Marijuana Messaging

A NIDA-backed project will shed light on how social media content and social circles shape motivation for using cannabis

Two Brown University professors are pioneering research on marijuana messaging, backed by a 5-year National Institute on Drug Abuse award of nearly $3.5 million.

The study aims to broaden understanding of what shapes motives for using marijuana – which remains a federally illegal substance – amid surging interest in the United States.

According to Pew Research, 91% of American support legalizing recreational and/or medical marijuana use, with 60% supporting both. Thirty-seven states allow at least medical use of marijuana and 19 states have voted to legalize recreational use in the last decade, with Rhode Island doing so this year. Six ballot initiatives — in South Dakota, Arkansas, Maryland, Missouri, North Dakota, and Oklahoma — could make recreational use legal in up to 25 states.

Though cannabis is perceived as offering therapeutic benefits or being of low health risk, Brown researchers Kristina Jackson and Jane Metrik underscore that evidence remains elusive. “There’s an artificial divide between therapeutic and recreational use,” said Jackson, professor of behavioral and social sciences. A user may self-medicate for sleep and use cannabis to be more social.

“ [Legalization] appears to have caused a 20% average increase in cannabis use frequency ”

Addiction (Journal)

Jackson and Metrik, professor of behavioral and social sciences and of psychiatry and human behavior, seek to better understand why people aged 18 to 74 years old use cannabis, and the potency of messages circulating on social media and among friends — from “marijuana cures cancer” and “it’s safer than alcohol” to “cannabis cures pain.” It’s the first study to examine prospective associations between a user’s exposure to messaging about cannabis and motives for using it.

Legalization of recreational use, says a recent study in Addiction, “appears to have caused a 20% average increase in cannabis use frequency in those states.” In 2021, use among young adults (19 to 30 years of age) soared to highs not seen since 1988, according to Monitoring the Future, a panel study. Smoking marijuana is now more popular than tobacco cigarettes, and new cannabis drinks are marketed as alcohol alternatives.

Taking a “team science approach,” the study will gather qualitative and quantitative data. They will interview users, cannabis dispensary and retail outlet staff, growers, and healthcare providers in Rhode Island and Massachusetts; scrape and code messaging from the internet and social media messaging platforms; and engage with 300 cannabis users three times a year through multiweek bursts of e-prompts, three to five times a day, with participants using smartphones to respond about cannabis messaging and their reasons for using it, which will provide use-pattern data.

The team aims to provide evidence to help healthcare providers, regulators, and parents communicate effectively to change beliefs. Says Metrik: “The messaging-to-motive connection has received less attention and that’s the part that we’re really interested in.”