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NEW RESEARCH: ILLICIT DRUG USE STARTS WITH CANNABIS

14 March 2006

Latest research from the long-running Christchurch Health and Development Study at the Christchurch School of Medicine and Health Sciences examines the relationship between the use of cannabis and other illicit drugs in a sample of 1000 Christchurch born young people between the ages of 15 – 25. The research results have just been released in the international journal ‘Addiction’.

The University of Otago study shows high rates of both cannabis use and illicit drug use, with nearly 80% of the sample using cannabis by age 25, and over 40% using other illicit drugs. In the great majority of cases the use of cannabis precedes the use of other illicit drug use

Principal Investigator, Professor David Fergusson, says there has been long standing debate over whether the use of cannabis increases the risk that young people will use other illicit drugs.

He says this sequence could suggest a cause and effect relationship where the use of cannabis encourages the use of other illicit drugs. It has often been suggested associations between cannabis and other illicit drug use arise from common factors that predispose young people to using cannabis and other drugs.

However, this study applied complex statistical methods to address this issue, and found that even following statistical controls, there is a clear tendency for those using cannabis to have higher rates of usage of other illicit drugs. This tendency is most evident for regular users of cannabis, and is more marked in adolescents than in young adults.

The research concludes that the evidence favours the view that cannabis may encourage the use of other illicit drugs. This can occur by a variety of routes: cannabis may lead to changes in brain chemistry that make young people more susceptible, experiences with cannabis may encourage experimentation with other drugs. In addition because cannabis use is illegal, users often obtain supplies from the illegal market, which exposes them to drug dealers.

Professor David Fergusson says, “ Our research shows the regular use of cannabis increases the risks that young people will try other illicit drugs. What’s not clear are the underlying processes that lead to this association. Understanding these processes is critical to how we view cannabis.”

“If the association arises because using cannabis increases contact with illegal drug markets, this is a ground for the decriminalisation or legalisation of cannabis. If, however, the association arises because using cannabis encourages young people to experiment with other illicit drugs the results could be seen as supporting the prohibition of cannabis use”

This study was funded by the Health Research Council of New Zealand.

For further information contact
Professor David Fergusson
Christchurch School of Medicine and Health Sciences, University of Otago, NZ
(03) 372 0406
david.fergusson@chmeds.ac.nz