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 . 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.
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.
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 .
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 . 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 . With this in mind, it is crucial to monitor the mental health of Black youth who use cannabis and provide appropriate support as needed.
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 . This historical trauma can manifest in the individual as a sense of hopelessness, which can contribute to substance abuse.
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 . Some Black youth might turn to substance abuse as a coping mechanism to combat the stress induced by environmental factors.
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 .
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 .
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 . 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.
Black individuals are often stereotyped as drug users and dealers, which can contribute to a sense of shame and low self-esteem .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.  This can create a cycle of substance abuse, as individuals may use drugs to cope with the stigma they face.
Black communities are often disproportionately affected by poverty, lack of access to healthcare, insufficient investment, and limited job opportunities . 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.
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:
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:
To address the role of family dynamics in cannabis use among Black youth, consider the following strategies:
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.
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:
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.
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. 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:
There is evidence to suggest that cannabis use can negatively impact academic achievement among all youth cohorts . 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 .
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Several interventions have been found to be effective in helping Black youth who are struggling with cannabis use. These include:
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.
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.
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 . 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.
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. 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.
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 . 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 .
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 .
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.
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:
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  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 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 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.
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 .
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.
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.
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 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 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 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.
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:
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.
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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