson, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins and one of the authors on the study, told Inverse. “Psychedelics prompt those kinds of questions. Even though we have a lot more to explore, I think it’s likely that it’s the intense nature of the drug’s psychological experience that’s underlying its high success rates.”
Photo courtesy of Pretty Drugthings.
Two Federal Agencies Schedule Meetings To Discuss Marijuana-Related Issues
Two federal agencies recently announced that they will be holding meetings this summer to discuss public health and safety issues related to marijuana.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said in a notice published in the Federal Register last week that its Board of Scientific Counselors will convene on July 16 and 17 to tackle a wide variety of topics, including how to prevent the spread of infectious diseases and how to balance intramural and extramural research initiatives.
On the second day of the meeting, which will be open to the public, the panel of experts will also discuss the role of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control in “addressing public health concerns related to marijuana.”
Separately, on June 11 and 12, members of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Drug Testing Advisory Board will meet for a conversation about federal workplace drug testing policies. Part of that meeting will involve a discussion of “emerging issues surrounding marijuana legalization.”
While the Federal Register filing does not spell out which “emerging issues” will be specifically addressed during the first day’s public session, it also notes that the board will discuss the “impact of cannabis laws on drug testing and future direction” in a closed session on the second day of the meeting.
The federal discussion comes as marijuana reform advocates have stepped up efforts to end the employer practice of penalizing workers who test positive for THC metabolites.
In New York City, for example, a City Council measure prohibiting pre-employment drug testing for cannabis in specific industries and another barring such tests for people on probation were both enacted this month without the mayor’s signature.
While federal marijuana laws continue to strictly prohibit cannabis, the growing legalization movement has forced various agencies to address the issue. Officials from some federal divisions have observed in recent months that the scheduling status of marijuana under federal law has inhibited research into its public health benefits and risks.
In December, representatives from the Food and Drug Administration, Drug Enforcement Administration and National Institute on Drug Abuse were part of a workshop focusing on cannabis research.
U.S. government agencies have also used Federal Register notices to solicit the public’s help in identifying studies about the effects of cannabis on disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.
Gun-Related Suicides Fell In California After Medical Marijuana Became Legal, Study Shows
The total number of suicides in California per year, including those committed with firearms, declined after the state legalized marijuana use for medical purposes, according to a new study.
“Findings reveal that rates of total suicide and gun suicide dropped significantly in the aftermath of Proposition 215,” the researchers concluded, referring to the California law legalizing medical cannabis that voters approved in 1996.
Nationally, the number of suicides increased by 24 percent from 1999 to 2014—the same 15-year period during which many states began approving access to medical marijuana.
“The systematic evidence connecting this trend to the availability of medical marijuana is ambiguous, however,” the team behind the new study wrote.
For the paper, published this month in Archives of Suicide Research, researchers at the University of California Irvine looked at the total number of suicides, the number of gun-related suicides and the number of non-gun-related suicides recorded by the state for the years between 1970 and 2004. They also looked at data from the 41 states that did not legalize marijuana during the same time period to get an idea of what might have happened if California had not approved access to medical cannabis.
Ultimately, the authors observed a notable decline in intentional deaths in the years after Prop 215 was approved. “In particular, for all suicides, our results demonstrate that California’s 1996 intervention led to an average reduction of 398.9 suicides per year and a cumulative reduction of approximately 3,191 suicides during 1997-2004,” the study states. “Similarly, legalization led to a reduction in gun suicides of 208 per year on average and a cumulative reduction of approximately 1,668 fewer gun suicides during 1997-2004.”
The impact of medical marijuana on rates of non-gun suicides in the state, however, was deemed “ambiguous.”
The question, of course, is what could explain these overall findings?
The study offers a few different theories. One focuses on how marijuana use may help remove the actual motivation for suicide. People with mental conditions such as depression, for example, may find that marijuana alleviates their symptoms.
“If marijuana alleviates the acute stress associated with these disorders, we expect suicide risk to decrease following legalization of medical marijuana,” the authors wrote. “The evidence for this is mixed, however.”
The same goes for people with alcohol use disorder, which is associated with an elevated risk of suicide: If people are using marijuana in place of alcohol, that risk may be reduced.
“If marijuana and alcohol use are combined, one might expect no change in suicide risk or even an increase in suicide following legalization,” the paper reasons. “If marijuana replaces alcohol, on the other hand, one might expect a decrease in suicide risk following legalization.”
But most data on marijuana as an alcohol substitute is based on self-reports, which can be unreliable.
There’s also the issue of gun accessibility for medical marijuana patients; U.S. law prohibits anyone who uses federally illegal controlled substances, including cannabis, from obtaining firearms. As a majority of suicides involve guns, researchers suggest that access to medical marijuana may have precluded some people from purchasing firearms, thus leading to the decline in suicide rates. (For what it’s worth, California also has some of the toughest gun laws in the country.)
The study’s authors point out that testing these various theories “may reveal insight into why we do not find the expected reduction in non-gun suicides following legalization.”
In 2018, former National Rifle Association president David Keene argued that federal restrictions regarding cannabis and gun access were causing “real problems” for patients, writing in an op-ed that “hundreds of thousands of gun owners … are being forced to either trade their Second Amendment rights for a chance to live pain-free or risk prosecution and imprisonment.”
Last month, a Republican congressman filed a bill that would allow medical marijuana patients the ability to purchase and own firearms.