When Onset Meets Desistance: Cognitive Transformation and Adolescent Marijuana Experimentation

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5 Scopus citations


Purpose: Desistance scholars primarily focus on changing social roles, cognitive transformations, and shifting identities to understand the cessation of serious crime and illicit drug use in adulthood. In the current study, we move the spotlight away from adulthood and toward adolescence, the developmental stage when the prevalence of offending and substance use peak and desistance from most of these behaviors begins. Our primary hypothesis is that changes in perceived psychic rewards surrounding initial forays into marijuana use strongly predict adolescents’ decisions to cease or persist that behavior. In addition, based on social learning expectations, we hypothesize that peer perceptions and behaviors provide mechanisms for perceptual change. Methods: We test these hypotheses using longitudinal data of marijuana use, perceptions, and peer networks from the PROmoting School-community-university Partnerships to Enhance Resilience (PROSPER) study. We estimate hazard models of marijuana initiation and within-person models of perceptual updating for youth from grades 6 to 12 (n = 6154). Results: We find that changes in marijuana’s perceived psychic rewards surrounding initiation differentiated experimenters from persisters. Experimenters had significantly lower updated perceptions of marijuana as a fun behavior compared to persisters, and these perceptions dropped after the initiation wave. In contrast, persisters updated their perceptions in upward directions and maintained more positive perceptions over time. Inconsistent with social learning expectations, initiators’ updated perceptions of marijuana as a fun activity were not explained by peer-reported behaviors or attitudes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)135-161
Number of pages27
JournalJournal of Developmental and Life-Course Criminology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 1 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Applied Psychology
  • Law
  • Life-span and Life-course Studies


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