By Sofia Wernyj 

Research suggests that the younger a person begins using cannabis, the higher the likelihood of them developing a dependence on the drug. Studies done on states that have legalized recreational marijuana indicate that legalization correlates with lower perceived risks and higher rates of frequent use, especially among young adults. New Jersey is one such state that has recently legalized recreational marijuana and is experiencing this trend. As a result, the state needs to be aware of possible public health and safety issues that could be emerging, such as driving under the influence or cannabis dependence. Substance abuse issues are seen at much higher rates in people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and people who are mentally ill or have a lower socioeconomic status. With that being said, how well equipped are our state’s youth – especially those in a vulnerable population – to deal with this newly legalized drug? 

The first step to prevent unsafe behaviors is education. That’s why schools teach students about issues like alcohol poisoning, drunk driving, and binge drinking. In order to educate young adults, it is crucial to determine what information young adults have–or think they have–regarding the safe use of cannabis. By using other states that have legalized cannabis prior to New Jersey as a reference, a few patterns have emerged.  

Higher rates of marijuana use and lower risk perception are correlated with living in urban areas, having less education, and being male. Believing that parents or peers use marijuana more often also affects use rates and perceived risk. Following legalization, studies indicate that the general population’s risk perception of frequent use and various unsafe behaviors drops. This is especially true for young adults. Almost half of frequent cannabis users in one Canadian survey – where marijuana has been legalized since 2018 – reported driving under the influence of cannabis within the last month; almost a quarter reported doing so 6 or more times.  

With this in mind, policymakers and educators can put preemptive measures in place to discourage dangerous behaviors. This could look like mandatory informational signs in dispensaries, funding for public safety advisory advertisements, or cannabis education in schools. Regardless of the specific measures New Jersey uses as a starting point, it is important for all of us to help spread awareness about the risks of marijuana, to help protect our state and some of its most vulnerable people. 

 Sofia Wernyj is an undergraduate student in the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University and she is working towards a bachelor’s degree in Psychology. Sofia was also a part of the NJSPL’s 2023 Summer Internship Program.