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In the past, experimenting with cannabis and mainstream vices, such as alcohol and cigarettes, among teenagers would raise red flags within communities across the country. Many parents and schools associated such practices with poor academic performance and laziness. But now, a new study, published in BMJ Open, suggests these links may not be entirely accurate.

During the study, researchers were able to prove the exact opposite – kids with “high and medium” academic capabilities (at 11 years old) displayed a higher probability of using cannabis in later stages of adolescence, compared to individuals with low academic abilities. According to the group’s analysis, the depiction of teen cannabis users in pop culture as “bad kids” who are always cutting classes and failing tests might be losing its relevance in today’s ever-changing society.

Why are the “smart kids” interested in cannabis? And more importantly, what does this mean for teens with low academic abilities?

Tracking Cannabis Use in Teens

The study, which was conducted by a team of researchers from University College London, examined data of around 6,000 teens based in the UK, between 11 and 20. Information used during the analysis phase included school records and history of performance in exams. The results revealed that kids, aged 11, with medium academic abilities were more prone to becoming occasional or frequent cannabis users. Furthermore, at 11 years old, children with high academic abilities also displayed similar results; however, the numbers carried less weight, when compared to the group with low academic abilities.

But as experts tracked cannabis use in later stages of adolescence, between 18 and 20, evidence (in the form of collected data) that linked smart teens with the green herb became more significant. To be exact, school-smart teens were up to 50 percent more likely to partake in cannabis occasionally and roughly twice as likely to use it repeatedly in their later years. Interestingly, the brainy group was also less prone (62 percent) to picking up the habit of smoking cigarettes during the nascent stages of adolescence.

Willingness to Explore and Learn

Although links to cannabis and high academic performance in teens is now clear, researchers have hit a roadblock in understanding the development of this trend. The authors simply don’t know why the connection exists or which factors are fueling the practice. “The study showed correlation not causation, though the researchers speculate that braininess is sometimes linked to openness to new experiences,” said Kate Samuelson from TIME Health.

Another explanation could be that smart teens are able to relate and form close relationships with older peers who have access to cannabis. For children with below average academic abilities, infrequent cannabis use could be connected to lack of interest or willingness to invest in new, mind-opening experiences, as pointed out by Philip Murphy from the Independent. From a long-term perspective, more research into these assertions could help teachers take a non-biased approach to learning, based on academic performance (and not what students do outside of school).

“Our results are relevant to clinicians and policymakers who are concerned about the impact of substance use on health and on educational outcomes,” wrote the authors of the study.

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