Study Finds That Legalization Does Not Increase Teen Pot Use

By May Wilkerson 06/18/15

Researchers found no significant increase in teen use in the 21 states that have legalized medical marijuana.

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One of the main arguments against marijuana legalization is that it will drive up underage drug use. But this has not been the case in states where medical marijuana is legal, according to a new study published in The Lancet Psychology.

In a study based on data collected from over a million teenagers in 48 states over the course of 24 years (1991-2014), researchers found no significant increase in teen use in the 21 states that have legalized medical marijuana.

“Our findings provide the strongest evidence to date that marijuana use by teenagers does not increase after a state legalizes medical marijuana,” said study co-author Deborah Hasin, professor of epidemiology at Columbia University Medical Center. “Rather, up to now, in the states that passed medical marijuana laws, adolescent marijuana use was already higher than in other states.”

The same trend has also been found in states where recreational pot is legal. A 2013 report from the Colorado Department of Health and Environment (CDPHE) found that high school marijuana use actually decreased from 22% in 2011 to 20% in 2013. The state legalized recreational pot for adults in 2012. “As with tobacco, youth prevention campaigns will help ensure adult legalization of marijuana in Colorado does not impact the health of Colorado kids,” said CDPHE director, Dr. Larry Wolk.

Teen pot use has also declined in California, where medical marijuana has been legal for years, according to results from the 13th Biennial California Student Survey. In 2012, another study found that pot use had increased among teens, but not in the states where medical marijuana was legal.

A report by the National Survey on Drug Use is often cited by groups that are opposed to legalization, who claim that increased access to weed has driven up teen usage. But the report actually notes that pot use “cycles up and down” among teens; for example, in 2013-2014, 23% of teens said they smoked weed, as compared to 36% in 1979.

The same report notes that marijuana has been the most available drug since 1975, with 81% of teens saying they had access to it in 1975, rising to 90% in 2014. But despite becoming more accessible, overall use by teens has slightly declined. “This finding is unexpected in light of the positive publicity marijuana has received in recent years prior to the data collection in 2014, with several states allowing medical marijuana use and two states (Colorado and Washington) legalizing recreational use for adults,” said the report.

The authors went on to speculate that legalizing medical marijuana may send a message to teens that the drug isn’t dangerous or harmful. For rebellious teens, this may actually decrease its appeal.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.