Marijuana Use Patterns among African-American Youth

Today’s youth have inherited a disproportionate amount of baggage from prior generations. Climate change, inflation, regional instability, and the ongoing effects of systemic racism and economic inequality pose a gauntlet for emerging members of society to navigate. Black youth in particular have been overly stigmatized and stereotyped in such a pervasive way that it has produced tangible negative effects in their mental health outcomes [2]. It is no secret that many youth, and adults, turn to cannabis use as a way of easing stress induced by everyday life as well as more overarching social factors.

Increasingly, discussions about youth health and well-being revolve around cannabis use. Given the unique experiences of Black youth as a cohort, it is important to examine the patterns of cannabis use among Black youth, as well as how this use may further impact their mental health. In this article, we will explore the available data on these topics and provide resources to help readers better understand cannabis use and how to support Black youth who may be struggling with its effects.

What is the prevalence of cannabis use among Black youth?

Studies have shown that cannabis use is prevalent among youth in general, and this is also true for Black youth. Data on the prevalence of cannabis use among Black youth is limited, and there is a need for more research in this area. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) from 2019, 27.4% of Black youth aged 12-17 reported using cannabis in the past year, compared to 23.4% of white youth in the same age group. While this gap in usage rates may seem small, it is worth investigating the variegated social factors that lead to this proportional difference in cannabis use. Additionally, it is important to note that this data does not capture youth who may be using cannabis but are not included in national surveys, such as those who are homeless or involved in the criminal justice system.

Moreover, data from the “Monitoring the Future” survey found that, while rates of past-year cannabis use among middle and high school students have remained relatively steady since the late 1990s, there has been an increase in daily or nearly daily use among 12th graders. This trend is concerning, as frequent use of cannabis can lead to more severe negative consequences, such as addiction and impaired cognitive functioning.

How does cannabis use affect the mental health of Black youth?

The impact of cannabis use on mental health is a complex issue, and the available research does not provide a clear-cut answer. While some studies have linked cannabis use to an increased risk of developing mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression, others have found no significant correlation [1].

Current research suggests that the impact of cannabis on mental health may vary depending on factors such as the age of the user, the frequency and intensity of use, and the presence of pre-existing mental health conditions [6]. It is important to note that Black youth are already at a higher risk of experiencing mental health challenges due to systemic inequities and social determinants of health, such as racism and poverty [4]. With this in mind, it is crucial to monitor the mental health of Black youth who use cannabis and provide appropriate support as needed.

Factors influencing cannabis use among Black youth

Social and cultural factors that contribute to cannabis use among Black youth
Historical Trauma

The significant racial discrimination, violence, and systemic oppression faced by generations of Black people has has a lasting impact on the community and led to a deep distrust of government institutions and the medical field [1]. This historical trauma can manifest in the individual as a sense of hopelessness, which can contribute to substance abuse.

Neighborhood Disadvantage

Many Black youth grow up in neighborhoods that are disproportionately affected by poverty, violence, and a lack of access to resources such as healthcare, education, and job opportunities [3]. Some Black youth might turn to substance abuse as a coping mechanism to combat the stress induced by environmental factors.

Peer Pressure

As for youth of any racial background, Peer pressure can initiate and sustain cannabis use among Black youth. Friends and acquaintances who use cannabis may normalize the behavior and create pressure to participate, especially if it is seen as a rite of passage [5].

Media Influences

Media depictions of cannabis use can also contribute to its normalization among Black youth. Music, movies, and television often portray cannabis use in a positive light, which can contribute to the perception that it is harmless or even beneficial [2].

How systemic racism and discrimination impact cannabis use among Black youth
Unequal Enforcement of Drug Laws

The War on Drugs has had a disproportionate impact on Black communities. Despite similar rates of cannabis use across races, Black individuals are significantly more likely to be arrested and charged for drug offenses [2]. This unequal enforcement of drug laws can lead to a sense of injustice and mistrust of law enforcement. In some cases an apathy towards the law manifests as cannabis use.

