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Open and honest discussion needed for youth and cannabis use

School of Population and Public Health Masters of Science graduate Pinky Hapsari.

Forget those old public service announcements with shock tactics and cheesy music – the evidence points towards an open and fact-based discussion with young people about both the positive and negative effects of cannabis.

School of Population and Public Health Masters of Science graduate Pinky Hapsari explored the relationship between the expectations high school students had around cannabis use and how these influence young people’s decision to try cannabis.

What are ‘expectancies of use’, and how do they affect young people’s use of cannabis?

Expectancies are beliefs regarding the consequences of using cannabis. A positive expectancy included that using cannabis helped people relax. A negative expectancy included that cannabis use impaired thinking.

We used data from 1592 high school students aged 14-16 years during the 2011/2012 school year, and found that having positive expectancies increased the odds of having an intention to try cannabis at some point in the future by nearly two times, and increased the odds of actually starting to use cannabis in the next six months by 1.4 times, while negative expectancies decreased the odds of forming this intention by 55%, and of trying by about 40%.

We also found that young people who had at least some intention to try cannabis increased the odds of cannabis initiation by seven times.

Why do we need to investigate young people’s expectations of cannabis use?

There are health concerns around cannabis use during adolescence. Canada has a high rate of adolescent cannabis use and the Federal government is considering legalizing cannabis for recreational use in adults. In addition, there is a lack of data in this area – my thesis found that one of the main tools used for measuring expectancies was outdated.

Expectancies inform intention, and intention informs initiation. As these relationships are established, there’s a possibility of using expectancies (and intention) as early indicators for monitoring vulnerability to cannabis use among young Canadians. Expectancies can also be targeted as part of efforts to prevent or delay cannabis use initiation.

To delay cannabis use, would PSAs about the negative aspects of cannabis use work?

Another interesting finding was that the level of positive expectancies held by an individual did not necessarily predict the level of negative expectancies held by the same individual, and vice versa. It can be harmful to exaggerate the negative effects of cannabis use, because the adolescents’ perceptions of the positive effects of cannabis will remain unchanged and still inform their decision to try.

Honest discussions about the real and perceived positive effects of cannabis use are therefore needed. Any messaging must be cognizant of the experiences and other factors that shape expectancies (ie. some adolescents may use cannabis to help with improving their appetite during chemotherapy), and be grounded in scientific evidence.

Engaging adolescents in a meaningful dialogue offers an opportunity for adults to identify potential knowledge gaps that the adolescents may have, and for the adolescents to reflect upon their own personal use of cannabis, and will empower adolescents to make an informed decision about whether to use or not use cannabis.

What’s next for you?

I am currently working as a Research Assistant at Arthritis Research Canada, assisting the coordination of multiple projects that utilize large population admin data. I’m excited by the opportunity to apply my epidemiology skills to large scale, province-wide studies.

What have you enjoyed most about your experience at UBC?

I am really thankful to have had a very supportive supervisor and mentor, Dr. Chris Richardson, who not only provided guidance on thesis-related conundrums, but also offered sound advice on other important aspects of a student’s life, such as career prospects. I’m also grateful to cross paths with very kind classmates who were always keen to share their knowledge. The SPPH community truly makes an environment that is conducive for growth.