Teen Marijuana Use Drops Amid Legalization

By Kelly Burch 07/12/19

Teen marijuana use is down 8% in states where recreational marijuana is legal. 

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Legalizing recreational cannabis has lead to a decrease in teen use in many states, according to a study published this week that contradicts previous research of how legalization affects teen pot use. 

The study, published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, found that recreational marijuana laws were associated with an 8% decrease in teen pot use, and a 9% decrease in frequent use. 

Recreational Use

"Because our study is based on more policy variation than prior work, we view our estimates as the most credible to date in the literature," study author Mark Anderson told CNN. He emphasized that the study focused on recreational legalization, not legalization for medical use. 

"Just to be clear we found no effect on teen use following legalization for medical purposes, but evidence of a possible reduction in use following legalization for recreational purposes,” he said. 

The researchers looked at data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's annual national Youth Risk Behavior Surveys, which polled 1.4 million high schoolers between 1993 and 2017.

Anderson would like to see the data reviewed again in a few years in order to reflect more widespread recreational legalization efforts. 

"Because many recreational marijuana laws have been passed so recently, we do observe limited post-treatment data for some of these states," he said. "In a few years, it would make sense to update our estimates as more data become available.”

Stanford University professor of pediatrics Bonnie Halpern-Felsher said that the study needs an in-depth look, since it found different results from previous research. 

"I think the big question is why," she said. "Why are they seeing in this national dataset decreases—pretty significant decreases—when other studies are finding no difference?”

Age Restrictions

One possible explanation that researchers float in the paper is that teens are not able to buy legal cannabis because of the age restriction (only those 21 and over can access it), and legalization has lead to fewer opportunities to buy on the black market. Halpern-Felsher agreed that this is possible. 

"Maybe now because of having legalization, you don't have the street sales anymore," she said. "So dispensaries, we would hope, would be better at carding and checking for age verification.”

Whatever the reason for the decrease, she emphasized that education is key in maintaining teens’ health amid legalization. 

"The other question is, are youth getting the message about the fact that using marijuana during adolescence is more harmful because of their brain development?" she said. "Given the legalization, we need more education around marijuana or cannabis use for youth and we don't really have a lot of education."

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.