Cannabis on TikTok

Stephen Andrews
23 May 2022

The short-form video-sharing app, extremely popular among adolescents worldwide, is helping to normalize the use of cannabis. Most of the cannabis-related content shared on TikTok depicts cannabis positively. Those are the findings of new research that examined the prevalence, viewership, and types of cannabis-related content shared on TikTok.

As cannabis becomes legal in more countries around the world, its use is becoming more normalized than ever. Social media giants such as TikTok also play a role in normalizing the use of cannabis. New research published in Drug and Alcohol Review, which examined viral cannabis-related videos on TikTok, found that cannabis is generally portrayed in a positive light on the video platform. 

"With over 1 billion monthly users globally, a third of whom are under 14 years, TikTok's popularity is indisputable. Publicly available cannabis-related content on this platform may influence perceptions of cannabis use," the researchers note in the introduction of their paper. 

The research team has reviewed a sample of 881 popular cannabis-related video content on TikTok, which had a median view count of 518,700, median likes count of 99,900, and median comment count of 931. More than half of those videos (roughly 55%)  depicted cannabis use positively, a portion that was viewed 417 million times. Approximately 15% of the "positive" videos actively portrayed cannabis or administration products. 

Researchers sourced videos by looking for popular hashtags such as #weed to ensure they picked up the most viewed content on TikTok. The final sample of 881 videos was aggregated via nine separate cannabis-related hashtags. 

The research further identified seven main topics of cannabis-related content. A considerable portion of the video content or 71.74%, accounted as humorous and entertaining. Users also frequently used the platform to share personal experiences of cannabis use or to promote social and cultural acceptability of cannabis use. 

Negative depictions of cannabis use were viewed the least at 28 million, while neutral depictions scored at 331 million views. Most of the subjects in the videos were male, Caucasian, and aged between 25 and 50. Only 50 videos of the total sample depicted active smoking or vaping of weed, ingesting edibles, or other consumption methods. 

Should There Be Age Restrictions?

In the discussion and conclusion section of the paper, the researchers wrote that "our sample revealed over half of videos portrayed cannabis use positively and none were age restricted.

"All were publicly accessible through standard web and smartphone applications. With previous research demonstrating that exposure to cannabis-related content can influence adolescent's attitudes and problematic cannabis use, it is important more effective age restrictions and regulations are introduced to social media platforms." 

Study author Brienna Rutherford said in comments, "the next step is obviously to assess whether viewing this content has any impact on viewers' attitudes, behaviors or risk/norms perceptions around substance use." 

"Exposure to text- or image-based substance use content on platforms like Facebook and Instagram have been shown to influence the likelihood of substance use, so it is likely that a more engaging platform and content type (such as TikTok's short-form videos) may have an even larger influence," said Rutherford.

TikTok has recently taken some measures to regulate substance-related content. The platform has recently removed access to hashtags that explicitly reference substance use (e.g., #cannabis), however, no steps have been taken to remove any such videos. They remain available on profiles that have posted or saved the content.

Rutherford says removing the content or hashtags won't work either, as creators are known to employ various tactics, including swapping letters with numerical values (e.g., #w33d) to get around explicit reference rules.

Stephen Andrews