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How faith communities may help prevent youth from going to pot

“A reduction in the spread and influence of drug addiction will not be achieved by a liberalization of drug use. Rather, it is necessary to confront the problems underlying the use of these drugs, by promoting greater justice, educating young people in the values that build up life in society, accompanying those in difficulty and giving them hope for the future.” –Pope Francis

Opponents of the legalization of marijuana, including the Catholic Church and many evangelical groups, are rapidly losing the battle.

More than half of U.S. states now permit the use of marijuana for medical purposes; seven states and the District of Columbia permit the use of marijuana for recreational purposes and several more are considering similar proposals.

But that does not mean faith groups are powerless in protecting their flocks from marijuana use.

Some new studies are showing religion may help prevent or limit marijuana abuse, and may be particularly effective for minors who may be increasingly vulnerable as legal marijuana becomes more easily accessible.

One study using data from a national sample of adolescent and emerging adults found that higher levels of religiosity are associated with lower odds of engaging in both marijuana use and binge drinking.

One of the most potent forces blunting marijuana use: having close friends who are religious and talk about religion.

An uphill battle

Not all religious groups have taken strong stands on the issue of legalizing marijuana. And many members of different religious groups are making their own choices.

In a national study on marijuana use from 1984 to 2015, having no religion or being Jewish were strongly related to the odds of using marijuana. There also was a positive relation for Catholic men.

What does seem to matter in some of the new studies is the type and degree of religious beliefs and practices.

In the adolescent and emerging adult study, researchers from Niagara University, Buffalo State College and Jianghan University found that individuals who regularly attended services and other spiritual activities and felt close to God were significantly less likely to use marijuana.

The effect was particularly pronounced when their close friends were religious, belonged to the same religious group, shared their beliefs and talked about their faith with one another.

The study was based on data from some 2,500 people ages 18 to 23 collected in 2007 and 2008 for Wave 3 of the National Study of Youth and Religion. It was reported online in the journal Sociology of Religion.

A separate study of 638 low-income black adolescents in Chicago found that greater religious involvement was protective with not only drug use, but delinquency and risky sexual behaviors as well.

Participants who reported lower levels of religious beliefs and practices such as prayer and service attendance were 1.57 times more likely to say they used marijuana than those with higher levels of religiosity.

More research is needed on the role of religion, investigators from Chungwoon University, the University of Chicago and the University of Southern California reported in the Journal of Child and Family Studies.

But, they noted, “It is possible that such involvement might connect youth to a network of support or positive norms that might mitigate such risks. It is also possible that religious involvement might increase adult monitoring and supervision functions from a number of adult role figures.”

In another study of older youth transitioning from foster care in Missouri, investigators found greater attendance at religious service and greater belief in “a spiritual force” were associated with a lower likelihood of using illegal substances, including marijuana, for white, non-Hispanic youth.

There was no noticeable effect for black youth, researchers from Georgia State University, Arizona State University, New York University and the District of Columbia Department of Behavioral Health reported in the Journal of Child & Family Social Work.

That does not mean spirituality is not important to older black youth. But other factors, such as additional stressors that older black youth may face, may balance out gains from spiritual resources.

Overall, they said, the findings support the need for caretakers to do spiritual assessments to make sure older foster youth who have strong religious or spiritual orientations are in environments where they are accommodated and supported.

The upshot: However the legislative wars go over the legalization of marijuana, research suggests faith communities have significant resources to deter abuse.

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