Stereotyping and Stigmatization

Black individuals are often stereotyped as drug users and dealers, which can contribute to a sense of shame and low self-esteem [4].Black youth who experience racism, discrimination, and microaggressions in their daily lives may turn to cannabis as a way to escape or numb the pain. [2] This can create a cycle of substance abuse, as individuals may use drugs to cope with the stigma they face.

Lack of Access to Resources

Black communities are often disproportionately affected by poverty, lack of access to healthcare, insufficient investment, and limited job opportunities [1]. When Black youth aren’t given access to or a sense of belonging in a healthy, functioning society, they may turn to cannabis use as a response to stress and hopelessness.

What role do peer pressure and family dynamics play in cannabis use among Black youth?

Peer pressure and family dynamics are two social and cultural factors that can significantly influence cannabis use among Black youth. Here are some specific ways in which each of these factors may contribute:

  • Peer pressure: Adolescents are more likely to engage in risky behaviors when they feel pressure from their peers to fit in or conform. This pressure can be especially intense for Black youth who may feel isolated or marginalized in predominantly white social settings. In some cases, Black youth may feel that using cannabis is a way to bond with their peers or demonstrate their rebellion. [1]
  • Family dynamics: Family relationships and dynamics can also have a major impact on cannabis use among Black youth. Children who grow up in homes with parents or siblings who use drugs are more likely to experiment with drugs themselves. In addition, children who experience stress or trauma within their families may be more likely to turn to drugs as a coping mechanism.

It is important to note that peer pressure and family dynamics are not the only factors that contribute to cannabis use among Black youth. Many Black youth who come from stable and supportive households may still feel inclined to use cannabis. As discussed earlier, systemic racism and discrimination can also play a significant role. Therefore, it is essential to address these broader social and cultural factors when developing strategies to prevent or reduce cannabis use among Black youth.

To help reduce the influence of peer pressure on Black youth to use cannabis, consider the following strategies:

  • Encourage positive peer relationships: Encourage Black youth to form positive relationships with peers who share their values and interests. This can help them feel less pressure to conform to negative behaviors, like the performative use of drugs to fit in.
  • Foster a sense of belonging: Help Black youth feel a sense of belonging and connection to their communities. This can be done by creating safe and inclusive spaces where Black youth can connect with peers and see their contributions be received with positivity.
  • Provide education: Educate Black youth about the risks and negative consequences of cannabis use. This can help them make informed decisions and resist pressure from their peers.

To address the role of family dynamics in cannabis use among Black youth, consider the following strategies:

  • Provide support for families: Offer support and resources for families who are experiencing issues such as drug use, poverty, and trauma. This can include counseling services, financial assistance, and access to community resources. Pay attention to how city and county budgets allocate resources for struggling community members.
  • Foster healthy family relationships: Encourage healthy family relationships by promoting open communication, respect, and support. This can help reduce the likelihood that Black youth will turn to drugs as a coping mechanism.
  • Provide education: Educate parents and caregivers about the risks and negative consequences of cannabis use, and provide them with tools to talk to their children about it.

Overall, addressing the social and cultural factors that contribute to cannabis use among Black youth requires a multifaceted approach that considers the unique experiences and challenges faced by this population. By addressing systemic racism and discrimination, and providing support for youth to resist peer pressure and thrive when family situations are challenging, we can help reduce the harm caused by cannabis use and promote healthier, more equitable communities.

Impact of cannabis use on Black youth

Short-term Effects of Cannabis Use

Inhaled or ingested cannabis usually has immediate effects on the user. Short-term effects include changes in perception, mood, and cognitive function. These effects are typically most pronounced in the first few hours after use, but can last up to 24 hours after use. For most people, the short-term effects of cannabis use include:

  • Impaired memory and concentration: Cannabis use can impair short-term memory and concentration, making it difficult to learn and retain new information. This can negatively impact academic performance, which we will discuss in more detail later.
  • Increased heart rate: Cannabis use can increase heart rate, which can be dangerous for people with heart conditions.
  • Dry mouth: Cannabis use occasionally causes dry mouth, which can be uncomfortable.
  • Bloodshot eyes: Cannabis use can cause bloodshot eyes, which may be a sign to others that the user is under the influence of cannabis.
  • Anxiety and paranoia: Cannabis use can cause anxiety and paranoia, especially in people who are prone to these conditions. This can be particularly dangerous for Black youth who may already be experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety due to systemic racism and discrimination [2][4].

