Research - 24.10.2022 - 00:00

HSG researchers study day-to-day cannabis use

Around 80 per cent of cannabis users have integrated its use well into their daily lives. Two HSG sociologists are currently researching just what this “successful” cannabis use actually looks like. Their research should also provide guidance in terms of upcoming legislative changes.

24 October 2022. “Until now researchers on cannabis use have almost always focused on its problematic outcomes. We are taking a new perspective,” says Florian Elliker, sociologist and permanent lecturer at HSG. Together with HSG sociologist Niklaus Reichle, Elliker has been researching “successful” cannabis consumption since July of this year in the “Cannabis in Everyday Life” project.

According to the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH), around three per cent of the Swiss use cannabis at least once a month, which amounts to more than 200,000 people. “Science has discovered that a good 80 per cent of these people are likely to engage in unproblematic use,” says Elliker. The two scientists want to describe the way these people manage their cannabis use. 

90 cannabis users already willing to provide information

Since the project began, around 90 test subjects have declared their willingness to explain to the HSG sociologists how and why they use recreational cannabis. “Many of them are over 30, which runs contra to the public perception that it is primarily younger people who smoke cannabis,” says Reichle. “They are, for example, people in creative professions, but can also be bankers or tradespeople. Some of them have been using it for decades, but largely remain under the radar.” 

All the study participants initially complete an online questionnaire, which also contains the internationally established addiction monitoring tool CUDIT-R (Cannabis Use Disorders Identification Test), which picks up on problematic cannabis use. “If we encounter people whose relationship with cannabis appears problematic, we point them towards counselling services,” says Elliker. The researchers plan to conduct semi-structured interviews lasting up to two hours with around 30 of the test subjects, but make no claims of being representative: “We are conducting qualitative social research. This aims to describe, name and classify aspects of the topics under research, but will not make any statement as to causal relationships,” says Elliker. 

Pilot study planned for Eastern Switzerland
The results of the study, which is scheduled to last almost two years, will be presented in scientific form, but also in a publication aimed at the general public. “We also want to reach people who are outside the academic system,” says Elliker.

With their study into “Cannabis in Everyday Life”, the HSG researchers are tackling current political and social developments: According to a representative study commissioned by the FOPH, over two thirds of the Swiss population are in favour of a strictly regulated liberalisation of cannabis. How this could look in practice is demonstrated by pilot projects already underway or starting soon in various Swiss cities with the approval of the federal government. In these projects, recreational cannabis is legally sold to study participants. 

Following their basic research, Reichle and Elliker would like to participate in a corresponding three-year pilot study in Eastern Switzerland. To this end, they are working with a team from the University of Applied Sciences East, which has already obtained permission from two municipalities in Eastern Switzerland to run a pilot study. St.Gallen is not currently among them, but its government is now considering an application from the HSG researchers to carry out a study in which the selected participants are able to buy cannabis legally from pharmacies. 

Impending liberalisation arouses commercial interest
These pilot studies ought to provide knowledge that contributes to new legislation for dealing with cannabis. Regardless of whether the St.Gallen study comes to fruition or not, “Cannabis in Everyday Life” should provide policymakers with initial answers on the questions of preferred consumption locations, motivation and purchasing behaviour. The project is funded by the HSG Basic Research Fund. “We are therefore absolutely independent,” says Elliker. That is an advantage in the current situation, he explains: “Various commercial and political actors are already positioning themselves in preparation for possible new regulations in cannabis use.” For Reichle and Elliker as scientists – they call themselves “Unexplored Realities” as a research team – it’s all about making unbiased observations. “That’s because the legal treatment and social value-judgement of different drugs, including alcohol and tobacco, are often shaped not by rational knowledge, but by social constructs and economic interest,” says Reichle. 

Students become researchers
The two HSG sociologists also want to devote themselves to long-term study of drugs as a topic and are currently establishing the topic of drugs as a research focus at the HSG. After the cannabis study, they would like to study psychedelic drugs with a similar focus. Elliker has been teaching on the HSG course “Drogen und Gesellschaft” (Drugs and Society) for the past four years. On this course, Masters’ students conduct interviews, including among those who take a variety of different drugs. “As they do so, they should also be taking on the role of researchers,” Elliker says, “rather than simply processing given knowledge. Ultimately this work done by the students is about developing the skill of critical thinking – especially in terms of scientific results.”

Participants are still being sought for the study. Visit this link for more information. 

Image: Adobe Stock / cendeced