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Youth See Reddit As ‘Viable Outlet’ For Marijuana Info, But Posts Often Have ‘Lack Of Verifiable’ Facts, Study Finds



A new study examining a Reddit community aimed at providing young people with information about cannabis finds that although responses to posts “were generally thorough and responsive,” nearly all came from “opinions and personal experiences” rather than reliable sources.

While youth seem increasingly to be turning to online platforms like Reddit to answer questions about marijuana, researchers said, there’s a “lack of verifiable information being exchanged,” which could allow misinformation to spread “and inadvertently worsen the efforts to reduce cannabis harm.”

But the shortcoming may reveal an opportunity, authors of the study, published in the journal PLOS ONE this month, said. Interventions—including, potentially, on Reddit itself—that “provide understandable and accurate information in accessible formats may increase young people’s ability to access and practice harm reduction.”

Reddit’s most ubiquitous cannabis community, r/trees, is intended for adults 18 and older; its third rule is “No Minors.” For years, some members of the community have instead directed younger redditors to r/saplings, a subreddit that describes itself as “a place to learn about cannabis use and culture.”

“Young people viewed Reddit as a viable outlet for conversations about cannabis.”

The moderator’s pinned post from eight months ago emphasizes that the community “IS MEANT FOR ALL AGES” and emphasizes that “NO THAT DOES NOT MEAN WE SUPPORT UNDERAGE SMOKERS.” Instead, it says, the subreddit exists “FOR PEOPLE TO GET HELPFUL AND ACCURATE ADVICE, REGARDLESS OF AGE.”

Researchers from UTHealth Houston School of Public Health, Purdue University’s Department of Public Health and the University of Minnesota’s School of Social Work, however, found that comments on the r/saplings often weren’t grounded in clear, concrete information.

“Our findings suggest that young people view Reddit as a viable outlet for conversations about cannabis,” they wrote, noting that during their yearlong study period, which began before the COVID-19 pandemic and went through October 2020, both posts and comments increased. That increase, the study says, suggests Reddit “may play an increasingly important role in youth socialization related to cannabis.”

It notes that when the study began, in October 2019, r/saplings had 53,000 members, which grew to 62,000 members by October 2020. Today the group’s membership stands at 96,000.

The researchers looked at 213 randomly selected posts and 2,546 comments across four time periods: before the pandemic, when lockdown was in place for many countries, as lockdown guidelines lifted and as students returned to school the next fall.

They observed that over the course of the early months of the pandemic, the type of information sought on r/saplings changed. Areas such as “places to acquire” and “future use” were most common early on, with posts around strain selection, how users obtained cannabis and how to grow the plant. Later on during the study period, the study says, “the theme of ‘consequences’ and the topic of ‘tolerance’ became more prominent,” with more questions like, “Is using a plastic water bottle bong unsafe?” and “Any reason I’m getting way higher than normal with the usual weed/amount?”

“Users were responsive to posts,” authors noted. On average, posts received 12 comments, with one garnering 200 and only 11.7 percent (25) receiving no responses. Moreover, the community seemed to have good intentions.

“Generally, comments were thorough and responsive to the materials shared in the post,” the report says. But few pointed posters to verifiable sources of information: “Most often, the comments were based on opinions or personal experiences. Although rare, some referenced or directed individuals to other sources (e.g., YouTube, websites); of these, only two comments referenced a credible source (e.g., public health department).”

But many comments, as in other communities on Reddit, were based on personal anecdotes or opinions. Others referenced second hand experiences, such as by “some people I know,” while others expressed only brief support or opposition to an earlier comment.

Still, researchers noted that “commenters ultimately formed a sense of camaraderie by providing support in the comments.” And they acknowledged that sense of community could potentially be valuable for young people learning how to navigate a sensitive and sometimes dangerous world.