In a survey of Baltimore area Black middle school students 80.8% of 8th graders who had tried Cannabis self reported experiencing social problems as a result. 30% responded as suffering health consequences.

Long-term Effects of Cannabis Use

In addition to the above mentioned short-term effect, the repeated use of cannabis can have long-term consequences for physical and mental health. THC has been shown to cause changes in the hippocampus and negatively impacts learning and memory[7]. Some research suggests that these changes are irreversible. Researchers have shown that with chronic users, certain structures in the brain were less active during stimuli. Some of the long-term effects of cannabis use on Black youth, or any user, include:

  • Decreased academic achievement: Cannabis use has been linked to decreased academic achievement in adolescents, which can have long-term consequences for their future prospects [6].
  • Increased risk of mental health problems: Long-term cannabis use has been associated with an increased risk of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and psychotic episodes. Black youth may be particularly vulnerable to these effects due to extraneous societal stressors like racism [6][2][4].
  • Physical health problems: Long-term cannabis use has been associated with respiratory problems, such as chronic bronchitis and lung cancer. Additionally, when long-term use is tantamount to addiction, a range of negative consequences for physical health and wellbeing can ensue [2].
How does cannabis use affect academic achievement among Black youth?

There is evidence to suggest that cannabis use can negatively impact academic achievement among all youth cohorts [8]. Specifically, research has shown that cannabis use can impair cognitive functioning, including memory, attention, and decision-making skills, which are all critical for academic success. In line with these findings, a decline in school performance and a decreased likelihood of completing high school or pursuing higher education has been associated with cannabis use during adolescence [3].

According to data from SAMHSA, young people who use cannabis are more likely to drop out of high school. In a survey of 12th grade-aged youth, 15.6% of students reported using cannabis in the past month compared to 27.5% of dropouts.

Additionally, Black students are more likely to be suspended or expelled from school if caught for various offenses, like possessing or smoking cannabis, than their white peers. This creates an obvious disruption to their academic performance and subsequent employment opportunities.

In terms of the specific effects of cannabis use on Black youth, research has shown that Black youth are already disproportionately affected by systemic barriers that impact academic achievement, such as lack of access to quality education and resources. This makes it all the more important to address the potential negative impact of cannabis use on academic outcomes among Black youth.

What are the risks associated with cannabis use among Black youth, such as addiction and legal consequences?

Like with any mind-altering substance, cannabis use carries a range of potential risks. Being a controlled substance in many parts of the country, there are also potential legal consequences. Several additional considerations to keep in mind, for Black youth specifically, include:

  • Increased risk of legal consequences: Due to systemic racism and biased law enforcement practices, Black individuals are more likely to be arrested and incarcerated for drug-related offenses, including cannabis possession, despite similar rates of use compared to other racial and ethnic groups [4]. This can have long-lasting and devastating consequences on an individual’s life, including decreased access to employment and housing opportunities, and an increased likelihood of recidivism [2].
  • Potential for addiction: While not everyone who uses cannabis will become addicted, research has shown that it is possible to develop a dependence on the drug. This can be especially concerning for Black youth, who may face additional barriers to accessing treatment and support for addiction [4].
  • Potential for exposure to other criminal activities: Engaging in the use, purchase, or sale of cannabis can potentially lead to exposure to other criminal activities and networks. Such risky behavior can be dangerous and harmful, particularly for young people [5].

An additional hurdle for Black youth remains receiving treatment for a substance use disorder (SUD) once it develops. According to data from SAMHSA, 90% of Black people over the age of 12 did not receive treatment for SUDs in 2019.

Prevention and intervention strategies

Effective Prevention Strategies for Reducing Cannabis Use
Targeting Social Determinants of Health

Research shows that social determinants of health such as poverty, unemployment, and lack of access to education and healthcare are major risk factors for cannabis use among Black youth. Therefore, prevention strategies should target these factors by providing resources and support to Black youth and their families to address these underlying issues.

