BACKGROUND: The policy landscape regarding the legal status of cannabis (CAN) in the US and globally is changing rapidly. Research on CAN has lagged behind in many areas, none more so than in understanding how individuals suffering from the broad range of cannabis-related problems resolve those problems, and how their characteristics and problem resolution pathways are similar to or different from alcohol [ALC] or other drugs [OTH]. Greater knowledge could inform national policy debates as well as the nature and scope of any additional needed services as CAN population exposure increases.
METHOD: National, probability-based, cross-sectional sample of the US non-institutionalized adult population was conducted July-August 2016. Sample consisted of those who responded "yes" to the screening question, "Did you used to have a problem with alcohol or drugs but no longer do?" (63.4% response rate from 39,809 screened adults). Final weighted sample (N = 2002) was mostly male (60.0% [1.53%]), aged 25-49 (45.2% [1.63%]), non-Hispanic White (61.4% [1.64%]), employed (47.7% [1.61%]). Analyses compared CAN to ALC and OTH on demographic, clinical, treatment and recovery support services utilization, and quality of life (QOL) indices.
RESULTS: 9.1% of the US adult population reported resolving a significant substance problem, and of these, 10.97% were CAN. Compared to ALC (M = 49.79) or OTH (M = 43.80), CAN were significantly younger (M = 39.41, p < 0.01), had the earliest onset of regular use (CAN M = 16.89, ALC M = 19.02, OTH M = 23.29, p < 0.01), and resolved their problem significantly earlier (CAN M = 28.87, ALC M = 37.86, OTH M = 33.06, p < 0.01). Compared to both ALC and OTH, CAN were significantly less likely to report use of inpatient treatment and used substantially less outpatient treatment, overall (p < 0.01), although CAN resolving problems more recently were more likely to have used outpatient treatment (p < 0.01). Lifetime attendance at mutual-help meetings (e.g., AA) was similar, but CAN (M = 1.67) had substantially lower recent attendance compared to ALC (M = 7.70) and OTH (M = 7.65). QOL indices were similar across groups.
CONCLUSION: Approximately 2.4 million Americans have resolved a significant cannabis problem. Compared to ALC and OTH, the pattern of findings for CAN suggest similarities but also some notable differences in characteristics and problem resolution pathways particularly regarding earlier problem offset and less use of formal and informal services. Within a shifting policy landscape, research is needed to understand how increases in population exposure and potency may affect the nature and magnitude of differences observed in this preliminary study.