Legalizing Pot Has Not Led to Increased Use Among Teenagers, Study Says

By Evie Blad — August 01, 2014 4 min read
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Opponents of legalizing marijuana have long contended that teenagers in states that have allowed the regulated sale of pot will rush to use it at higher rates than their peers elsewhere, despite age restrictions that should prevent their ability to purchase it. But new research released this week suggests that’s not the case.

After analyzing data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey, collected between 1993 and 2011 when 16 states legalized medical use of marijuana, researchers concluded that there was no statistical indication that high school students in those states were significantly more likely to use marijuana than their peers in states where pot remained completely illegal.

“Our results are not consistent with the hypothesis that the legalization of medical marijuana caused an increase in the use of marijuana among high school students,” said the study, a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper. “In fact, estimates from our preferred specification are small, consistently negative, and are never statistically distinguishable from zero.”

Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws that allow marijuana use for medicinal purposes since 1996, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. That includes Colorado and Washington, which also approved measures allowing recreational use of marijuana in 2012. It’s notable that the recently released study was based on data from before the legalizations for recreational purposes and that seven states have legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes since the data was collected.

But marijuana use has increased among teenagers nationwide.

The findings of research on the effects of marijuana use and legalization are almost always heavily disputed. Public health experts who’ve warned about the legalization efforts have said they are just as concerned about their effects on teenagers’ attitudes as they are about increased access to pot.

The National Institutes of Health’s annual Monitoring the Future Survey, a nationally representative study of teenagers’ drug use and attitudes toward drugs that was released in December, showed drops in the numbers of students in the 8th, 10th, and 12th grades who saw “great risk” in regular marijuana use.

Officials attributed those shifts in attitudes to high-profile legalization campaigns, which influenced teenagers around the country, not just those in their target states, they said. The survey also showed an increase in marijuana use nationwide.

It’s not difficult to imagine that these legalization efforts have had some effect on perceptions of marijuana for people of all ages, including teenagers. Just this week, the New York Times published a massive editorial package calling for a repeal of federal laws banning marijuana. “There is honest debate among scientists about the health effects of marijuana, but we believe that the evidence is overwhelming that addiction and dependence are relatively minor problems, especially compared with alcohol and tobacco ...,” the package’s introduction said. “There are legitimate concerns about marijuana on the development of adolescent brains. For that reason, we advocate the prohibition of sales to people under 21.”

But does a more casual attitude toward marijuana among older users affect the likelihood that teens will use it? People in Colorado, the first state to legalize pot for recreational use, are asking that question. The Denver County Fair, which kicks off today, features a “Pot Pavillion,” where hopefuls compete for blue ribbons for best marijuana plant and best pot brownie and face off in Doritos eating competitions.

My colleague Lesli Maxwell also has an interesting post in District Dossier today about how about how the Rocky Mountain State has already collected $1 million in marijuana taxes for a special fund that will help fund school capital projects and $2.5 million in additional funds for grants to support staff like school nurses.

Shifting views and conflicting research could put teachers leading drug-prevention classes in an awkward position.

If you’re an educator Colorado or Washington, have you changed the way you discuss marijuana in your prevention efforts? Some folks I called for my previous story said they’ve begun to discuss marijuana more like alcohol, emphasizing moderation, discretion, and respect for age limits on use. Others told me prevention efforts are moving away from emphasis on specific substances and behaviors and more toward an approach that emphasizes thoughtful decision-making in all situations.

What do you think? As laws change, should prevention efforts change along with them?

Photo: Partygoers listen to live music and smoke pot on the second of two days at the annual 4/20 marijuana festival in Denver on April 20, 2014. The annual event is the first 420 marijuana celebration since retail marijuana stores began selling marijuana in January 2014. Brennan Linsley/AP-File

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.