- Marijuana is a commonly used drug; its use has been increasing since the 1960s.
- People use marijuana for medical reasons (e.g., to manage pain), recreational reasons (e.g., fun, relaxation, blowing off steam), or both.
- To understand the reasons for marijuana use, we need to understand users and their circumstances better.
Marijuana—also referred to as cannabis, dope, weed, and pot, among other names—is a commonly used drug. In the U.S., the use of cannabis has been increasing since the 1960s. According to a 2017 Gallup poll, nearly half (45 percent) of Americans have tried marijuana at some point in their lifetime. A 2018 study estimated that 15 percent of Americans had used marijuana in the previous year.
Marijuana use is associated with several physical and psychological effects (e.g., altered perceptions, increased appetite, pain relief). In certain populations, marijuana use is also associated with long-term adverse health consequences like cannabis use disorder (cannabis addiction), respiratory conditions, and heart disease.
The critical question is, why do people smoke marijuana (or consume marijuana, more generally)? To answer this question, let's examine the findings from four research studies, starting with one published last month.
A 2021 National Study of Marijuana Use in the U.S.
An article published in the September 2021 issue of Drug and Alcohol Dependence analyzed data from U.S. states in the 2017-2019 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. Analysis of data showed the prevalence of past-month cannabis use was 11 percent.
Among adults, reasons for consumption were: recreational use only (38 percent), recreational and medical use (33 percent), and medical use only (29 percent). When used for medical reasons, marijuana was less likely to be smoked (compared to vaped or eaten). In general, medical users of marijuana (compared to recreational users) tended to be women, married, not employed, low income, older, worse health, and daily users.
Surprisingly, in fully legal (versus illegal) states, the likelihood of “reporting recreational use was significantly lower while the probability of reporting both [medical and recreational] reasons was significantly higher.” Why? Perhaps because U.S. states where the recreational use of marijuana is legal tend to be more liberal, and the residents of these liberal states are more inclined to “view marijuana favorably, recognize its therapeutic benefits, and attribute at least some of their use to a medical need.”
Entering College Students’ Marijuana Use
Another investigation of marijuana use among those entering college used data from an online survey. The final sample consisted of 634 individuals (18 years; 58 percent women; 68 percent White, 17 percent Asian, and 6 percent Hispanic).
Results indicated that the most frequent reasons for cannabis use were:
- Conformity (e.g., peer pressure)
- Curiosity and experimentation
- Social motives (e.g., bonding)
- Stress relief
The top three primary motives (most essential reasons for using marijuana) were curiosity and experimentation, fun/enjoyment, and peer acceptance.
Some of the reported motives for smoking marijuana were associated with heavier use and more marijuana-related severe problems like relationship issues, financial difficulties, or school-related issues. These motives included enjoyment/fun, habitual usage, altered perceptions (i.e., to improve one’s experiences), and enhancement of activities (e.g., to make music sound better). Experimentation, in contrast, was associated with less frequent usage and fewer serious problems.
Cannabis and Social Context
The link between marijuana use and its social context was examined by Beck and colleagues, using data from the College Life Study. Of 1,253 undergraduates in the original sample, researchers selected those who had completed the 6- and 12-month assessments and were regular marijuana users (i.e., students who had used marijuana at least once in the previous six months.). The final group consisted of 322 undergraduates (153 females).
Analysis of self-reported reasons for cannabis use identified four distinct contexts/motives:
- Being accepted by peers (i.e., fitting in)
- Managing emotions and moods
- Sex-related usages (i.e., lowering inhibitions)
- Social facilitation (i.e., enhancing social interaction and feelings of well-being)
Social facilitation was the main reason given for using marijuana or alcohol. For example, when asked about the circumstances in which participants consumed marijuana most frequently, over a quarter mentioned when they were with a group of friends and on campus (e.g., attending parties).
Cannabis in Long-Term Users
A minor investigation in Canada used structured interviews with experienced marijuana users (i.e., those who had used marijuana 25 or more times) to examine reasons for marijuana usage. The sample consisted of 40 females and 64 males, and the average age was 34 years (18-55 years). About half the sample had used cannabis daily, while 80 percent used it once a week in the previous year.
The top reason for cannabis use, among reasons participants considered “very important,” was relaxation. Other top reasons included:
- Feeling good
- Medical uses
- New ways of looking at things
- Coping with depression and anxiety
- Forgetting one’s worries
- Enjoyment of movies or music
- Better sleep
- Coping with boredom
As we have seen, there is a long list of reasons for marijuana use—such as fun, relaxation, bonding, and social facilitation, emotion regulation, and medical reasons. No single reason appears to explain marijuana use in different populations or even individuals at different times.
For example, some students entering college may use marijuana for its role as a social facilitator; after all, college is often the first time many have lived away from their family and home, which means they need to form new friendships (hence the need for social facilitators). In other students, such as those with chronic conditions and chronic pain, cannabis may be used or even prescribed to help relieve pain. Or it could be used for both reasons. And others (e.g., experimentation, sleep issues).
In short, knowing that someone uses cannabis—or even has developed cannabis use disorder (i.e., marijuana addiction)—tells us very little about why they began taking marijuana or what factors have encouraged and supported their drug use.
Put differently, to understand why people consume cannabis, we must get to know them as individuals.
Facebook/LinkedIn image: Aleksandra Belinskaya/Shutterstock