Are Drug Experimenters Better Adjusted Than Abstainers and Users? A Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Marijuana Use
Jan 1, 2006
A lot of adolescents experiment with marijuana—the National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that 46% of high school seniors have tried this drug at some time. Pushing boundaries is what young people do, and some researchers believe that trying marijuana is a normal part of growing up.
Does that mean that young people who do not indulge are somehow maladjusted?
Jonathan Shedler and Jack Block raised this possibility in a report in 1990. They suggested that adolescents who experimented with marijuana were better adjusted emotionally and socially than their counterparts who avoided all drugs. Specifically, abstainers were observed to be anxious, emotionally constricted, and lacking in social skills compared with experimenters. Not surprisingly, these findings caused widespread comment in the drug-prevention community.
Now, RAND Corporation researchers have revisited Shedler and Block's classic study and have uncovered evidence that challenges those initial findings. Kids who abstained from marijuana through the last year of high school were not socially or emotionally troubled. And they had better outcomes as young adults.
A second study looked at a largely ignored group of adolescents: kids who go off by themselves to use marijuana and other harmful substances. The researchers documented a wide range of psychosocial and behavioral difficulties faced by youth who use harmful substances while alone, rather than only in social settings like parties. And the troubles followed them into young adulthood.
For policymakers, these two studies help clarify the picture of youthful marijuana use: Marijuana abstainers do well, solitary users do poorly, and kids who use marijuana only in social settings are in between.
To reexamine the provocative findings of Shedler and Block, the RAND researchers, led by Joan Tucker, a social psychologist, mined a wealth of data on youthful substance use accumulated since 1985 by the RAND Adolescent/Young Adult Panel Study. This database contains survey responses from thousands of individuals who answered questions about their use of harmful substances, about their social and emotional well-being and behavior, and about school. The survey was given in grades 7, 8, 9, 10, and 12, and again at ages 23 and 29. The database was used to evaluate the effectiveness of the Project ALERT drug use prevention program that RAND developed for middle-school students.
For their study, the researchers examined responses to the surveys given in 12th grade and at age 23. They divided the responders into abstainer and experimenter categories, which replicate as closely as possible those used in the 1990 Shedler and Block study:
From their analyses of survey responses, the RAND researchers pieced together a picture of marijuana abstainers and experimenters as teens and as young adults that contradicts that painted by earlier studies. Their key findings, some of which are shown in the figure, include
Youth who stayed away from marijuana through their senior year of high school functioned better overall than did seniors who experimented with the drug. Compared with experimenters, abstainers
Both groups were similar in that
The one exception was that,
By the time they turned 23, those who had avoided marijuana in high school functioned better overall as young adults than those who had experimented with it in their youth. Compared with experimenters, abstainers
Both groups were similar in that
The emotional and social well-being of strict marijuana abstainers—those who had tried neither marijuana nor cigarettes and had not used alcohol in the past year—was also compared with that of experimenters, both in high school and as young adults:
The conflicting findings may be due to methodological factors. For example, the RAND team examined longitudinal data for more than 3,000 individuals who were originally recruited from 30 California and Oregon schools. These schools were chosen to represent a wide range of community types, socioeconomic status, and racial/ethnic composition. Thus, the RAND sample was considerably larger and more diverse than the 100 or so youth from the San Francisco Bay area whom Shedler and Block followed.
Surprisingly little research looks at the sizable minority of teens who use marijuana and other harmful substances when alone rather than only in social settings. In a second study, researchers again used the RAND Adolescent/Young Adult Panel Study database for clues about the extent of solitary substance use, as well as about the well-being, behavior, and future risks, of this largely ignored group. For this study, these youth are referred to as "solitary users," even though they may also use marijuana, cigarettes, or alcohol in social settings with others. This time, the researchers analyzed responses to the surveys given in 8th grade and at age 23. They found that:
Although they constitute a small percentage, solitary users are an overlooked, at-risk group:
By 8th grade, solitary substance users are worse off than classmates who use only in social settings. Compared with social-only users, solitary users
Solitary users are not social outsiders. Contrary to what might be expected, these youth are not loners. They are socially active teens who spend more time hanging out with friends, going to parties, and dating than do youth who limit substance use to social settings. Popularity with peers may help compensate solitary users for their poorer academic track records and behavioral problems in the short term.
Solitary use foreshadows problems down the road. Compared with social-only substance users, teen solitary users faced more difficulties as young adults: They made fewer educational strides, had poorer health, and experienced more substance-use problems.
Solitary users perceive drug consequences differently than do social-only users. Solitary users more strongly believed that turning to marijuana, cigarettes, or alcohol helped them get away from their problems, relax, and have more fun—an optimistic bias that could lead them to underestimate the potential for serious negative consequences.
New insight into youthful substance use emerged from the RAND studies that can help improve drug-prevention programs for adolescents and teens.
Experimentation with drugs has sometimes been viewed as developmentally appropriate and adaptive. In contrast, the RAND results indicate that youth who experiment with marijuana are worse off in many respects than those who abstain throughout their teenage years. This insight helps the drug-prevention community put into perspective the conflicting conclusions from prior studies about marijuana use and its consequences.
The research also documented the wide range of psychosocial and behavioral difficulties that lone substance users, as opposed to strictly social users, face as teens and young adults. These findings suggest that drug-prevention programs should pay closer attention to this at-risk group of young people.