Intensive cannabis smokers outnumber heavy drinkers in US

Industrial Hemp (Cannabis sativa) growing commercially on the eastern shore of Maryland
Industrial Hemp (Cannabis sativa) growing commercially on the eastern shore of Maryland - VW Pics/Universal Images Group Editorial

Daily cannabis users have outnumbered daily drinkers in the US for the first time following a wave of decriminalisation, according to a new study.

An analysis of national data found there were three million more intensive cannabis users compared to those who drank consistently in 2022.

Cannabis users were more than seven times more likely to report daily use and almost four times more likely to report daily or near daily use, according to research in the journal Addiction.

“Far more people drink, but high-frequency drinking is less common,” the study states.

“A good 40 per cent of current cannabis users are using it daily or near daily, a pattern that is more associated with tobacco use than typical alcohol use,” author Jonathan Caulkins, a cannabis policy researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, said.

The spike in numbers comes after scores of states decriminalised cannabis. Recreational marijuana is now legal in 24 states, while it is legal to use the drug for medicinal purposes in 38 states.

Biden administration to reclassify

The drug remains illegal at the federal level, but last week the Biden administration formally moved to reclassify cannabis as a less dangerous substance.

The Justice Department proposal would shift cannabis from a Schedule I controlled substance, its most restrictive category which includes drugs such as heroin, to Schedule III, for drugs seen as having a low or moderate risk of abuse.

Cannabis is currently treated as a more dangerous substance than fentanyl or meth.

The change, if passed, would be the country’s biggest drug reform in over 50 years.

President Joe Biden hailed the step as “an important move toward reversing long-standing inequities”.

“Far too many lives have been upended because of our failed approach to marijuana,” Mr Biden said on X.

He added: “I’m committed to righting those historic wrongs. You have my word.”

Mr Biden mentioned cannabis reclassification during his State of the Union address earlier this year, saying he would be directing his cabinet “to review the federal classification of marijuana, and expunging thousands of convictions for the mere possession, because no one should be jailed for simply using.”

Mr Caulkins’ research, based on data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, found that in 2022 the median drinker reported drinking on four to five days in the past month compared to 15 to 16 days for cannabis users.

Meanwhile, between 1992 and 2022, the per capita rate of reporting daily or near-daily marijuana use increased 15-fold.

However, as the data is based on self-reported drug use, reported instances of daily cannabis use may have shot up because the drug became more normalised rather than due to steep changes to usage.

Research shows that high-frequency users are more likely to become addicted to marijuana, according to David A Gorelick, a psychiatry professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, who was not involved in the study.

He warned that the number of daily users suggests that more people are at risk for developing problematic cannabis use or addiction.

“High frequency use also increases the risk of developing cannabis-associated psychosis,” a severe condition where a person loses touch with reality, he said.