Addressing Individual and Family Risk Factors

Prevention efforts should also focus on addressing individual and family risk factors that contribute to cannabis use among Black youth. These risk factors may include a lack of parental supervision, peer pressure, and a lack of knowledge about the risks associated with cannabis use. Effective prevention strategies should include education and outreach efforts that address these risk factors and provide Black youth and their families with the tools and resources they need to avoid cannabis use.

Developing Culturally Relevant Prevention Programs

Effective prevention programs should take into account the unique cultural experiences and perspectives of Black youth. Such programs need to be developed with input from the community and should be culturally responsive. Culturally relevant prevention programs are more likely to be effective in engaging Black youth and curbing cannabis use.

Ways in Which Schools and Community Organizations Can Support Black Youth in Avoiding Cannabis Use
  1. Providing Education and Awareness: Schools and community organizations often serve as a first point of contact for outreach among Black youth. They can play an important role in educating Black youth on the risks of cannabis by providing information about the negative health effects and legal consequences of cannabis use.
  2. Creating Safe and Supportive Environments: All children, including Black youth, deserve to feel safe in and supported by Schools and community organizations. They should strive to promote positive behaviors and discourage drug use. This can include providing mentorship and counseling services, as well as creating opportunities for positive social interaction and community involvement.
  3. Providing Access to Resources: Schools and community organizations can also provide Black youth with access to resources that can help them avoid cannabis use and cultivate more rewarding hobbies and interests. Access to healthcare services, mental health services, and substance abuse treatment programs are also necessary to help reach Black youth who have already started using.
What interventions are effective in helping Black youth who are struggling with cannabis use?

Several interventions have been found to be effective in helping Black youth who are struggling with cannabis use. These include:

  1. Motivational Interviewing (MI): This intervention is focused on increasing motivation and confidence in one’s ability to change their behavior. MI has been found to be effective in reducing cannabis use among Black youth.
  2. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): This type of therapy focuses on changing negative thought patterns and behaviors. CBT has been found to be effective in reducing cannabis use among youth.
  3. Family-Based Therapy: This intervention involves the participation of family members in the treatment process. Family-based therapy has been found to be effective in reducing cannabis use among youth.
  4. Contingency Management (CM): This intervention involves rewarding individuals for positive behaviors, such as abstinence from cannabis use. CM has been found to be effective in reducing cannabis use among youth.
  5. Multisystemic Therapy (MST): This intervention involves addressing the multiple systems that influence a young person’s behavior, including their family, school, and community. MST has been found to be effective in reducing cannabis use among youth.

There are also a number of online resources that can provide support to Black youth struggling with cannabis use. We have included many of these in the resource list of section VI.

Cannabis legalization and Black youth

The legalization of cannabis has been a topic of much debate in recent years, with many states and countries around the world legalizing its use for both medical and recreational purposes. While there are many benefits to legalizing cannabis, there are also concerns about its impact on youth, particularly Black youth, who have historically been disproportionately impacted by drug policies.

How has the legalization of cannabis impacted cannabis use among Black youth?

Studies have shown that the legalization of cannabis has led to an increase in its use among youth, including Black youth. According to a study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, states that have legalized cannabis have seen an increase in cannabis use among youth aged 12 to 17 [2]. These results are hardly surprising as cannabis can be purchased for youth by older friends and relatives in a manner similar to alcohol in the rest of the country.

What policies are in place to regulate cannabis use among Black youth?

To address concerns about cannabis use among youth, many states have implemented policies aimed at regulating its use. These policies typically include age restrictions and limits on the amount of cannabis that can be possessed or consumed. For example, in Maryland, a person under 21 years of age is not allowed to possess or use non-medical cannabis.[7] Possession of more than 2.5 ounces of cannabis may result in criminal penalties. Similarly, in Illinois, it is legal for residents over 21 to possess up to 30 grams of cannabis, but it is illegal for those under 21 to possess any amount of cannabis.[4]

What is the impact of cannabis-related arrests and convictions on Black youth and their communities?

