Has Marijuana Legalization Caused Higher Use Rates in Adolescents?

Has Marijuana Legalization Caused Higher Use Rates in Adolescents

The effect of marijuana legalization has had a huge impact on many aspects of those states that take the plunge. Economies are thriving, crime rates are not. Benefits are lucrative and many. However, one of the main concerns of opponents is how teenagers will fare after legalization. Will it make access easier for them? Will kids start using more? Would more children try it?

Effect of Marijuana on Teenagers

The human brain only completes its development at around 23-years old. Adolescents are still growing. Much controversy exists in scientific communities over the effect of marijuana on developing brains. There is a huge conflict among study results. Many, many studies show weed having several negative impacts on the growing brain, particularly areas responsible for emotion, memory, and pleasure.

However, the vast majority of these studies analyzed teenagers who were using heavily already. More recently, scientists are now finding a wealth of brain benefits for those who use cannabis responsibly and in moderation, even for teenagers. With several states now legalizing weed recreationally, statistics are finally available. Are teen pot usage rates up after legalization?

Marijuana Legalization and Teen Use

No evidence exists to prove any claim that legalizing weed will cause teenagers to use it more. Admittedly, research is still in the early stages. Only Colorado and Washington have had a legal market long enough to gather comparable data. California only legalized on January 1 this year, making information scarce. Having said that, there are some crucial statistics to help answer these questions.

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, weed use among teenagers has not been lower than it is now in at least 10 years. Among teens aged 12-years to 17-years, just over nine percent used it once a month in 2015 and 2016. This rate is the lowest it has been since 2008. Colorado legalized weed back in 2014. Effects were dramatic. Even teen tobacco, alcohol, and heroin use is down.

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What Studies Say

There is some indication that pot use is rising sharply across the United States, but across all demographics and not specifically adolescents. Interestingly, marijuana legalization has no role to play in this trend, which has little to do with more states allowing the legal use of medical or recreational pot. At least, that is what one particular study says, published in the journal Addiction:

“Medical and recreational marijuana policies did not have any significant association with increased marijuana use. Marijuana policy liberalization over the past 20 years has certainly been associated with increased marijuana use; however, policy changes appear to have occurred in response to changing attitudes within states and to have effects on attitudes and behaviours more generally in the U.S.”

Analysts from the Alcohol Research Group at the Public Health Institute scrutinized data from national surveys, comparing its findings on weed use against state legislative changes. Medical cannabis is legal in over 30 states now. Recreational pot is legal in nine and the District of Columbia. Instead, their results indicated entirely different causes of rising usage rates.

Turns out that policy changes have nought to do with it. Increasing rates were “primarily explained by period effects.” This means that other factors are responsible, particularly societal ones that influence entire communities across age groups. Possibly the primary factor at play is a growing acceptance of cannabis use in near all society. It is clear that changes in pot policy are not responsible.

The published paper concludes, “The steep rise in marijuana use in the United States since 2005 occurred across the population and is attributable to general period effects not specifically linked to the liberalization of marijuana policies in some states.” In fact, use rates are declining among teens and rising among adults. A legal marketplace makes access more difficult for underage buyers.



There is another influencing factor, an important one: The study’s authors admit that survey-takers of yesteryear may have felt reluctant to admit using weed because of prohibition. If yes, use rates will rise as folks grow more comfortable confessing under legalization. Ending criminalization has no effect on increasing usage rates; it just gives people the confidence to admit to it in national surveys.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health also said that, “Marijuana use among adolescents aged 12 to 17 was lower in 2016 than in most years from 2009 to 2014. Teen consumption of cannabis is at its lowest since 1994, despite legalization gaining rapid momentum across states. California legalized medical pot first in 1996. Colorado and Washington legalized adult weed in 2012, selling in 2014.

The results of these two studies, along with several others, should put to rest all claims by opponents that legalization causes adolescents to use and abuse weed more. It seems obvious that other factors are responsible for rising usage rates, but not among teenagers, and not because of liberalized marijuana laws.

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