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October 13, 1997

Federal government funds major in-depth study of marijuana use

By Jennifer McNulty

The federal government has funded an innovative in-depth study of marijuana use that is designed to answer fundamental questions about the drug, including whether it leads to the use of "harder" drugs, what its long-term effects are, and whether users become dependent on the drug.

Craig Reinarman, a sociology professor at UCSC and an expert on drug use and drug policy, will oversee the project, which is part of a three-nation comparative study. The U.S. component will target San Francisco, where the names of 4,000 residents will be drawn at random from U.S. Census data to be surveyed by employees of UC Berkeley's Survey Research Center. Respondents who have used marijuana more than 25 times in their life will be asked to participate in a detailed follow-up survey. Identical surveys will be administered in Amsterdam and Bremen, Germany. Reinarman and his Dutch and German counterparts will convene at the University of Amsterdam to conduct the cross-national data analysis.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health, has provided the initial funding for the three-year, $780,000 U.S. study, which will greatly expand knowledge about the use and impact of marijuana, said Reinarman.

"There are a lot of claims being made about marijuana use, but there is very little scientific evidence about long-term use patterns and possible problems in the general population," said Reinarman. "U.S. drug abuse and public health policies tend to be based on the notion that once you try marijuana, you're hooked. If a significant number of people are becoming dependent on marijuana or are moving from marijuana to cocaine or heroin, we want to know that. But many of the assumptions about marijuana have not been tested among the general population."

To learn more about the patterns and effects of long-term marijuana use, the detailed, 75-page questionnaire will explore such issues as:

Each year, NIDA funds two national surveys of drug use that include marijuana: The University of Michigan asks a random sample of high school seniors about their drug experiences; and the Research Triangle Institute of North Carolina conducts a household survey of a random sample of the U.S. population asking individuals about their use of all drugs--during the last month, during the last year, and throughout their lifetime.

"We have 'snapshot' images regarding marijuana use, but this study will greatly expand what we know," said Reinarman. For example, the majority of people who say they've tried marijuana apparently stop using it after a while, suggesting that marijuana use can follow numerous different patterns.

Amsterdam was selected as a study site because marijuana is readily available in the Netherlands, where lawmakers have adopted a policy of "de facto decriminalization."

"We want to know if the availability of marijuana in Amsterdam has produced markedly different use patterns than what we see in the United States and Germany," said Reinarman, adding that the Dutch strategy behind decriminalization was to make marijuana "unglamorous."

German drug laws are similar to American laws, but Bremen's proximity to Amsterdam makes marijuana fairly accessible to its residents. Of the three countries, the United States has taken the harshest antidrug stance, making roughly 500,000 marijuana arrests per year.

The three cities offer contrasting profiles of marijuana availability, but they are similar in key demographic and geographic attributes: All are northern port cities with strong traditions of liberal politics, universities, and populations of roughly 700,000.

Although the survey addresses the topic of illegal drug use, it has been designed to encourage participation and will be administered in person by trained researchers. "People are initially reluctant to discuss a lot of sensitive topics, like AIDS, sexual behavior, their incomes, and politics," said Reinarman. "We reassure people that this is an academic survey--it's scientific and completely confidential."

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