One in three youth in states with legal recreational marijuana (cannabis) engage with marijuana brands on social media.

That’s according to newly published findings from the Cannabis Advertising and Social Media study (CASM), based at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. The study also finds that adolescents who liked or followed marijuana marketing on social media were five times more likely to have used marijuana over the past year compared to those who did not, and adolescents who reported a favorite brand were eight times more likely.

Recently published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, CASM is the first study in the United States to examine the role of underage youth exposure to marijuana marketing in social media.

Megan Moreno
Megan Moreno

“Kids who can’t buy or use non-medical marijuana shouldn’t have to see these promotions and they shouldn’t be able to interact with them,” says Megan Moreno, MD, MPH, the lead investigator of CASM and a professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “These numbers should all be zero.”

The American legal-cannabis market is set to surpass $12 billion by the end of 2019, and states such as Wisconsin are considering legalization. As states legalize non-medical marijuana, they are facing regulatory challenges quite different from the early days of alcohol and tobacco marketing because social media allow cannabis brands to reach a new level of engagement and interaction with youth.

The study surveyed 482 15-to-19-year-olds in six states where adult cannabis use is legal. About a third of the respondents reported using cannabis in the past 12 months, and over a quarter reported using it in the past 28 days. In addition, 22 percent of these youth have a favorite marijuana brand.  Those who have such a preferred brand are eight times more likely to have used cannabis in the last 28 days. Similarly, 33 percent reported it was likely that they would wear or own a branded cannabis product, and that group had a sevenfold increase in the odds of having used cannabis in the last 28 days.

“It is clear that the current methods of protecting youth are not working,” says lead author Pamela Trangenstein, who led the study analysis at Boston University School of Public Health. “When 45 percent of youth report being online almost constantly, exposure to marijuana marketing on social media may put their health and futures at risk.

“Marijuana use has specific risks for adolescents given that their brains are still developing,” said Moreno. It has been associated with poor memory and cognition, as well as mental health risks.”

“We have seen from numerous studies that kids who are more engaged with alcohol marketing are more likely to use and do so more heavily. These findings are the first time we are seeing the same phenomenon with cannabis,” says study co-author David Jernigan, professor of health law, policy & management at Boston University School of Public Health.

The study was co-authored by Jennifer Whitehill of the University of Massachusetts- Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences, and Marina Jenkins of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.