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"It seems that only a subset of illicit marijuana users is at risk for use of other illicit drugs," Joseph Palamar says. (Credit: s3127/Flickr)

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If they’re bored, teen pot smokers may try other drugs

High school seniors who smoke marijuana because they’re bored are more likely to use other illegal drugs, too. The same is not true for teens who use pot to “experiment.”

About 70 percent of the 2.8 million people who started using illegal drugs in 2013 say the drug they used first was marijuana.

Despite extensive research examining potential links between marijuana use and other drug use, scientists had not been sure which illicit marijuana users were most likely to engage in use of other illicit drugs.

Marijuana and 8 other drugs

“Aside from marijuana, a wide range of illicit drugs are prevalent, each having different use patterns, and different effects and dangers associated with use,” says Joseph J. Palamar, assistant professor of population health at New York University’s Langone Medical Center (NYULMC).

“Our research helped to identify subtypes of illicit marijuana users who use other drugs, as this may be able to inform prevention efforts.”

Data for the study came from Monitoring the Future, a nationwide ongoing annual study of the behaviors, attitudes, and values of American secondary school students. The survey is administered in approximately 130 public and private schools throughout 48 states. Roughly 15,000 high school seniors are assessed annually.

The current study focused on data collected from high school students who reported using marijuana in the last 12 months. They also looked at self-reported use of eight other illicit drugs: powder cocaine, crack, heroin, LSD, other psychedelics, and nonmedical use of amphetamine/stimulants, tranquilizers/benzodiazepines, and narcotics (other than heroin).

Just trying it

Using marijuana to alleviate boredom was associated with increased risk for reporting use of powder cocaine or hallucinogens other than LSD. Nearly a fifth (19.8 percent) of the sample reported using marijuana for insight or understanding and this reason was also positively related to use of hallucinogens other than LSD.

Also, 11 percent reported using marijuana to increase the effects of other drugs. This was a consistent correlate of reporting use of each drug examined in this analysis, even when controlling for sociodemographic and substance use variables.

“Interestingly, we found that using marijuana ‘to experiment’ decreased risk of reporting use of each of the eight drugs examined before adjusting for other variables,” Palamar says. “The marijuana users in this sample who used to experiment were consistently at low risk for use of nonmedical use of prescription narcotics.”

That doesn’t mean that experimenting with marijuana within itself is protective against other drug use, Palamar warns. Rather, among recent marijuana users, those who say they’re merely just trying it are often at low risk for moving on to other drugs.

Not a gateway drug?

Infrequent use in the last year was also generally not a risk factor for use of other illicit drugs.

“It seems that only a subset of illicit marijuana users is at risk for use of other illicit drugs,” Palamar says. “Most teens who use marijuana don’t progress to use of other drugs, and we believe this is evidenced in part by the fact that nearly two-thirds of these marijuana-using teens did not report use of any of the other illicit drugs we examined.”

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Published in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, the study can help inform preventive and education efforts, the researchers say.

“Programs and education efforts, for example, can benefit from knowing that marijuana users who use because they are bored are more likely to use certain other drugs,” Palamar says. “It may be feasible for prevention programs to address ways of coping with factors such as boredom in order to decrease risk.”

More research is needed to determine whether legalization and regulation in states such as Colorado further remove marijuana from “street” markets which may contain sources of not just marijuana, but other illicit drugs, Palamar says.

Source: New York University

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