“Other prior work has similarly demonstrated that young people use social media as an important source of information and support about sensitive topics,” the study says. “Given the increase in subreddit activity and engagement, Reddit may play an increasingly important role in socialization related to cannabis.”

The appetite among young people for reliable information about cannabis, the authors said, could also provide opportunities to encourage safer behavior.

“Interventions that provide understandable and accurate information in accessible formats may increase young people’s ability to access and consequently practice harm reduction strategies,” they wrote, adding that Reddit “may be one possible tool in such interventions.”

“Young people want to reduce harms associated with cannabis use and may be open to harm reduction information if shared on platforms with like-minded individuals in an easily accessible format.”

“Other studies have similarly demonstrated that social media is not only a valuable source of information but also provides support for harm reduction and recovery,” the research adds. “Nevertheless, r/saplings may not always be an adequate source of confirmable information on cannabis.”

Young people aren’t alone in their efforts to seek out more information about cannabis use and safety, of course—some adult users, medical marijuana patients and even doctors acknowledge feeling they lack a sufficient understanding of the drug.

As for legalization’s impact on youth use of marijuana, multiple studies have debunked the idea that the reform broadly increases youth use, with most finding that consumption trends are either stable or decrease after the reform is implemented. Use by heavy users may increase, however.

For example, a research letter published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in April said there’s no evidence that states’ adoption of laws to legalize and regulate marijuana for adults have led to an increase in youth use of cannabis.

Another JAMA-published study earlier that month that similarly found that neither legalization nor the opening of retail stores led to increases in youth cannabis use.

Data from a recent Washington State survey of adolescent and teenage students found overall declines in both lifetime and past-30-day marijuana use since legalizations, with striking drops in recent years that held steady through 2023. The results also indicate that perceived ease of access to cannabis among underage students has generally fallen since the state enacted legalization for adults in 2012.

Rates of youth marijuana use in Colorado, meanwhile, declined slightly in 2023—remaining significantly lower than before legalization. That’s according to results of the biannual Healthy Kids Colorado Survey released this month that found that past-30-day use of cannabis among high schoolers was at 12.8 percent in 2023, a dip from the 13.3 percent reported in 2021.

A separate study late last year also found that Canadian high-school students reported it was more difficult to access marijuana since the government legalized the drug nationwide in 2019. The prevalence of current cannabis use also fell during the study period, from 12.7 percent in 2018–19 to 7.5 percent in 2020–21, even as retail sales of marijuana expanded across the country.

In December, meanwhile, a U.S. health official said that teen marijuana use has not increased “even as state legalization has proliferated across the country.”

“There have been no substantial increases at all,” said Marsha Lopez, chief of the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s (NIDA) epidemiological research branch. “In fact, they have not reported an increase in perceived availability either, which is kind of interesting.”

Another earlier analysis from CDC found that rates of current and lifetime cannabis use among high school students have continued to drop amid the legalization movement.

A study of high school students in Massachusetts that was published last November found that youth in that state were no more likely to use marijuana after legalization, though more students perceived their parents as cannabis consumers after the policy change.

A separate NIDA-funded study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in 2022 also found that state-level cannabis legalization was not associated with increased youth use. The study demonstrated that “youth who spent more of their adolescence under legalization were no more or less likely to have used cannabis at age 15 years than adolescents who spent little or no time under legalization.”

Yet another 2022 study from Michigan State University researchers, published in the journal PLOS One, found that “cannabis retail sales might be followed by the increased occurrence of cannabis onsets for older adults” in legal states, “but not for underage persons who cannot buy cannabis products in a retail outlet.”

The trends were observed despite adult use of marijuana and certain psychedelics reaching “historic highs” in 2022, according to separate data released last year.

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Ben Adlin, a senior editor at Marijuana Moment, has been covering cannabis and other drug policy issues professionally since 2011. He was previously a senior news editor at Leafly, an associate editor at the Los Angeles Daily Journal and a Coro Fellow in Public Affairs. He lives in Washington State.


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