Young people living in liberal states consume more marijuana, but have lower rates of marijuana dependence, according to a new study from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. Crucially, this finding is true regardless of whether the state legalized medical marijuana, suggesting that the broader political climate affects how people use the drug. It also serves as a reminder that the effects of legalization will look different in different states.
Right now, 33 states have legalized medical marijuana, while 10 have legalized recreational marijuana. As approval continues to grow, plenty of researchers are curious about how legalization will affect health outcomes. For the new study, published this week in the International Journal of Drug Policy, researchers cross-referenced drug use data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health with information on how liberal or conservative a state is. (The “liberal” or “conservative” ranking came from the State Rank on Policy Liberalism Index, which looks at a state’s policies toward abortion access, taxes, collective bargaining, gun control, and federal assistance programs.)
The results found that these policies, which aren’t specifically related to cannabis, still have an impact on cannabis use, according to study author Morgan Philbin, a professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University. Though the study isn’t designed to look at how any one specific policy might influence cannabis outcomes, it’s still important for policymakers to realize that cannabis laws passed in different states could have different outcomes.
In general, people in both liberal and conservative states are consuming more marijuana. In a span of about eight years, ending in 2011, the percentage of people ages 18 to 25 living in liberal states consuming cannabis grew from 33 percent to about 37 percent. In contrast, the numbers for the same age group in conservative states went from about 25 percent to 26 percent.
Similarly, fewer people in both liberal and conservative states are struggling with cannabis use disorder. People with CUD experience withdrawal symptoms like mood and sleep problems if they don’t consume cannabis for a while, and can’t stop using it even if it negatively impacts their life. The rates of CUD fell to 17 percent from 20 percent in liberal states. However, CUD rates only fell to 18 percent from 22 percent in conservative states despite fewer people in conservative states using marijuana to begin with.
It’s unclear why we’re seeing this pattern, according to Philbin. It’s also important to note that the study only looked at associations; it doesn’t prove that living in a liberal state will make someone smoke more weed. Still, the big takeaway is that it’s important to see how marijuana legalization laws might lead to different outcomes and have different impacts based on the local political climate, she adds. For example, states may differ in factors like availability and stigma, which could change cannabis-related attitudes, which could lead to different health outcomes if a marijuana legalization law is passed. Next, Philbin’s team will do similar research with recreational cannabis laws and dive more into specific policies that might affect drug outcomes.