Cannabis-related arrests and convictions have a significant impact on Black youth and their communities. Black youth are more likely to be arrested and convicted for cannabis-related offenses than their white counterparts, despite similar rates of use [1]. In one troubling study from Washington, the overall arrest rates for both young Black and white adults went down following legalization, yet the relative disparity in arrest rates between these two groups grew [2].

This trend seems to be confirmed in data from the LAPD. Despite comprising less than 9% of the city’s population, the percentage of Black people as a proportion of all cannabis-related arrests grew from 32.2% in 2016 to 42.3% in 2019, after cannabis was legalized across the state [3].

Black youth being incarcerated for cannabis can have a devastating impact on families and communities, particularly in communities of color, where the criminal justice system has historically been used to perpetuate systemic racism and oppression.

Resources for Black youth and their families

Especially for youth who are still developing their minds, bodies, and personalities, it is paramount to mitigate the manifold negative effects of cannabis use as early as possible. If you’re a Black youth who is struggling with cannabis use, or if you’re a caregiver looking for resources to help a youth in your care, here are some online and in-person options to consider:

  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)

    SAMHSA's National Helpline is a confidential, free, 24/7 hotline that provides referrals and information about substance abuse and mental health treatment options. You can call 1-800-662-HELP (4357) to speak with a trained information specialist. SAMHSA also provides a Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator [2] to help individuals find substance abuse and mental health treatment programs in their area. By entering your zip code, you can access a list of nearby treatment facilities that offer services such as counseling and therapy, detoxification, and medication-assisted treatment.

  • Black Men Heal

    Black Men Heal is a mental health service that offers limited and selective free opportunities for Black men. While the organization's services are targeted toward men, they may be able to offer referrals or resources for youth in need.

  • The Steve Fund

    The Steve Fund is a non-profit organization that focuses on supporting the mental health and well-being of students of color. They offer resources and support for a range of mental health concerns, including substance abuse.

  • National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)

    NIDA provides information about evidence-based approaches to treating substance use disorders, including pharmacotherapy. While medication is not always necessary or appropriate for treating cannabis use disorder, it may be helpful for some individuals. NIDA also publishes a range of articles, videos, and guides for parents and educators to help prevent drug use among children and teens [4].

  • The Partnership to End Addiction

    The Partnership to End Addiction provides a Parent Helpline for parents who need support in helping their child with substance abuse issues. Parents can call the helpline to speak with a specialist who can provide personalized guidance and support.

  • National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

    NAMI is a national organization dedicated to improving the lives of people affected by mental illness. They offer support, education, and advocacy for individuals and families affected by mental illness, including those struggling with substance use.

  • The National Runaway Safeline

    Offers resources and assistance to young people who have run away from home or who feel unsafe in their home. They can provide assistance with transportation, shelter, counseling, and returning home.

  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

    The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free, confidential support to individuals in crisis or who may be experiencing suicidal thoughts. Trained crisis counselors are available 24/7 to provide support and guidance.

  • The Marijuana Anonymous

    The Marijuana Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength, and hope with each other to solve their common problem and help others to recover from marijuana addiction. They offer support group meetings and online resources to help individuals struggling with marijuana addiction.

  • Partnership to End Addiction

    Partnership to End Addiction is a national non-profit organization focused on ending addiction and substance abuse in America. They offer support and resources for individuals and families affected by substance use, including cannabis.

How can parents and caregivers talk to their children about cannabis use?

Talking to children about drug use can be challenging, but it’s an important conversation to have. Here are some tips for approaching the conversation:

