Frequent and heavy cannabis users: Qualitative research
Summary of findings
- Amongst cannabis users there was little call for more information relating to the drug or its side effects. With few exceptions, they believe that their cannabis use is driven more by enjoyment than by dependence, and that they are already sufficiently mindful of the risks.
- Cannabis users are not a homogenous group and therefore hard to target
- Cannabis is seen as significantly less dangerous than other illegal drugs with relatively innocuous side effects. For this reason users tend to be defensive when faced with evidence of harm and believe that the drug should be decriminalised.
- Communications will have to establish a tone that dispels suspicion of propaganda and which reassures heavy users that their enjoyment of the drug is understood.
- There may be resistance from users towards messages highlighting the dangers of potential tobacco addiction from smoking joints.
- Adverse tobacco publicity has had the effect of making cannabis seem less risky. If cannabis smoke is carcinogenic, and carries other health risks, users need to be confronted with this.
- Users are unwilling to link cannabis use with adverse mental health outcomes or psychosis. However the fact that cannabis, (particularly strong skunk), increases the likelihood of developing serious mental problems, particularly in younger people, deserves wider coverage.
- Whilst most users deny the possibility of addiction communications should state that many people have difficulty reducing or stopping their cannabis consumption after heavy, prolonged use.
- The image of cannabis as benign rests to some extent on the perception that it is just a natural plant. There is perhaps scope for factual, authoritative communications about the chemical composition of typical street bought resin, skunk and weed.
- There is some uncertainty about the legal status of cannabis following reclassification, but this seems to have little impact on attitude or behaviour. There is perhaps a need to clarify the law on driving whilst under the influence of cannabis.
The specific objectives for this research were to explore, with actual and potential heavy/frequent cannabis users:
- The impact of cannabis use on their lives
- Issues around cannabis use (including delivery methods: joints vs. bongs vs. buckets; nature, extent and context of cannabis use)
- Perceived benefits of cannabis use
- Perceived penalties of cannabis use (if any) covering: - short and long term physical and mental health (including whether cannabis introduces users to, or sustains, a tobacco habit) - friendships, relationships and social life - education/employment
- Level of interest in information about cannabis use, its impact on them and advice on cutting down/harm reduction
- The potential impact of harm reduction messages on the behaviour of actual/potential frequent/heavy cannabis users
- The optimum formats and channels for any campaign or information resources; e.g. leaflets, credit cards, web-based tools, self-help programmes - Appropriate tone, style and provenance of such communications - Whether age, gender, social class or ethnicity affect the desired content or tone of messages and materials - And with those who used to use cannabis heavily but have recently cut back, to understand the triggers and motivations that brought about a change in their behaviour, and any difficulties faced
Following the reclassification of cannabis in January 2004, the Home Office explored potential messages to ensure that bad outcomes from cannabis use are minimised. There was particular concern about frequent and heavy users of cannabis. The fear was that the drug may be damaging to physical and mental health in ways not fully appreciated by users. Research was commissioned to examine whether communications, aimed at this target group, were needed and what they should say. It was envisaged that the messages would seek to:
- Alert frequent and heavy cannabis users to the risks they run
- Help them to cut down their cannabis use, and/or
- Encourage them to use more safely
Materials aimed at cannabis users in general (not specifically frequent and heavy users) already exist. HIT have developed information materials, which aim to highlight the effects, risks and problems of using cannabis, as well as provide practical harm reduction advice for users. HIT have also launched a self-help website (www.cannabishelp.org.uk) to assist cannabis users with reducing or stopping their cannabis use. Lifeline and other drugs services have also developed materials intended to inform cannabis users. Research was required to understand what messages are motivating and credible to heavy cannabis users, and also to explore what resources might be effective in encouraging them to cut back their use or practise harm reduction measures. A need was also identified to understand the role for communications in dissuading younger, less frequent cannabis users from developing into heavy users. The intention was to use some of the existing HIT and Lifeline materials as stimulus for the research, to assess the effectiveness of their approach and messages, and to inform the development of further materials as necessary.
Interviews were conducted with:
- “potential heavy users of cannabis”
- “current heavy users”
- “ex-heavy users”
- “long term heavy/frequent users”
Within these categories sampling was carried out by social class, gender and ethnicity
A couple of groups were “mixed ethnicity” and some depths were conducted with Afro Caribbeans
Research participants were aged between 13-22 years
Data collection methodology
Interviews were conducted in the following locations:
- North Yorkshire
- North London
- South London
- Bridgend, South Wales
- Sutton Coldfield