U of M Researcher Examines the Psychosocial Dynamics of Tobacco and Cannabis Co-Use

To always be ahead of the problems of tomorrow is the driving force behind the work of Mustafa al’Absi, PhD, a psychologist and professor in the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Department of Family Medicine and Biobehavioral Health in Duluth. He also established and directs the Medical School’s Stress and Resilience Laboratories (SRRL) that examine the effects of stress and the impact it has on addictive behaviors. 

Dr. al’Absi has dedicated his career and research missions toward the understanding of how stress, trauma and addiction influence mental health and wellbeing. In recent years, Dr. al’Absi and his team of researchers have focused their efforts on investigating the relationships between stress and co-use of cannabis and tobacco and the challenges cigarette smokers experience when they try to stop smoking. 

“Cannabis is the most widespread illicit drug in the U.S. and among tobacco users, which increases the risk of relapse in cigarette smoking,” Dr. al’Absi explained. “Stress is one of the most common influencers of smoking and relapse for both tobacco and cannabis users.”

To address these influences on addictive behaviors, the Stress and Resilience Laboratories has been conducting a national study titled, “Stress, Tobacco, and Marijuana Research Program (STOMP).” The study is supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse of the National Institutes of Health with the intent to examine stress-related changes while smokers are attempting to quit and to help them manage stress in the process. This research is also trying to understand the specific impacts of early-life adversity, life stress and trauma that predict the risk for substance use or multiple substance use. 

This research strengthens other national-based data collection. For example, in gathering some of the preliminary national survey data, Dr. al’Absi and his team of researchers discovered a novel finding in the relation between impulsive behavior, cannabis use and social dynamics. 

“We found that cannabis use was more likely to also be influenced by positive emotional experiences,” Dr.al’Absi said. “This is a different response than we would normally have expected to see in comparing cannabis use to tobacco use, where we see that tobacco use is more likely to be influenced by negative emotional experiences.” 

Dr. al’Absi explained that people who had been exposed to high early-life adversity and experience day-to-day, stress and depression are generally at a greater risk for smoking. But, when those same individuals also experienced positive emotions, they were more likely to use cannabis on top of that. 

“We found that the factors that contribute to tobacco and cannabis use work differently depending on the situation,” Dr. al’Absi said. “We also seem to be zooming in on the social dynamics with individuals who have impulsive-type attitudes. They seem to be the type that would seek to enhance their gratification from cannabis use.”

As Dr. al’Absi and the SRRL team wrap up their national survey, they are driven to expand their novel findings on predicting the behaviors associated with the co-use of tobacco and cannabis and to help people struggling with the burden of trauma and substance use. 

“We are currently in the process of data collection for a clinical study that seeks to answer some of the specific questions about these challenges, and we welcome potential participants in the current studies conducted on both campuses of our Medical School,” Dr. al’Absi added. 

If you’re interested in learning more or would like to join a study, visit the SRRL website.

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