  1. Start early – It’s never too early to start talking to children about drugs, including cannabis. Even if you don’t think your child is at risk for using drugs, educating them about the risks can help prevent future use.
  2. Be honest and direct – Use clear, simple language to explain the risks and consequences of drug use. Avoid scare tactics or exaggeration, as this can undermine your credibility and make your child less likely to trust you in the future.
  3. Use age-appropriate language: It is important to use age-appropriate language when talking to your child about cannabis. If you have younger children, use simple language and avoid technical terms. If you have older children, you can use more complex language and discuss the science behind cannabis.
  4. Take a non-judgmental approach: When talking to your child about cannabis, it is essential to take a non-judgmental approach. Avoid lecturing your child or making them feel guilty. Instead, focus on open communication and encourage your child to ask questions.
  5. Listen and be supportive – Encourage your child to ask questions and share their thoughts and feelings. Be supportive and non-judgmental, even if you disagree with their opinions or choices.
  6. Use real-life examples – Using real-life examples can help illustrate the risks of drug use in a way that is relatable to your child. For example, you could share stories of people who have experienced negative consequences as a result of drug use.
  7. Encourage healthy choices: Finally, when talking to your child about cannabis use, it is important to encourage healthy choices. Discuss the risks associated with cannabis use, including the potential for addiction and other health problems. Encourage your child to make healthy choices, including the choice to reach out if they feel like they are struggling and tempted to use cannabis.

Key Takeaways

Cannabis use among Black youth has been a topic of concern for many educators, researchers, policymakers, and healthcare providers. The negative consequences of cannabis use on young people’s physical, emotional, and social well-being are well-documented. This article aims to provide an overview of the key takeaways from the research on cannabis use among Black youth and explore strategies to address the root causes of cannabis use and promote healthier outcomes for this population.

Key Takeaways from Research
  1. Disproportionate impact: Cannabis use among Black youth is disproportionately higher than their white counterparts. Studies have consistently shown that Black youth are more likely to initiate cannabis use at a younger age, use it more frequently and heavily, and experience more negative consequences such as mental health issues, school dropout rates, and targeted arrests by law enforcement.
  2. Racial disparities: The racial disparities in cannabis use are rooted in historical and systemic factors, including racial discrimination, poverty, lack of access to healthcare and education, and over-policing of Black communities. These factors contribute to the perpetuation of structural inequalities and create a challenging environment for Black youth to thrive and succeed.
  3. Intersectionality: Cannabis use among Black youth is not a monolithic phenomenon but intersects with other social determinants of health such as gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status. For example, Black LGBTQ+ youth may face multiple forms of discrimination and marginalization that increase their risk for cannabis use and related negative consequences.
  4. Protective factors: Despite the challenges that Black youth face, some protective factors have been identified that can promote positive outcomes and reduce the risk of cannabis use. These factors include parental support, positive peer influences, community engagement and investment, and access to mental health services and substance abuse treatment.
Addressing the Root Causes
  1. Community-based interventions: Effective interventions to reduce cannabis use among Black youth should be community-driven and culturally responsive. Community-based interventions that involve youth and their families, community organizations, and healthcare providers can create a supportive environment that fosters positive youth development.
  2. Education and awareness: Education and awareness campaigns that provide accurate and culturally sensitive information about the risks and consequences of cannabis use can empower Black youth to make informed decisions about their health. These campaigns should also address the structural factors that contribute to the racial disparities in cannabis use and promote equity of outcomes.
  3. Policy changes: Changes in policies and regulations related to cannabis use can also have a significant impact on reducing its use among Black youth. For example, decriminalizing cannabis use and expunging criminal records for non-violent cannabis offenses can reduce the stigma associated with cannabis use and increase access to housing, employment, and healthcare services.
  4. Mental health and substance abuse treatment: As with many users, some Black youth turn to cannabis use as a means of self-medicating for undiagnosed mental illness. Access to mental health and substance abuse treatment services that are culturally competent, evidence-based, and readily available in community settings would be a huge stride in addressing the root causes of cannabis use by Black youth. Healthcare providers should also be trained to recognize the intersectionality of cannabis use and its impact on Black youth’s overall health.

By addressing the root causes of cannabis use by Black youth, the potential increase in usage fueled by the legalization of cannabis use for adult populations becomes a moot point. It is important to recognize that cannabis use among Black youth is a complex issue with no easy solution. Many stressors on Black youth lie outside of the control of them, their families, and immediate community, such as systemic racism, underfunded social support systems, and environmental pollution. Hence we can all examine how we can work to address the root causes of cannabis use and promote healthier outcomes for Black youth. Let’s create a brighter future for all of us.


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