Understanding Cannabis Messaging and Motives: Q&A with Kristina Jackson

Brown researchers are exploring the factors that influence cannabis use in a groundbreaking study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Cannabis, the most commonly used federally illegal drug in the United States, is undergoing a shift in public opinion. Despite the known negative impacts of cannabis use on cognitive functioning, 88% of American adults believe it should be legal for either medical or recreational purposes; only one in ten say it should not be legal at all.

Recognizing the impact that messaging has on public perception and attitudes towards cannabis, Kristina Jackson, professor of behavioral and social sciences, and Jane Metrik, professor of behavioral and social sciences and of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown, have embarked on a major study. Their project, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, investigates the connection between messaging and motives related to cannabis. This study is the first of its kind, exploring how messaging shapes public perception and influences the reasons behind cannabis use.

We spoke with Professor Jackson about the project.

How do you define the current messaging landscape surrounding cannabis use?

We started this project, in part, to highlight the artificial distinction between recreational cannabis use and medical marijuana use. People often claim they use it recreationally but then mention its benefits for sleep or anxiety. On the other hand, people using it for medical purposes sometimes admit they enjoy getting high. 

Our goal is to understand why people use cannabis and how they learn about its effects. We want to determine if they rely on scientific articles, friends on social media, healthcare providers, or “budtenders” at dispensaries for information. 

This is where social media comes into play; we tend to give more weight to a friend’s opinion over an official source. We believe what a friend or a relatable and credible influencer says, even if it is based on a single experience. Our project aims to explore the factors that influence our behavior.

What are some common misconceptions or myths about cannabis that are perpetuated through messaging on social media?

An extreme example might be a post that suggestively says, ‘Does cannabis cure cancer?’ But more often you’ll see things that over-promise. For example, there’s a myth that consuming black coffee can help sober you up when using alcohol. Similarly, with cannabis, there’s a belief that black pepper can alleviate the drug’s effects. These claims lack scientific backing, but we may believe them when shared by a friend.

In terms of health conditions, the most common reasons people use cannabis are for anxiety, depression, sleep and pain management. These conditions can range from insomnia resulting from PTSD to college students experiencing sleep deprivation. 

It becomes problematic, though, when we believe that cannabis can help with insomnia or anxiety after staying up late partying.

Can you discuss the specific motives for cannabis use that you aim to explore in your study? Are there any specific patterns or trends you anticipate discovering?

Before transitioning into cannabis research, I primarily focused on alcohol research. Regarding alcohol, there are four main motives that drive consumption: coping (to reduce anxiety), socializing (to have fun with friends), conformity (to fit in), and enhancement (to enhance an experience). 

With cannabis, additional motives emerge. One such motive is the expansion of the mind and increased awareness—often mentioned by cannabis users. Securing restful sleep is also a significant motive for cannabis use. And then there are several health-related motives, as I mentioned earlier, such as alleviating depression and managing pain.

It’s interesting because coping motives can be generalized (‘I’m using this so that I can be less stressed.’); but then there’s also a therapeutic motive where people might use cannabis to treat generalized anxiety disorder. So it’s important not to artificially distinguish between recreational and therapeutic motives because they are interconnected. They represent a continuum rather than rigid categories.

How are you gathering data for your study?

There are four phases. The first involves coding the dispensaries in Massachusetts, which we have already started. We examine their exterior and interior, and we also have conversations with budtenders to understand how they describe the effects of cannabis and whether they mention health benefits. 

The second phase involves extracting data from social media and media sites. We code the content shared by dispensaries on their social media platforms, as well as information from reputable media sources like the New York Times to understand the messaging around cannabis health effects. Coding involves analyzing the sentiment expressed in a text by examining the proximity of certain words. For example, if the words “cannabis” and “cancer” appear together with specific associated words, it could indicate a connection to health messaging.

The third phase focuses on conducting semi-structured interviews with various groups. We’re currently interviewing cannabis users. We’ve been successful in recruiting young adults, however we’re facing challenges in recruiting older adults who use cannabis. In addition to users, we will also interview cannabis growers who provide cannabis directly to individual users, as they may have valuable firsthand information and experiences. These interviews are conducted over Zoom and are open to anyone in New England.

The fourth and final phase, which will take about a year or two to complete, involves a longer and larger study of cannabis users. We will observe their behavior over the course of a year and utilize real-time repeated sampling of behaviors through their smartphones. This approach allows users to complete surveys triggered multiple times a day. They will provide real-time information about their cannabis use, including where they obtained it and their reasons for using it. This longitudinal study will help us examine both day-to-day behavior changes and longer-term behavior changes over a period of six months. We aim to recruit 300 cannabis users for this study.

“ It would be beneficial to develop a clear, universally applicable message that policymakers can implement nationwide. My personal belief is that we would be better off if cannabis was regulated at the national level . . . then everyone would have the same rules and policies. ”

Kristina Jackson Professor of behavioral and social sciences

What potential implications do you foresee your research findings having for health care providers, regulators, and parents?

There are numerous policy implications associated with this project that I find exciting. One aspect we’re examining is the information conveyed on product labels in dispensaries and the regulations surrounding them. 

Considering that cannabis regulations are state-specific, it would be beneficial to develop a clear, universally applicable message that policymakers can implement nationwide. My personal belief is that we would be better off if cannabis was regulated at the national level, because then everyone would have the same rules and policies. Also, having transparent information about the composition of cannabis products, such as THC percentages, is important. By pointing out claims that are not supported by scientific evidence or where messages are misunderstood or taken out of context, we can contribute valuable insights to inform policy making.

I’m also conducting a separate study on teenagers to understand their exposure to alcohol content in the media, including both social media and entertainment media like films, television, YouTube, and music. Understanding how parents can support their children in navigating social media, interpreting messages related to alcohol and cannabis, and promoting media literacy is important. Influencers play a significant role given their larger-than-life status, but alarmingly their posts often contain branded content. If we can encourage critical thinking among social media users, we can help them recognize sponsored content and consider the motives behind certain posts.

With cannabis, it’s more challenging to discern its presence on social media compared to alcohol. Cannabis can be consumed through various methods, such as vaping or edibles, and it’s not always obvious. This poses a difficulty in identifying cannabis-related content accurately, especially on platforms like YouTube and TikTok, where regulation of alcohol and cannabis content is limited or nonexistent. Given these challenges, it remains essential to address the influence of social media, television, films, and similar platforms on the portrayal of cannabis. These mediums have the potential to create substantial and enduring impacts, making it important to understand and mitigate their effects.

Navigating the complexities of cannabis-related messaging, particularly in the context of policy, social media and media platforms, presents ongoing challenges that we aim to address through our research.