Drug Policy

Does Smoking Pot Make You a Better Friend and Athlete?

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A Swiss study reported in the November issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine finds that teenagers who smoke just marijuana seem to be better adjusted than teenagers who smoke tobacco as well as pot. Specifically, they are more likely to have good grades and to play sports, and they are less likely to get drunk, smoke pot heavily, or start smoking pot before age 15. The pot-only smokers also compared favorably in some respects to abstainers: They were more likely to attend high school, play sports, and have good relationships with friends, although they were also less likely to have good relationships with their parents and more likely to skip class and drink.

According to the logic applied by the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse or the Office of National Drug Control Policy, we'd have to say, based on these results, that smoking pot leads to better friendships, lower dropout rates, and increased participation in athletics, while smoking tobacco makes you stupid and lazy. A more plausible explanation is that the sort of teenagers who smoke cigarettes are more inclined to use other drugs early and heavily, and less inclined to play sports or do well in school, than the sort of teenagers who smoke pot but not cigarettes. Likewise, the sort of teenagers who try pot may be more sociable than the sort who don't. According to the study, they are more "sensation seeking," which may have something to do with their participation in sports. In all likelihood, these correlations are due to personality traits and environmental factors, as opposed to the pharmacological effects of cannabis or tobacco. 

The Swiss study reminds me of the controversy over a 1990 study by Jonathan Shedler and Jack Block that I describe in my book Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use:

Tracking a group of children from preschool until age 18, the two University of California at Berkeley researchers found that "adolescents who had engaged in some drug experimentation (primarily marijuana) were the best-adjusted in the sample. Adolescents who used drugs frequently were maladjusted, showing a distinct personality syndrome marked by interpersonal alienation, poor impulse control, and manifest emotional distress. Adolescents who, by age 18, had never experimented with any drug were relatively anxious, emotionally constricted, and lacking in social skills."

Shedler and Block did not conclude that a little pot is just the thing to help children grow up right. Rather, they found that "psychological differences between frequent users, experimenters, and abstainers could be traced to the earliest years of childhood and related to the quality of parenting received." They observed that "problem drug use is a symptom, not a cause, of personal and social maladjustment" and that "the meaning of drug use can be understood only in the context of an individual's personality structure and developmental history."

Predictably, that study caused an uproar among "drug treatment" and "drug education" specialists, who said it was irresponsible to portray "dabbling with drugs" as "part of normal adolescent experimentation" and worried that kids who had decided not to use drugs would now be seen as "a bunch of geeks and dorks." But the most important point to take away from studies like these is the distinction between drug use and drug abuse. While early, heavy pot smoking (or drinking) is cause for concern, an occasional puff (or beer) does not portend disaster, and may in fact be associated with somewhat better social and academic outcomes.

Here is the Reuters story about the study.

[Thanks to Bruce Mirken at the Marijuana Policy Project for the tip.]