Evidence on the role of cannabis as a gateway drug is inconsistent. We characterise patterns of cannabis use among UK teenagers aged 13–18 years, and assess their influence on problematic substance use at age 21 years.Methods
We used longitudinal latent class analysis to derive trajectories of cannabis use from self-report measures in a UK birth cohort. We investigated (1) factors associated with latent class membership and (2) whether latent class membership predicted subsequent nicotine dependence, harmful alcohol use and recent use of other illicit drugs at age 21 years.Results
5315 adolescents had three or more measures of cannabis use from age 13 to 18 years. Cannabis use patterns were captured as four latent classes corresponding to ‘non-users’ (80.1%), ‘late-onset occasional’ (14.2%), ‘early-onset occasional’ (2.3%) and ‘regular’ users (3.4%). Sex, mother's substance use, and child's tobacco use, alcohol consumption and conduct problems were strongly associated with cannabis use. At age 21 years, compared with the non-user class, late-onset occasional, early-onset occasional and regular cannabis user classes had higher odds of nicotine dependence (OR=3.5, 95% CI 0.7 to 17.9; OR=12.1, 95% CI 1.0 to 150.3; and OR=37.2, 95% CI 9.5 to 144.8, respectively); harmful alcohol consumption (OR=2.6, 95% CI 1.5 to 4.3; OR=5.0, 95% CI 2.1 to 12.1; and OR=2.6, 95% CI 1.0 to 7.1, respectively); and other illicit drug use (OR=22.7, 95% CI 11.3 to 45.7; OR=15.9, 95% CI 3.9 to 64.4; and OR=47.9, 95% CI 47.9 to 337.0, respectively).Conclusions
One-fifth of the adolescents in our sample followed a pattern of occasional or regular cannabis use, and these young people were more likely to progress to harmful substance use behaviours in early adulthood.