Early marijuana use increases risk of drug and alcohol problems later in life

St. Louis, Jan. 22, 2003 A team of researchers from the United States and Australia has found that the age when a person begins to smoke marijuana has a significant influence on whether they will develop problems with drugs and alcohol later in life, independent of his or her genetic and family background.

In a large study of Australian twins, the researchers found that those who used marijuana before age 17 were two to five times more likely to use other drugs or to develop alcohol or drug abuse or dependence. The study appears in the Jan. 22 issue of the Jo urnal of the American Medical Association.

"There is a fairly long history of research showing that early cannabis (marijuana) use is associated with increased risks for later use of so-called 'hard drugs,' but that research is based on the fact that most heroin and cocaine users report first having used cannabis," says lead author Michael T. Lynskey, Ph.D., a visiting assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and senior research fellow at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research in Brisbane, Australia.

Lynskey says past studies have not been able to adequately control for familial factors -- such as genetics, environment and family background -- that may predispose people both to early marijuana use and to subsequent use of illicit drugs. In this study, Lynskey and colleagues from Washington University and the Queensland Institute of Medical Research studied same-sex twins from Australia: some identical, some fraternal. In 311 pairs of twins, one twin began using marijuana before the age of 17 and the other did not.

"By studying twins, we were able to compare pairs of individuals of the same age, same family background and -- in the case of identical twins -- individuals with exactly the same genes," Lynskey explains. "But these twins differed in one important respect: One had chosen to begin using cannabis before 17, but

Contact: Jim Dryden
Washington University School of Medicine

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