‘Cannabis study highlights normalised attitudes and ineffective law’

 A University of Otago study investigating students’ attitudes towards the use of recreational cannabis has highlighted the ineffectiveness of cannabis law. The study, Control of Recreational Cannabis in a New Zealand University Sample: Perceptions of Informal and Formal Controls Control of Recreational Cannabis in a New Zealand University Sample: Perceptions of Informal and Formal Controls , has been published recently in the journal Substance Abuse; Research and Treatment, and is a joint effort between Otago’s Departments of Marketing and Psychology. Co-author, Dr Kirsten Robertson, an Associate Professor of Marketing, believes the study will help inform discussion on New Zealand’s upcoming referendum on legalisation of the recreational drug.

“The findings clearly suggest that despite recreational cannabis being illegal, its use is normalised in the student culture.

“Overall, 82 per cent of students said their peers had used cannabis before, and 39 per cent said their peers used cannabis regularly. The vast majority of students also stated that cannabis is very easy to acquire and is readily available at typical social occasions,” Dr Robertson says.

Co-author, Dr Karen Tustin, of Otago’s Department of Psychology, believes that by clearly showing prohibition is not working the study can inform discussion on New Zealand’s upcoming cannabis referendum. The vast majority of the participants (93 per cent) stated that the law does not deter students from using cannabis. “Responses such as ‘it’s such a normal thing; everyone does it, it feels normal to see it in everyday life, and I associate it the same as seeing alcohol’ were common. Participants also made statements that the law was soft and police tend to turn a blind eye to cannabis, and consequences in the unlikely event of being caught with cannabis were likely to be minimal,” Dr Tustin says.

Findings reported in the paper show that cannabis law is not even considered by some. For instance, some students reported forgetting that recreational cannabis is illegal, perceiving cannabis use to feel legal, and that they do not view cannabis use as a crime. While the law does not seem to prevent students from using cannabis, their perceptions of their peers who used cannabis did vary according to how often those peers used the drug. Specifically, students thought their peers who used cannabis only sometimes were social and “normal” students. In contrast, students described their peers who were heavy users of cannabis as underachievers, unreliable, and unhealthy, and raised concerns regarding their well-being. “With this in mind, we think public policy should focus on strengthening social norms that discourage heavy use,” Dr Tustin says.

“Given that cannabis use is normalised and heavy use is discouraged by concern for heavy users – rather than any concern for the law – we believe our findings support a harm-minimisation strategy and, specifically, a health model, for regulating recreational use of cannabis,” Dr Robertson adds.

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